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 non-fiction series S-Town has been acclaimed as the best podcast ever made. It has drawn millions of listeners. Is this the future of storytelling?

S-Town begins as a murder mystery, but it quickly expands into something more complex. The podcast is a fascinating study of its main character John B. McLemore, a depressed, eloquent clock repairer who lives in isolation in a forest.

It also paints a vivid picture of Woodstock, the small Alabama town where it is set. McLemore only has nasty things to say about the place, but presenter Brian Reed reveals the good sides of small-town America too.

In two weeks, S-Town has already achieved classic status. Reviewers praised its sophisticated use of the podcast format. Slate likened it to “aural literature.” In its first week, the podcast was downloaded a record 16m times.

The success of the series shows 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 much faster than those of regular books.

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?


  1. In small 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.
What do we not know?
How S-Town compares with other podcasts, market-wise. As this is still a new industry, a lot of publishers are reluctant to release their audience data.

Word Watch

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 nonfiction radio program that looks at universal themes through ordinary lives.
In the USA and Canada, audiobook sales jumped by 21% from 2014 to 2015.

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