clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The latecomer's guide to catching up on Serial

Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

Serial, the most popular podcast in America, got around 1.5 million listeners per episode. This is very impressive, for a podcast. But that leaves millions of adult Americans who haven't yet experienced it.

Let's say you're one of them. Happily, you have a holiday drive or flight coming up. What better time to get up to speed? Here's how far episodes of Serial will take you — and a cheater's guide to getting the gist of the podcast without listening to every episode.

If you have kids in the car, you should know Serial has what movie reviewers describe as "mature themes" (love, death, drug use, murder, teenagers, occasional references to sex, and boring detours into the science of cell phone towers) but not a lot of explicit language. Teens might like it; younger kids might be lulled to sleep by host Sarah Koenig's NPR cadence.

The full Serial: 8.5 hours, 500 miles of driving

Serial routes - 8.5 hours

(Anand Katakam/Vox)

Serial's 12 episodes range from 27 to 55 minutes in length. If you want to listen to the whole season, you've got 8 hours, 33 minutes and 33 seconds of podcasts ahead of you. You could start listening to Serial when you start driving from DC to New York, and the series will cover the entire round trip. Same with Los Angeles to Las Vegas.

One-way, assuming decently favorable traffic, Serial will take you almost from DC to Boston, or DC to Atlanta, or Chicago to Kansas City.

If you're traveling by plane instead of car, 8.5 hours will be more than enough to cover most of your journey, even if there's a layover involved.

The cheater's Serial: 6 hours or one cross-country flight

Cheater's Serial routes

But let's say your siblings or in-laws are Serial fans and you want to be caught up on the show before you get to your destination. Or you just aren't sure you're committed enough to a full 8.5 hours of listening.

Serial is best if you take the whole journey with reporter Sarah Koenig. But you could listen to episodes 1 through 8 ("The Alibi" through "The Deal with Jay") and then skip to episode 12 ("What We Know") without doing too much damage. You'll miss some things, including a legal question at the heart of Adnan Syed's upcoming appeal. But you'll get the full Serial flavor, skip some filler, and still be able to discuss the case fluently. You'll even get the "shrimp sale at the Crab Crib" jokes.

Those nine episodes will take you 6 hours and 10 minutes, long enough to drive from DC to Cleveland if traffic is good, or to fly from New York to Los Angeles.

The cheater's Cliff Notes guide to Serial: 3 hours

Want the full Serial experience in just over 3 hours — short enough for a single direct flight? This is not actually possible, though you can come close by listening to the podcasts at double speed. But without fast talking, it is possible to fake your way to Serial literacy. Listen to the first episode ("The Alibi," 53 minutes), the fourth ("Inconsistencies," 33 minutes), the sixth ("The Case Against Adnan Syed," 43 minutes), and the twelfth ("What We Know," 55 minutes).

If you can finish the first episode and resist the temptation to go straight to the second, which is one of the best of the season, that will last just over 3 hours — a flight from DC to Dallas or Denver, or most of the way from Chicago to San Francisco, or from New York to Minneapolis (if you start listening after you board but before takeoff).

You will miss some things. But with that and our Serial character guide, you'll probably be able to talk about the podcast well enough for cocktail party chatter.

How to listen

If you have an iPhone, there's a Podcasts app somewhere on it. Search for Serial, then download each individual episode. (Here are more detailed instructions.)

Stitcher, a free app for both iOS and Android, allows you to create a playlist of podcasts — an easy way to set it all up before you hit the road or take to the air. There's an offline mode for in-air listening, so make sure it's enabled and the episodes are stored on your phone before you go.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.