When the “S-Town” podcast premiered on a Tuesday morning in March, millions of people downloaded it thinking they were signing up for a true-crime story — a murder mystery not unlike the 2014 phenomenon “Serial.” After all, that’s how the show was being advertised.
What people ended up listening to, however, was a poignant character study, a tender portrait of a clock repairman living a seemingly unremarkable life in small-town Alabama.
On its face, this premise is far less enticing than a murder mystery, but few listeners minded the misdirect. “S-Town” is riveting. Since its premiere, the show has been downloaded more than 40 million times, and the entertainment website Vulture just named it the #1 best podcast of 2017.
And the clock repairman, John B. McLemore? He’s become something of a folk hero. A foul-mouthed, misanthropic, climate change-obsessed folk hero.
Riding this wave of unmitigated success, the host of “S-Town,” Brian Reed, will be coming to the Merriam Theater on Dec. 17 for “An Evening with Brian Reed: Creating S-Town.”
During the event, Reed will discuss the making of his strange and immersive show, and he’ll explain how “S-Town” qualifies as a “new kind of storytelling.”
If you are not one of the 40 million people who has listened to “S-Town” since its premiere this year, then you should probably stop reading this article and find the show on Apple Music, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts. This story will contain some spoilers.
Over the phone recently, Reed, who is also a senior producer on “Serial” and “This American Life,” described “S-Town’s” unique brand of storytelling in a single word: “Novelistic.”
He explained that, during the three years that he was reporting the show, he and co-producer Julie Snyder began thinking of “S-Town” not as a traditional radio feature, but as something more akin to a novel.
However, to make their podcast feel novelistic, the producers would have to abandon many of the storytelling tricks they learned working on “This American Life,” a public-radio program that basically wrote the rules for audio journalists in the 21st century.
One of those tricks is something Reed referred to as “sign-posting,” which is when a radio producer “very didactically tells [the listener] what the story is about” from the outset.
“So,” he explained, “if we’ve done an investigation, then somewhere near the top [of the story] we’re going to say, ‘We spent X months on this investigation, and we’ve uncovered something quite damning, and we’re going to tell you about it, and this is why you should listen.’ ”
Whereas on “S-Town,” he said, “We were very explicit that we wanted to try and break away from that convention and create kind of a new context.
“When you read a novel, the writer doesn’t need to tell you, ‘You should stick around for this novel because this character is going to go through something challenging, and they’re going to come out the other side a different person, and it’s going to be interesting to watch that transformation.’
“A writer doesn’t need to say that because you know that novels just kind of throw you into the story. Oftentimes many pages go by in a novel before you really get your bearings on what the story is or what the characters are up to.
“That’s what we wanted to try and do with ‘S-Town.’”
The result is a show lush with descriptions of Bibb County, Ala., its land, its history, and the many idiosyncratic characters who live there. It’s a show rich with clever metaphors, little digressions, and a host of storytelling tropes more commonly used in fiction.
The novelistic storytelling approach is “subtle, but it felt kind of radical to us, because we’re so often trying to refine the sign-posting as a reason for why we’re telling you the story,” Reed said. “So, that’s very different to us, to just start with a treatise on clock repair — because it’s not a story about clock repair!
“We’re trusting you to stick with us, that you will give it a chance and keep going even though we’re not telling you the sexy reasons to listen.”
The primary reasons to listen have to do with John B. McLemore, who commits suicide by the end of the second episode. It’s at that point that “S-Town” pivots from investigating a potential murder to exploring the complicated life of McLemore, who becomes an increasingly tragic figure as the show progresses.
Over the course of three years, Reed gained an understanding of McLemore’s close friends and family, his few romantic relationships, and the parts of his life mostly led in secret. All of this coalesces to give Reed and the listener a better sense of McLemore’s complex inner life.
Few other works of journalism, written or otherwise, offer such insight into their subjects’ lives.
For Reed and Snyder, an intimate yet accurate view of “S-Town’s” many characters was of the utmost importance. And taking so many years to report the story helped Reed to achieve that intimacy.
Time “was a luxury that I was afforded here,” Reed said. “It really helps to get to know the people you’re reporting on. It gives you a different level of confidence if you’re writing about people. Which is important.
“It’s something I take seriously, how you’re presenting people and making sure people come across as the full, three-dimensional humans that they are, rather than reduced to quotes, which is what I think so much of our media does these days, unfortunately.”
When he finally wrapped up those three years of careful reporting, and when millions of people began devouring his audio novel, what happened next?
What does a public-radio producer do when they’ve just created one of the very first blockbuster podcasts in history?
Reed laughed. “They take a really long nap,” he said.