It all comes down to mysteries. The original season of Serial became the first true cultural phenomenon in the fledging podcast medium by diving into the mystery of whether Adnan Syed murdered his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee. The second season opened with the mystery of how U.S. soldier Bowe Bergdahl ended up a prisoner of the Taliban in Afghanistan. But the first mystery that needs to be solved on S-Town—the new podcast from Serial producers Julie Snyder, Sarah Koenig and Ira Glass, and the debut show from their newly formed Serial Productions—is whether there’s really any mystery at all.
“S-Town” is short for “Shittown,“ which is how John, the figure around whom the new show revolves, describes the small Alabama burg where he lives. Corruption is rampant in Shittown, John explains to This American Life producer Brian Reed; he says he’s knows about a murder that was covered up but remains an open secret among locals.
Reed, who hosts the podcast, has worked with Snyder, Koenig and Glass at This American Life for years, and with their encouragement, he began talking on and off to John, and eventually traveled to John’s hometown to investigate for himself. But that’s only the jumping-off point for S-Town, a podcast that’s much stranger than Serial. Despite its true-crime plot, the new series is almost more of a character study. Certainly John, with his razor-sharp wit and downright brutal rants (he compares the local high school he attended to Auschwitz, and he regularly explains to his friends why they are failures), makes for a fascinating one.
The Serial team is releasing all seven episodes of S-Town today. Snyder spoke with us about how they wound up in Shittown.
How crazy has it been, getting the new podcast ready?
We’ve been really crazy. It’s always crazy at the end, but this is first time we’ve ever done one where we’re releasing everything all at once, so every single episode has to be finished.
This is the first time I’ve heard of a podcast dropping a whole season of episodes at once, Netflix-style. What inspired that?
To me, it felt like it was right for the story. I see it more like a novel in the feeling that I have from it. [Releasing episodes weekly] didn’t feel like it was serving anything. To find out what happened next is a very plot-driven device; there’s a ton of plot in S-Town, because it’s a lot of story that happens over the course of three-and-a-half years, but for me it felt like it was something a little more emotional.
How did you first hear about John, and how did you get sucked into the story of Shittown?
It was just a random email that came into the “story pitch” [mailbox] at thislife.org. We split them up among all the producers, although everyone’s terrible about doing it. But this time Brian was actually fulfilling part of his producer duties, and took his chunk and said he’d read, you know, 1001-1090. He really liked John’s email, really found it interesting. And those guys, it just took a while. It was never really clear: Exactly what is it John wants, and what is it that he’s saying? But as soon as they started talking to each other, Brian just loved John.
So I remember we hadn’t even released Serial yet—I was working on the first season of Serial when Brian played for me that first phone call that you hear in the first episode. And I laughed. Brian was saying, “I don’t know what’s going on here, and I’d have to spend money and I’d have to spend time, but do you think this is worth it? Should I go down to Alabama?” And I kind of felt the same way, like, “It’s pretty shaggy what’s being pitched here, but yeah! Let’s go!”
What was exciting about not making it another season of Serial is it felt like its own thing—like we’re approaching this in another way.
Did you ever consider making this story a season of Serial? When did you decide that, out of the hundreds of stories you’ve come across through This American Life, this one deserved its own separate podcast?
We definitely talked about “Should we just go ahead and do this as another season of Serial?” There are pros and cons to it. One of the things that made us say “let’s not” is because Brian’s hosting it and it’s not Sarah. That was one of the reasons. But then a pro to make it just another season of Serial would be we would have probably been able to get more money for it, in terms of advertising. It’s a little hard to start everything over from scratch. But I think ultimately what was exciting to me about not making it another season of Serial is it felt like its own thing—like we’re approaching this in another way. We’re constantly interested in different ways of telling stories, and I do feel with podcasting and the freedom we’ve been given with that, the most exciting part is when we don’t have any rules. Not that I feel like Serial does have rules, but in a way it has now become a little established as a thing. So it felt like: Why don’t we just make this its own thing?
Some of the best moments are these little interchanges where Brian tries to inject even the slightest hint of optimism into John’s worldview, and John just shuts him the hell down every time.
I totally agree. I live for small moments like that.
What lessons from doing Serial did you bring to making S-Town?
That there needs to be an idea to every chapter; there needs to be a reason for it to exist. We’ve all gotten very used, because we’ve worked at This American Life for so many years, to building shows around a theme. On S-Town, I said, “Let’s think of a shadow theme for every episode. It’ll never be explicitly stated, and it’ll never be written anywhere. It’s not something we have to put out into the world. But it’s something that you’re keeping in mind that you’re servicing, that this is the idea behind it.” I think that was helpful, and I learned that from Serial.
Will there be a season two?
No, we thought this would just be a one-off. But it’s funny: I was telling Brian yesterday that my brother was just talking about our hometown, which is a small town in the Midwest that’s definitely seen better days. We’ve been having to go back a lot lately because my dad’s been sick, and my brother was very, very strongly lobbying that we do a second season of S-Town. His feeling is that there are Shittowns everywhere—which is true, right? He thinks we should do my hometown.
Oh, right, like a different Shittown every season.
Exactly. This would be the industrial Midwest version.
There had to be some trepidation around the name Shittown—which is admittedly not your typical name for a public-radio-produced podcast. I see you’re using ‘S-Town’ as the written title, and ‘Shittown’ on the podcast itself.
We were copying Marc Maron’s podcast. I was like, “Look, he has a solution!” His podcast is called WTF, but everybody knows what it stands for. And, oh my god, the opening of his show, he says “fuck” like eight gazillion times. So I was going off that—and I have to say, it’s helpful to have the “S-Town” thing. I have to make contracts and stuff like that, and I feel embarrassed about sending a contract to a lawyer that says “Shittown LLC.” Brian thinks it’s funny.
Will there be a season three of Serial?
Yes. We’re working on a season three of Serial. But initially I had thought season three of Serial was going to come out in summer. I don’t know, we’re terrible. We’re constantly moving stuff. Initially my plan was that S-Town was going to be last fall. So I’ve realized I’m the last person anyone should ask about when something’s going to happen, unless you automatically add nine months onto it. It’s like getting your kitchen redone.
What can you say so far about the next Serial season?
I think it’s pretty different. But that said, for the last six weeks, Sarah’s been helping us out on S-Town—she’s still reporting and stuff, but I asked her not to work on Serial [for two weeks] because I needed her help on edits for S-Town, just getting the final episodes done. So she’s kind of taking a break on it, but she’s still so in the middle of reporting that it’s kind of one of those things where I think it’s going to be different, but I’m not even sure exactly what it is.
When Adnan Syed had his post-conviction hearing, Sarah did daily updates, but you haven’t really done an update on Serial since. Do you think you will?
That one was so crazy, because we were doing Season 2 at the same time. Just to be on the record, I was opposed to [the week of updates]. But you know, we weren’t happy with it, either. I was just like, “Ugh, this is not our strong suit.” I think all of us realized afterward that basically you can get all this stuff from reading the newspaper. Now pretty much any major development in Adnan’s case is really covered. It felt like, is there anything more that we can do to this? And for me right now, it feels like no.
All seven episodes of the S-Town podcast will be released on March 28 at stownpodcast.org, the iTunes store, and other podcasts apps.