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What You Didn’t Hear During S-Town

By now, you’ve probably listened to or at least heard about S-Town, the latest podcast from the team behind Serial and the long-running gold standard in podcasting, This American Life. The seven-part audio story begins as an investigation. Producer Brian Reed is contacted by John B. McLemore, lifelong resident of Woodstock, Alabama, who tells Reed about a supposed murder cover-up in his so-called “Shit Town” (S-Town for short). As Reed begins his investigation, the story takes a turn, someone ends up dead and Reed finds himself closely examining one man’s unexpectedly fascinating life.

Whether you feasted on the binge-worthy series in a matter of hours, days or weeks, there was plenty to talk about with S-Town—between the twist at the end of the second chapter to the painful and intimate details of McLemore’s life.

But we wanted to hear from experts in the sound field. What did they hear that amateur ears might have missed during the podcast?

For starters, they noticed similarities from radio’s not-so-distant past.

“You can draw connections between British radio,” says MA in Sound Arts and Industries Associate Director Neil Verma, a sound historian. “[S-Town] resembled a lot of radio features – that’s what they’re called in Europe. They’re longer works often incorporating elements of journalism, drama and music.”

These radio features focused on subcultures and working class ‘heroes’ whose stories might have gone unnoticed or untold – a lot like McLemore’s.

For example, Verma also draws comparisons between S-Town and the radio ballads of the 1950s and 1960s, including The Ballad of John Axon. This famous 1957 ballad tells the story of rail worker, John Axon, a steam-locomotive driver from Stockport, England, who became a hero after refusing to abandon his runaway train, sparing lives at the expense of his own.

“It couldn’t be more different stylistically from S-Town,” Verma says. “But it blends a lot of different genres and celebrates life in a way only radio can.”

Like many listeners, Northwestern Professor Bill Healy, who teaches Radio Documentary for the MA in Sound Arts and Industries, finished the podcast in a matter of hours.

“For me, I think it was just a good listen,” says Healy, who is also a photographer and audio producer. “It was fun to listen to, entertaining, thoughtful and complex, and I think it was an interesting experience.”

Healy says he admires the S-Town team for constantly reinventing audio storytelling instead of simply replicating the execution of Serial based on that show’s enormous success.

“A lot of people would be content to do the same thing over and over again,” Healy says. “But I think they deserve a lot of credit for wanting to constantly evolve.”

With firsthand radio documentary and podcast experience, Healy knows the time, effort and research it takes to produce an in-depth program like S-Town – and how difficult it would be for anyone but the team from NPR’s This American Life to do it.

“Being able to have Ira Glass help shape the reporting in real time… you can’t replicate that,” Healy says. “I admire them. I’m jealous.”

Though we only hear 7.5 hours of tape, Verma says he also picked up on the amount of time the S-Town team – Brian Reed, especially – spent working on the podcast.

“If you listen carefully, one of the things you’ll notice is Brian Reed saying, ‘I found this out, then I found this out six months later.’ You become aware while listening that it took a very long time to make this podcast, and that’s out of our tradition.”

Verma and Healy agree that if others in the industry had the time, the radio feature genre would grow.

“What made S-Town possible is that [Reed] could spend two years making it for seven hours of audio,” Verma says. “If people had that ability, the nature of podcasting would be quite different. It would probably create artistic and social opportunities.”

Popularizing the radio feature wouldn’t only benefit those producing the podcasts, but those listening to them as well, bridging the gap between communities and opening up conversations.

“The more substantial, accessible storytelling there is, the better,” Healy says. “I feel like S-Town allows for continued conversation, and I think that’s good and that there will be a natural outgrowth from that.”

With the current climate of the country, Verma believes podcasts like S-Town could lead to greater understanding.

“One thing S-Town is about is this active communication of two cultures of American society right now – a podcaster who lives in Brooklyn and John B. A lot of people I know who grew up in the South or specifically in Alabama and live in cities now, started talking about their experiences more. There’s something about long-form podcasting that really makes different elements of society speak to each other.”

Looking for a new podcast to listen to after S-Town? Check out the Northwestern Sound podcast: