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Sarah Koenig’s Serial has been popCast 1.01 Serial Key keygen and crack a big hit on iTunes and elsewhere. Meredith Heuer / This American Life Photograph: Meredith Heuer/This American Life

Stuart Dredge

Tuesday 18 November 2014 14.27 GMT

Episodes of This American Life’s Serial podcast have been downloaded and streamed more than 5m times from Apple’s iTunes store alone, according to the latter company.

The podcast, which focuses on the investigation into a murder in Baltimore County in 1999, has been a snowballing success online in recent weeks, through word of mouth and media coverage.

According to Apple, it is the fastest podcast to reach 5m downloads and streams in iTunes’ history, having been a fixture in the company’s podcast charts in the US, Canada, UK and Australia, but also reaching the top 10 in Germany, South Africa and India.

Serial was launched as an offshoot from US radio show This American Life, as an experiment in “audio storytelling” based on reporter Sarah Koenig’s investigation into the real-life murder mystery.

High-school student Hae Min Lee went missing early in 1999, and after her body was found a few weeks later, her former boyfriend Adnan Syed was arrested and convicted of murder, before being sentenced to life plus 30 years in prison.

“This is not an original idea. Maybe in podcast form it is, and trying to do it as a documentary story is really, really hard,” Koenig told the Guardian. “But trying to do it as a serial, this is as old as Dickens.”

Serial’s success has led to an upsurge of chatter about podcasting, a decade after the most intense hype around the format in its early days.

That hype may have died down, but people are still listening: Apple says that it expects iTunes and iOS users to listen to 7bn podcasts in 2014 alone, and that its store passed 1bn podcast subscriptions during 2013.

Market research firm Edison Research claimed in September that 1.7% of the time Americans spend listening to audio is devoted to podcasts, having noted earlier in the year that 15% of Americans – around 39m people – said they had listened to a podcast in the last month.

It cited the growth of smartphones and the availability of podcasting apps as the key reason for growing popularity of the format.

“We’ve tracked podcasting since 2006 in this research series, and I still remember the days of hunting down an RSS feed, copying it and pasting it into iTunes, downloading the podcast to my computer, and then syncing it to my iPod to listen to later,” wrote Edison’s Tom Webster.

“Today, all that friction has been reduced to just one step, thanks to the convergence of broadband access, computing, and media server that is the modern mobile phone.”

Besides iTunes, Serial is available to stream or download from its own website, as well as through other podcasting apps and aggregators.

Hooked on Serial: whodunnit as cultural phenomenon