If you’ve listened to “S-Town” — the phenomenally popular novel-style podcast about the eccentric John B. McLemore and the town he loved to hate — then you know why you might want to spend an evening with the show’s founder.
Brian Reed produced the much-lauded and sometimes controversial Southern Gothic story, named for a cleaned-up version of McLemore’s nickname for his hometown of Woodstock, Alabama. Reed will talk about the show’s process and share unaired recordings and other details Saturday in Olympia.
If you haven’t heard the podcast, named among 2017’s best by Time, Esquire and The New Yorker, it’s not too late to binge-listen before the show. (See sidebar.) But beware: Since it was released nearly a year ago, there are spoilers ahead.
McLemore contacted Reed, a producer on the long-running radio show and podcast “This American Life,” for help investigating a murder. That crime, it turned out, never happened, but there was in fact, a story: The story of a Southern eccentric and the small town where he lived and died. McLemore killed himself during the making of the podcast, and much of the narrative happens after his death.
The Olympian talked with Reed about “S-Town,” podcasts and life as a reporter — including a stint working for Seattle’s KPLU (now KNKX), where he worked as part of a year-long National Public Radio fellowship in 2008-2009.
“I think I went down to Olympia for a couple of stories,” he said. “I explored all around the peninsula. I had a great time.”
Q. Is there more to the “S-Town” story? Will there be a follow-up?
A. A lot of people seem to want more, and that’s where I want the audience. I don’t want them feeling like the story got boring or was too long. The fact that people want more is a good place to have people at the end of the story. We put our best material in there, and the story is a coherent thing with a beginning, middle and end.
I would never want to do a follow-up just with updates. The only way I would consider it is if there were a whole other story to tell.
Q. Does everyone have a story? How often do you run across someone as interesting as McLemore?
A. He’s up there. There’s no other person whom I’ve devoted three years of reporting and a seven-part series to.
I do get to meet a lot of interesting people, but having an interesting person does not a story make. That’s an important element, but a story also needs a narrative structure.
I and (fellow producer) Julie Snyder really liked talking to John. We were interested in him. We were interested in Bibb County. But we weren’t really sure what the story was. That happens a lot. A lot of the work here is to determine what the story is.
Q. There’s been some controversy around the podcast, particularly its revelations about McLemore and his sexual orientation and proclivities. And Tyler Goodson, a friend of McLemore, wound up pleading guilty to burglary as a result of what was reported. Looking back, is there anything you would do differently?
A. The main thing I struggled with in making the story, and still wish we had figured out a way to do it better, is talking about race more directly. It’s in there. There are scenes where people are showing their feelings on race, and where John is showing his feelings on race. It’s part of the texture of the place. I wish we could have figured out a way to take it on more directly.
This thing often happens when you’re reporting a story. You’re there interviewing people for one purpose, and as you’re interviewing them, their thoughts on lots of other things come into play. It’s always a calculation. Do you derail the conversation you’re having to address views that you think are wrong, or do you let them slide because they are not germane to what you’re reporting?
I’ll take notes instead of derailing the conversation. I did that with John. I wanted to talk to him about race and about gender. Then he died, so I never got to have that conversation with him.
Q. Though podcasts are a new medium, storytelling might be our oldest art form. What do you see as the appeal?
A. Storytelling is a basic thing that we’re wired to respond to. Podcasting is drawing on the oldest tradition of human communication, but as medium, it’s still very new.
I imagine what it felt like to be at the dawn of television. It’s like that. There are tons of different stories to tell. There are different aesthetics to invent. There are ways to push the form.
Q. Is there anything big coming up for you?
A. Working on the weekly “This American Life” show feels pretty major. There’s a lot going on in the world that we’re trying to figure out how to document and make sense of. That’s really fun.
I did just recently come across a story that I’m going to go and report with a partner that I can’t say much about. It’s so early. We kill so many stories around here that who knows what’s going to happen with it.
If you go
WHAT: An evening with Brian Reed, producer of the podcast phenomenon “S-Town” and of the long-running radio show and podcast “This American Life.”
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 10
WHERE: The Washington Center for the Performing Arts, 512 Washington St. SE, Olympia
INFORMATION: Call 360-753-8586 or go to washingtoncenter.org
Welcome to ‘S-Town’
Saturday’s show is aimed at listeners of the seven-episode podcast, which has been downloaded more than 40 million times. As show creator Brian Reed put it, “If you haven’t heard the podcast, then you’re in for a confusing hour and a half, and I feel sorry for you.”
So if you’re going because you have a date with a fan, or if you just want to catch up on the story of a most unusual man and the town he loved to hate, check it out at stownpodcast.org. Like most podcasts, it’s free, and there’s still time to hear all 6 hours and 45 minutes before the show.