Friday, April 21, 2017


I've been listening to "S-Town," the newest podcast from the producers of "This American Life" and "Serial." I just finished it last night, sitting on our bench in the back garden.

It was a very strange experience.

I'll be careful not to spoil any surprises. The podcast began as an investigation of a murder in small-town Alabama, reported to the producers in a letter from a disgruntled resident. He quips that he lives in "Shit-town," and he turns out to be quite a colorful character -- both genius and, possibly, lunatic. Soon, circumstances change and the podcast becomes something else entirely.

I thoroughly enjoyed the show, but about halfway through I began experiencing nagging feelings of doubt about its journalistic purpose. The murder tip doesn't pan out, and we're left with an examination of one man's small-town life, in extremely intimate detail. And that man, for reasons that become apparent, doesn't fully participate in revealing all these details about himself. Is the show just high-brow reality programming, radio-style? Or is it something more -- an exploration of what it's like to be different in a remote, rural community?

As a former newspaper editor, I found myself questioning the story's raison d'etre. I think it succeeds, in the end, but if I'd put it together myself I'd have done two things differently. I'd have elided some of the intimate physical details about this man's past relationships, the reporting of which frankly seems like an unnecessary violation of privacy. And I'd have discussed -- somewhere along the line -- why the podcast remained relevant, despite the loss of its initial journalistic purpose. I understand wanting the listeners to determine that for themselves, but I think it would have helped us crystallize our view of the finished product. (Surely there were internal debates among the producers about whether to continue reporting, given the twists and turns in the story -- what were those like?)

Anyway, it's hard to explain all this if you haven't heard the show, and I don't mean to drag it down. I found it fascinating and I looked forward to every episode. (There are only 7 of them.) If you're at all interested in Southern culture, give it a listen.

(Photo: A church in Walthamstow, East London.)


  1. I am interested in southern culture and am currently reading "Deep South" by Paul Theroux. I have never listened to a podcast but "S-Town" sounds intriguing.

  2. I'm so in love with my books I download to listen to that I haven't gotten into podcasts.
    ARGGHHH! I can't do it all! There's not enough time in the day!
    Interesting how technology was supposed to help us save so much time and yet, it's produced so much that takes up our time. Some of it amazing and of high quality, some of it most definitely not.

  3. I've never listened to a podcast either. I have heard some of the stories on This American Life on the radio when I was working at the antique store.

  4. I find it interesting that you give this view from a newspaper editor's point of view. so what would the point of view be if it was say a lawyer, trucker?

  5. You've made me very curious!

  6. I haven't heard this podcast but I've read articles in a similar vein - the author starts out with a premise but goes on to reveal extensive personal detail which doesn't add to the article - it seems to be for the sake of being titillating. To me, that's not an acceptable reason for publishing what purports to be a serious, worthwhile article. It's a betrayal of confidences, in my opinion, and a cheap way to get readers. I'm not commenting on this particular podcast, just in general!

  7. When I first saw your photo above I thought it was somewhere I'd been when I lived in Indianapolis, Indiana. Strange.

  8. I LOVED Shit town and eccentric John, his particular genius for clocks -and the crazy folk inhabiting his life...did not love "church" found that disturbing but the podcast. is great story telling I think, as pod casts usually are, This one haunts me still...