Feminist Agenda // Taylor Kirby
As innovatively explosive as the podcast scene is right . now, the best of the best are the shows that draw life from the genre’s roots: audio journalism.
Welcome to Night Vale reignited the podcast spark, but it was Serial’s investigative reporting that would later fan it into a wildfire. By February of 2016, the first season of Serial had been downloaded 80 million times. According to NPR, that metric nearly triples their regular numbers.
Then, in March 2017, the producers of Serial and This American Life released S-Town, an addictively disarming look at a rural man named John B. McLemore.
Like Serial, S-Town (the colloquial form of “Shittown,” which McLemore dubbed his hometown of Woodstock, Alabama) begins with the hook of a homicide investigation gone wrong. Unlike Serial, S-Town soon abandons that premise and finds its subject in McLemore, painting an intricate portrait of his unparalleled worldview.
The allure of S-Town and others like it is its profoundly intimate truth-telling. Host Brian Reed is as much a character in the story as he is the person reporting on it. We hear his interactions with the people he interviews, his jokes and his condolences, and we know how he’s asking the questions that inspire in-depth reflections about America’s most ignored regions.
As he constructs his narrative, he shares it with the audience in real time. When he is shocked—when he breaks down into tears—it becomes part of his reporting. It is journalism with a highly subjective flair, but rather than coming off as an ethical violation, it’s absorbed into the central point of the story. S-Town does not exist to poke holes in a faulty criminal investigation; it does not seek a hidden truth. Instead, it excavates the inherent value of one quiet life spent in a shitty town.
While journalists should by no means approach all stories through this lens, more stories need to be told with at least half the heart of S-Town. It is an experiment of empathy, and given the current political climate, it’s no wonder such an experiment was embraced so enthusiastically.