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Brian Reed on the Tough Reporting Decisions Behind ‘S-Town’

The new podcast from the team behind Serial has earned praise for its meticulous reporting. Brian Reed talks to us about how his team decided which leads to pursue, and which to leave behind.

If you’re a podcast listener, an iTunes user, or just a breathing human who occasionally clicks around the Internet, chances are you’ve heard about S-Town. The new podcast from the team behind Serial has spent the last three weeks on the top of the iTunes podcasts charts, broken podcast-download records, and inspired several “5 Fast Facts You Need to Know” profiles on Heavy — the mark of a true entertainment hit—alongside memes about clocks, and essays about its inventive (some say invasive) journalistic approach. Like Serial before it, S-Town is the rare work of audio non-fiction to gain both fannish praise and Game of Thrones-level scrutiny from culture writers.

The attention has reversed journalistic roles for host and narrator Brian Reed, a producer on This American Life and a central but understated presence on S-Town: In the wake of the podcast’s blockbuster success — at least, by the standards of the medium — he’s now the one getting interviewed, not doing the interviewing.

Reedbegan reporting S-Town three years ago, before the fall 2014 launch of Serial, when he read an email that arrived at This American Life from a man named John B. McLemore asking producers to look into an alleged sexual assault and a rumored murder in his central-Alabama hometown of Woodstock. After about a year of speaking with John about “Shit-town” — as John calls is — via phone and email, Reed eventually took one of several trips from his home in New York to Woodstock, first to investigate McLemore’s murder claim, and later to follow a treasure hunt and a death that he learned about during his reporting.

The result doesn’t fit into one easy genre category, and has been likened to “aural literature,” in the words of Slate’s Katy Waldman. But for all its Southern-Gothic trappings, the series is most notable for Reed’s thoughtful, deliberate research and reporting. In the series, Reed talks to a network of local folks — John’s cousins, horologist friends, and locals at the tattoo parlor, among others — on the phone, at a funeral, at a Best Western, and in other settings; he follows up on leads about a deceased person while piecing together a deep psychological portrait out of apparent dead ends.

Not everyone’s happy about this detailed approach — critics at The Atlanticand Vox have questioned whether S-Town reveals too much sensitive information about its subjects over the course of a novelistic story. But in an interview with Pacific Standard, Reed himself places the podcast in a tradition of journalism that investigates the lives of people who have passed away — a genre, he says, that tells important stories. We spoke to Reed over the phone about structuring his story, gaining subjects’ trust, and choosing what to include. Warning: S-Town spoilers lie ahead.

You’ve said before that the story began as a This American Life episode — at what point did you think that it was going to become a multi-episode podcast?

We talked about it shortly after John died. Basically, we felt like the type of story that it was becoming after he passed away didn’t fit into the standard narrative structure that we need for a This American Life episode. Not that it’s a standard place with one recipe for a story — there is actually a lot of room for experimentation — but it seemed like there was a lot happening, there were different storylines to follow, and we wanted time to breathe and experiment with the story and let it become, maybe, the kind of thing you hadn’t heard before.

The story itself is a bit circuitous: It starts as a murder mystery, becomes a treasure hunt, and then morphs into a psychological portrait of McLemore. Why did you decide to structure the story this way in the end, once you knew the outcome of your investigation?

For a lot [of the podcast], we were just telling the story the way it happened to me. The design of that is in order for you to understand why I was even interested in this in the first place and how I got to know John and the different people in the story like Tyler and his family and John’s cousins. Otherwise, there is no clear hook to the story other than [the fact that] I had this experience over the course of a couple of years because John reached out to me and asked me to start looking into things, and then other huge events happened, like John taking his life. It’s sometimes the most natural way to structure a story, telling it chronologically.

A few writers have mentioned that, in a subtle way, you end up being a character in this podcast. Your investigative journey, as you said, forms the core of the narrative in the series’ first half, and you explain your reporting choices over the course of the story. At what point did you decide to incorporate your own point of view in the story — did you have that idea from the outset?

No, it’s not a huge decision, it’s just the way that narrative radio stories often work. By their nature, the reporter is in the take, and you’re hearing interactions between the reporter and the interview subject and people in the story. There’s lots of great print narratives where the writer is part of the narrative, for sure, but I think it’s a little easier [in print] to recede into the background as the narrator or the reporter.

S-Town executive producer Julie Snyder and host Brian Reed.

S-Town executive producer Julie Snyder and host Brian Reed.

In radio, the most alive tape, and the tape you’re going to most often, is the tape where you as the reporter are interacting with the people you’re talking to. That, by its very nature, makes a reporter in a radio story more of a character, maybe. If I were to sit down and tell someone the story at a bar — which is what I did, I sat down and explained the story I’m working on — I would say, “John contacted me.” It’s hard to not be a character in the story — it’s just kind of built into the premise.

Following the 2016 presidential election, reporters havefieldedquitea bit of criticism for their portraits of the rural, white, working-class person. What was your approach to reporting in Alabama as a New York reporter, and how did you seek to tell a story that avoided stereotypes?

I honestly didn’t change my approach because it was the South, or rural. Our approach with all our stories at This American Life — which is where I’ve learned to do the kind of audio story that we’re doing — is always to treat the people in our stories as three-dimensional people. We don’t do sound bites, we don’t do stereotypes, from the conception of the story, to the reporting, to the cutting of the tape and the writing and the structuring. That’s just the kind of stories we’re trying to make, no matter who we’re talking about.

The week before I went to Alabama, I’d been in Milwaukee, riding around with police officers on shift and interviewing black residents in Milwaukee, trying to get a sense of the troubled relationship between black residents there and the Milwaukee police. And then I was also interviewing a guy in Pennsylvania who’d quit his job to join a strange cultish marketing scheme that was ultimately kind of a scam, and interviewing him to understand why he would do this. Every kind of interview is trying to understand people’s experience, no matter where they are.

I wasn’t thinking of it as altering my approach because I was in the South, but also, I’m a white, straight dude, so I have a bit of luxury of getting into places like that and not having to change all that much — I’m aware of that, for sure. But there was no overt [thought of], like, “I’m covering the rural South now, so I’m going to do this, this, and this.” I have the luxury of not having to do that.

How did you negotiate gaining the trust of the people that you were interviewing? Were there initially some barriers to people talking to you, or where they pretty open?

A lot people were pretty open from the beginning. It was helpful that John wanted me down there, and then he introduced me to Tyler, and vouched for me with him — I wasn’t some kind of stranger going up to them totally cold.

I did find, in general, with some people down there, the “fuck it” attitude that I talk about in the story applied to talking to me. They got a kick out of me being there and having a reporter interested in their lives. That can be a lot of things — it can be annoying and it can be overwhelming, but it can also be validating to have someone listen to you as long as you want to talk, and listening to your every word, which I would do a lot of times. Otherwise it can be fun, and add some spice into your otherwise normal day, when you have this guy with a microphone following you around, and it’s funny. I think all of those were present in these relationships.

But I also had the luxury of being able to spend time with people, and listen to them a long time, and not cut them off. I feel like [if you] just do that enough, that builds trust, and, just in general, try not to be shitty to people and try to be up-front about what you’re doing, and be honest.

With other people, it did take time to gain their trust. Particularly with Rita, John’s cousin, and her husband Charlie, it took a good six months of me just showing up at every court date and saying hi, talking, sending them an email follow-up, sending them our website, and showing them what we’re doing, that I’m not there to cause trouble, that I’m taking my time, and that their perspective on things was important. They were distrustful of a lot of people in this situation for understandable reasons —they were coming in from the outside, things were happening that they did not expect or totally understand, and they didn’t feel like they were getting a resolution — and I totally understand why you would think it was weird that there was a guy with a microphone around everywhere from New York.

After John died, how did you decide which aspects of his life that he didn’t explicitly mention to you to include in the story? I’m thinking specifically of the episode on his romantic life, Chapter VI, and the ending episode, when you explain his and Tyler’s ritual of “church.” How did you make those decisions?

We thought about them carefully. We think about every piece of sensitive information carefully, and what its importance is to the story and to people’s understanding of someone else’s experience, and of the structures in a place like Bibb County. There are lots and lots that I learned in the reporting that I didn’t put in the story because we felt that what it added to the story wasn’t worth either the sensitive nature of it, or maybe it touched someone who was still alive, and we didn’t include it for that reason.

But also I don’t believe that when a reporter is doing a story about someone who has died, that they can only include elements that the person consented to when they were alive. I don’t believe that’s an ethical problem, and there’s a whole world of journalism about people who have passed away. The whole enterprise of that journalism is to learn more about [those people] than we understand from when they were alive. My absolute favorite book of the last few years is The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace, which is written by [Peace’s] college roommate. His roommate is explaining his drug-dealing activities, he’s explaining some of the more unsavory sides of Robert’s life, and that’s the whole point — to understand what happened to this man, and how he got into the situation he got into.

Yes, I’ve seen some reaction that confuses me a little bit. But I don’t think you have to have talked about everything about someone who’s dead with them. We’d be losing out on some really important stories if that were the case. So yeah: It’s important to be sensitive, and it’s important to always be evaluating what we’re doing, I completely agree with that, and I think that people can disagree with the decisions that reporters make, for sure. But we’re very careful and thoughtful in what we included and what we didn’t — and there’s a lot we didn’t.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.