Last semester when I studied abroad, I had a 30 to 45-minute commute to school everyday. I started the semester by listening to music, but that got boring after a while. It wasn’t too long before I discovered the magic that podcasts had to offer. The first couple podcasts that I started listening to were good, but none of them could hold my interest for more than 10 minutes. “S Town” was the first podcast that showed me how podcasts can be more than people talking about politics, policy and the news (not that those things are bad).
“S Town” was created by Serial Productions and the producers of “Serial” and “This American Life.” For anyone who has listened to “Serial,” “S Town” is very similar but in my opinion, better.
The entire podcast started when host Brian Reed received an email from someone listening to “This American Life” named John B. McLemore. The subject of the email is “John B. McLemore lives in Sh—town Alabama.” This and the contents of the email was all it took to initially get Reed in contact with this uncommon man.
The podcast starts with a two-minute description about old clocks, the challenges that face people trying to fix them and a potential method for fixing them. At first this seems out of place and I remember checking if I was listening to the right podcast when I heard this, but then out of this uncanny beginning comes the introduction of McLemore. McLemore originally contacted Reed with the goal of solving what he thought was a murder, but the podcast goes much deeper than that. Although this is never completely resolved, McLemore himself, as well as the town he lives in, holds more mystery than the murder alone ever could. At times this seems more of a biography of McLemore’s life than an investigation of a murder, but this gives the podcast a more personal nature and you feel like you know McLemore as an old friend.
“S town” is composed of seven episodes, one chapter per installment. The episodes are a mix of commentary by Reed as well as interviews and time spent with McLemore recorded over their time working together. Since the podcast is entirely based on McLemore, his life and the town everything that hear is real and actually happened, as disturbing as this may seem at times. Reed’s smooth voice is made for podcasts. It leaves the listener feeling comfortable, but I would not recommend listening to “S Town” when you are tired since it may put you right to sleep.
The music that plays as the theme song and occasionally throughout the episodes sets the tone of a small southern town. It reminds me of a trip to the bayou or somewhere in Louisiana based on the instrumentation. McLemore and his southern accent just add more to the mood of the podcast. As someone who has never lived or spent extensive time in the South, this may be portraying a biased view of life in the South, which just adds more to the mystery of the podcast.
Although McLemore originally contacts Reed in 2011, the actual story and investigation spans over many years to follow as McLemore pulls up the past to help explain many of the things that occur. As the podcast goes on, it is easy to be dragged down by McLemore’s depression and take on life. He has many negative views of his town and his circumstances, that may at times be justified, but can easily bring down the listener as well as Reed as he tells the story.
If you are looking for a mystery that at times seems to have no solution and possibly one that has a nonexistent solution to exist, “S Town” may be the podcast for you. “S Town” is available on stownpodcast.org or wherever you find your podcasts.