Prior to S-town, the only podcasts I had listened to were “Stuff you should know” and NPR politics podcast. S-Town showed me a completely different side of podcasts that I had not yet experienced, and in turn completely changed my perceptions of podcasts in general and ideas about what successful podcasts are able accomplish. Brian Reed’s S-Town podcast was the first narrative based podcast I had listened to, and it made me realize that podcasts can be a very effective way of telling a story. If John B. McLemore’s life had been made into a movie, I do not think it would have been nearly as successful as the S-Town podcast. The incorporation of phone calls between Brian Reed and John B. McLemore, the accents of Woodstock, Alabama, and dialogue between Brian Reed, our host, and the people of Woodstock collectively make it difficult for me to find off the time to turn off S-Town.
The first episode of S-Town was crucial in making me want to continue to binge the podcast, and even encouraged me to make my boyfriend listen to the first three episodes so we could binge the remaining episodes in the car during the drive to Charleston that weekend. When listening to the few episodes of S-Town, I realized one major difference between S-Town and the other podcasts I had listen to prior to this one: the development of characters. Listeners really got to know the depths, secrets, and private lives of many of the major characters in the podcast. Although this aspect of the podcast kept me more interested and engaged, I definitely feel like this development that kept expanding as the podcast progressed made it seem less goal-oriented in solving many of the podcasts unanswered questions.
While the ending of S-Town may have seemed ambiguous and left us listeners with more questions than we originally started with, I think Brian Reed’s purpose all along was to tell listeners about the much different life of an incredible man in Woodstock, Alabama who lived a life that seems only imaginable in America 50-60 years ago. For an outsider like Brian Reed, the way people lived in Woodstock so simply was fascinating. As narrating from an outsider perspective, Brian Reed was able to incorporate a “case-study” of Woodstock, its murders, and suicides and make it appeal so much to listeners because he is narrating from their perspective. I genuinely think that Brian Reed’s role as an outsider and narrating was crucial in the success of this podcast. This effect as well as the small-town murder crime genre remind me a lot of Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood”, a book I really enjoyed reading senior year of high school.
While listening to S-Town was an incredible experience that encouraged me to listen to Brian Reed’s Serial and even gave me some inspiration for my final project, I definitely think that S-Town deserves criticism for the lack of ethics incorporated into the show. When listening to the first episode of S-Town, I was surprised at the amount of information given to listeners about John B. Mclemore’s life, such as giving almost the exact coordinates of his maze which in turn allowed reddit users to find his house on Google Maps after only a short period of time (https://www.reddit.com/r/stownpodcast/comments/7mzus1/decided_to_look_up_john_bs_house_on_google_maps/). S-Town exploited the life of John B., Tyler, Rita, and many other of the characters, and definitely went a bit far in providing details about their lives, criminal activity, and the town of Woodstock. During the first episode, I even paused the series to google S-Town podcast and hopefully find a little more information about if the podcast was based on a true story or not only to find articles about the current and pasts lawsuits facing S-Town today. Despite S-Town being a “brilliant, complex, and incredibly invasive deep dive into one man’s life, it probably shouldn’t have been made.” As the title of a Vox article beautifully puts it.
Despite the ethical issues and questions raised by S-Town, I have already recommended the podcasts to friends and family. The unclear and ever-changing questions raised in the podcast keep listeners engaged, on their toes, and make them eager to listen more which makes S-Town a must-listen for all podcast lovers.