How 'Serial' Spinoff 'S-Town' Became Podcasting's Newest Hit
'This American Life' producer Brian Reed explores the dynamics of a small Alabama town and one eccentric resident in bingeable podcast series 'S-Town.'
[Warning: This story contains spoilers from all seven installments of S-Town.]
Nearly three years after Serial captured the attention of millions of listeners and redefined the podcasting genre, the team is back with a new record-setting series.
S-Town tells the story of a small Alabama town through the eyes of John B. McLemore, a clock restorer and maze builder who struggles with personal demons. McLemore — whose nickname for his hometown, Shittown, gives the podcast its title — becomes the central subject, mixed in with an examination of a rural community undergoing seismic changes and a dash of murder mystery.
The story, which was released in seven installments all at once on March 28, was an overnight hit, immediately claiming the No. 1 spot on Apple's podcast charts. It set a record with 10 million episode downloads in its first four days and has reached 1.45 million subscribers.
Its popularity is in keeping with the success of Serial, which even years after its release remains a top download, but in every other way S-Town functions more as a spinoff of Serial than a continuation. It shares a co-creator and co-executive producer in Serial's Julie Snyder, and Serial host Sarah Koenig and This American Life host Ira Glass also are both credited on S-Town. But the story really belongs to host Brian Reed, who first came in contact with McLemore through his day job as a producer on This American Life. The ensuing relationship that formed between Reed and McLemore is at the heart of S-Town.
Reed recently spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about how S-Town evolved into its own series, the comparisons it has received to Missing Richard Simmons — another hit podcast that recently ended its run — and what's next for him.
How did this story evolve into a full podcast series?
John was a listener to This American Life, which sometimes blows my mind to think that this is just the story of a listener. He wrote our general email account in late 2012, and it came in as part of the digest that we get every week of those emails. This was before Serial. I was just doing my job as a This American Life producer. The way we operate at This American Life is we kill a ton of stuff that we start on. That’s built into our budget and into our culture. It’s considered a triumph rather than a failure to kill something that doesn’t work because it’s mediocre. It’s an incredible luxury, and it’s integral to keeping quality high. I was talking to John and looking into this potential murder while doing many other stories. It was never like, “This needs to be a story.” But this guy was just kind of wedging his way into my life, and I was just not bored. I liked talking to him, and what if the things he was saying that were going on were going on? After he committed suicide, it was a period of, “Should we keep doing the story? What is this exactly?” This whole time, I had been talking to Julie Snyder, who is one of the co-creators of Serial but before that was the senior producer of This American Life and was my editor, about John and playing her tape from my recordings with John. At that point we had a conversation that was like, “I have questions about John’s life.” And there seemed to be things happening in the aftermath of the suicide that seemed worth documenting, so then it became more clear: It’s probably not a This American Life episode, it’s probably a series. So that’s what we did.
When S-Town starts, it feels like a murder mystery but it evolves into something much different by the end. Why did you choose to structure it that way?
It’s true to how I experienced it. It replicates the experience I had of getting to know John. Why I was getting to know him was this murder investigation. Through the murder investigation, I got to know the town a little bit. It’s helpful as a device to get to know some people in town and how things operate. I’ve been changed by this experience I had, so let me try to replicate that in the story for people.
How did you decide how much of yourself to put into the podcast?
I tried not to overthink it. I’m not that into writing about myself; that’s never been so interesting to me. I’m more interested in other people and putting things in other people’s voices. But with that said, I was just like, “Well the easiest way to tell this is copying the way that I tell it to my friends at a bar when I’m talking about my latest trip to Alabama. So I’m not going to overthink what kind of character I’m creating about myself, I’m just going to get into that vibe of how I relayed this story to my friends and my wife after a trip.” But I do realize that for listeners, I’m the other character. I had a relationship with John that is a unique one. And that’s a part of what the story’s about, I guess.
Some criticism of S-Town has drawn comparisons to Missing Richard Simmons since both podcasts deeply examine a person who didn't participate in the final product. How do you respond?
There’s a primary difference in the premise of Missing Richard Simmons and S-Town. Missing Richard Simmons is about a person who does not take part in the story and does not consent to it at all, whereas John was contacting me routinely and asking me to come down and do this story and consenting to doing on-the-record interviews and talking to me about far more than this murder on the record. When he didn’t want to talk about something on the record, we went off the record, so he had control over all of that. I feel like they’re just different. Is there a part of it in particular that you're wondering about?
Yes, toward the end you discuss his sexuality. How did you decide to approach that topic?
This isn't a science. It's a human decision. There's so much we left out. We were constantly weighing the import of a piece of information. In terms of his sexuality, John talked to me about his sexuality. And I did an interview with someone who was exhilarated to share his own personal memories of his relationship with John, Olin Long. It was one of the most moving interviews I’ve ever done. And it’s his story too, his relationship with John. He knew John far better than I did. Almost every close friend of John’s talked to me for hours and was really excited that I was doing this story. They felt so grateful that someone was paying attention to this guy’s life. Obviously I’m going to be judicious and thoughtful and respectful in every decision I make about what to include. And John talked to me about most of these matters on the record. Yeah, we were talking about the murder, but there were also times in Alabama where multiple times he said to me, “I bet you’re going to find a more interesting story than the one you came down here for.” He knew. And he was putting on a show, in a way. John would do things that were overly dramatic for the microphone. He knew I wasn’t just going to talk about the murder. But knowing all the people involved, talking to all the people who were most important to John in his life, my time with John and my own sense of my own moral compass, I feel like we made the right decisions.
Have you heard from anyone involved in the show?
It’s starting to drizzle in. It wasn’t as quick because it’s seven hours, so it takes some time. But I’ve been impressed with the people who have listened to all of it all already. I did get an email pretty early on from John’s college professor. It was a really, really sweet email, just incredibly moving saying all the emotions he’d gone through listening — he cried, he laughed, how he was about to listen to it again chapter-by-chapter just to make sense of it. And then I did hear from Olin I think yesterday afternoon, and he mentioned our story in the same breath as Brokeback Mountain, which is his favorite story in the world, so I’m so flattered that he would even put us in that category. I know how much that story means to him. He said he was going to have to listen again.
What’s next for you?
On Monday I go back to my day job as the senior producer at This American Life. On Tuesday, Ira was like, “So you’re back tomorrow?” I feel like there’s a lot to cover in the world that I’ve been a little checked out from, because this is not a timely political story or anything. I’m excited to sink my teeth into a lot of the very new and sometimes confounding things that are happening in the world these days. And as far as S-Town, I just hope people keep listening.
There's a trend toward podcasts moving to film and television. Is that something you'd entertain?
Yeah, I’m interested in trying other mediums for sure. But we haven’t thought about that too deeply yet.