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Producer & Host of the Hit Podcast "S-Town" Talks at Bard College 11/10

This American Death

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Brian Reed, producer and host of the sensational podcast "S-Town" in Woodstock, Alabama. - ANDREA MORALES
  • Andrea Morales
  • Brian Reed, producer and host of the sensational podcast "S-Town" in Woodstock, Alabama.

"S-Town" is the electrifying podcast that starts with a murder, morphs into a treasure hunt, and exposes the intimate secrets of John B. McLemore, the maze-making, tattoo-enthused antique clock restorer from Woodstock, Alabama. The story became wildly popular and was downloaded 16 million times the first week it was released, in March 2017. The skill behind this unconventional and gripping portrait of a misunderstood, Deep South genius garnered journalist Brian Reed a Peabody Award, and is as addictive as it is unforgettable. (Listen to "S-Town" here.")

What Reed and the "This American Life" team developed when making "S-Town" was a fresh take on audio reporting: a biography constructed in the form of a novel, complete with its stylistic flourishes—creative nonfiction for the podcast set. On November 10 at 7:30pm, Reed will appear at Bard's Fisher Center for the event "Creating 'S-Town': A New Way to Tell A Story." Reed will talk about creating the podcast and play previously unheard audio that didn't make the final cut. Tickets are $25-$50. Fishercenter.bard.edu.

—Hallie Newton

What did you expect when you started "S-Town" and how were those expectations met or not met?

I didn't have a ton of expectations, more just a curiosity about John [McLemore]. It was all a starting point. It's helpful not to have expectations. It's helpful to have theories, perhaps.

What are signifiers that something might be worth researching? How do you know when a story is special?

For "This American Life," we have specific criteria. We look for stories about interesting situations. Revelation. Surprise. I think all good stories explore universal ideas that are bigger than the topic at hand. We are interested in stories that highlight human moments. Moments that unfold and speak to something larger. One of the main criteria is that someone is interesting to listen to. If you don't have a natural storyteller, some stories begin to be a challenge.

The podcast is full of twists and turns. How did you maintain the element of surprise while keeping true to this factual story?

A lot of these twists and turns were true to life. I was surprised as a reporter, and I shared the surprise with the listeners. And then, yeah, in structuring a story, there's thought behind how you reveal information. We're always keeping an eye on how to make that meaningful.

What are some things you learned from John B. McLemore?

I learned to appreciate small moments more. I learned to actually get mad at things that are wrong in the world. To maintain the ability to feel outrage. It's easy to lose that, given the various problems in the world. It can drag you down. He really felt the pain of people who are hurting in the world. That was unique about him.

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