Why Serial And Invisibilia Matter In A World Of Storytelling


The world needs a good story. More than a good story, the world is in need of good storytellers. Specifically, storytellers who know that one thing, one event, one moment in time, is a world in itself turning on its own axis, showing different facets, sides. A storyteller knows this, and, depending on his or her intent, would aim to provide us with all the angles, or share with us glimpses, inviting us to explore on our own once we come to the end.

When Serial broke out of its NPR confinement and ingratiated itself into our lives last year, we were obsessed: all over the country, and perhaps even across the pond, we wondered about a fifteen-year old murder case, turned it over its head. On some days, we lifted rugs, we looked under our beds – we searched for the monster, for evidence that would convince us of an incarcerated man’s guilt. On other days, we traced routes and phone calls, held old confessions under the light – we sought plot holes and inconsistencies that would help exonerate someone we thought was wrongfully accused.

Throughout the whole twelve-episode experience, we pondered about justice and injustice, gripped by a story that seemed to have embodied a hydra: cut off one theory and declare it debunked, and two more would spring in its place. Serial, it seemed, has ushered in what the New York magazine would call “the great podcast renaissance,” and as the show came to its conclusion, we only hungered for more.

Enter Invisibilia, another offering from NPR, a podcast that seeks to tell another kind of story – or stories, rather – this time weaving narratives with psychological questions about the human psyche. It is a winning formula that has made the program reach top status in podcast charts such as iTunes and Audioboom, a website for spoken word. It’s just been less than a month since its pilot, and already the number of streams and downloads total to 10 million – a landmark for any show that ever came on air.

Says Eric Nuzum, VP of Programming for NPR: “This confirms that expert story-telling, approaching difficult subjects with a combination of rigorous reporting and a human perspective, works across all platforms.”

What sets Invisibilia apart from its contemporaries is that it tells us stories, but it also gives us facts – and then it settles deep into its seat and waits for us to make the connections. It’s not so much as an introduction of a character who may be a representation of some scientific trivia, but a character that is as much a mirror of ourselves, if anything. In what few episodes have aired so far, each one has extended a finger and beckoned: listen to this.

Even the New Yorker can’t resist its charms: “Audio journalism is a satisfying form for such tales: intimate voices, sound artistry, provocative questions phrased casually. Could your thoughts influence how a rat moves through space? Could your expectations make a blind person see? To answer yes to those questions would seem foolish, inspiring thoughts about magic. They’re like riddles: wild, baffling ideas that are thrilling to imagine and impossible to explain.”

Yes, the world needs a good story, and storytellers. Yet the success of both cannot exist if there’s no one gathered around the fire, faces bathed with light. Ultimately, and intimately, it also leads to this: the world needs listeners, too. That’s where we come in.