Sunday 17 November 2019

The road out of S-Town: Brian Reed on the legacy of the cult podcast

Record-breaking podcast S-Town flipped the script of narrative podcasting, and left listeners with more questions than answers. Katie Byrne chats to the podcast's ­co-creator about the twists and turns of the groundbreaking series

S-Town creator Brian Reed
S-Town creator Brian Reed
Brian Reed interviewing with John McLemore for S-Town

As the host and co-creator of the record-breaking podcast S-Town, Brian Reed has earned a reputation for eliciting compelling quotes.

When he chats to the Review, however, the interviewer admits that he's not especially comfortable in the role of interviewee.

"I don't want to say [it's] tortuous," he laughs. "It's not tortuous but it's not my natural state of being... I feel like I'm long-winded. I feel like I can be a little ornery. I feel like I'm much better at asking the questions.

This isn't entirely true. Reed is a good-natured sort, and he manages to at least sound engaged when I pose questions that he has probably had to answer at every dinner party he's been to since the launch of S-Town in March.

He is better at asking the questions, though.

S-Town, in case you're new to these parts, stands for Shit Town. It's the name that John B McLemore, the man at the centre of the non-fiction podcast, gives to his town of Woodstock, Alabama, and the subject of an email that McLemore sent to the producers of the award-winning radio programme This American Life in late 2012. (Spoilers ahead.)

He wanted to tell them about two events that had happened in Woodstock, one of which was an alleged murder that the son of a wealthy family was supposedly bragging about getting away with. After months of emails and phone conversations, Reed eventually paid Shit Town a visit.

McLemore, it transpires, is a master horologist and maverick chemist, but this isn't the only reason why the series starts with an account of what Reed discovered about the "maddening" process of fixing an old clock.

"You're constantly wondering if you've just spent hours going down a path that will likely take you nowhere," he says. The S-Town narrative unfolds in much the same way.

You're never quite sure where Reed is leading you, or if he even knows where it is that he's going. Is it a murder investigation or a treasure hunt? Is it a window into small-town syndrome or a meditation on loneliness and isolation? Is the host following the story, or is the story following him?

Unlike other podcasts, S-Town was delivered in 'chapters' rather than episodes, and all seven chapters were released in one day, rather than periodically. The tone, meanwhile, is both novelistic and journalistic, or perhaps an entirely new genre that merges the two.

It's a disorienting listening experience, much like the labyrinthine hedge maze that McLemore built on his property. No wonder S-Town enthusiasts recommend the podcast to their friends with little explanation. Just listen to it. What else can they say?

Reed says narrative podcasting "is still a really early medium" so there aren't a lot of boundaries to push or moulds to break. By the same token, he was excited about getting rid of some of the conventions they were used to, and "seeing if people were going to come along for the ride".

It was a huge undertaking for a relative newcomer to the medium. Reed, who has a double major in history and theatre studies, joined This American Life as a 24-year-old intern in 2010 (they've since replaced this scheme with a fellowship, such was the quality of applications that they were receiving from established journalists).

"One of the first things that I noticed when I [joined This American Life] is the way that people talked about stories," he says. "They talked about characters and dramatic tension and plot. We often use the phrase here, 'We have to bring the character on stage'. When you first meet the character, how do they come on stage? What take do you use? It was in a language that was familiar to me as a theatre major."

S-Town was also Reed's first experience of telling a story episodically. He thought he understood the nuts and bolts of constructing a story, but co-creator Julie Snyder, who co-produced Serial, another record-breaking This American Life podcast, introduced him to a more sophisticated structure.

"One of the many things that I learned from Julie - and this is something she figured out a little more from working on Serial - is that each chapter also has to have its own complete arc within itself, on top of serving the larger story."

They have another, broader strokes, technique for enhancing content quality at This American Life: a budgetary allocation that allows reporters to 'kill their darlings' and step away from stories that aren't delivering the goods.

"It's a luxury that I now believe is a necessity to make the quality of work that we make," says Reed. "And it's a tribute to Ira Glass, who started This American Life 20-odd years ago. It was built into their budget that they were going to be able to kill a third of the stories that they started, and that is something that has stuck around as we have grown.

"And that's the only reason S-Town exists," he continues. "I never felt any pressure to make this into something… And that allowed the space for the weird thing that S-Town is to happen."

The other thing that excites Reed about narrative podcasting is the lack of visuals. "A lot of my colleagues say this often and I agree with it - it helps not to have the visuals. When you see someone, you often bring a set of assumptions about who they are and what they're like, and there is a power to not having that get in the way of getting to know these people."

Of course, a medium that invites listeners to build their own images needs strong voices, or "good talkers" as Reed puts it. The central figures in S-Town are especially forthcoming, and one wonders if this is because Reed has the same interviewing skills as Louis Theroux, whose non-judgmental stance is like a truth serum for self-revelation, or because the people of Woodstock are simply more candid by nature.

It's the latter, says Reed. "Bibb County [where Woodstock is based] is a very special place for a reporter," he explains. "I had this experience this summer where I did my first story post S-Town. It was in Alaska and it was a whole different experience. I forgot how hard it is to get people to talk as well as people in Bibb County talk."

It's even harder to get people to talk as well as John B McLemore, whose scathing social commentary has since ended up on the back of T-shirts.

It's not every day that you meet someone who opines, off-the-cuff, that "we ain't nothin' but a nation of goddamn, chicken-shit, horse-shit, tattle-tale, pissy-assed, whiney, fat, flabby, out-of-shape, Facebook-lookin', damn twerk-fest, peekin' out the windows and snoopin' around, listenin' on the cellphones and spyin' in the peephole and peepin' in the crack of the goddamn door, listenin' in the fuckin' Sheetrock: Mr Putin puh-lease, show some fuckin' mercy, I mean drop the fuckin' bomb, won't you?"

McLemore's unique turn-of-phrase has since been picked apart by literary types and, like any good series, the show has prompted plenty of internet theorising and speculating.

Some wonder if McLemore really believed that there was a murder. "I think John definitely wanted us to look into all sorts of stuff based on the many hours he spent talking to me about things that were not the murder," says Reed. "But I do believe he believed there was a murder. A lot of people [in Bibb County] believed there was a murder."

Others wonder who has the gold. Brian admits that he "has thoughts about the gold", which he's understandably not willing to share, but it's not something he spends too much time dwelling upon. "The purpose of the story, to me, were a lot of the bigger questions and the turns we take away from a classic treasure hunt to what it means to live a life."

There has also been plenty of commentary on the ethical questions that the podcast raised. Was it voyeuristic or gratuitous, or was it worth "unearthing the mysteries of one man's life" if it could help millions of people empathise with a misanthrope who had whip marks tattooed on his body and who carried the conscience of the world like a cross on his back?

Perhaps the only living people who deserve to have an opinion on these matters are McLemore's family; the citizens of the so-called Shit Town, and those who signed release forms. "Honestly, a lot of people really liked it," says Reed. "I basically heard from both Tyler's family and Rita [that] they enjoyed it and it was fair. That's what they told me. And if they felt that there were certain parts that they wish weren't in, or wish were done differently, the overarching note was that it was fair. I'm still in touch with all of them - and that's the best compliment you can get as a journalist.

"When it first came out, like the first day, I saw some quotes from people who were in the story in the local Alabama press saying they were bummed about it and they wish they hadn't taken part and stuff. And I get it. The name of the story is Shit Town and you know the description is about a murder and so it seems like this scandalous story and they were worried that it was going to make the town look bad.

"Like the mayor, Jeff Dodson, was bummed about it so I wrote him, and a couple of people I saw quoted, and said I understand where you guys are coming from. Just listen to the story. The story is not a bad story about your town. It's a sad story about a guy from your town, but I'd be curious if you still feel this way if you listened. And they did, and it changed their minds."

He adds that McLemore was one of the smartest people he has ever met, and someone "with a huge capacity for caring behind the very cynical front he put up". S-Town may mean different things to different people, but for Reed, it is foremost a eulogy to the man at its centre.

Brian Reed will be discussing the making of S-Town on Friday, September 29 at Dublin's Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, as part of the Dublin Podcast Festival; Tickets €35

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