The inside story of ‘S-Town’: Brian Reed, creator of the hit podcast, on storytelling in the digital age
Podcasts are having a heyday, and perhaps no series showcases the creative scope and impact of the medium as well as S-Town, from Serial and This American Life. The series was designed like a novel, telling a deeply personal and complex story in the style of public radio, with all seven episodes released at once in the style of Netflix. S-Town broke records with 40 million downloads in its first month.
The host, producer and creator of S-Town, Brian Reed, will appear at Seattle’s Benaroya Hall this Sunday, Oct. 29. We get a preview on this episode of the GeekWire Podcast, talking with Reed about the origins of the podcast, his creative process, and what S-Town’s success says about modern media and storytelling.
Listen below or download the MP3, and keep reading for an edited transcript.
Todd Bishop, GeekWire: For the rare people out there who have not heard of S-Town or listened to it, how do you describe it for the uninitiated?
Brian Reed, S-Town: It’s very difficult, actually. It’s something that we struggled with before S-Town came out and that I continue to struggle with. It’s a story about a man who contacted us several years ago at This American Life, asking us to come investigate what a “shit town” the place he lived was, in Alabama, and the weird turns that happen. … It’s very hard to explain, as you can see. You just have to listen. It’s something we struggled with, trying to explain the story to people who haven’t heard it.
You have to come up with a log line or something, the way they do in the film industry, to explain why someone should listen to something. It was very difficult. It’s the story of a man named John B. McLemore, who hates his town and eventually decides to do something. It’s the quickest way of putting it, I would say.
Bishop: You were originally invited to Woodstock, Alabama, by John B. McLemore, and it was to investigate an alleged murder that actually never happened, as you discovered through your reporting. Why did you stick with the story after that?
Reed: John was always an important part of the story and why I was interested in the story. The murder itself, alone, was never the main thing that was interesting to me. It was as part of this cosmology of how John saw his hometown. And it was among many things that John had complained to me about and told me about, examples of wrongdoing that he said were going on in Bibb County. I chose it as a way to focus the reporting, choosing one allegation, an incident.
It took more than a year to figure out what exactly had happened or not happened with the murder. At that point, I’d learned so much else about John and his life in Alabama and his relationship with Tyler Goodson, who’s a big part of S-Town. I’d just been drawn into his life and his world. And so the alleged murder was part of it, but even when I found out that it wasn’t actually a murder, I was still just so interested in John and the world that he was living in that I wasn’t ready to give it up.
Clare McGrane, GeekWire: Listening to the show, he really is such a unique character, and I’m curious if anything about him doesn’t come across as well in the audio version — about being in his presence and looking him in the eye. Any reflections on that?
Reed: I say this in the show, but I’m not sure it always comes across. I’ve heard some listeners say this. John could be very exhausting to be with, and I think maybe that comes through to some people, but he could be very dark and very exhausting to be with, and overwhelming. I think that can be a hard thing to get across in a podcast because I’m trying to spare listeners that experience, somewhat, while also acknowledging that it was a part of being with John.
A friend of his — after he died — described spending time with John as similar to the way a moth is attracted to a flame. You’re attracted by the light but repelled by the heat. I feel that was my experience with John. There was so much that would draw me to him — just his brilliance and his humor and his unabashedness in being himself, and his incisive take on the world and his openness, but then there was this darkness to him that was the heat. You’d have to shake him off after a long conversation with him.
Bishop: One of the most interesting things about S-Town and Serial before it is the way they changed the format and changed the way so many people listen to content. What have Serial and S-Town taught you about the way people consume audio content now and want to consume it, and how has that changed how you produce content that meets the needs of listeners in 2017 here?
Reed: I wasn’t directly involved in the making of Serial, though obviously I work with those guys and was around. Julie Snyder made S-Town with me and was the co-creator of Serial. [When we talked about S-Town, we said] “It’s going to be something different. We’re going to release all the episodes at once. We’re going to call them chapters. It’s going to be modeled after a novel.”
Those were all things we explicitly talked about that we felt were new things that we were trying in podcasting, but we didn’t talk about them in terms of “and the audience is going to like this. We think this is what an audience wants to hear.” It was what she and I wanted to hear. When we listened to podcasts, we wished there was a podcast like S-Town out there to listen to, personally, just for our own edification and enjoyment. I think that’s what we were following, our taste and our desire to hear something like S-Town, and we created the thing that we wanted to hear.
If anything, it’s just taught me to follow our gut. When we have something in our minds that we’re picturing, that would be nice to hear, that we feel like we aren’t hearing in the world yet, to follow that. That’s what I’ve learned from it. It was reassuring or reinforcing that so many people also wanted to hear the thing that we were imagining we wanted to hear. That didn’t necessarily need to be the case, but it seems to have been, and so that’s what I’ve learned about it.
Bishop: Was there any debate, internally, about releasing the episodes all at once for people to binge vs. trickling them out over multiple weeks?
Reed: There was a bit of debate. We knew that we wanted to release at least the first few together, because we raised questions about a murder that didn’t actually happen. So we didn’t want weeks to go by where questions that we knew the answers to were unresolved for a week at a time, or whatever. Just as reporters and journalists, we didn’t want that to happen. But then we wondered if maybe halfway through we would start going week-to-week. We didn’t know what that would do to listenership. In the end, I was always really arguing for it come out all at once. That’s always how I pictured it, for a few reasons.
First of all, the reporting reasons, but also Sarah Koenig, who does Serial, actually writes those episodes every week. I just couldn’t do that. That’s superhuman to me. I don’t know how she does that, so I didn’t want that stress on myself. I didn’t think I could actually do it, physically. Then I liked the idea that it hadn’t been done before, or at least in a podcast that I had listened to. That although chapters had been released at once, I liked the idea that it would give us the power to — as we were editing and putting the whole series together — to move things between chapters and to make certain chapters speak to others in ways that you can do when it’s week by week, but that maybe we’d have a little more power to do that.
I liked the idea that you didn’t need to necessarily have cliffhangers at the end of every week, or we would feel less burdened to do a cliffhanger-type ending and that we could have more ruminative or thoughtful or quiet endings. There was a lot of stuff that felt attractive to me about it — and also, in retrospect, I’m so glad we did it. It was so nice to just have it done and not have to be putting it out week-by-week for seven weeks. I think that would have been really stressful for me.
McGrane: Let’s talk about the technology you use a little bit, which will be interesting to a lot of our listeners, I think. Can you tell us about what equipment you carry with you, like when you were down in S-Town in Alabama, and what kind of software you’re using? How is that different when you’re working on something out of a radio studio, like for example your work on This American Life in Chicago?
Reed: I should give a warning that I’m not really a geek head. I’m not really a tech head, I guess. I don’t know what the word is for that. I just use what’s given to me at the office. I use the same stuff for S-Town that we use for This American Life, because S-Town started as a This American Life story, years ago. One of the great things about radio and podcasting is that, when you imagine the different types of documentary there are, it’s so lean. It’s literally just me down there. I don’t have a crew or anything.
I just have a little kit that hangs around my neck. It’s a Marantz 660, I believe, is what I was using. I think they maybe they don’t make it anymore, and we’re starting to move to an even smaller kit. Then I plug a shotgun mic into that, and that’s it. And headphones. I think we use an Audio-Technica shotgun mic. I don’t remember the numbers. I bring a backup kit just in case. That’s really all I use. Then for phone calls, like I’m doing phone calls from the studio, and we run in Pro Tools. And that’s what we do all our editing in, is Pro Tools as well.
McGrane: It sounds like the focus isn’t as much on making sure you have all the fancy equipment and getting everything perfect, but it’s more about the story and really blending into John’s life and in following him around. Is that correct?
Reed: Yeah, I don’t think a ton about equipment, but those decisions have been a little bit made for me. We have people here who have done the research and chosen equipment that they feel works for us. I wouldn’t say that, around here, my colleagues and I are looking at the latest in tech or anything like that. I’d say if anything, we’re a little bit of Luddites and a little bit behind the time, in terms of the newest tech. But obviously, you want good sound. That’s important.
Often I find that the ways to get good sound don’t relate so much to the tech but just making sure like, “I need to sit close to you, interviewee, and really get my mic in your mouth” in order to have good sound. Or, “Can we unplug this refrigerator in your kitchen?” Or, “You have me on speakerphone. Please take me off speakerphone and hold the headset closer to your mouth.” I find it’s a lot more crude and physical, getting good sound, than necessarily having the best tech. Because you could have the best tech in the world, and you still need to mic someone closely. You still need to get ambient noise out of the kitchen and take the clock off the wall, or whatever.
Bishop: In listening to S-Town, it strikes me that in some ways it was a microcosm of the world that we live in. Different versions of the truth, depending on whom you talked to and listened to. Did you take any bigger insights away from the experience about the future of journalism and reporting and the truth?
Reed: Yeah. I took a lot of insights, and maybe a lot of small- to medium-sized insights that in aggregate feel big to me. I’m trying to think of just one. This was three years of my life, and I just felt like — at every point, I felt like I was learning something, which is why I felt it was an important story to tell. I don’t know. One thing: we really don’t give each other the benefit of the doubt in today’s political climate and debate, and I just think there’s so much to gain from doing that and so much to lose by shutting people down at the get-go and making assumptions about people. That’s something I’ve always believed, but that, I think once I started applying it in S-Town, bore out. I think that hopefully is resonating with people. I don’t know. You’re asking in terms of truth?
Bishop: You talked to John B.’s informal family, and then you talked to his extended family, who he was somewhat estranged from. Obviously you were working on a huge project here, and so you went the extra mile to give all sides of the story. It struck me that each of those people that you spoke with was, in their minds, speaking the truth to you, although it was at times contradictory. That’s where I was looking at it as a microcosm of the rest of the world.
Reed: Yeah, I think that’s absolutely true. Again, I just think the media environment right now so often relies on shorthand for people, using sound bites from people and pegging people based on one aspect of themselves, their political view or their feeling about an issue, their feeling about gun rights or abortion or who they voted for or what they look like. I think the media is often very reductive. I think that both makes for a really boring storytelling and a complete inaccurate view of reality in the country we live in. That’s not something that I think I decided to fight against alone with S-Town.
That’s really our ethos here at This American Life, is we just assume that every person and place is as complicated as the next one. That’s just taken as a given. Our work is trying to understand every place and person in their complexity and give them a full, three-dimensional airing in a story. We feel that’s important to do, in general, as journalists because journalists should reflect reality, journalism should reflect reality as it is, as best you can. That’s what we should be striving for, but also, in a media environment where I feel that people are often reduced to a viewpoint or two, I just think it’s more important than ever to have stories that go the opposite direction.
McGrane: Yeah, absolutely, and I would say as a journalist, we feel that as well. We do want to talk briefly about your appearance in Seattle. You’re going to be at Benaroya Hall on October 29th. What can we expect from your appearance, and what do you like about coming out on the road and talking about your process?
Reed: I’ve only just started doing this, so this is going to be one of my first ones. I don’t know. I’ve heard a couple movie directors say things like, “I’d never know what my movie’s about until it’s out, and I hear what the audience has to say.” That’s how I feel about these talks and going out on the road that I’ve been doing. Just hearing the response of audiences and just the little ways that I hope the story has resonated in people’s lives have been so delightful, and often in ways that I couldn’t have predicted or tried to make happen or expected. That’s what I’ve enjoyed a lot is just going out and seeing what people think of it and the ways that it touched them or didn’t.
I’m going to be on stage at Benaroya Hall, and I’m going to walk through the behind-the-scenes experience of making S-Town, both a little bit about my relationship with John, I’ll be playing some outtakes, and then also how we set about to try and make a podcast that felt like a novel, how we tried to make this podcast that Julie and I wanted to hear but felt didn’t quite exist it. I’m going to walk through with detailed examples of moves we were trying and storytelling techniques we were using to make that happen and talk a bit about the effects that the podcast has had on the world and the people in the podcast as well, and I’ll take questions from the audience, too. I won’t do all the talking.
Bishop: That’s great. Last question here. I’m really interested in how this has impacted you personally. You were on Jimmy Fallon, man. How has S-Town changed your life personally?
Reed: It’s allowed me to check off a bunch of things off of my bucket list that I never would have deigned to put on the bucket list in the first place is what I would say. Like Jimmy Fallon, that’s not something I would even think to put on a list of things I would want to do in my life, and yet I got to check it off. I don’t know. You don’t get into public radio expecting that, and I still don’t expect it in my life. I feel like it was a blip on the radar, an anomaly in the long stretch of my life, and I’m grateful for it, but I feel just as interested in ever in just doing good work.
I’m back in my day job. I’m the senior producer of This American Life, so we have a weekly show we’re putting out. That is a very busy job where I’m grateful I get to work with the best people in radio, coming up with their stories and helping them hone their stories and editing and thinking about how we want to cover the world and what we’re interested in and what delights us and amuses us and informs us. I don’t know. I feel like the best way to come off of S-Town is just to keep working on things that interest me. Anyway, I’m grateful for the Jimmy Fallon stuff, and that’s been amazing, but it’s not like a sustaining thing necessarily. It’s finding more interesting work is the thing that I think is sustaining.
Bishop: I’ve got to ask actually. Do you have a bunch of antique clocks in your house now?
Reed: I don’t have a bunch, but I was given, shortly after S-Town came out, some of my friends from my hometown in Connecticut gave me an old clock that doesn’t work from New Haven, Connecticut. That’s in my house. Then one of them also gave me a really nice sundial, which I’ve been meaning to find a nice space in my office. I recently reorganized my office, and even though I have no sun in my office, which is sad, it’s a completely dark cave, I think I’m going to put the sundial on the floor somewhere just because it’s a nice thing to look at. That’s what I’ve been given.
I don’t think I have any other antique clocks, though I’m curious. I do notice antique clocks everywhere I go. I met someone the other day at a bar, and there was a beautiful clock there. I was admiring it. I don’t know. I notice timepieces a lot more, just day-to-day.
Bishop: For people who are wondering why I’m asking that, you got to listen to the series because I don’t want to give any spoilers away.
McGrane: I think it’s a little too late for that, Todd.
Bishop: Now you just got to find a big field for a maze.
Reed: Yeah, exactly. Have you guys covered horology at all in your tech coverage?
Bishop: No. Not at all although it would be fascinating as a beat.
Reed: It really is. It’s one of the most interesting, I don’t know, histories of technology I’ve ever gotten into. If you really think about the work that had to go into figuring out how to make sense of time, where at this point, we have clocks that are more accurate at keeping time than the Earth is. The Earth has more variance in its rotations than our clocks do. Time is meant to be the Earth’s rotations around the sun, and yet our technology has gotten so precise that we have to add leap seconds to it in order to actually reflect what the Earth is doing. I’m sorry. See, this is where I get nerdy. Anyway, the technology’s fascinating.
McGrane: Just one other quick aside. Did you ever have problems with all of John’s clocks, he has a lot of clocks in his home I understand, making a lot of background noise when you were trying to tape? How did you deal with that?
Reed: He actually didn’t have that many clocks himself. He was not a huge clock collector. He just had clocks coming through that he was fixing more often, so he had a few, but no, if you’re picturing a house filled with clocks, that wasn’t John’s house. He had a couple, maybe. I can’t even remember. I know he had at least one grandfather clock in his house and maybe some others, and then he had different parts in his shop, but those were not running. At that point, he’d also stopped his business. He really slowed down his business, so there weren’t even that many clocks in his shop when I met him.
It actually wasn’t that big of a problem. There was one clock shop I did an interview in where it was a problem. I was like, “This is a lot of clocks to deal with right here. I’m going have to just embrace this in the tape.” Even a couple of the clock collectors I visited, most of those clocks, they weren’t winding every day because antique clocks, they take winding weekly or pretty regularly to keep running. I think a lot of the collectors don’t actually wind them because it gives wear to the clocks. If you have 100 clocks, I think that’s a whole job to wind the clocks every week.
Bishop: Well, Brian Reed, thank you very much for joining us.
Reed: Thank you, guys, I appreciate it. Thanks for having me.
Brian Reed, creator of S-Town, will appear at Seattle’s Benaroya Hall at 7:30 p.m. this Sunday, Oct. 29. Tickets are available at seattlesymphony.org.
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