Senior producer of “This American Life” Brian Reed wanted to create a new genre of storytelling long before he first received an email from John B. McLemore. McLemore would later become the focus of Reed’s podcast, which is now an international phenomenon. He and “Serial” producer Julie Snyder achieved that goal when they made the seven-part podcast series “S-town.” Sixteen million people downloaded the show in the first week after it was released. It took four weeks for the first season of “Serial” to reach that number of downloads.
When Reed came to the Hult Center for Performing Arts on Friday, Feb. 9, he spoke to a crowd of nearly 300 people about what it took to make the podcast. Reed played clips of audio that never made it into the final show, took questions from the audience and discussed what it was like to know McLemore until his death in June 2015 while Reed was still recording for the show.
In 2012, Reed received an email with the subject line “John B. McLemore lives in Shittown, Alabama.” It caught his eye. During Reed’s reporting over the next few years, what began as an investigation of an alleged murder in a small Alabamian town, turned into a beautiful, novel-like story about McLemore’s friendships, romances and tragic suicide.
“I don’t know what else to say, the story exerted a pull on me,” Reed said at the Hult Center.
Reed said he and Snyder wanted to create a series that would pull people in like a TV drama. They got their inspiration from works of literary fiction such as “The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” by Junot Díaz. Reed said he knew audio storytelling was a medium that would allow him to capture the vivid textures of life, but with real moments and conversations.
In episodes of “This American Life,” producers preview the plot of the story and often explicitly tell listeners why they should listen. Reed says that in “S-town” he wanted that motivation to be intrinsic. He relied on exceptional attention to detail that would enrapture listeners and “train them to have no expectations” about where the story was heading.
One such detail Reed discussed in the talk required the tedious work of fact-checkers repeatedly confirming and revising with sources which board game people at the Woodstock, Alabama senior center were playing when he was there. It was a little-known game called “Skip-Bo,” and a detail made for a work of literature.
Reed became a character in the story too. Questions for Reed from the Hult Center audience were an opportunity for fans to interact with the story itself.
One audience member asked Reed what McLemore’s most admirable trait was. Reed replied: “He had a way of staying riled up about things that most people have become sort of desensitized to like climate change. He was constantly affected by injustices that we feel powerless against.”
Find the “S-town” podcast on iTunes, stownpodcast.org or wherever you get your podcast. The composer of “S-town’s” soundtrack, Daniel Hart, is playing a show at the Hi-Fi Lounge in Eugene on Sunday, March 18.
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