Brilliant ‘S-Town’ breaks podcasting records

Heading south: Brian Reed explores the dark side of a small Alabama community in S-Town.

Since its release two weeks ago, the genre-defying S-Town has been widely acclaimed as the best podcast ever made. It has drawn millions of listeners. Is this the future of storytelling?

In 2014, podcast producer Brian Reed received an email with the subject line: “John B. McLemore lives in S**ttown, Alabama.” McLemore claimed that his town — real name: Woodstock — had witnessed a murder and a cover-up. Intrigued, Reed went to investigate.

The resulting podcast, S-Town, is not what you might expect. The murder investigation goes nowhere, but another death leads Reed into a web of crime and intrigue. Over seven hour-long episodes, the listener gets to know McLemore, a depressed, eloquent clock repairer who lives in isolation in a forest.

Reed also paints a vivid picture of Woodstock, a place where secrets cannot be kept for long. McLemore only has nasty things to say about it, but Reed reveals the good sides of small-town America as well as the bad.

In two weeks, “S-Town” has already achieved classic status. Enthusiastic reviewers praised its sophisticated use of the podcast format. Slate likened it to “aural literature.” It “helps advance the art of audio storytelling,” gushed The New Yorker. In its first week, the podcast was downloaded a record 16m times.

The popularity of the series, and its acceptance as “art”, show how far podcasts have come. Many saw the 2014 true crime podcast Serial (which was produced by the same team) as a turning point: Its huge success pushed the medium into the mainstream.

The spread of smartphones and cars with internet connectivity has helped. Audiences are growing, as is advertising revenue. Much the same is happening to audiobooks, whose sales are increasing faster than those of regular books.

Some cultural critics hail these trends as a revival of millennia-old “oral storytelling” traditions. Others see podcasts as the latest incarnation of the “radio play” genre.

Meanwhile, scientists have been studying how we interpret the spoken word. One study found that we retain less information when listening to a text than when reading it. But two others suggested that podcasts can hold our attention with techniques like sound effects and dramatization.

In any case, the podcast revolution is here. Should we embrace it?

Sound and vision

No, say some. Books demand your full attention and allow you to reread a passage if you need to. Podcasts force you to go at their pace, and your mind ends up wandering — especially if you are multitasking. Don’t get too hooked on them: you can only fully appreciate a story by reading it.

On the contrary, reply others. With podcasts, stories come alive through dramatic performances. Accents, music and sound effects help to set the scene. And “multitasking” can enrich the experience: imagine listening to the description of McLemore’s forest home while walking in the woods…

You Decide

  1. What is the best story ever told? Was it first spoken or written down?
  2. Which is more powerful: the spoken word or the written word?

Activities

  1. In small groups, choose a short story (or a scene from a play) and act it out in front of the class. How does the process affect your understanding of the story?
  2. Staying in the same groups, come up with a concept for a five-minute podcast around the theme My Community. If you’re feeling confident, have a go at making it!

Some People Say...

“We owe it to each other to tell stories.”

— Neil Gaiman

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
S-Town racked up 16m downloads and 1.8m subscriptions in its first week. “This is certainly the fastest that a podcast has accrued that big of an audience,” says podcast analyst Nick Quah. The fact that all seven episodes were released at once probably helped.
What do we not know?
Exactly how S-Town compares with other podcasts, market-wise. As this is still a relatively new industry, a lot of podcast publishers are reluctant to release their audience data (the S-Town team are an exception).
What do people believe?
Specifics aside, studies suggest that the number of overall listeners is rising every year. Throw in the low production costs of podcast commercials, and analysts predict that the industry will become ever more attractive to advertisers.

Word Watch

Podcast
The word is derived from “iPod” (onto which early podcasts were downloaded) and “broadcast”.
Clock repairer
The official term for one who makes or repairs clocks and watches is “horologist”.
Small-town America
The contrast between Reed, who is from New York, and the residents of Woodstock is a running theme in S-Town. It is timely, given the rural-urban divide in America exposed by last year’s election.
The same team
They rose to fame via This American Life, a weekly nonfiction radio program that looks at universal themes through the lives of ordinary people.
Audiobooks
In the USA and Canada, audiobook sales jumped by 21% from 2014 to 2015.
Oral storytelling
Before the advent of printing and the spread of literacy, this was the primary way to tell a story. The component parts of the epic Greek poems The Iliad and The Odyssey were passed down through word of mouth, as were the teachings that came to form the Bible.
One study
Published in 2013 by the University of Waterloo, Canada.
Two others
Published in 2010 and 2011 and conducted by communications expert Emma Rodero.