Last week, I did something that was a little different for me. I decided, in the 6am silence while getting ready for work, to unlock my phone and download a podcast, pretty much at random. S-Town was right there, on the Featured page. I think I’d heard of Serial…somewhere, I don’t know – it was in the recesses of my brain…so I thought S-Town might be worth a shot.
Let me say this first: I loved it. Actually, I became obsessed with it. Whenever I got the chance – twice a day during my hour-long train ride, on the tram, in the elevator – there were headphones in my ears, and I was falling deeper and deeper into the story.
It’s doing extremely well on the charts. When you consider that the series, top of the podcast charts in several countries, has been out for less than five weeks (since March 28 this year), you start to get a sense of its cult popularity. S-Town is also the fastest podcast ever to reach 15 million downloads and streams on Apple Podcasts. Funnily enough though, I didn’t hear about S-Town from a friend, nor did I read a compelling article about its producer’s commitment and ingenuity. If you’d like to read some much better reviews than mine, just go to Brian Reed’s Twitter page, or do a quick Google search, and you’ll find interviews and articles about Brian and his team’s creation. But if you’re with me, read on:
S Town is narrated by Brian Reed, a senior producer at This American Life, and journalist living in New York. It takes form in seven chapters, each beautifully linked to the last and leaving the listener not wanting, but needing more.
The origins of the S-Town podcast came about when Reed was contacted by Alabama man John B. McLemore, who asked the reporter to investigate a rumour going around town that the teenage son of a wealthy family has been bragging about killing a guy and getting away with it. Woah. He says everyone in the town knows this rumour and they’re just okay with it being covered up. Some regular correspondence ensues, Reed gets hooked and decides to go down there, and so do you.
But the story turns into so much more than that. What starts as a murder mystery becomes a profile study of a man, completely disillusioned with his small town (he calls it Sh*ttown), and the complexities of his mind. It’s weird and arty and exciting. You hear recordings of local people living in Bibb County, people who knew John, stitched together with Reed’s insightful wonderings and detailed narration. I can’t tell you how stressed-out I feel trying to write about how much I loved the series, because it feels like such an impossible task.
I’m going to be honest here. For a long time while listening (actually, probably the whole time), I thought I was listening to a wonderful piece of fiction. I still have moments when I think about the telling and how well the story comes together and I think, “Man, are you sure this is real life?” But when I found out more about Serial and Brian himself, I realised that the nonfiction S-Town was just an incredibly well put-together project. It’s pretty amazing.
You will end up somewhere so much different than you thought you would at the end of the seventh chapter, and you might even come out of the listening experience feeling like a better writer, or a more curious human. S-Town is an investigation of a man’s life – his secrets, his quirks, and the people who thought they knew him.
I don’t want to spoil anything by giving too much detail.
All I will say is that listening to S-Town, and immediately after, season 1 of Serial, was one of those Good Life Decisions, that will stick with me and has changed the way I think about human stories.