Three years ago, Brian Reed read a curious email. It was from a man called John B. McLemore, a listener to This American Life, the radio show where Reed works.
McLemore wanted Reed to investigate a murder that he said was being covered up by authorities in his hometown: Woodstock, Alabama. Also known as Shit Town.
What followed was a story the likes of which Reed couldn’t have imagined. Years of reporting, flying back and forth to Woodstock and hours-long phone conversations with McLemore eventually became S-Town, the hit podcast that broke download records within days of its launch.
But more than a story about a man and the town he’s come to hate, S-Town is also a completely new form of storytelling. Reed calls it non-fiction audio novel. Others have called it “aural literature.”
“There was a kind of podcast my coworkers and I wanted to hear that didn’t exist,” Reed told the audience during his talk at Seattle’s Benaroya Hall on Sunday.
He said S-Town became the podcast he wanted to hear. It’s crafted more like a great literary work than like an episode of This American Life.
McLemore is the protagonist. Shit Town is the setting. The plot, if there is one, follows Reed as he untangles the threads of McLemore’s life and the place and people that have shaped him.
The creativity and experimentation that made S-Town a mega-hit is a hallmark of the state of podcasts today.
“Podcasting is still so new, there aren’t a lot of rules for how things should be done,” Reed said. While podcasts inherit some conventions from radio, there’s also an infinite amount of room for flexibility and creativity.
Reed said the story of S-Town and McLemore’s life was the biggest inspiration behind the podcast’s form.
“The story gave us the idea of how to make the story,” he said.
That inspiration came partly from McLemore himself. Reed said McLemore used fiction to understand his own life. It’s even something the casual listener will notice: McLemore is forever quoting lines from classics and name-dropping poets in the middle of his conversations with Reed
He even gave Reed short stories and other works as “bedtime reading.” McLemore said the works, including William Faulkner’s A Rose For Emily, would help Reed understand Shit Town.
Reed embraced many of the same creative elements those authors and poets did when he was crafting S-Town.
He decided to abandon “signposting,” the practice of clearly laying out a story and why a reader should listen to it. You can see this practice in radio shows and narrative podcasts like This American Life, Serial, Startup and many others.
Instead, Reed approached the story like a novelist: He starts by talking about antique clock repair. It’s a subject that McLemore is close to, and it’s a delightful metaphor for the story S-Town.
But it’s just that: A metaphor. The story isn’t really about antique clock repair.
“That felt really risky to us,” Reed said. People could have just stopped listening.
“But we’re trying to create a new, compelling form,” he said, and what’s life without a little experimentation.
Clearly, the experiment was well received. S-Town scored over 45 million downloads in its first month, making it one of the most downloaded podcasts of all time.