I was a big fan of the S-Town podcast when it was first released, so I was excited to have the opportunity to see producer Brian Reed give a talk about it recently at Benaroya Hall.
S-Town is the fastest growing podcast in history, with over 60 million downloads on its seven episodes to date. I found the podcast interesting because it pulled together disparate threads of American life into a compelling narrative: climate change, horology, poverty, journalistic ethics, and the history of the South.
Reed spoke for about 70 minutes and played a slideshow that featured audio that was cut from the final podcast. He was also gracious during an audience Q&A.
As he began, he talked about how important it was that Ira Glass at This American Life (where Reed is Senior Producer) had built an environment and budget where they could kill one-third of all stories that the staff pursued. This ensured that only the best of the best would ever make it to air, and allowed journalists to pursue stories far past the point most outlets would find acceptable.
Reed also mentioned a few principles that guided his work with the S-Town Podcast:
- Don’t use verbal sign-posting – In most podcasts, the hosts to go great pains to remind you what the program is about throughout the runtime of the show. This not only is helpful for a radio audience where someone may have tuned in halfway through the episode, but also helps convince someone to stay engaged and to understand the stakes. S-Town eschewed these methods in favor of a novelistic approach. Normal novels don’t explicitly state, “Hey, this is where these facts are all leading so stay tuned, okay?” Neither did S-Town, increasing the mystery and making it more engrossing for listeners who went in fresh.
- Create and include tape that tells the story and tape where emotional work is being done – Getting interviews of people conveying the narrative you want is table stakes for journalistic podcasts. What Reed thought was the most fascinating was tape where emotional work is actually being done by the journalist and subject — tape where stuff is happening and people are bouncing off each other in interesting ways. How did the subject react to something the journalist said? How were they egged on or discouraged? How have they decided to alter their decision path? Hearing all those things transpire can be fascinating, and Reed put a lot of the focus on that kind of tape when he was assembling the final podcast.
- Fact-check – Fact-checking is an extraordinarily useful way of extracting meaningful details out of the seemingly mundane. The key was to pursue promising but obscure avenues that had the potential to bear fruit. Everything in S-Town was rigorously fact-checked and some of the material uncovered (particularly content about mercury poisoning and fire gilding) was so fascinating that it helped shape the narrative of the podcast itself.
Overall, it was a fun talk, but I’d say it was only truly useful for people who were fans of the show or fans of journalistic podcasts in general. Also, at $35/ticket, I thought it was a bit steep given that many of these insights could be discussed and revealed in, say, a lengthy podcast interview.
Back when I was making the Gen Pop podcast (RIP), I recorded a review of the S-Town podcast with Joanna. You can listen to it below: