People know I love podcasts and are asking all the time, “Brendan! What podcasts should I listen to? What’s good? Any new shows out there?” Okay, that doesn’t happen. It’s more like they’re just standing there, unaware of what is about to happen to their ears, and I barrage them with “Oh man! Have you heard about Harmontown? Wasn’t last week’s Magic Tavern silly? What’d you think of Serial?”
Few podcasts have penetrated the mainstream the way Serial has. The team behind the biggest podcast success launched their newest show S-Town, and I told you all about it in my previous article. S-Town only took one week to reach 16 million downloads, which is a fourth of the time it took Serial season two and an eighth the time it took Serial season one.
(If you’d like to listen to my full podcast on this subject, click here or through the player at the bottom of this article.)
S-Town is the love child of Serial and This American Life, taking after both, and standing on its own in a brilliant way. These producers created a new experience for listeners, not only familiar but also a remarkable blend of genres. Let’s go back to the sources and see why their collaboration works so well.
This is Brian Reed’s first podcast as the full time host. Previously, he produced a few of my favorite segments for This American Life including articles from episode 513 “129 Cars,” episode 524 “I Was So High,” and episode 547 “Cops See It Differently.” Brian’s delivery has a genuine and affable quality, and he charms people to acquire the real story someone may be reluctant to share.
On the episode “129 Cars,” This American Life goes to a car dealership to get the real story about the different tactics salesmen use to meet their monthly quota. Brian tries to interview Manny, the top car salesman on the lot, who wants no part of the radio interviews, but Brian persists and finds an opening. Brian’s ability to read anything his subject throws at him, and that he keeps coming back for more, allows him to get close, personal, and emotional stories. Similarly, in S-Town, Brian reads John McLemore’s recommended short stories by Shirley Jackson, Guy de Maupassant, and William Faulkner the first night they meet in Alabama. Brian just picks up “The Art of War” and jumps back into interviewing Manny, showing his dedication to understanding the subject he’s covering
“129 Cars” of This American Life actually has a web-exclusive clip by Sarah Koenig, his future partner on S-Town.
Sarah Koenig is an award-winning journalist and worked at This American Life for a few years, but she may be most well known for her reporting on what was the biggest podcast before S-Town, Serial. The first season covered the flawed case against Adnan Syed for the murder of Hae Min Lee. The second season focused on the story of Bowe Bergdahl who was charged for leaving his post in Afghanistan. Both seasons of Serial are some of the best podcasting in terms of compelling narratives and amazing reporting.
Sidenote: If you enjoyed following Hae and Adnan’s story from Serial season one, check out the podcast Undisclosed. Undisclosed is hosted by three lawyers including Rabia Chuadry who originally brought the Adnan case to Sarah Koenig. They dive deep into the minutia of one case per season and uncover all the details that the state fails to reveal in criminal cases against the wrongfully convicted. Also, my colleague compiled and wrote about 18 true crime podcasts (including Undislosed) if you’re interested.
Starlee Kine is the story consultant for S-Town, so I’m going to take this opportunity to share her previous podcast, Mystery Show, as it also includes long unedited phone calls, exposing quirks and passions, and has multiple mysteries that have satisfying resolutions. I hadn’t re-listened to Mystery Show until I was pulling clips for this episode, and it made me laugh so hard I cried.
Mystery Show was my favorite podcast of 2015. Produced by Gimlet Media for one season, Starlee narrates her quirky adventures as she attempts to solve weird mysteries in her guests’ lives. The first episode is about how Laura rents a video from a store, and the next day the store is shut down and empty! What happened?
My favorite episode by far is called “Britney” where Andrea, a not-so-well-known author, sees a photo of Britney Spears holding Andrea’s book! How’d she get it? Did she like it? Starlee goes to awesome lengths to answer these questions and more. Similar to S-Town, many books are mentioned during the episode. The part that I love best about Starlee’s production style is the long conversations and therapist-style probing questions.
Many of the S-Town producers that you don’t hear on the show are seasoned professionals from This American Life. Julie Snyder is the executive producer of S-Town and is the co-creator of Serial. Before that she was a senior producer at This American Life. Ira Glass, the host of This American Life, was an editorial advisor for S-Town, as was Neil Drumming who is a producer at This American Life, often covering race and family. The whole production team is top notch and it permeates through almost every moment of the show.
Through the combined work of many great producers, and Ira Glass insisting that Brian record everything always, pod-listeners were all able to experience a new level of audio storytelling and start the next chapter of podcasting with S-Town.
I’ve seen many requests on Facebook and Twitter for other podcasts to listen to that can fill the void left after listening to S-Town, but for the same reasons S-Town is special, it’s impossible to give a good recommendation of another podcast. I could list some true-crime podcasts, or human-interest podcasts, or narrative podcasts, but none of them have that literature quality. As much as it pains me to say it, to fill the void left by S-Town, you may need to look into audiobooks.
Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song are recommendations from my wife Sarah. They’re both close journalistic examinations of murderers, great for anyone who wanted more murder mystery than S-Town provided.
You can find more about S-Town at http://stownpodcast.org. There is also a Facebook group and a sub-reddit, http://Reddit.com/r/stownpodcast.