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Thoughts on the Serial podcast



by sjhoward

This is the 2,291st post. It was published at 05:39 on Thursday, 15th January 2015.

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Among my friends, not having an opinion about the Serial podcast is roughly as socially acceptable as not having an opinion on the Cereal Killer cafe. And as someone who listens to a lot of podcasts (most of them actually of radio shows), I feel particularly entitled to have a view.

For those who have been offline over the last few months, Serial was a weekly podcast with a new episode released each week. It was presented and produced by experienced American radio journalist Sarah Koenig. The podcast followed Koenig’s investigation into the 1999 murder of schoolgirl Hae Min Lee, for which her ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, had been convicted and imprisoned.

General life and busyness mean that I didn’t quite manage to keep up with the weekly pace of Sarah Koenig and Co’s Serial. A couple of week ago, though, I finally finished the first season; here follow a few jotted thoughts.

Serial-2

It was very addictive…

Serial displaced everything else on my podcast playlist. I listened to episode after episode, and couldn’t get enough. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and look forward with keen anticipation to the second season.

…but not as innovative as many people suggested.

Blog post after newspaper column after magazine review have suggested that Serial‘s format of a single story told over several weeks is novel, yet Radio 4 has used this structure for decades on hundreds (probably thousands) of dramas, and tens (probably hundreds) of documentary series. The combination of a sort of gonzo journalism and drama was, I concede, a little unusual—but not novel.

Sarah Koenig was the perfect host…

I’ve never listened to anything Koenig has done before. I don’t know if she’s a regular on This American Life because (heresy ahead) I don’t listen to that show. But for this, she was perfect. She has a brilliant radio voice and great way of writing text that pulls in the listener. This listener can’t praise her presentation highly enough.

…but the overall tone was odd.

Jonathan Rothwell wrote a few weeks ago about the weirdness of the show’s slightly jaunty ‘whodunnit’ tone and the way in which this jars with the reality of what is being described. This is a real life brutal murder case; the very existence of the journalist’s investigation implies a reasonable suspicion of a miscarriage of justice, with all the additional harm that carries; yet the story is often treated rather lightly. I found the cognitive dissonance of content and tone unsettling.

The production was fantastic…

The handoffs between Koenig’s presentation and clips of interviews and archive material were seamless. I think this owes much to the writing and the presentation, but also the production and compilation of clips that demonstrated each point was impressive. This is something a lot of Radio 4 productions do really badly, so it’s a joy to hear it done well.

…except for the use of music.

Music is powerful, and especially so in radio drama where the only stimulus is auditory. If you add in music underneath a witness’s recorded testimony, it will change my perception of that testimony. If you are trying to make a balanced review of a case to allow me to reach my own conclusions, then your music is likely to be prejudicial. If you are trying to make drama and argue for one side or another, you probably shouldn’t be playing with people’s lives through a podcast.

I worried about the narration overstating facts…

There were a few episodes in which the characterisations of events in the narration extended beyond the described facts of the case. It is difficult to describe exactly what I mean without giving an example – apologies if this counts as a spoiler.

In episode six, there is a lot of discussion of the ‘neighour-boy’. He is reported as having once said that he had been shown the body, but he did not testify at the trial. This is repeatedly characterised Koenig as the ‘neighbour-boy’ being a witness to the murder. This is evidently false: seeing a body is not equivalent to seeing a murder.

There are a few similar incidents through the series, and I can’t quite decide whether they are mere slips of the tongue, or whether there is a conscious decision to refer to the events in these terms to heighten the drama. Either way, given the import of the situation, it seems plainly to be wrong, and unfair to interviewees as much as to the accused.

…and got a bit claustrophobic in parts.

This may be the public health physician coming out in me, but I felt that the series was very narrowly focused on the case at hand—with a couple of notable exceptions. The series would have benefited from drawing more on similar cases and from aggregated data about many cases. I wanted stats!

I don’t know why it aired before completion…

It isn’t clear to me why Serial started airing before the series was complete. It seems a curious decision, and one with which I’m not entirely comfortable. Hypothetically, if someone had confessed, would the series have continued? Would it have been fair to air a recorded confession prior proper investigation? Would it be fair even to report such a confession? Starting a story which has such a big impact on the lives of all involved without clear knowledge of where it might end strikes me as mildly irresponsible.

I think this changed the nature of the podcast, too—the tone and focus seemed to shift as the podcast went on, in a way which might well be attributable to the media coverage it generated. It started out as an exploration of the limits of reasonable doubt, and ended as an unsolved whodunnit. The former was a more interesting concept, with more interesting stuff to explore, than the latter.

…nor why there were strange gaps in the story.

Relevant questions seemed to go undiscussed in Serial – though it’s possible I just missed them. (Possible spoilers ahead.) It’s not clear to me whether Jay knew where the body was. It’s repeatedly said that Jay was able to show where the victim’s car was, but there’s no discussion of whether he knew the location of the body. This is a bizarre omission given that his story is that he helped to bury the body.

And don’t get me started about that conclusion.

I felt like the podcast got a bit wrapped up in itself by the end. My impression throughout was that the intention was to explore the nature of reasonable doubt. It seemed as though the show caved to externally generated expectation to ‘solve’ the crime in the final episode – an unrealistic expectation which wasn’t met, but was sort of pointed at and talked around. This was a shame. I would’ve liked a much more strident ending that pointed out (spoilers ahead) that – no – we don’t know who committed the murder but – yes – the trial outcome was wrong because of the gulf of doubt. I wanted Koenig to come out fighting about ‘innocent until proven guilty’, not giving a personal reflection on her own personal theories about Syed’s guilt or innocence.

But overall—I can’t wait for Season Two.

There were problems, but—all things considered—I enjoyed Serial. It’s great to hear speech radio done really, really well. I donated towards a second season and will look forward to listening to it. In the meantime, I’m now totally hooked on another This American Life alumnus’s podcast: Alex Blumberg’s Startup (and Reply All, which I actually discovered first). Oh, and This Week in Google, of course. Not forgetting my preferred alarm clock, The Globalist. And More or Less. And… well… all the good stuff.


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Six reasons Sambrook is wrong about 24-hour news



by sjhoward

This is the 2,229th post. It was published at 09:30 on Tuesday, 6th May 2014.

A version of this post also appears on Medium.

The image in this post was posted on Flickr by Ian Wright, and is used under Creative Commons licence.

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Earlier in the year, Richard Sambrook (the former director of BBC News) wrote an article for The Guardian in which he argued that 24-hour news channels were no longer relevant in the modern world. This week, with news reaching The Independent that his thoughts are being taken seriously inside the BBC, I feel like it's time to put across an alternate point of view.

Here are six reasons I believe Sambrook is wrong.

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1. News channels don't need to break news first

Cable news established the 24-hour news habit, but today social media and mobile phones fulfill the instant news needs of consumers better than any TV channel can. Twitter – and increasingly live blogs of breaking news events – consistently beat 24-hour TV channels. Being first – the primary criterion for 24-hour news channels – is increasingly the least interesting and effective value they offer.

Sambrook is right to say that the ability of television channels to deliver lines of breaking news at high speed is limited in comparison to online sources, whether accessed through mobile phones or social media. But most online and social media outlets are poor at putting those lines of breaking news into context. Indeed, at present, news channels are equally poor at this.

In my vision of a news channel, a line of breaking news would appear on screen, in much the same way as it appears online. Perhaps, "Valco supermarket chain in administration". I don't need the channel to break away from whatever it is reporting to bring me this news – it can simply appear on screen. That is the benefit of the visual medium.

Then, within a short period (say within fifteen minutes or half an hour), the BBC can put one of its expert business correspondents on the air to discuss that news in context. They can tell me the relevance of this to the City, to individuals, and perhaps even bring a degree of response from their journalistic contacts.

There is no need to discuss the news immediately and constantly repeat a single line accompanied with endless speculation. Instead, the channel should wait until there is something to report, and report it in a detailed and intelligent way.

 

2. News channels needn’t conform to expensive norms

The infrastructure behind a 24-hour news channel is impressive – and formidably expensive. The biggest cost comes from having created a machine that has to be fed. Every 15 minutes we go back to our reporter in the field for an update on what's happened since the last time we visited them. Most of the time the answer is "nothing".

Going back to a reporter in the field every fifteen minutes is not only expensively, it's also irritating. There is no need to do this. There are two reasons news channels do this: to fill time, and to follow the structure of a conventional network news bulletin every half hour.

We'll return to the former, but the latter is simply farcical. There is no reason (beyond "it's what we've always done") for 24-hour news channels to follow the structure of a conventional news bulletin. There is no reason why we have to return to the same correspondent to repeat the same news every hour. This is a problem of the format, not of the medium. A much more open-ended structure is possible.

 

3. News channels needn’t carry everything live

Newsgathering becomes a sausage machine, dedicated to filling airtime. Hours a day are spent on live feeds waiting for something, anything, to happen. The editor can't risk broadcasting a different report or going live somewhere else in case he misses the start and a rival channel can claim to be "first".

Of course, there is no reason to do this other than it being what rivals do. Every Wednesday, I cringe as presenters on television and radio fill in anticipation of Prime Minister's Questions, which starts a variable number of minutes after midday. Every Wednesday, I wonder why no broadcaster has had the bright idea of scheduling a five-minute discussion previewing the content, and then starting the coverage, cleanly and professionally at 12.05, through the simple use of a few minutes' delay.

The number of people who are insistent on watching Prime Ministers' Questions absolutely live is probably tiny. I know that I, for one, would prefer to watch a slick production with informed commentary and analysis rather than an unedifying scramble every week.

 

4. News channels needn’t uselessly fill time

The need to fill airtime – and particularly the need to be seen to be live – means that in the heat of the moment questionable editorial judgments can be made. Everything seems to be "breaking news". In the last 12 months we've seen the BBC showing live pictures of an empty courtroom in the US, eagerly anticipating the sentencing of already convicted kidnapper Ariel Castro – a story of interest to few if any in the UK.

There is a need to fill airtime. There is not a need to fill airtime with live content. With 24-hours at their disposal, and with less of an emphasis on a presenter reading a single headline every time news breaks, there is much greater scope for in-depth reporting and interviews with newsmakers. Watch an hour of any 24-hour news channel, and you'll almost certainly see an interview cut short, often for no good reason. Allow these to be much more open ended, and repeat them (in edited form, with expert analysis) and much of the airtime will be filled. As with Prime Minister's Questions, make much more extensive use of live delays and on-the-fly editing to increase the standard of presentation, and to allow the programme to naturally flow.

Similarly, I can see no reason why these channels don't make the most of the available air time to show more "explainers". I think an occasional airing of an updated 15 minute background package on what's actually happening in Ukraine would be a valuable service a news channel could offer. And it would fill time at low cost.

 

5. News channels can show pre-recorded packages

The number of stories that are conveyed by live "as it happens" pictures is vanishingly small. Many stories – the economy, climate change – aren't best served by pictures; others (inside Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan or Zimbabwe) often don't have pictures available until days after the event; many more work better with a well crafted, tightly edited package rather than a live feed.

There is no reason for 24-hour news channels to be so focused on live pictures. Well-crafted, tightly-edited packages would be welcomed by viewers over somebody standing in the rain reporting nothing.

 

6. Sambrook's vision doesn't fulfill the BBC’s purpose

What might a reconfigured on-demand news service look like?

Sambrook's suggested on-demand news service (I haven't quoted his whole plan, for it is far too long) involves people actively participating in creating their own bulletin. This is precisely the opposite of what I believe the BBC should be doing.

We, the people, have terrible news values. The more the BBC tries to align itself with our values, the more it degrades its worth. We need to be told what we need to be told. We need experts to fight for coverage of their areas. We need to know what matters, not what we want to know. And we place our trust in the BBC to make those decisions for us.

If the BBC won't make those decisions, but will defer to us, then there is no point in the BBC existing. I can ferret out news that interests me from a wide variety of sources without the Beeb's help. And in the areas in which I have a particular interest, that's exactly what I do.

But the BBC, and its news channel, should be about expert contextualisation. It should be the outlet which says "actually, this isn't an important story, so we're not covering it in depth" more often that it says "sit up and pay attention, this is boring but important".

It should make the most of genuine experts in their field – including fields it currently covers with a laughable level of credibility, like science and technology. The BBC news channel should be the "news channel of record". It should cover things in depth and intelligently. It should not chase ratings, and it should not be in a race to read out lines of news with no context. It should not be obsessed with live coverage. It should edit, curate, and analyse.

 

 

In his analysis, Sambrook conflates the current output of news channels with the medium of news channels itself. He uses the argument that current output is poor to suggest that there should be no output. I disagree.

I think that news channels can be done better – particularly the BBC News channel, which doesn't have to answer to shareholders, and doesn't have to chase ratings. It should be held to a higher standard, and should drive the quality of 24-hour news up. The BBC should not abandon it altogether.


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A version of this post also appears on Medium.

The image in this post was posted on Flickr by Ian Wright, and is used under Creative Commons licence.

Review: The Battle of $9.99 by Andrew Richard Albanese



by sjhoward

This is the 2,107th post. It was published at 12:30 on Wednesday, 8th January 2014.

I publish a book review every other Wednesday. You can browse all previous reviews here.

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I think, like me, many people will have noticed an increase in the price of e-books in recent years. A subset of those people will be, like me, vaguely aware of an antitrust case around the selling of ebooks, involving Amazon selling below cost and Apple trying to disrupt the market. There was news last year that a court had declared that ebook purchasers were due a partial refund, and I felt some excitement at the prospect of a fat Amazon gift voucher (that hasn’t yet materialised). That was about my level of understanding before I downloaded The Battle of $9.99. It was a story that I felt I should know more about, and so I picked up the book to learn.

In this short book, Albanese outlines the revelations from the antitrust court case against Apple. It’s a factual account that seemed fairly balanced in its assessment, and contained some genuinely surprising revelations along  the way. For example, publishers whose books were previously sold below cost-price by Amazon now net a lower revenue per title despite increased consumer prices. Indeed, publishers were willing to accept that deal on the basis that the perceived value of books would not be eroded further, on the basis that it protects their profits in the long-term.

It’s only a brief book, so this can only be a brief review, but it was nonetheless interesting. It was well-pitched, introducing economic and legal terms as necessary without either patronising or befuddling me as a reader with experience in neither. I would have liked a little more discussion about why this story had so little traction with the public at large, particularly compared to similar financial scandals in which consumers felt “ripped off”.  I’d also be interested to read a similar account of iTunes disruption of the music market, but I guess without a antitrust suit, similar revelations are unlikely to meet public gaze.

Back in the autumn, I reviewed Burning the Page by Jason Merkoski, which examined in much more detail the way in which technology has changed the reading experience. The Battle of $9.99 makes an interesting business-focussed supplement to that book. It’s well worth a read.

 

The Battle of $9.99

The Battle of $9.99 is available now from amazon.co.uk in Kindle format only.


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