S-Town podcast review “an amazing piece of storytelling”

S-Town is a podcast that is hard to explain. It’s made by Brian Reed and is “presented by” This American Life and Serial. So it’s not a new series of Serial, but it’s made under their banner. A bit strange. But so is this podcast. Strange in a good way.

It’s not really a crime podcast, though it veers in that direction at times, it’s not a character study but there is a deep investigation into some of the personalities, it also covers clock making in some depth, life in a rural community and plenty of other issues, including clockmaking.

So it’s hard to define exactly what it is, but I can say that it’s one of the best podcasts I’ve listened to. The story twists and turns, the focus shifts and the ending leaves you not quite knowing what you’ve just been through but glad that you listened anyway.

John B McLemore lives in Shittown Alabama

The story starts with a mystery, Brian Reed responds to an email from a This American Life listener, requesting they investigate a potential murder than may have been covered up in his town. The town is Woodstock, Alabama and he paints the picture of a depraved and corrupt backwater town where rule of law depends more on who you know rather than what you did.

The investigation into the claims leads Brian Reed to meet John B. McLemore and that’s where the story really starts to slowly start to reveal itself. Brian strikes up a genuine friendship with John from there we all get an insight into a fascinating and complex man. To say more would be veering into spoiler territory.

Perfectly paced

The things that I loved about this podcast was the way the story was allowed to unwind. There’s an elegant development of each subject area which reveals details bit by bit and keeps you intrigued all the time. The balance between being strung along and told too much is maintained all the while. Just as it feels like the story is winding up there’s a new development that opens up a whole new avenue of investigation.

I noticed in the credits that Starlee Kline (of Mystery Show fame) was a “Story Consultant” and I can only assume that she helped to put together the episodes. She’s one of the best storytellers in the world of narrative non-fiction and I think it’s likely that she’s helped to make this podcast as good as it is.

Brian Reed’s reporting style

I wasn’t sure about Brian Reed to begin with. It felt like he’d become too absorbed in his subject and had lost objectivity for spells. He was deeply involved in the story and you could really tell that he cared about the people he met when making this podcast. In the end, I have to concede that this attachment to his subject actually enhanced the story and meant the audience could get a closer look at the people Brian met.

My concern was that only one side of the story was being told and some people were being painted as villains without getting a chance to reply. Thankfully, over the course of the seven episodes you do get chance to hear from all sides involved. While some people invovled aren’t painted in a completely positive light, they had an opportunity to put the record straight, even if their own words made them look even worse.

Overall rating – 95 out of 100

This is an amazing piece of storytelling and is one of the best podcast ever made. I’d put it up there with the first series of Serial and Mystery Show as my all-time favourite podcasts. It sets a benchmark for complexity and depth for this kind of reporting. Highly recommended