(Warning: Spoilers ahead.)
Before a single episode was released, “S-Town” earned the Apple podcast chart’s top spot, doing so on the back of just a short teaser — and its association with the mega hit true-crime podcast “Serial.”
On the morning of March 28, “S-Town” finally debuted. The team released (as planned) all seven episodes at once. The first episode begins with a brief explanation of the practice of restoring antique clocks — which, we learn, is connected to the person who ultimately becomes the center of this story.
“It seemed weird,” host Brian Reed told The Huffington Post of the choice to begin the show with the meditation on clock-making. “I haven’t heard stories start with a description of horology. If we can get away with it, let’s try it.”
The creators behind “S-Town” are essentially a supergroup of radio and podcasting all-stars, with figures like Ira Glass, Sarah Koenig, Julie Snyder, Reed and Starlee Kine attached to the project. Each member of the team has some background with “This American Life.” A few have made their own bonafide hits ― such as “Serial” (Koenig and Snyder) and the tragically short-lived “Mystery Show” (Kine).
The show description seemed to suggest that the team was looking into yet another crime, perhaps in the same vein as the investigative journalism of “Serial.” A man had reached out to Reed to look into the son of a well-to-do family, who had allegedly bragged about a murder he’d gotten away with in his Alabama town.
However, the story that eventually emerged wasn’t about the murder.
Reed and Snyder had started working on the show before production on “Serial” even began. The subject of the show, John, initially contacted Reed in 2014. Given John’s sweet but peculiar personality, Reed decided to meet John in Alabama and see where the story could go. The show leads with Reed’s investigation into the murder, until someone else ends up dead — and the reporting takes an unexpected turn.
Although the show’s name is officially “S-Town,” Reed refers to the show as “Shittown” throughout the season: The name John would use to describe his hometown. Below are quotes from HuffPost’s separate conversations with both Reed and Snyder, which took place about a week before the premiere.
The impostor name
Despite officially being named “S-Town” (a presumed play on the show’s affiliation with “Serial”), Reed refers to the show as “Shittown” throughout the episodes. Reed and Snyder discuss the struggle that came with choosing that name.
Brian Reed: I mean, quite honestly, it just became impossible for me to imagine it called anything else. We would always call it “Shittown” to each other, as we were working on it, before it got to a point where we actually needed a name. And then we were like, “OK, wait, so this is going to be called ‘Shittown,’ actually?!” [Laughs]
Julie Snyder: We would tell people that it has to be “Shittown” and they’d be like, “Hmmm.” And then you’d tell them your other ideas and they’d be like, [Laughs] “OK, ‘Shittown’ sounds good.’”
BR: We had sessions where we tried to come up with another name just because, we felt, let’s try it and see if we can picture it with another name. And we had like, “The Vulgar Horologist,” or something like that, which just sounded like a bad book at the airport.
At one point I got on this kick, a phrase from “A Rose for Emily,” [a short story by William Faulkner] which John gave me to read, there’s a phrase in there to describe Emily’s house ― “an eyesore among eyesores.” And I remember coming in in the morning to work one day like, “I have it! ‘An Eyesore Among Eyesores,’ that’s what it’s going to be.”
I was super into it for like an hour on the train in and then I shared it with my coworkers and they were like, “Oh, my god, no. That’s horrible. Who would want to listen to something called, ‘An Eyesore Among Eyesores’?!”
The trouble with “Shittown”
Snyder and Reed were aware of the potential issues with the show’s name.
BR: We don’t want to call it this just because it’s provocative. The reason that there’s nothing else to call this [is because] this is like a frame of mind [John] was in. It’s not just a word he used and it was funny. The dude ... this kind of took over his way of seeing the world.
It’s a worldview, basically. And we hope that the title points you to that. That it’s a way that John saw the world and I think a lot of people see the world that way. I think it’s something worth interrogating.
JS: First, we felt really defiant and fuck-the-man and we’re-going-to-call-it-“Shittown,” [ignoring] your bourgeoisie concerns. We were really, “This is what we’re doing.”
The thing that convinced me [to use “S-Town”], was when somebody pointed out, “You know, if you call it ‘Shittown,’ it’s going to be one of those things that every time it’s in print, it’s going to be referred to as the show that you can’t print its name.” And I was like ― oh, that seems so lame and cloying to me and also really true. I’ve seen that before.
That helped convince us over to S-Town. And then, plus, I told Brian, like I have to get all these contracts for music licensing and things like that and I don’t know, it’s weird to see the word “Shittown” when you’re talking to someone who’s a lawyer.
Initially when we formed the LLC, it was Shittown LLC, but that was back when we were being more defiant. We refiled recently for doing business as S-Town, mainly [to avoid] feeling weird on these contracts.
The shadow of “Serial”
Reed was working on this story before the team started on “Serial,” but its connection to “S-Town” naturally helped the latter’s rise to the top of the Apple podcast chart. The duo explained how “Serial” did and didn’t affect the process of creating this project.
JS: Obviously, if “Serial” had tanked ... well you know, Ira’s actually very supportive, so he probably would have supported us.
BR: We did feel like we could veer off the path. I don’t know if it was because of “Serial.” We’re all formerly or currently producers on “This American Life.” And even though that’s a specific format, within the format, there’s a spirit of experimentation that we try to foster among each other.
JS: There’s an incredible amount of talent. I mean, oh my God, these are some of the best radio reporters, period. I love working with them and they’re so good at what they do. And they’re really ambitious and weird. They like trying to find different ways to tell stories.
BR: We’re always out to amuse ourselves and try to do things to keep ourselves interested. So I think it came more out of that spirit, we like to try new things and this story seemed to lend itself to maybe trying something a little different. A slower burn. [But] we were definitely cognizant that it was different.
JS: We’re really really not mercantile people. We’re just not good at thinking about, “What does the market want?” and “We will give it to them so that we can make money.” We just have different ways of telling stories and things that are interesting to us and certainly, yeah, I think the success of “Serial” allows that.
I think we could still be doing it, but the fact that people actually hear it and pay attention to it. But then it’s like, I don’t know. The success of “Serial” is our ability to tell stories so thats why [”S-Town” is possible]. It’s like yeah, it’s a really good story.
“Shittown” is like a novel, while “Serial” was prestige TV
Snyder told HuffPost she “was definitely copying TV” in the creation of “Serial.” She initially promoted that show by comparing it to television shows like “Breaking Bad.”
“That’s how I thought about it,” said Snyder. “Sarah [Koenig] says it never even slightly occurred to her. But that’s OK, it didn’t need to occur to her. It occurred to me, that’s how I thought of it.” Comparatively, with this project, Snyder and Reed wanted “S-Town” to feel more like a novel.
BR: I guess I wanted to signal to the listeners that this is the kind of story this is. It’s going to feel a little literary and a little more like a novel than a TV show, maybe. Some podcasts feel a little more structured after serialized TV; this is more like a book you might sit down to read over the course of a week or two.
JS: It was really explicit. We talked about it as a novel and we referenced novels. We both looked at the same novels.
BR: My hope for it is that people listen to this kind of in the way that they would read a novel. Maybe you do it all at once. You sit down and tear through it and that’d be awesome. I’m not saying you shouldn’t do that.
Or, over the course of a week where you listen before you go to bed or while you’re commuting or whatever like that ― it kind of embeds itself in your brain a little bit. You’re just doing your normal day stuff and you’ve got this little window in to your little world, like, in your brain like you would with a good novel.
JS: We don’t even consider the episodes as episodes. They’re chapters. It just feels like a book.
BR: And that’s kind of like why I did the story. I like the story and I like that I have this place and these people in my head and that’s the experience I’m trying to give people who listen to it, basically. There’s no news imperative to tell this story. It’s just, I like it.
The “S-Town” team is essentially a supergroup of radio all-stars.
Glass founded “This American Life.” Reed has been a longtime producer of that show. All the key members have background with “This American Life,” but Koenig and Snyder went on to start “Serial.” Kine went on to create “Mystery Show,” a similarly beloved and popular podcast.
BR: It is. Yeah, I mean that’s the secret sauce to anything we make. Our editing process and being able to edit with those guys is just, it’s the bomb. [Laughs]
JS: I started at “This American Life” about 20 years ago now ― definitely means that I’m old. But, also it means that I have worked with a lot of people on radio.
BR: Julie and I, we’d spent about five weeks, I think, just talking through the story and storyboarding it. So right outside my door, there’s this giant wall filled with notecards for all the seven chapters, that, like, wraps around a corner.
JS: Starlee, she’s very clever, she’s very funny, she’s a really good writer. But her actual secret true power skill is she’s really good on structure.
It’s funny, I had had drinks with Alex Blumberg, I remember, at like the end of last summer. [For context, Blumberg also worked at “This American Life” before founding Gimlet, a podcasting company, where Kine worked as she hosted and produced “Mystery Show.” Despite the show’s popularity, Gimlet officially canceled the show last fall with few details.]
So yeah, we were having drinks and I was kind of telling him where we were on “S-Town” and being like ― we’re trying to structure and we were on our, like, third week of this now. And he said, “You know who you need to call?” “And I was like, “I already did and she’s coming in next week.”
BR: We brought [Starlee] in [last] summer, before I’d written a word.
JS: Starlee came in with her dog. So me and Brian and Starlee sat around for a couple of days and she really helped us out a lot on the overall arc of the show. She’s just game. She really gives it her all. She’s not paying attention to anything else while she’s with you. she’s really focused exactly on the story. So she helped us, at that point, with the overall story structure.
And then with Ira and Sarah, we bring those guys in when we’re on a second draft of a chapter. So Brian and I do the first draft of the chapter together and then we do what we would call like a more formal edit. That’s Ira and Sarah and then also Neil Drumming, who is a producer at “This American Life.” He’s really great on story and he’s kind of got a weird ― he’s a filmmaker too ― so he’s kind of got a weird sensibility.
BR: We’ll [all] actually read the stories aloud to each other, to hear it aloud.
Handling the death
Warning: Spoilers below.
Early on in “S-Town,” Reed reveals that John died by suicide while he was reporting the story. Reed spoke about his emotional state when learning this had happened.
BR: I mean, I just felt sad. I felt grief. I don’t know. Honestly, my feeling was it makes me sad that John’s no longer in the world. He made the world a more exciting and unknowable place. That’s kind of how I felt.
And it was sad to not be able to call him and it was sad to not be getting emails from him, like, whistleblowing on the latest bit of gossip he heard at the gas station on the corner or whatever. I’d been planning to go back down there. I’d told him I was going to be down there in like two weeks. I was finishing up a really big story. I was on a deadline.
[The feelings are] just the normal thing that happens, I think, when someone who is in your life suddenly isn’t, you know? And then there was the [aspect that] he talked to me about this. He talked to me that he was going to commit suicide and it was a little bit like the boy who cried wolf. That was hard.
He had [been telling friends he was going to kill himself] for so long. It’s just hard. He told everyone, and nobody did anything. And I was one of those people.
The challenge of understanding Adnan versus John
A memorable moment from “Serial” is when Adnan Syed tells Koenig that he doesn’t feel as if she really knows him. Arguably the crux of “S-Town” is about trying to understand John, creating a parallel to the previous series, whether intentional or not.
JS: I didn’t think about it vis-à-vis Adnan or anything. I mean, that kind of relationship is so different. I think part of the main thing that was so weird in all of their talks and all of their interviews was both of them were constantly aware that ... well, he was constantly aware that maybe she thought maybe he was lying. And she was constantly aware that he might be and that his life really depended on trying to convince her otherwise.
And I think when Adnan said, “You don’t know me,” thats a lot of what that is. Where Brian’s relationship with John and everything ― we’re just talking about very different circumstances.
BR: I talked to a lot of people who knew him. He’s a complicated person and everyone you’re dealing with is a complicated person. And he was a brilliant, funny, dark, troubled person. And all those things I hope are in there. And you’ll never get it perfect, but that’s in my head, all these parts of him are important.
JS: How you can know about what someone is thinking and how well can you know somebody? It’s always an interesting question.
I think that for us the thing that I was amazingly aware of was not wanting to presume that we know what John was thinking. That was kind of the main thing that we had discussed. And it is hard when you’re doing something a little more literary because then you want to be the full narrator, right? And the narrator knows what the main character is thinking.
That was something we talked about, saying we need to be aware of moments like that ― if we feel like we’re starting to slip over into presuming that we know what John was thinking or feeling. All we know is what he told us, or what he told Brian. We talked to a lot of people who knew him pretty well. But yeah, it’s tricky.
BR: There’s just a richness to the details of the things he was interested in and the kind of vibe. A lot of the story is like a feeling, and the feeling comes from [details] like, he’s into clocks and he has a maze.
That was important to me, to create this ambiance around the story.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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