Reed All About It: S-Town host Brian Reed on the podcast phenomenon

Brian Reed talks about S-Town, storytelling and the evolution of the biggest podcast on the planet

“John B. McLemore is from Shit Town, Alabama”

The story begins in 2012 with these words on the subject line of an email sent from McLemore to Brian Reed, reporter and producer for the This American Life radio show.

The resulting podcast, in which Reed travelled to S-Town, aka Woodstock, Alabama, met McLemore and followed his story ­– which began with allegations of small town corruption but ended somewhere no one could have guessed – has been downloaded more than 40million times since its release earlier this year.

A tale of an enigmatic small-town eccentric wrapped up in a southern gothic mystery enclosed in an American cultural conundrum, S-Town is a stunning piece of storytelling. As influenced by great novels and the golden age of television’s best boxsets as it is by longform journalism, S-Town’s seven episode arc was an instant hit.

They are connecting with people in ways I could not have predicted – often in really personal ways

Why did this person, this place and this story connect with audiences?
They are connecting with people in ways I could not have predicted, and often in really personal ways. People are saying the story made them think about how they spend their time or about being more generous in their attitudes towards people they might have written off otherwise. People are also noticing sundials as they go around the world.

How did you arrive at the style of storytelling in S-Town?
We set out to make this in the style of a novel, even though it is completely true. To me, good novels embed themselves into the lens through which you view the world. They pop into your head through the day when you wouldn’t expect – and that is what I hope S-Town is doing and what I get the sense it is doing. And that is something really cool for a story to do.

S-Town recalls novels like Stoner, by John Williams, a seemingly unremarkable life that sings when focused in on…
That novel boggles my mind. It is a miracle he pulled it off, because there is no plot. Yet it is entrancing, you can’t put it down. It is devastating. I love that book.

Brian Reed, S-Town
Brian Reed creating the S-Town podcast

We can also talk about The Wire, Dickens, Making a Murderer – what were the building blocks of the story for you?
We realised that a virtue of the reporting going on for so long was that we had this secret superpower as storytellers that factual storytellers don’t often have. When I would be telling the early part of the story about first meeting John, I would know the future. I had the perspective, as best you can get it when telling a true story, of an omniscient narrator – which is something that is a feature of novels. We had fun playing with that. We had coloured note cards pinned on the wall for different parts of the story. And the pink ones would refer to a moment of omniscience! So I would put in a few lines where I go to the future tense and say something that was going to happen to this person in the future.

We realised we had this secret superpower as storytellers that factual storytellers don’t often have

When you first took the call from John – how many leads were you following at the time with a similar degree of interest before this one became the one?
I work a weekly radio show and we do long form stories that we spend months on. But we are coming out every week. So even though we are working on things for a long time we are going through a tonne of ideas and pitches and tips every day. So this was in the mix with that. I saw John’s email, where he was telling me about the corruption in his town, and pitched it to my colleagues. They agreed it was worth a phone call. I probably had one big story that was going to air in a couple of weeks, while working on another in the earlier stages of production. So it was in the mix, among many things. There were times I would not put so much time into John and Woodstock as I wanted because I was distracted with other stories. It was over the course of a lot of time, there would be bursts of activity and then lag.

Did you know it was going to fly?
I had a gut feeling. I was quite confident, I knew I wasn’t bored. And I knew my editor Julie Snyder, who made S-Town with me was not bored. We were eager to hear more from John and the people he was introducing me to so it felt like this has got to be something eventually but we don’t know what shape it would take. You can be super interested in a person, who can be really compelling, which John was – but for a story to exist there are certain structural bones you need.

S-Town podcast logo

What would John make of its success and millions of people now knowing about his life?
Quite honestly I am wary of putting myself in John’s head because it is such a complicated and unpredictable place. And I don’t mean that as a cop out. I imagine he would have a whole range of feelings about it. I have talked to some of his friends about this. In certain ways he would feel validated and excited that his ideas and story was received well by so many people in the world. It would also be overwhelming. And he would also have criticisms because he was a very critical person.

Is after care important, to not just leave having introduced them and their town and the ir stories to such a wide audience?
I haven’t been back to Woodstock since. But I’m in touch with a lot of people, just in a more casual, how are things going-type of way. I feel grateful that people were so open with me and put up with me for so long working on this, and are dealing with being in the public eye. And I like knowing what is going on with those people’s lives. To the extent that they want to be in touch with me, I want to be in touch with them.

DID YOU KNOW…

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Do you feel you S-Town gives its audience – I’m imagining a largely urban, big city audience – a window on a different part of the US?
That is the stereotype but I would be wary of saying it. But I do think the point of the story in a lot of ways is to get inside a world that is interesting. Another inspiration I took from was Junot Díaz, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author who wrote The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. He tells his writing students that when some people set out to write fiction, they want it to be universal and that impulse can push you to write in generalities. What he does is imagine a very specific audience, like for Oscar Wao, his audience was Dominican, overweight nerds who love Tolkein!

He says, if you write for a very specific audience, what will happen is two things: the people who are part of that audience will feel that the story is a love letter written to them. And a much larger group of people will feel that they have intercepted a love letter that they were not supposed to read. And either experience is delightful. I think that puts it so well. I hope that S-Town was attractive for that reason.

I think in a lot of journalism, especially on TV, is very reductive, very binary

Has Trump and his rise changed the responsibilities of journalism and storytelling?
We need to be thinking very creatively and aggressively about how to cover topics that there is kind of an apathy about among a lot of people. That is on us, as journalists, to find new and engaging ways into stories and topics to draw people in and make them think in new ways, because what we are doing is not working. We are still dealing with serious issues and I think in a lot of journalism, especially on TV, is very reductive, very binary. People are put on two sides of a moderator and asked to argue about somethingWe need to hold ourselves to higher standards and not reduce people or issues to binaries so we can look at a full three-dimensional range of issues and experiences.

Do you have any regrets?
I wish that John hadn’t died. That is the main thing that I wish. And one thing I wish I had been able to talk about more, but that was difficult given the nature of the story, was race. It is such an important dynamic in our country and particularly in the part of the country that John lived in, and it is certainly in the story in certain ways. But I think it is important to talk about it in complicated and thoughtful ways. I just think it is so important and so fundamental to our country and that place. It is the oldest story in the US and maybe the world, but still so current it is unbelievable. We are arguing over here about Civil War stuff, which is 150 plus years ago. I don’t know that it will ever leave our country, it is just so prevalent and important.

Winding back the clock – is there one last conversation you wish you could have with John?
I would try to impress on him just how much what he was going through is shared by so many other people. The loneliness, the alienation and the frustration – he wasn’t alone in that. And people’s responses to S-Town have borne that out. I wish I could have impressed on him that there are so many other people going through that. I hope that on some level he knew that.

Brian Reed On Creating S-Town: A New Way To Tell A Story – Bord Gais Energy Theatre, Dublin, 29 Sept; Manchester Academy 2, 30 Sept; Theatre Royal Drury Lane, London, 1 Oct; Town Hall, Birmingham, 2 Oct

Photograph by Sandy Honig