SPOILERS AHEAD, READ AT YOUR OWN RISK
Public Radio* has a problem. It’s a problem I’ve heard a lot of radio makers and radio listeners talk about, which is that they want to tell stories for everyone, but not everyone will listen. How do you make radio pieces that have an impact beyond the liberal minded, flannel wearing, tote carrying sounding board of public media consumers. As a sound designer and aspiring radio maker this is something I’ve thought a lot about since November. How do we tell stories that help to close the divide between red and blue, that sit in the aisle and reach out to both the MSNBCers and the Fox Newsers.
S-Town, the new show from Serial Productions, does exactly this. It puts an “east coast liberal elite” journalist in the dead center of Trump country, the epitome of the rural white town the 21st century forgot, and it ignores that narrative almost entirely. Sure, Brian Reed does his due diligence, pointing out the demographics, the politics, and the racist history of Bibb County Alabama, but the beauty of S-Town is that it’s a story about people. It takes the kind of small town local quarrell that on its surface seems a dime a dozen, and weaves a beautiful narrative full of rich complicated characters. Brian Reed shows a mastery of what so many of us need to learn how to do, listen deeply and have conversations instead of arguments. Everyone who Brian Reed’s mic finds seems to talk to him for hours and days, and he finds anyone and everyone who has a stake in this story. Part of the success of S-Town isn’t that it humanizes its characters, in fact it does the opposite. S-Town finds humans, and slowly builds them into characters. All of the relationships here have the complexity of lifelong proximity because Brian Reed takes the time to hear out anything and everything his interviewees have to say and lays that out for the listener.
This isn’t to say that all that it takes to make a great piece of radio is to listen and learn. John B McLemore is a one of a kind subject. Great tape seems to flow from his mouth the way a stream flows downhill, every twist and turn creating new and interesting creeks that lead to another great story. Brian Reed and the team at Serial (Sarah Koenig, Julie Snyder, and Ira Glass’ rock solid editorial fingerprint is all over this) pull a narrative out of what appears to be months of rambling tape that’s as strong as some of the best fiction writing out there. S-Town as a story would never work as a normal radio piece. To force this into the standard format of This American Life, or even into an episodic structure like Serial wouldn’t allow the listener to build the empathy for the character necessary to make this story work. So instead, S-Town takes the approach of a novel,** structuring the chronology of the story along that of the narrator’s journey, and because of this we’re allowed to develop the same relationships that Brian Reed does before embarking on a journey for truth. Had this truly been a true crime piece, the need for truth and objectivity would have destroyed any chance at being empathetic to the complex, illogical, and beguiling motives of the inhabitants of Shit-Town.
There are a lot of unanswered questions at the end of S-Town. Why didn’t Faye call the people on the list? Was fire gilding the downfall of John B McLemore? Where is the gold?*** And as much as I want answers, not having them teaches us an even more important lesson, that real life is irreconcilably messy in a way that fiction never is. The characters of Shit-Town could never exist in fiction, because our authorial need for answers would cause all of them to act much more rationally, and therefore less interestingly. To have truly great documentary art we have to accept the trade off of a neat ending for an engrossing story. One of the reasons S-Town resonates so much is that it’s a reminder we need to dig below the surface before we pass judgement on someone, but no matter how much we dig we won’t necessarily find the answer we’re looking for, if there are answers to be found at all. If you have a need for meaning in S-Town, don’t look for it in the life of John B Mclemore,**** his meaning is a moot point. If we want to find the reason this story was told, why some of the best storytellers and journalists in radio spent five years putting it together, all you have to do is listen to the last piece of tape Brian Reed plays us.
“When I think about the end of my own existence, I take the biggest possible picture. I don’t just look at myself as a 49 yr old semi homosexual atheist, living in a shit town full of baptists in butt-fucksville Alabama. I look at myself as a citizen of the world. I try to look at the biggest picture possible.”
That we should all be citizens of the world, and look at the biggest picture possible is the best message we could take from this story of a shit town. And to do any less would be an injustice to a man we never met, but all now know.
Thanks to Alexis Chaney and Markie Gray, who's facebook conversation helped formed and is paraphrased in this piece.
*by this I mean public radio’s sphere of influence, not just what you hear on your local NPR affiliate
**I’m not making this up, read Nick Quoh’s interview with Julie Snyder from Hot Pod issue 113 https://www.hotpodnews.com/2017/03/welcome-to-s-town-missing-richard-simmons-post-game-numbers-why-are-podcastssowhite/
***If there really ever was gold
****To Quote Alexis Chaney “What was john’s deal? He was gay and closeted, he was maybe too smart, he had mercury poisoning, he was depressed, he had red hair, he didn’t believe in bands, what does this mean, who is that person?”