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S-Town producer Julie Snyder: Don't call it the next Serial

There’s not really a genre that best fits the new S-Town podcast, the latest addictive series from the creators of Serial and This American Life. 

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Elise Bergerson

Don’t call it Serial season 3, or even a true-crime podcast for that matter. In fact, there’s not really a genre that best fits S-Town, the latest addictive series from the creators of Serial and This American Life. While the narrative podcast, which released all seven of its episodes this week, begins with what seems to be a murder mystery, the story quickly shifts gears and heads in unexpected directions. Those unforeseen jolts are part of what makes S-Town a bingeworthy listen, and what producers hope potential Serial converts will enjoy.

The podcast begins with an Alabama man named John B. McLemore, who reached out to This American Life in the hopes of getting the alleged murder of a local boy in his town investigated. What unfolds is a tale far more complex, one that involves a tangled web of death, dissension, and a possible treasure hunt. Executive producer Julie Snyder spoke to EW about the reasoning behind the podcast’s unconventional episode drop, as well as the prospects of Serial’s next season.

From the time John first made contact with producer/host Brian Reed, it took three years until the podcast was completed. At what point during this process did you know the story was done?
We really had a lot of questions about John and John’s life and and I think, for both Brian and I, [the end] was after he had done several interviews talking to John’s friends. About a year ago, we started feeling there was still some reporting to be done but for the most part we felt like the questions we had had been answered. It’s always sort of a weird, arbitrary thing to define when a story is done because everybody’s real and they’re still going [on with life].

You released all seven episodes, Netflix-style. Was there a reason behind that?
It wasn’t strategic, it was more editorial. We went back and forth on it for a while. I didn’t feel like there was anything added by waiting a week in between for this story because it has such a different aesthetic and a different feel. It felt like a novel and we had talked about that a lot. You don’t have to wait a week to read a novel. In that way, it made more sense to me: Why not do it all at once? And there were even very practical reasons: If we were going to do it week by week, there was a lot of paranoia going on [with the townspeople in the story], so we’d have to structure it differently. If we released it all at once, then you can let somebody have their say knowing that in the next chapter, the other person really gets their full thing to say. And that to us seemed a lot more freeing in the way we could tell the story.

When S-Town was first announced, many people kept calling it the next season of Serial.
It’s not! Even with Serial, what’s Serial? We often will see people refer to Serial as a true-crime podcast and, for me, we totally do not think of Serial as a true-crime podcast. Serial is whatever we want it to be. Basically, Serial is one serialized story told over chapters. Other than that we don’t have really a definition for it. That was the same thing for S-Town. I’m not interested in doing the same kinds of stories over and over again. I don’t think anyone would be interested in doing that. It is also really boring. No one wants to see Steven Spielberg just make E.T. over and over again. You want to keep on pushing it and trying new things and experiments. As long as we’ve kind of got some money to be able to do that, we’re good.

What was behind your decision to not make S-Town the third season of Serial?
We had talked about that. 1. It’s not Sarah [Koenig], and Sarah’s still working on season 3 right now. Because it’s not Sarah, it seemed like this is it’s own thing. Because [S-Town] began with a murder investigation, you’re going to have expectations that are set in a way that we’re going to be constantly pushing against. And who wants to do that?” says executive producer Julie Snyder. “We don’t need to do that, we don’t have to put ourselves in that position, so why bother? When we laid out what would be the reason for making it the third season of Serial, honestly it would’ve been financially beneficial. We would’ve been able to charge more for ads and get more advertisers. But that’s gross. If that’s really the only reason why we’re doing it then, let’s not do that. It felt gross.

So what can we expect from Serial season 3?
I don’t even know what to expect because we’re still really in the mode of reporting and trying to kind of get our feet underneath it. And for me for the last four months, I’m present-ish. I’ve really been on S-Town and Sarah has been doing edits on S-Town and her time has been divided. She’s been really great on it but that means she’s had to pause her work on her Serial reporting. I guess there’s not much for me to say about it right now. I don’t even know what to say.

Come on, how about one hint?
It doesn’t have a genre. I don’t know what genre This American Life would even be. There isn’t one. Some weeks we do a [This American Life] show that’s all about the Federal Reserve and the next week we do a show that’s all about coincidences. The last thing we want to do is feel like we’re working in a genre. We’ve got two other projects that we’re working on right now but I don’t have release dates for them yet. What I can say is that I had initially thought that Serial season 3 would be out this summer. I can guarantee you that is not …well, geez… I think I can guarantee you that that’s not the case. I’m pretty sure I can guarantee that but actually don’t hold me totally to it.

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