One Monday this September, a judge in Baltimore reminded earbud-owning citizens that podcasting was once powerful. Her ruling — vacating the conviction of a man accused of murdering his former high-school girlfriend — could be traced directly to the 2014 smash hit Serial, which brought the cold case to increasingly feverish national attention in weekly installments. When the show debuted, podcasting was mostly a digital backwater of chatcasts and recycled radio; suddenly, there was Serial discourse, an SNL skit, and listening parties straight out of the gather-round-the-Victrola era. “It felt genuinely exciting,” said Joy Fowlkes, who was then working as an assistant to a literary agent. “Like I was getting in early on something.”
Podcasting had already been on a slow creep toward relevance, but Serial vaulted the whole thing into the mainstream with 10 million downloads in just seven weeks. The late David Carr’s New York Times column on the phenomenon was headlined “Breakout Podcast Sets Stage for More.” A fertile creative period followed, marked by a succession of buzzy shows — let’s call them “blockbuster” podcasts — that measured up to Hollywood and book publishing in terms of sparking national conversation. Many, like Serial, were ambitious limited-run narrative projects. In Missing Richard Simmons, a former TV producer with a gift for wry observation searched for the reclusive fitness icon; it was big enough to merit coverage in the Times, with a critic calling it “the latest prestige podcast obsession” and chiding its tactics. The whimsical Mystery Show earned Starlee Kine an appearance on Conan. And in 2017, Serial’s production company released S-Town, an almost anti-commercial literary-nonfiction project about the remarkable life of an unremarkable man. It swiftly became a sensation, something you simply had to listen to out of cultural obligation, and it primed you to wonder which show would manage the feat next.