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Support for Serial Comes From…

Posted 11th November 2018

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When Season 1 of Serial started near the end of 20141, it inspired many serious pieces of analysis. Whether it was taking on the subject matter itself and probing further, or discussions about whether the podcast was even a moral thing to produce in the first place, the world was not exactly short of Serial thinkpieces.

I’m not here to talk about any of that. What I want to talk to is altogether sillier, so by all means click away if you’re expecting anything about the main topic of the podcast itself, about which I can offer no insight. We’re nowhere near any of that territory.

What I want to talk about is: Mail…kimp?

*   *   *

If you listened to that first season of Serial back when it was first released, you know exactly what I’m talking about; those sponsorship messages at the beginning of the show. Specifically, this one:

And in keeping with everyone talking about every single aspect of Serial, there was even endless stuff about its sponsorship. Quartz wrote about it being “the year’s biggest marketing win”, The Guardian called it a “cultural phenomenon”, and there was, of course, the obligatory remix song. Not to mention this huge revelation. All you have to do is search for “mailkimp” on Google to see the ridiculous level things got to.

Even if you think the above is all a little batty, the fact remains: that sponsorship became a big part of the show. It’s one thing people many people remember when thinking back to that first season, right alongside that haunting theme and “This is a Global Tel Link prepaid call from Adnan Syed”. It’s all intrinsically linked.

Here’s the thing. If you try to listen to Season 1 of Serial today… it’s gone. All the Mailchimp sponsorship has been replaced with other sponsors, across all twelve episodes.

Let’s listen to an example. Firstly, here’s the original opening to the very first episode of Serial, as downloaded from our old friend the Internet Archive:

Download “Serial, Episode 1 Opening – Original”

And here’s the opening to the first episode as it is on the current Serial website:

Download “Serial, Episode 1 Opening – Revised”

It’s worth noting that the original version of the opening had 20″ of sponsorship messages; the revised version available today has 1’09”. Capitalism, there.

A perfectly reasonable question to ask about this is: who cares? Am I saying that podcasts shouldn’t ever change sponsorship partners and re-edit their old shows? And besides, TV shows change sponsorship all the time when it comes to re-runs. So Serial changed its sponsor messages. Big deal. As long as the main content of the show wasn’t altered, why does it matter?

And yeah, I get it. I’m not outraged about it. I can imagine situations where this might become more of a problem: a podcast where the choice of sponsorship partner might reflect on whether the podcast is truly independent, for instance. If a podcast decides to talk about Squarespace in the editorial part of the show, for instance, then whether Squarespace originally sponsored them or not is actually important.

But here? Not so much. I just think it’s worth making the point that those Mailchimp messages became such a big part of how Serial was talked about… and now they’ve just disappeared from the official record of the show. That just seems like something which is worth noting.

Because there is a deep irony that a major theme of the first season of Serial is… memory. About how you remember certain moments in your life, and how accurate those memories actually are. And the show very deliberately takes this theme beyond the confines of the specific story they’re talking about, and into a wider context.

Many people have fond memories of listening to Season 1 of Serial back in 2014. The fact that they are fond memories always feels like an uncomfortable thing to talk about considering the horrendous subject matter of the show, just as the line “Sometimes I think Dana isn’t listening to me” sometimes feels like a guilty laugh. But there’s no avoiding it: for many people, listening to that first season of Serial is when podcasts first became a big part of their lives.

And if you want to go back and revisit those memories… the show isn’t quite how you remember it. Serial, a show about memories… which is messing with your memories.

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The biggest change made to any of the shows in that first season comes at the end of Episode 9 – where it’s more than merely the sponsorship which has changed. Again, let’s take a listen – first to the original version:

Download “Serial, Episode 9 Ending – Original”

And then the revised version available today:

Download “Serial, Episode 9 Ending – Revised”

Not only does the revised version change the sponsorship details, but it also removes the message that the next episode will be delayed due to Thanksgiving, and also removes the solicit for money to fund Season 2. Again, all these changes are fairly harmless.

But there is one thing it does in the process which really does irritate me immensely. And it happens on every single episode of the revised versions of Season 1.

Let’s take a listen to another episode which has slightly less going on at the end of it – say, the end of Episode 2. Again, here’s the original version:

Download “Serial, Episode 2 Ending – Original”

And here’s the revised version:

Download “Serial, Episode 2 Ending – Revised”

On the original episode, the music continues nicely underneath the sponsorship message. On the revised version? The music stops, as the new words are crudely cut into the programme. Not to put too fine a point on it, it sounds absolutely bloody awful.

With some podcasts, maybe this wouldn’t matter so much. Four guys crowded around a dodgy microphone, sound levels all to shit, who cares? But Serial is well-known for its absolutely gorgeous music and sound design; it inspired many articles such as this. To take a podcast which became as popular as it did partly because it was so beautifully put together, and then treat it like this, just feels wrong.

Give those two clips another listen. Hear how the music beautifully builds up the mood… and then listen to how the revised version absolutely destroys that mood. No, I’m not going to say that Serial shouldn’t change its sponsorship messages. But I will say: if they were going to do it, they should treat their own material with a little more respect.

If they cared enough in 2014 to make the the show sound that great, it would have been nice when they revised it to keep up those standards. Whatever you think of Serial, one description I really don’t think applies to the show is the word cynical. But that’s exactly how the end of those episodes sound to me now. Awkwardly cut in your new sponsorship, job done. Who cares about art any more?

*   *   *

One final thought. Of everything I love about comedy, one of my favourite things is how it preserves so many things that are otherwise forgotten about in the cultural memory. Take, for example, the BBC1 mirror globe. Not often talked about unless you’re a TV presentation fan, but it endlessly shows up in Monty Python:

So if you miss Serial‘s Mailchimp sponsorships, and the show itself isn’t interested in preserving those memories… then maybe we need to pop over to Funny Or Die instead.

When everything else falls short, we can rely on comedy to document the ephemera we fall in love with. It’s one of the most marvellous things comedy does: keep a more permanent record of things we would otherwise forget.

If comedy is in the specifics, then it’s a marvellous byproduct that it also helps those specifics to be remembered.

  1. No, BBC News, it wasn’t 2015, which you could have figured out really quickly if you’d fact-checked that piece at all. 

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