PLODcast: managing success is a high-class problem

10th January 2016


Whenever success comes a calling, there is a pressing question behind the jubilation: what exactly did we get so right? 

This is a challenge hovering around a myriad businesses, right now. How to account for the meteoric rise in the hoverboard?; or the spectacular return-to-form of Kombucha?; or the astonishing way sentient adults suddenly want to get down with colouring books? 

What exactly drives success is a more testy question than one might imagine. Hitting the ‘bonanza button’ in the first place is rarely a linear or mathematical affair. We humans are analogue, not digital. We make our choices in poetry, not in prose. As a result, the way we fall in love with ideas, brands, programming, whatever, is cloaked in an ambiguous gauze. 

That is, of course, until after the fact. Once you have a bona fide success on your hands, the rules are a little different. 

After the fact, one has a duty to understand the success. This is a high-class problem, but a problem nonetheless. If a successful launch is a triumph of creativity and judgment and intuition, a successful follow-up is more a triumph of insight and clarity.

How else did Adele cut that second album of hers? And her third, for god-sake? Hello!


Let us turn to podcasts for a case in point. (I continue to hold that podcasting is the perfection of radio and a communication medium of the utmost importance.) And the high-class problem du jour: Why was the Serial’s first season such a success?

This was surely the central question facing the team at This American Life – the guys behind the Serial Podcast of 2014 which made Sarah Koenig, its presenter, the Adele of the Podcast medium. The case of the incarceration of Adnan Sayed for the murder of Hae Min Lee was a single story, told week by week, which became a global sensation. But why? What was its essence?

It could have been many things: a crime podcast; a whodunnit podcast; a David and Goliath podcast; a real time investigation podcast; a Nancy Drew Mystery podcast. 

They must surely have tussled to uncover the beating heart of Serial. I hope they at least found the decision difficult, and that they worried if they were getting it right. 

How else can one explain underwhelm that is Season 2?

Season 2 tells the inside story of a news event already widely known to an American audience. Entitled ‘Dustwun’, it examines an American soldier’s decision to leave his military base in Afghanistan without permission, and the five year odyssey of captivity at the hands of the Taliban that ensues, before his eventual release). 

Now that it’s underway (I am up to episode 4, as I write), we have some insight into the Creators’ deliberations. If I indulge in a spot of amateur sleuth decoding, I would say this:

They believe Serial is about storytelling with uncertainty at its centre. Koenig is its narrative voice and intrepid everywoman, who unpicks the greyness of things, layer by layer, leading the listener to question the untouchable nature of truth itself. Yes. It seems to me that the creators of Serial believe that the essence of their global success is ambiguity, under a microscope.

Many novelists, and TV show-runners, and brand owners are pressured into keeping their creative output very close to the superficial reasons for their first big hit. Romance worked, Ms Austen? Well, let’s write another romance novel. That whole Dunder Mifflin office TV scenario thing worked? Well, let’s stay in The Office for 9 seasons. That Christmas ad worked? Let’s schmaltz it up every December, guys. 


But just as there is danger in being too literal when seeking to repeat success, there is also danger in being too vague. My instinct says it is this latter scenario where things went awry for Serial. 

Because, for my money, Serial Season 2 is turning out to be a relative drag. It plods. Relatively! I am listening. I will continue to listen. But I’m only moderately interested in the story, though deeply interested in its  talented storytellers. It’s as if they have not understood why Serial Season 1 was so terrific. 

For me, Season 2 fails to connect in the same visceral way. This failure is revealed at several levels: 

  • it lacks a compelling hero with whom I can relate; 
  • it lacks a temporal excitement from week-to-week, as we know the soldier’s interviews have been laid to tape months before the podcast ever dropped;
  • it lacks Sarah Koenig’s role as co-protagonist, thinking my thoughts and asking my questions; 
  • it lacks a universal tragic heroine – a clear victim whose life and loss we feel; 
  • it lacks a whodunnit momentum, as the outcome of the soldier’s odyssey is known before ever we start. 

Wow. Easy cowboy. 

Is this just another way of saying that one cannot craft two wondrous diamonds in succession? Is the second album always going to be a disappointment? 

I don’t think so. I think, rather, that a fear of literal repetition drove the Serial team to yonder hills. In a noble effort to be creative, they got lost. They failed to bring the vital human energy and visceral suspense to Season 2’s soldier’s story that is now unfolding, week by week. This could, of course, reverse itself over the remaining eight-isa episodes. I will be willing to eat my military cap, if necessary.

But let us be measured. Season 2 is no disaster. And, the Serial team will get many more bites at the cherry. (By way of consolation, The Hangover II made way more money than its predecessor, despite being the lesser movie, from an artistic standpoint.) 


The task for the Serial team now is to bring deep insight into planning for its next chosen story. They must not bend to delivery dates, or production pressures, until they have a story which is so human, so compelling, so universal that I simply must listen to it. 

Ambiguity is perhaps not the big idea on its own. Rather, it is a part of a triumvirate of ideas which make Serial unique: the idea of layers of differing points of view (great reporting), the idea of temporal uncertainty when anything could happen (live news making, driven by Sarah Koenig’s intrepid discoveries), the idea of mystery (ambiguity, which can even extend to unknown-ability about the real truth of things). 

Yes. Serial’s DNA is more likely in the area of ‘Compelling Perspectives on Unfolding Mysteries’. That’s my opening hypothesis, at least. Oh, how I’d love to get in a room with Sarah and her talented crew to fully figure that one out! But then again, I’m guessing every person who ever composed a chord progression now wants to write songs with Adele.

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