It’s been several years since one John B. McElmore first approached public radio’s This American Life, asking that someone from the show visit his Alabama hometown to investigate what he believed to be the cover-up of a murder.
Producer Brian Reed took up the invitation and began reporting in 2013, drawn, perhaps, as much by McElmore’s profanely colorful way of expressing himself as by the allegations. Things would get a little complicated. And then a lot more complicated. Clocks would be involved, and tattoos. And eventually, the Southern Gothic story Reed couldn’t have seen coming would become S-Town, the seven-episode podcast from the makers of Serial and This American Life that broke records last spring when it was downloaded more than 16 million times in the first week of its release. After the first month, that number had grown to more than 40 million worldwide.
The story doesn’t end there. The afterlife of S-Town includes a tour that will bring its cocreator to Philadelphia’s Merriam Theater on Dec. 17 for “An Evening with Brian Reed: Creating S-Town, a New Way to Tell a Story.”
On Monday, I spoke with Reed about the making of S-Town, his search for a new way of storytelling, and about one of the unexpected places McElmore’s story took him this year. Here, edited and condensed, is our conversation:
One thing I noticed after the first season of Serial was what seemed like a flood of true-crime podcasts, as if people — including people working in TV — thought that was the secret in the sauce. Was there a time that you thought S-Town would be more like Serial?
I didn’t think of it that way, because I started reporting S-Town before Serial existed. I was interested in the corruption and crime that John was telling me about. It’s specific. It seemed like the kind of thing that if it were true, someone should look into it.
What’s “an evening with Brian Reed” meant to be like for the audience?
Just delightful. [Laughs.] Best evening possible.
People have a feeling at the end [of S-Town] that they aren’t totally ready to say goodbye to it. So I’m going to be talking about, basically, how we made the podcast, how we figured out the story. I’ll be playing outtakes from the show and from John and other people in the show, and I’m going to talk about how Julie [Snyder, cocreator of S-Town and Serial] and I thought about creating a podcast that sounds different from other podcasts. We kind of had a sense that there was a type of podcast that we wanted to hear that didn’t exist yet. The kind of podcast that felt like reading a novel, but was true.
S-Town is still in the iTunes Top 20 for audio podcasts. Does that kind of shelf life make you think differently about what you do?
Absolutely. I’ve been at This American Life for going on eight years. So it’s always been a radio show and a podcast since I’ve been here. But I’ve seen the podcast [grow] to be the same listenership, if not more, than our radio show. We create a podcast version of the show that isn’t just the radio show.
With S-Town, we really thought of it as like a package that we’re presenting, like a book, a physical object that you can keep, that you go back to, that you might take off your shelf and look at again, and that looks pretty and feels good, envelops you. We were trying to create that experience both in the way we presented S-Town, how we told the story, [and through] the art that we commissioned for it, which I think is beautiful.
I love that, too — would you call it cover art?
I haven’t called it that, but, yeah, I guess so. Valero Doval was the artist who made all that. He’s a Spanish artist and illustrator, and he kind of takes actual images from photographs of, in this case, flowers and timepieces and things, and treats them and puts them in a collage.
One of the things I found interesting about the first season of Serial is that it gave listeners insight into the reporting process. S-Town, on the other hand, surprised me by pursuing the kind of story almost no organization gets to do any more — one that isn’t remotely like what it seemed to be at first, that takes a long time and involves travel. Was there ever a point where you considered, or someone you worked with suggested, just dropping it?
Not really, no. There were long points where we did not know what it would be, and I kind of put it aside. And it wasn’t like this was my full-time job during these years. I did a bunch of other stories during that time. But there was no pressure. That’s just kind of the vibe here. Not to pursue things that seem like they’re not going to work out — we have a show to run — but there was something about this, where the amount of work it was in proportion to the kind of feeling I, and Julie, had about it [where it] seemed like I shouldn’t go away from it, like I should stick around.
And you had all that richness of John B. McLemore’s voice and way with words.
I loved him as a person, as a subject of a story, and as a guide to Bibb County, and I liked learning to see the world through his eyes, even if it was sometimes unpleasant. That said, that does not a story make, necessarily. A story needs a structure, a sort of skeleton and a narrative, and that was what we were constantly trying to figure out and didn’t have for a long time. I feel really grateful to work at a place that understands that you need to try a bunch of things that are going to fail in order to get the stories that are spectacular. That’s really the only way we know to get the quality that we enjoy here, is to run at a bunch of stuff and fail at a lot of stuff. So it’s actually in our budget to kill a half to a third of the stories that we start on at This American Life.
I wrote a little bit about S-Town this year, mentioning that at some point I became uncomfortable with how deeply you were delving into the lives of people who, unlike John, hadn’t invited you. What justified that to you with regard to, say, his friend Tyler Goodson?
I knew Tyler and it was an ongoing process. He was aware of who I was and at points did ask me to turn the recorder off, and I followed that. You hear me in the show even give him advice about certain things that he may or may not want to tell me. We had a relationship where we knew each other and knew the parameters of what was happening. And I also feel like it’s not totally my job to [protect him]. Tyler’s a person who can make decisions for himself about what he tells me, and it’s not my job to be overly paternalistic in deciding what he can or can’t say.
It’s also not a surprise. I mean, we go through a very detailed fact-checking process, where I talk him through what’s in the story. We’re in touch with his lawyer, we’re running things by him. It’s not like, “Surprise! Here it is.”
There still might be an occasional opportunity for someone in public radio to find themselves talking to a late-night host, but I guess I was surprised to see you on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon.
Me, too. You don’t go into public radio assuming that.
Does that make your list of least-expected consequences of this story?
The whole year’s been surprising. I didn’t think that people would listen to S-Town in the numbers that they did. I really thought that it was a little bit of a weird story that I liked and that would find a certain kind of appreciation, but that that appreciation would be modest. And so people knowing about it and there being reason to go on late-night TV — I mean, it’s checking something off my bucket list I didn’t even know to put on there. But, honestly, the most surprising and cool things are the reactions from people, involved in the story or not.
I had someone actually, at the last talk I gave, come up to me afterward. She had driven from Montana to Vegas to see this talk. And she said that her husband was from [the South]. She was not. And she said the podcast helped her understand her husband more.
An Evening with Brian Reed: Creating S-Town, a New Way to Tell a Story. 7 p.m. Dec. 17, Merriam Theater. Tickets: $29-$125. Information: kimmelcenter.org/events-and-tickets
How to listen to S-Town
Podcasts are essentially radio or video programs made to be accessed on demand. They can be streamed online or downloaded and listened to anywhere. S-Town is free.
Stream it: Use the browser on your computer or other Internet-connected device to go to stownpodcast.org.