Spoiler alert: This conversation discusses events that happen in and after episode two of S-Town.
S-Town, the seven-part Serial spinoff that has the feel of a Southern Gothic novel, is an astonishing production. Set in the rural Alabama town of Woodstock, the podcast is sprawling, complicated, and incredibly personal; the product, we learn, of more than three years of reporting. I spoke with host Brian Reed, a senior producer at This American Life, about the process of finding the story and the way his role as a journalist was balanced against his personal experience of the events in the podcast.
Quick reading note: this interview is probably best consumed after you’ve listened through to the end of the second episode.
I read that you’ve been reporting on this for over three years. When did the story of S-Town become clear to you?
This was a story where I never really knew what it was, or even if it was going to be a story, for a long time. I had been working on actual stories — looking into secret tapes coming from inside the Fed, looking into police departments in Milwaukee, stuff like that — and meanwhile this was kind of a thing I’d do sometimes on the side. I’d get emails from this guy John once in awhile and found them super compelling. I felt like he was giving me this portal into this place where I didn’t totally know what the story was, but I was never bored, you know? Then, when I did go down to Woodstock, everybody was saying how this guy, Kabrahm, had murdered someone and had been telling people about it. So there was also that. [Laughs.]
It took some time for me to feel comfortable and figure out what had actually happened. But even then I was like, I don’t know what this thing is, because it didn’t turn out to be a murder story. Then, obviously, there’s the thing that ends up happening at the end of chapter two, John’s death, and at that point I was just like, “I should go to the funeral.” And it was just clear at the funeral that stuff was happening, you know? This feud was brewing, people were dealing with this death in certain ways, and I was trying to make sense of who John was and what his life was like.
I didn’t know what the story was or what the shape would be. But we just kind of decided that, “Let’s say that this is going to be a podcast, maybe.”
“Let’s say this is a podcast, go figure out?”
Yeah, and we didn’t even have that discussion before the funeral. I just went. But afterwards we started talking, and I felt there was more to say. I wanted to go back, I wasn’t done. I don’t know what to say other than it’s an instinct, a feeling, and these people were letting me in. There were all these things drawing me to it, even if we didn’t know what the structure and story was going to be.
As a reporting project I knew I was interested in John’s life, and I had this list of people he had left behind that I could contact. And I was interested in what would happen to [John’s young friend] Tyler. So that was another leg of the reporting. I started with those two things, and then I’d get interested in other things as we went along, and I would spend time on them and sometimes it wouldn’t always work out. At some point we thought this was maybe a story where we’d go on complete tangents about this place. Maybe you’d meet a bondsman, or hear a story about being a cop on the railroad. I even interviewed a town councilman from Woodstock who had embezzled a million dollars and ended up in federal prison, not knowing where we’d go.
It could have totally been a bunch of different stories. But then [producer] Julie Snyder and I went through all of the tape, taking it all in. We spent more time than either of us have ever spent structuring, sitting there for four or five weeks talking through the story for days and days and days and putting it up as a storyboard, starting on a whiteboard and then transferring it over. At some point we realized we couldn’t see the whole story all at once, and so we had start putting things on note cards. Like, right next to me is this giant wall that goes around that’s full of all our episodes. And so we started with nine episodes, and then we talked through that and cut things down because some things were boring and there were others that we just weren’t interested in, and then we cut it down to seven, just working through things over and over and over again. That was the beginning of last summer, and we came out of there with pretty good structure that’s close to what the story ending up being.
The story feels incredibly personal to you — it comes to seem like as much a story about something that happened to you as it is a story about John. Did you feel like you had to negotiate that balance between reporting and personal experience?
It’s interesting to hear you say that. I didn’t think of it as a story about me, and I still don’t. I think the extent to which that comes through is just … me being the one telling you the story, and being the one who sat down and wrote about things that happened to other people. The easiest way to do that was to tell it from my perspective.
But there were parts obviously that did affect me. I mean, I knew this guy. So yeah, I don’t know, I don’t think of it as a story about me, but I realize that the story only exists because I kept talking to people, kept trying to see what happened and getting involved to see where it goes.
A lot of the story plays out through the lens of how John felt about Woodstock. How do you feel about Woodstock?
I don’t like to judge places as an outsider. I try not to, and I feel pretty strongly about that. I went through this experience with my hometown in Connecticut. Remember that guy who tried to blow up his car in Times Square some years back? He was living there, and I remember reading a story in some international paper that profiled my town, because this guy had come from there. And I remember thinking, “I don’t recognize this place at all, I don’t know what they’re talking about.”
That was an interesting experience for me, that article. Like, when I’m reading about places I don’t know about in the paper, are they getting it as much wrong about the place as that article was? I’m not saying it isn’t hard to fully get a sense of a place. It’s so hard to do. So I try to keep that in mind, and let the residents speak about the place rather than myself.
This interview has been edited and condensed.