S-Town host Brian Reed unlocks the secrets of the hit podcast
Expect the term “binge listen” to find its way into the pop-culture zeitgeist.
WARNING: This story contains spoilers about S-Town. If you have yet to listen to all the episodes, read at your own risk.
Expect the term “binge listen” to find its way into the pop-culture zeitgeist. S-Town, a new podcast from the creators of This American Life and Serial, debuted all seven of its episodes simultaneously on Tuesday, a tacit signal as to just how much Netflix changed the viewing game. The release left podcast listeners testing their will power, with some scrounging to hear the entire series immediately in an effort to avoid spoilers and others delaying the gratification by listening at their own pace.
“It wasn’t strategic, it was more editorial,” executive producer Julie Snyder tells EW of the all-episode drop. “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 you don’t have to wait a week to read a novel.”
The literary concept runs throughout S-Town, from the podcast episodes’ chapter labels to the series’ underlying tone of a Southern Gothic novel reminiscent of Faulker. The story begins with an Alabama man named John B. McLemore who, after fruitless attempts to get the attention of the This American Life producers, finally has their ears when one of his outlandish claims about his small town of Woodstock rings true. What transpires is a complex, fascinating look into the life of this man, whose unexpected suicide was as tragic as the life he lived.
Brian Reed, the show’s host and longtime producer of This American Life, takes EW behind the scenes of the making of the podcast and how John’s sudden death changed the course for everyone involved.
John reached out to This American Life for help, but it took some time to convince you guys that what he was saying had some credibility. Seeing as the show’s main focus suddenly changed, what made you decide to go forward with this story?
We [didn’t know] if this was a story for a really long time. This was even before Serial was invented that I started talking to John and was working on this as a potential story for This American Life. When I did know, and when my editor and awesome co-creator of this, Julie Snyder, knew, was after I first started talking to John. It was like, “We are interested, we are not bored. We don’t know what this is or what form it’s going to take. We don’t know what’s real about these claims but there’s something interesting here.”
When John [committed suicide], that’s when we assessed it… There seemed to be things happening in the aftermath of his suicide to the people in his life. We didn’t know what form it would take but we were just following our instinct and our gut. There’s a story in here somehow.
The series is able to capture the voices of the townsfolk but manages to not reduce them to Alabama stereotypes. Was finding the tone of the story difficult?
I feel like that is so built into the kind of work we do at This American Life. That’s our whole M.O. — we don’t do soundbites, we let people talk, we capture them three-dimensionally. To me, it’s really part of the DNA of what we’re trying to do on our stories. The second anything would feel like a stereotype, that’s totally uninteresting to me. On top of it being bad to do, I think it’s uninteresting and boring.
The name of the podcast is a mystery to listeners until they get to hear the first episode and understand its origin. Were there other names you considered?
For as long as I can remember, we have always called the story Sh–town. We obviously saw the potential challenges, [but] I think it captures John and he would get such a kick out of it. You’ll understand why we called it Sh–town when you hear the other options, which are terrible. There was “The Vulgar Horologist,” which sounds like a terrible paperback you’d buy at the airport. We floated the name “Gnoman,” which I mention in the story — it refers to the piece of the sundial which casts the shadow of the sun and it means “the one who knows.” That’s pretty pretentious. Then there was one morning where I was like, “I have it, this is it!” From “A Rose From Emily,” one of the stories John gave me by William Faulkner, one of the first lines describes the main character Emily Grierson’s house and it describes her as living in a house that was “an eyesore among eyesores.” And John had once used that line to describe his house, jokingly. And so I thought that’s what it could be called, “An Eyesore Among Eyesores.” I was so excited, and I brought it into the office and everyone was like “that’s terrible. The word ‘eyesore’ doesn’t make me want to listen to something, nevermind the word ‘eyesore’ twice in a phrase!”
In a way, Sh–town turned out to mean much more than just John’s nickname for his town.
As I kept reporting and talking to more and more people, it wasn’t like I was getting more options for [show] names out of that. It was the exact opposite, it was just confirming this is Sh–town. The idea of Sh–town had driven some of John’s best friends away from him. We’re not naming it to be provocative about the town, I hope that’s clear in the story. It’s a worldview, it’s John‘s frame of mind, it’s a way of seeing things. And it can refer to much more than Woodstock, and it does. It’s the town through his eyes. He lived there his whole life, he earned the right to call it a sh– town if he wanted to.
Have you talked to any of John’s family members or friends since the show launched?
I did hear from John’s college professor who is in the show. [On Tuesday] he wrote a really sweet email saying he listened to the whole thing and it was very emotional for him, all kinds of emotions from laughter to crying. That was really meaningful. I got a text from Rita, John’s cousin, who was doing a binge session with some of her other family.
How do you think John would react if he got to hear the completed podcast?
I hope he would get a kick out of it, I really do. I did try to make it in his spirit. I feel like he infuses the whole thing, even with the writing. I took a cue from the way he speaks which is very high-low — he uses incredible words that people don’t often use in regular conversation, like “proleptic decrepitude,” and that’s jammed right up against “s–t” and “crude f–k” right under the same breath. I kind of tried to get that spirit into my writing. He kind of led the way in terms of the tone and language of the show. You’ve got people talking about nipple piercings juxtaposed with beautiful music. That whole spirit of the show, I hope he would appreciate.
What’s next for S-Town? Will you continue to do updates on what happens to the family or on Tyler’s court date this summer?
I think of this as the story, like a book or novel. I don’t have plans. I lean towards not doing anything more with it, I lean toward letting this be the story. I really like the ending so it feels weird to me that I would make another ending. I wouldn’t rule out anything but I don’t have plans to follow it up. Sh–town really is about John B. McLemore and his frame of mind.