The podcast as novel

Kate Johnstone reviews S-Town.

The release of Serial in 2014 was a watershed event which brought podcasting to the attention of many, and proved that this young digital medium can deliver old-fashioned storytelling. After a hugely disappointing follow up by the same team at This American Life, it seemed it would remain a one-off success. But their third outing, S-Town, is more than just a return to form. Whereas Serial took true crime and investigative journalism as its template, S-Town is inspired by literature. Like a novel, all seven ‘chapters’ were made available simultaneously. The listener is free to consume it in one sitting: I eked it out over days, not wanting it to end.

S-Town is Shit Town, the name given to his hometown by the podcast’s protagonist, John B McLemore. Shit Town is what he calls Woodstock, Alabama. John has been calling reporter Brian Reed in New York, telling him about a local murder which no-one wants to investigate. There’s something about John’s passion and eloquence that snags Brian’s attention, and eventually he finds himself travelling to Alabama to investigate. That makes S-Town sound like another true crime series, but it most definitely is not. Instead, like a novel, we start to understand the motivations and beliefs of different characters, and what their behaviour says about them. S-Town also uses metaphors, which I’ve never heard before in a podcast. For example, John has built a maze on his property, he restores antique clocks and he hates tattoos. It is startling how these facts from his life become metaphors for finding your way, the passing of time and the appearance of things.

It’s difficult to say much more about S-Town, faced with conflicting editorial advice to ‘make it psychological’ and ‘no spoilers’. There’s a shocking revelation, knowledge of which must be avoided at all costs, as otherwise you will not experience its full emotional impact. Yet without knowing what that is, it’s impossible to say why S-Town is so interesting for psychologists and counsellors.

At a more general level, S-Town is fascinating because it is set squarely in Trumpland – sheer coincidence, bearing in mind it took three years to put together. Reed and the production team never patronise any of the people they speak to, and it is not overtly political; but listening to their lives did help me understand why Trump ’won bigly’ in Southern states.

Suffice to say, S-Town is hands down the best podcast currently out there, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

https://stownpodcast.org/

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