"Serial," the phenomenally successful podcast about the murder of a Woodlawn teen in 1999, has always struck me as being a media story as much as a crime or legal affairs one.
And talking to Rabia Chaudry and Susan Simpson today about the post-"Serial" podcast "Undisclosed: The State v. Adnan Syed," which they and Colin Miller are launching Monday, I am more intrigued than ever by the media angle.
The first thing that fans of Sarah Koenig's radio storytelling have to understand is that their podcast is not primarily about narrative or journalism, as Koenig's was. It's about what they see from a legal perspective as overlooked "facts" of the case and, to some extent, advocacy.
Chaudry, a longtime friend of Adnan Syed, who is serving a 30-year sentence for the murder of Hae Min Lee, describes herself as a "social media activist," and she is putting those skills to use in "Undisclosed." She says she and her partners are doing the podcast because they believe there's an audience to be had that they weren't reaching with the blogs they were writing about the case.
"There are times I wanted to print up one of Susan's blogs only to realize it's coming out at over 60 pages, and that's a lot," Chaudry said.
"For people who are really invested in the series, sure. But for others, they might want the information, but they don't have the time to go into all of that," she added. "So, this is basically an attempt to reach an audience that we think is a real audience, but maybe not the blog audience."
In addition to her legal work, Chaudry is a fellow at the New American Foundation, which identifies on its website as a "non-profit civic enterprise" that is "dedicated to the renewal of American politics, prosperity, and purpose in the Digital Age."
"What I've been trying to do and what I think I've been able to do well is not just use a blog, but every medium I possibly can," she said. "So, I'm on Twitter, I'm on Facebook. Now we're adding a podcast. I did Google Hangouts. Whatever tools are at my disposal. These are all generally free, easy-to-use tools, and I'm trying to use them all.
"My work with New America Foundation is social media advocacy. I run a project that's funded by Google and Facebook, and I basically travel the country showing activists how to use social media effectively. And so, I've managed to work those skills into Adnan's case in trying to elevate it. It would be remiss of me if I didn't apply it."
Chaudry acknowledges that "journalists definitely have different roles than activists and advocates."
"As activists we want to make people do something, act a certain way or think a certain way ... In this particular podcast, I wouldn't say we're only going to present a particular type of information. We're going to look at what's available on any given issue ... There's going to be some information that doesn't work well for Adnan, and there's going to be some that does. But the idea is that it should provide a fuller picture."
Chaudry said there would be a more in-depth analysis, for example, of the cell phone tower information used to track Syed's movements on the day Lee went missing. The autopsy report will be revisited as well.
"The trial didn't really begin to bring out factual information," Simpson said, explaining her role in the podcast. "So many of the basic 'facts' in this case aren't true ... That's what I am going to go into: showing what we actually know. The things that were presented at trial and match reality are very small."
Simpson says the "wrestling match" at Randallstown High School that Lee was presented as having been on her way to on the last day of her life was a fiction - and that could have been shown with a bit of investigating.
"In the trial and in 'Serial' it was presented that she was going to a wrestling match that afternoon, but she didn't make it because she went missing," Simpson said. "But after pulling the records from the Baltimore Library on the high school wrestling schedules, we could see there was no match against Randallstown that day."
While acknowledging her own "bias," Chaundry said, "This is not an advocacy blog. I'm an advocate, definitely. My bias is there. But Susan and Colin are not. They have never said that they think Adnan is innocent."
Chaudry and Simpson said they have not yet set a time for when their first podcast will post Monday. The podcasts will appear bi-weekly at least into June, when it is expected that the Maryland Court of Special Appeals will hear Syed's appeal.
"Undisclosed: The State v. Adnan Syed," has no connection to Sarah Koenig's "Serial" or the "This American Life," team that produced it. "Undisclosed" is sponsored by the Adnan Syed Legal Trust, which has raised $93,125 on LaunchGood.