How deep is your podcast? ‘S-Town’ is more than a whodunit

The new podcast from the makers of Serial investigates not just a death, but life itself. Warning: spoilers ahead

Brian Reed, the presenter of S-Town. Photograph: Andrea Morales

Brian Reed, the presenter of S-Town. Photograph: Andrea Morales

 

Sometimes journalists wish they had more words, time and resources to track a story in all its minutiae to its finale, as inconclusive as that may be. Truth lies in nuance. The adage that it gets in the way of a good story is rarely a good reporter’s motto. Most stories are multifaceted, open-ended, with angles and points of view that conflict and contradict. But the pressure of deadlines, space to fill, and tight budgets is unforgiving.

New things have a tendency to replicate the old things until they find their own thing. The Serial series by This American Life changed podcasting. Maybe it wasn’t the first to stretch out a story, but it utilised the podcast form itself in a way that brought it into its own as a medium. The potential of the form expanded and continues to. Instead of replicating or slightly shifting the format of traditional radio programmes, Serial’s stories pull a thread that keeps unravelling until the tapestry is something of a patterned mess, leaving the listener to interpret its design. 

The success of podcasts such as Serial are part of what can collectively be described as the deep-dive trend in podcasting

 S-Town is ostensibly labelled the third series of Serial, but really it’s a new podcast series. The first series of Serial was a compelling whodunnit true crime story, criticised by some for capitalising on a death, but a remarkable journalistic feat nonetheless.

True crime stories make some feel squeamish. What gets put in and left out shapes a narrative that can also include bias for narrative over fact. Serial’s second series suffered from a lack of direction. While the source material – recordings of interviews with Sgt Bowe Bergdahl by the Oscar-winning screenwriter Mark Boal conducted as research for a film – were compelling on paper, the podcast struggled to figure out what questions it was trying to ask along the way, not to mention find satisfying answers. 

An intriguing mystery

S-Town began as many current popular podcasts do: an intriguing mystery of sorts with a compelling central character and hints of true crime. That beginning, it turned out, was a ruse in itself. The podcast leads us towards treats we have become used to enjoying in the land of endless streaming content: murder mysteries, corners of the US we haven’t heard of before clicking play, corruption, crime and treasure. But there is a greater reward.

As S-Town progresses, it becomes clear that reporter Brian Reed is not only investigating a story – a murder, a nonmurder, a place, a death, lost gold, a treasure hunt, an inheritance breadcrumb trail – but a life. Who is this central character, John B McLemore, and why did he live how he did? By extension, we ruminate on our own time spent on this planet. The question that S-Town attempts to answer is what makes a person’s life. It is perhaps the first successful mainstream existential podcast series.

The success of podcasts such as Serial, Crimetown, Missing Richard Simmons, Criminal, Someone Knows Something, Missing and so on, are part of what can collectively be described as the deep-dive trend in podcasting, a more comprehensive and thorough examination of a single story with multiple aspects, or multiple stories across a series. That might be the re-examination of every West Wing episode, on West Wing Weekly; a two-parter on a Chicago high school in This American Life; or, closer to home, Frank Delaney’s weekly Re:Joyce podcast on Ulysses, an essential companion to the novel, which began in 2010 and has run (so far) to 368 episodes, reaching page 192 of the Gabler edition before Delaney sadly passed away in February of this year. The podcast was scheduled to be completed in 2026.

Length in storytelling media isn’t new (the cut of Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah shown in France was 613 minutes), but there is something remarkable about OJ: Made In America running to 467 minutes and winning an Oscar this year, even though so many people already had their OJ fix with American Crime Story. Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos filmed Making a Murderer over 10 years. 

The novelistic approach

The contemporary successes in long-form media, almost novelistic in approach, means viewers, listeners and readers now expect a standard across digital-first media that is not just well-produced but also laden with twists and cliffhangers. The question for journalists is how can stories that don’t necessarily have rollercoaster elements to their narrative be told in equally compelling ways.

 As form changes, so does the gathering of an audience. If you make something on an indie level locally with global potential, you can stop concentrating on reaching everyone whose tastes align in one place, and concentrate on reaching bunches of people who like the same thing everywhere.

For Irish media, this shift exposes the tyranny of the “Irish angle”. There is a rigid assumption across much Irish television and radio production that things only work if there is something of local interest. But the reality is, the tastes of voracious consumers of media are not just tied to place, but to quality. 

Few non-Irish people will tune into RTÉ Radio 1’s daily schedule, but plenty of Irish people listen to Song Exploder and 99% Invisible

 The continued success of Second Captains, which successfully utilised the 1,000 true fans philosophy with their migration to the fan-funding platform Patreon, and indeed The Irish Times Women’s Podcast, which I helped establish, show that things that are local can be global if they are more than just local.

Few non-Irish people will tune into RTÉ Radio 1’s daily schedule, but plenty of Irish people listen to Song Exploder and 99% Invisible. The specificity of podcasting is also appealing to those who want detail on a topic as opposed to broad brushstrokes, which is something local outlets will have to contend with. Why listen to a reporter talking generally about US politics on an Irish radio programme when you can delve into the detailed nerdy conversations on Pod Save America? Quality genre productions supersede even language barriers, as we’ve seen with the success of Scandinavian television drama.

What does this love of length and deep dives and long-reads mean at a time where we are constantly being told that attention spans are shortening and brevity is king online? Well, it shows that’s not true for everything. Choice across all media has allowed engaged audiences who would have traditionally chosen media geographically closest to them to shift their consumption on the basis of quality, not proximity.

And storytelling, a word so shrouded in spoofery by tech and media companies grasping for relevance, is emerging victorious after all.

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