Spoilers for all seven episodes of the podcast S-Town.
S-Town is about a man, not a mystery. The new series from the producers of the smash-hit true crime podcast, Serial, begins with the investigation of a potential murder, but by episode three it turns into an exploration of a single man’s life—and death.
John B. McLemore reached out to the This American Life and Serial producers to investigate potential corruption in his “shit town” (hence, S-Town) and then took his own life. S-Town host Brian Reed decided that the story of John’s life was even more compelling than the story of the alleged murder would have been.
Reed spoke to TIME about the ethics of exploring John’s secrets, uncomfortable moments in the tattoo parlor and whether that treasure really exists.
Why did you decide to drop them all of the episodes at once instead of one-by-one?
I pictured it this way ever since we decided it was going to be a multi-part story—for a long time, this was a This American Life story. Serial was modeled directly on serialized TV shows. With S-Town, we were really thinking of novels. While S-Town is completely non-fiction, the story itself had a very novelistic feeling, just in the details of it and the richness of the place. We were trying to make something that feels like a book you can listen to at your leisure. You can put it down in a middle of a chapter, and it kind of wedges itself in your brain as you go about your day. And it freed us up where we didn’t have to do a cliffhanger every time, at the end of every episode.
The story you’re telling in chapter one ends up being very different from the story of the podcast. Were you worried that people would stop listening when it took a turn in episode three?
Yeah, I was concerned. I think if someone was expecting Serial, we’re not going to get that person to stick around anyway. And I’m okay with that. I would hope for the majority of people, if we did it right, the fact that it isn’t what they expected is a good thing. But I thought if we did that tricky part in chapter three right, where the story’s changing dramatically and we have to tell you, “Stick with us for four more chapters please,” we could tell our listeners, “We know what we’re doing.” A lot of storytelling is projecting confidence that you know what the story is, and it’s going to go somewhere.
You talk in the second episode about being uncomfortable with a moment in the tattoo parlor. How did you deal with the possibility of being perceived as an outsider, a “Yankee” as you say on the podcast, in this rural Alabama community?
The first trip down there I really was going to see John. I’d developed a relationship with John. And he was quite paranoid about the situation, so I really was going to play it close to the vest. That was our plan in terms of investigating this alleged murder: I was only going to talk to a couple people that he was going to introduce me to. So I didn’t have those thoughts then. By the time I started going down more after he died, I had a relationship with Tyler, mainly. And in general I didn’t find a lot of resistance. I found people in the South and this part of rural Alabama to be very game. I think they got a little bit of a kick out of having me there. Having a reporter hanging around spices your life up a little bit. They would mess with me—I understand that.
You said they got a kick out of it. And people ended up revealing really personal stuff to you. How did you explain what you were doing there and what Serial is?
I told them a lot of people could hear this. With John, he was a listener of our show and reached out to us. In terms of Tyler and his family, I just sat down with him to make sure he understood what it means. A lot of people did not know Serial and had not heard of our show. Honestly, the concept a lot of people have is that we were reality TV. And they were signing up for that: “Oh you have to come see my Uncle Jimmy. He’d make a great story.” I think it’s important to be straight-up and clear but not over-protective of people. They have the agency to say yes. And they have agency to try to make your story be even more prurient than you would want it to be, and you would have to tone it back.
There’s been a debate about podcasts that do these deep investigations and whether they can exploit people’s lives for entertainment. As we talk about people hamming it up for the microphone—including using racial epithets—I’m curious how you walk the line between painting a very specific picture of this place and making a piece of entertainment where your listeners are maybe tuning in to be like, “Wow those people are so not like me.”
I don’t think that there are only racists down south—I’ve heard people use that word elsewhere. Yes, they’re putting on a bit of a show for the microphone, showing off their tattoos and things like that. And I’ve talked to other people who are from the South, that point out that this is what people sometimes do to an outsider is to test them a little bit: Someone says a word, and they give you a look to see what you’re going to say. I don’t think that’s exploitative to include that in the portrait of a real place. I think if it is surprising to people, then all the more important to include it.
Why did you decide to keep traveling down to Alabama after you figured out that the murder hadn’t happened?
The whole time even investigating the murder, we didn’t know if this was going to be a story. We kill half the stories we start on on This American Life, and it’s considered a triumph to kill something that doesn’t work out or is mediocre. So I was working on many other stories at the same time. We never knew what this was going to be, and then when John committed suicide, I wanted to know more about him. And then there were things happening in the aftermath of his suicide that seemed worth documenting, and the characters were calling me and telling me about. And so my focus shifted. It also took me awhile to figure out that no murder had happened because John had painted such a scary picture of the place that I didn’t want to get him in trouble. I really was not talking to authorities for a very long time because he told me that they might all be in on it. I wasn’t talking to anybody who was allegedly involved.
Once John had passed away, how did you decide what details about his life that he had chosen not to share with you when he was alive—aspects of his sexuality, getting the tattoos over tattoos—to include in the show?
We weighed each one in terms of: what does this teach us about John? Is it important? How important is it? So there’s a lot we left out. Honestly, it’s a human judgment call. There’s no science to this. I think different people will have different reactions to it and feelings about it, and I understand that. I think there’s a long history of biography and telling stories about people’s lives and we just tried to be respectful. But, I mean, the people who knew him best were very open and seemed to feel okay sharing a lot about his life. And we were judicious about what we included.
Upon reflection, how much do you think him reaching out was about his loneliness, his desire to share his life with someone, and how much was it about this possible murder?
Right after he died, I thought, “Did John reach out to me and do this purposely to leave his story behind?” That was one of the many thoughts I had that went through my head in my own processing of his death. But then I pretty soon realized that was a narcissistic thought. I’m not that important in John’s life. The more I started talking to people, the more I realized this was his way with a lot of people. Many of his closest friends were phone friends who didn’t live in town. He would talk about his life and his town and his ideas and science and climate change and clocks with friends on the phone hours and hours. It was his way with a lot of people, and I was no exception. But he definitely had a flair for the dramatic, and there were definitely times when he was putting on a show. He would be like, ah this would be good for This American Life, and he’d be pulling a Balzac book off the shelf or doing poetry recitations, and he’s on microphone. He said to me a couple times on the trip down there—and this is something we thought that we’d include in the story and then we didn’t—”I knew you’d come down here and find a better story that you thought you were coming down here for.” It’s always stayed with me because obviously the story is very different than what I initially went down there for.
Do you think there’s treasure?
That’s one I think John might be laughing about from beyond wherever he is.
That begs the question: How truthful do you think he was?
Or with you in general?
I don’t know. I mean the incident he called me down there for, everyone did think that happened. He didn’t make that up. I talked to people well after I figured it out and asked, “Oh by the way, just out of curiosity, did you ever hear about this murder?” And people would be like, “Oh yeah he killed a guy.” Everyone believed that. So he didn’t make that up. I mean, he was gullible and it fit his worldview and his view about his town, so he was very ready to believe it without much skepticism, but he didn’t invent it. In terms of the treasure, I honestly don’t know. John was super unfiltered, so in many ways he was one of the most truthful people I ever met. But then he does have this flair for the dramatic. I don’t think he was a fabulist: I don’t think he made stuff up completely. I think he was really great at spinning nuggets of truth into a much more ornate and dramatic view of the world than most people have. I constantly had this feeling that John could be a complete crack job on this or he could be a prophet. To this day, I don’t know.