The producers of S-Town, and what else they've worked on.
You are listening to Podcast Playlist, a podcast about podcasts, where I, Brendan Hutchins, share what I've been listening to, and why you should listen, too. This is my third and final episode in a series devoted to S-Town, this time exploring the producers, their backgrounds, and some of their previous work.
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 the previous two episodes. 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. (https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/05/arts/s-town-podcast-blockbuster-status.html?_r=0)
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. Here's a clip:∿∿∿
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 Sayed 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.
Here is one of my favorite clips from season one where Sarah is trying to justify the state’s timeline to Producer Dana Chivvis:∿∿∿
It's pretty amazing that Sarah explains the scenario so clearly, but this clip also cracks me up and entertains for a few reasons. First, Sarah hints that she knows a thing or two about pot. Second, the producers leave in their human interactions. Lastly, Sarah breaks from the story to comment on her partner Dana. Such a great show.
Sidenote: If you enjoyed following Hae and Adnon's story from Serial season one, check out the podcast Undisclosed linked in the show notes. Undisclosed is hosted by three lawyers including Rabia Chaudry who originally brought the Adnon 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.
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. [Britney clip 1] Similar to S-Town, many books are mentioned during the episode. Here is a list of books that they could find that Britney Spears has read. [Britney clip 2] The part that I love best about Starlee's production style is the long conversations and therapist-style probing questions. In this clip, Starlee is talking with the customer service representative for a concert ticket vendor to help with her investigation. [Britney clip 3]
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. I have a link in the show notes for BookRiot's video on what to read after S-Town. http://bookriot.com/watch/read-listening-s-town/
Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood http://amzn.to/2owSRZ1 and Norman Mailer’s The Executioner's Song http://amzn.to/2q1Jnp1 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.
This concludes the series of Podcast Playlist just about S-Town but it doesn't have to be the end of the topic. You can reach out on twitter, I'm @ThePodPlaylist.
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This episode was recorded in "on the Cascadia Fault Line" Portland, Oregon.
Writing, music and narration by Brendan Hutchins, the producer and script editor was Sarah Hutchins, and moral support and infinite distractions were provided by Sebastian and Autumn (Sarah's and my cats).
Send me your comments, suggestions, and recommendation success stories. I'm @ThePodPlaylist on twitter. I'll accept text or audio messages to ThePodcastPlaylist@gmail.com. You can leave a comment on the post at PodcastPlayl.ist where you can also see the show notes. Please subscribe to this feed, rate the show in iTunes, follow @thepodplaylist on twitter, and I'll talk at you next time.
Happy listening. Peace.