The latest podcast from “Serial” takes listeners to a rural Alabama town, where murder and hidden treasure make up the compelling true story of one man’s life.
Details about “S-Town,” the latest podcast from NPR’s “Serial” and “This American Life,” have been hush hush until now. All seven episodes were released yesterday at 8 a.m., so listeners are free to binge through the weekend. We’ll try to keep spoilers to a minimum in this interview with Host and Executive Producer Brian Reed—and haven’t finished listening yet ourselves—so expect a followup with spoilers when we do.
Here’s what “This American Life” did release about the show: S-Town is a new podcast from Serial and This American Life, hosted by Brian Reed, about a man named John who despises his Alabama town and decides to do something about it. He asks Brian to investigate the son of a wealthy family who’s allegedly been bragging that he got away with murder. But then someone else ends up dead, and the search for the truth leads to a nasty feud, a hunt for hidden treasure, and an unearthing of the mysteries of one man’s life.
It sounds like a Southern murder mystery and maybe also partially a return to the premise of season one of “Serial” that had listeners so enthralled. But “S-Town” is just not that simple. There’s John himself—who at first seems like that crazy friend or cousin we all have, but is much more complex—the murder that’s almost forgotten by chapter two and a group of greedy relatives looking for a pile of gold.
“I was never bored and John compelled me and his town compelled me,” says Reed by phone earlier this week. He explains that the whole thing started with a listener email to the “This American Life” address. “Every week we get kind of a digest of the listener emails,” Reed says. “His was just in there one week and his subject line caught my attention, because it was ‘John B. McLemore lives in Shittown Alabama.’ In the email he keeps talking about this place he lived that had all this terrible corruption and wrongdoing. It wasn’t like the other emails.”
That was in 2012. It took John and Reed almost a year to connect by phone. Reed had trouble finding news reports or any other information to back up John’s claims, but when John sent him a news story about actual sexual abuse going on in the county sheriff’s department, Reed took him a bit more seriously. “We kept talking on the phone for probably many months and then eventually I went down there,” Reed says. “It was one of those things like I’m not going to be able to figure this out from afar.”
What happens when Reed arrives in S-Town (actually Woodstock, Alabama, south of Birmingham in Bibb County)? He meets John and refers to him as the town’s Boo Radley. John lives alone with his mother, is an avid gardener who has created a hedge maze on his property, makes his living fixing antique clocks and is well read to say the least. He’s also seriously depressed, unbanked, convinced the world is about to end and possibly a genius.
It’s safe to say Reed was intrigued by John and also charmed by him, as were so many people in town who called him a friend. Reed says the Boo Radley reference from To Kill A Mockingbird came from the way people in town wondered about what went on in John’s house. He heard tales of a dungeon and gold hidden in the freezer.
“One of the main lessons of that book is you don’t know another person until you walk a mile in their shoes,” he says. “I feel like that is certainly something I believe. I think that’s a guiding principle behind all reporting and certainly this story.”
Reed hadn’t spent much time in Alabama before traveling down from New York to meet John. His wife, who is African American, advised him to set his social media profiles to private. He thought she was just perpetuating a stereotype, but he does meet his share of racists among John’s friends. “In a way, the vision that John was feeding me of this Shittown or S-Town that he lived in, it had all the trappings of the stereotypes you think of when you think of rural Alabama,” Reed says. “My knee-jerk was to go against that. It cant be exactly that. I know it’s more complicated than that.”
To say that “S-Town” has some twists and turns would be putting it lightly. Reed says that chapter five—titled “Nobody’ll ever change my mind about it.” and featuring John’s out-of-town relatives—is one of his favorites, but the seven chapters shift from John and the dynamics of his relationships to the politics of the town.
Reed says that in his line of work, it’s fun to try new ways of telling stories. In terms of “S-Town,” he and the “Serial” team began to think about it more as a novel. “Even though it’s true and it’s nonfiction and reported, for the feel of it, we were like let’s look to novels for our model,” he says. “That’s partly why we’re releasing all at once, why we called episodes chapters.”
In an interview with The Huffington Post, Reed said at one point he got the idea in his head that the title for the show should be a phrase from “A Rose For Emily.” John gave him the Faulkner short story about a Southern spinster who becomes an obligation to her town to read, and he remembered Emily’s house being described as “an eyesore among eyesores.” In the end, “S-Town” stuck, although the song played at the end of each chapter is “A Rose For Emily” by The Zombies.
Now that “S-Town” has been released, Reed says he’s excited to share John with the world and see what people, especially fellow Southerners, think of him. But his life will also feel a bit empty without John taking up so many of his daily thoughts.
“I hope it has this feeling of being real in a way where I’m just presenting you life, because if you stick around people for long enough, the things that happen in any life happen, including death,” Reed says.
Photo credits, from top: Brian Reed with John B. McLemore in Alabama by Andrea Morales, S-Town logo created by Valero Doval and Brian Reed by Andrea Morales.