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Find more At Leisure with Joyce Saricks
I’m always excited when audio makes the news, and recently Serial, a podcast (serialpodcast.org) from the producers of NPR’s This American Life, has been the talk of the media, from Entertainment Weekly to the New York Times and beyond. More than a million listeners have followed the series and are raving about the show, avidly listening to the weekly broadcasts, and then talking about them, in person and through all manner of social media.
This phenomenon provides a perfect opportunity for libraries to take advantage of the interest the show has generated (especially among those elusive twenty- and thirtysomethings), and we can do it in the same way we handled the demand for The Da Vinci Code, Fifty Shades of Grey, and more: we market listen- and read-alikes. Just because Serial is a podcast, a production on audio only, and not a book or movie or TV show that we can purchase and circulate, doesn’t mean we treat it differently. Season one will have ended when this column runs, but it won’t be too late to capitalize on the buzz, and market our collections to attract those listeners now experiencing Serial withdrawal. Here’s the perfect opportunity to practice a basic readers’-advisory skill—in three easy steps.
First, we need to know the story. Serial is a nonfiction podcast, a true-crime story that investigates a murder in Baltimore in 1999. Reporter Sarah Koenig has gone through boxes of legal documents and notes from investigators and followed up with everyone who knew the victim and the convicted murderer, who was her high-school boyfriend.
Although this simple description starts us thinking of types of books and films that might satisfy fans, it doesn’t convey the power of the storytelling. I advise listening to an episode; that’s just as useful as reading or skimming a book before creating read-alikes. Listening provides a stronger sense of the immersive quality of the narrative, the you-are-there feel as Koenig interviews those involved in the case, follows up with telephone conversations, visits the crime scene, and more. Listening helps us understand why fans are captivated and so motivated to discuss the podcasts with friends and strangers.
The next step is to think about what titles the podcast suggests to us and what directions we might pursue in promoting similar titles. My first reaction was true-crime books, but I wondered if readers might also be drawn to mysteries that have strong investigative elements. In those that reopen cold cases, the investigators face some of the same problems Koenig does, like limited Internet and technology trails and dead or missing witnesses. I also checked Google for possibilities. “If you like Serial” produces a range of suggestions. For example, the Atlantic offers equally addictive podcasts, and Slate and Time suggest a wide range of movies, documentaries, books, and television shows, many of which we’ll have in our collections. This gets us started.
Finally, since readers’ advisory is nothing if not collaborative, we should also turn to colleagues for ideas and for a chance to brainstorm. I remembered a post on Fiction_L from Marlise Schiltz, a former student and now a readers’ advisor at nearby St. Charles Public Library (IL). I contacted her, and she shared the suggestions she and her colleagues had collected. (You can find them on the library website, www.stcharleslibrary.org.) As we e-mailed, she remembered a conversation she had with a colleague. That librarian talked about another appeal: that the narrator of the story is personally involved in the account. Might Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks be a good suggestion for readers who appreciate that aspect? Absolutely. That’s another direction to consider. Remember to talk with patrons who are fans of the podcast. Share your suggestions about what to read or listen to next and ask for their thoughts. They’ll confirm your ideas, add more possibilities, and/or offer additional appeals that lead us in new directions.
All this has made me wonder whether the world is ready for serialized novels on audio, with a chapter a week available for download. The avid discussions of Serial remind me of the reports of the popularity of serialized novels in the nineteenth century. Fans would anxiously await the arrival of the weekly or monthly magazine with the latest installment of the hot new novel. Families would gather around to hear the chapter read aloud—and then discuss it, speculating on what would happen in the next episode. The popularity of this podcast evokes that time. Even though we listen separately, we share the experience. This polished production and the immersive audio storytelling invite us to share our thoughts with fellow listeners. Serial could have easily been produced as a television show, and it might have been just as popular. That it is so popular as a podcast reminds us how good audio storytelling can be. For so many years, we’ve been a video culture. This new audio phenomenon is extraordinary because it relies on modern technology to reinvent and enhance the ancient art of oral storytelling. Serial has engaged the imagination of millions of fans, and it reminds us of the pleasures of hearing a good story well told.
February RA Tip: Keep an ear out for similarly popular shows and media events that capture reader attention and create listen- and read-alikes that connect them to your library collection.
Joyce Saricks, in addition to being Booklist’s audio editor, is the author of the second edition of The Readers’ Advisory Guide to Genre Fiction (ALA Editions, 2009).
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