Brian Reed went to "S-Town;" all he brought back was this profound and unforgettable story

Salon talks to the host of the hit podcast about John B., so-called Trump Country and the 1 big question fans have

Published April 15, 2017 3:00PM (EDT)

Brian Reed   (Sandy Honig)
Brian Reed (Sandy Honig)

NOTE: This article contains spoilers for all seven episodes of “S-Town”

“S-Town,” the newest podcast from “This American Life,” is a phenomenon. Social media has lit up with people posting impassioned reviews, begging their friends to listen. The word-of-mouth buzz on the show, which took three years to make, has led to a ratings bonanza. After only one week, “S-Town” had garnered 16 million downloads and was the number one podcast in the United States and nine other countries as well as being in the top five in several others. It has dominated the iTunes podcast charts, with all seven of its episodes claiming the top slots in six countries. In short, it’s an international smash hit. The older sister of “S-Town” is “Serial,” which is also under the umbrella of “This American Life.” “Serial” was hugely successful (both its seasons have now racked up more than 267 million episode downloads) and is often credited with revolutionizing the medium, popularizing podcasts as never before. Yet the first season of “Serial” took eight weeks to reach 16 million downloads across nine episodes.

“S-Town” begins by focusing on allegations of corruption — namely a murder cover-up — in the small, rural town of Woodstock, Alabama, about an hour outside Birmingham. There are rumors that a member of a local wealthy family has gotten away with murder because of his family name. The eccentric John B. McLemore, a clockmaker who lives with his dementia-plagued mother on a sprawling wooded farm that also hosts an intricate rose maze, has called and emailed the offices of “This American Life” about the “shit town” where he lives often enough to pique the interest of producer Brian Reed. But by the second episode, listeners realize that this is not what they were expecting. They know that this show will take them on some gasp-inducing twists and turns, eventually becoming not a murder mystery but a multilayered story that is profound enough to meditate on mortality, give us insights into the tragedies that befall people who have to hide their true selves, and even offer a fascinating look at modern masculinity — a rare glimpse of Southern men displaying their full vulnerabilities and tenderness.

We sign up to be intrigued by a murder but end up being fascinated by McLemore and the entire cast instead. “S-Town” is a story peopled by fascinating characters who are frustrating, wonderful, and — above all — complex. Every time we think we’re encountering a stereotype on the show, the person says something that reveals them as more three-dimensional than we might have ever imagined, challenging our own assumptions about men, rural people, the working class and the LGBTQ community. The show has tapped into the zeitgeist, coming right at the moment when so many in the nation are blaming the rise of Trump and anti-intellectualism on Southerners, particularly Southern white men.

Chief among these is McLemore, who is easily one of the most interesting, complicated, sad and hilarious characters anywhere in popular media these days . . . or ever. He’s the kind of character one finds only in the richest novels and very rarely in film or television, which so often reduces white Southern men or gay men into one-dimensional tropes. McLemore is maddening and endearing, keenly intelligent and often completely illogical. He is the result of someone who is too smart for his own good and the epitome of what happens when someone cannot be his true self. McLemore can be misogynistic and racist, but expresses deep concern for the plight of African-Americans and counts many women as his dearest friends. He’s a gay man who is sometimes homophobic.

There is also Tyler Goodson, a neighbor McLemore takes under his wing. Some listeners can’t figure out if McLemore is in unrequited love with Goodson or if he simply wants to be a father figure to him. It doesn’t matter which is true. What does matter is that the love between the two men is so beautifully wrought. At one point after McLemore’s death, Goodson, undone in sorrow, admits that shortly before his friend died they spent the day together fishing and enjoying the river. “Hell, we spray-painted our damn names up under the damn bridge,” he drawls, and in this moment we are given insight into complexity that we rarely see in any media.

Tyler is a knot of complications, too: a soft-spoken criminal who blatantly defies the law but always says “I love you” to his best friend upon parting ways, celebrates his own uncouthness while resenting those who distrust him because of it, laments the abuse he received at the hands of his own biological father, and wants more than anything to be a good father himself. His mother describes him this way: “If Tyler has a shirt on, you know he must be going to court.” He’s what most people would consider the quintessential “redneck” in his accent and surface attitude yet he is not one to hide his emotions and is also fine with the fact that his best friend is gay, or, as he puts it, “has a little sugar in his tank.” The tenderness between these two men makes for a convincing and truly unique portrayal of male relationships, particularly between the kind of men who are usually portrayed as stoic, thoughtless and uncomplicated.

“S-Town,” with its long meditations on the passage of time and the inevitability of our own mortalities, with its lyrical descriptions of everything from rose gardens to human beings to intricate sundials, sometimes feels more like poetry — or a literary page-turner of a novel — than journalism. This is a podcast that begins with luxuriant language about horology that includes this passage: “I'm told fixing an old clock can be maddening. You're constantly wondering if you've just spent hours going down a path that will likely take you nowhere, and all you've got are these vague witness marks which might not even mean what you think they mean. So, at every moment along the way you have to decide if you're wasting your time or not . . . I only learned about all this because years ago an antique clock restorer contacted me . . . and asked me to help him solve a murder.”

The show is also a rare look at the rural South because it shows it as such a complex place, neither romanticizing it nor vilifying it. It’s a South peopled by characters who might appear to be stereotypes if it weren’t for the show’s insistence on allowing us to see how multifaceted they are. There is the country granny who loves opera, the astonishing brilliance of a man who first appears to be little more than the town eccentric, the gay man deeply offended by causal vulgarity and idle gossip.

Perhaps most tellingly it is a show where rural people talk about literature (everything from Balzac and Kafka to “Brokeback Mountain” and “A Rose for Emily”), have a keen knowledge of what’s happening in the world, discuss science and politics, yet also spout blatant racism, classism and sexism. It gives us a South where a man with a brain injury is not hidden away by his family but is instead welcomed to be present during a radio interview in which he yells out words that punctuate the discussion. A South where a group of concerned citizens get together to get their town incorporated and form their own government. A South where a liberal Yankee is welcomed into the community with more affection and openness than suspicion and taunts.

Perhaps most surprisingly, “S-Town” has made a star of its host, the sweet and unassuming Brian Reed, who has been with “This American Life” for six years and currently serves as a senior producer. In 2012 he was a member of a Peabody Award-winning team at “This American Life." Always he is a calming, quiet presence among a cast who rarely hold back on saying what they feel with passion and bluntness. We first love him when he allows us to hear — in real time — his own emotional response to learning of the death of McLemore. But he endears himself to us throughout, because of his patience, his control, his careful and lyrical writing, and his reassuring guidance as he takes us through a maze that has more elements of surprise than the one McLemore created out of Alabama rose bushes.

I talked to Reed recently about his experiences and he was an open book about everything . . . except the one thing every “S-Town” fan wants to know.

One thing I really love about the show is that you never once seem to judge these characters. You allow their humanity to be on display in such a way that we see their complexity and dignity. They’re neither romanticized nor vilified; they’re just three-dimensional human beings.

That way of being comes out of my normal job at “This American Life.” That’s our M.O, and we pride ourselves on not doing sound bites, to not present issues or people in a two-dimensional way. A lot of the work we’re doing on a day-to-day basis is to present people three-dimensionally, so it just felt like an extension of that. I was just thinking of it as how we do our stories, how we want people to be in our stories. We want to always be paying attention to what people are saying, letting them talk, meeting them on their own terms. We are very aware that this will be a better story, more interesting, if people come across three-dimensionally. That means talking about different sides of people, getting at their complexities, letting them express themselves in the multifaceted ways human beings express themselves.

I think one reason the show has really struck a chord is because it has come out right at the moment when most of the nation is blaming a lot of the current political climate — the rise of Trump and anti-intellectualism -- on white Southern men. 

I started work on this show long before Trump was even running, so it was an interesting experience to have this kind of lens put on this part of the country, when I was already paying attention to it in a different way.

Did being there make you think differently about this area and that kind of blame that’s happening to the region?

I completely disagree with the blame that is put on the Southern white man for Trump. Like when people call the South “Trump country,” I just think that’s ridiculous. Where I’m from in suburban Connecticut, it’s “Trump country” too since 60 percent of the county was for Trump. So to just think of Southerners as being the reason for Trump is such an overly simplistic view of who a Trump voter is. I think it’s weird that people home in on those groups of people and it’s misguided. I mean, if you think about the number of white women who voted for Trump, the number of places in the North and Midwest that went for Trump.

Like I said, where I’m from in Fairfield County, Connecticut, is thought of as a liberal place but it’s not. And so, when I’m reporting anywhere, I’m looking to be surprised. I’m always trying to go to a place that I don’t know about, otherwise there’s no point in going. It was no different for Alabama. I learned all sorts of stuff I could’ve never imagined, but I didn’t feel like I was surprised because it’s the South, but because I’m doing a story about people and people are surprising. Having preconceived notions leads to boring stories.

One thing that's so beautifully illuminated in the show is tenderness between, or of, men, which we see so rarely in media.

That’s not a thing I set out to get. Most men I know, I know that’s how men are. I think it came out of the normal kinds of things that I like to pay attention to when I’m reporting, it just comes out of the ethos of “This American Life.” Radio is made of emotion, that’s what the best radio stories have: plot, surprise, unexpected turns. The best radio makes you realize things about the world, and the best components of a radio story are emotion, and tenderness a lot of times. When we’re interviewing people, we’re actively trying to get them to express their emotions, and it wasn’t any harder to get these men to express themselves than anyone else. Do you think that it’s maybe that Southern men don’t get asked to emotionally express themselves enough?

Oh, absolutely. I don’t think most people in the media ever even consider they might have these insights or vulnerabilities.

Yeah, it certainly wasn’t like pulling teeth, as some people seem to expect. Tyler was so open about crying on the phone with John and loving him like a dad, and so willing to talk about his grief after John died. There were some things he wasn’t able to express as well, like any of us, but the emotion is clear with him. And I think I was able to capture those moments because I was doing the things one does when they’re trying to make a good radio story. Because one of the things you always ask of people is “How do you feel?” And these guys told me.

Some critics have argued that the show crosses a line because it continues to explore John’s story after he has died.

I don’t believe that if you’re doing a story about someone who is dead you need to have their consent for everything you’re saying about them. I don’t have an ethical problem with that. I know that’s something that’s been raised, but there’s a long tradition of really good journalism where it’s like the whole premise of it is that you’re learning more about the person who has died than you did about them in their life. Some of my favorite journalism is that, and that’s the vein in which this story is being told.

The LGBTQ community has had a strong reaction to the show. John’s story really is about the way living in hiding can damage or even destroy people. Yet there has been some criticism that the show outs John B., with at least one journalist saying the show is wonderful but that it "probably shouldn't have been made."  

I didn’t out John. He talked to me on the record about his sexuality, he brought it up on his own. I wasn’t talking to John to talk to him about his sexuality. I was there to talk to him about a murder, his town, but he brought up his sexuality on multiple occasions on his own. I don’t think it’s true that I outed him.

In terms of what detail to go into and what to talk about, it was an evolved thing that we talked about for months. As the reporting went on, it became more and more a story of John’s life and what it was like for him to live in the place he called Shit-town and why he might see it as a shit-town. That’s one of the main questions of the story. To tell that story and not talk about the experience of being a queer man there, it doesn’t compute to leave that out and it was something he did talk to me about.

We were very careful with the things we did talk about, and there’s a lot we left out that I learned, and we were trying to be very careful in our framing. I mean, I’m a straight white dude doing this story and I’m very aware of that and I’m sure there were people who would understand this experience more internally than I do, and I tried to keep that in mind. We were very sensitive to the story we were telling.

It’s crucial to tell this story, about people who are often silenced and historically haven’t been able to live completely in the open.

Yes, I believe it’s an important story to tell and I believe John gave us license to talk about it. It’s so important to illuminate this experience. I feel that it’s important and it was an experience I didn’t understand and I think it could go ignored. And we had an opportunity by John talking to me about this and by his friends telling me more about it, and certainly by what Olan told me, and how long he sat with me and how he told me what a struggle it was for John. It felt like this is important, this is something people should hear.

The interview with Olan is absolutely riveting.

The two days I spent with Olan made for one of the most special interviews I’ve ever done in my career, absolutely.

It feels like he’s been waiting his whole life to tell somebody all these things, and that maybe nobody ever really listened to him before.

He didn’t know John had died until a month later and just found out by searching for his obituary on a hunch, which is such a terrible way to find out your friend died, to have no one to call. They had this secret, siloed relationship, so he was just kind of on his own with it. I didn’t know who he was; I’d never heard John speak of him and I didn’t know how well he knew John but I said I’d love to meet him the next time I was in Alabama. But then I got busy and I had to postpone on him, and I didn’t end up seeing him for a couple months after that.

We started talking and I immediately felt terrible that I had postponed on him; he had been sitting with this grief with no one to talk to about it for months. I felt so bad about it, and I apologized to him and he just had so much to say. He told me felt grateful to have someone to talk to about John without feeling like he was taking up their time or infringing on their attention span. And obviously he found a captive willing audience in me, and I just came to really, really like Olan a lot. It felt like a special interview because he has an incredible memory, and he had clearly thought a lot about John and was still working his way through his relationship with John and still is to this day.

I just talked to him last week. He’s listened to the story several times and he’s still trying to make sense of this relationship, like we all do with special relationships in our lives that didn’t end up being exactly what we thought they might be. It was just so, so special: his ability to tell about their relationship, but in the same moment figuring out John and grieving John. And his own life story — we had to cut a lot of his own experience growing up as a gay man in Alabama. It was a special interview and will always stay in my mind.

In that interview in particular we can hear how much he trusted you. In fact, everyone on the show seems to trust you so much and you obviously came to care deeply for many of them. 

We maybe underestimate the power of what it feels like when someone is willing to listen, to talk to you for a long time, to be attentive, that’s something we as radio producers are able to offer to people. It can be meaningful to people. I think that’s something that maybe John found to be nice in talking to me. And maybe others too. I was just willing to listen as long as people would talk to me. That’s my job but it’s also my personality, too.

And I’d say there was a mix. With some of the people there was a “fuck it” attitude as far as talking to me. But then, with other people, like Rita and Charlie, it took a lot of time. I had to show them that I wasn’t out to cause trouble but to be fair, to try to understand their side of things. They were coming from the outside and were very distrustful of a lot of people involved in this situation and I think they had some right to be. I understood that and luckily I had the luxury of time to be able to take basically six months before Rita would do an interview with me. So I was at court appearances, I was just being around, just saying hi, not pressuring her but being up front and saying “I’d really like to talk to you when you’re ready.”

Was there ever any hesitation on how much of you to put in the story?

It’s kind of the nature of radio stories that the reporter is in the tape. It’s just kind of how narrative radio works: the reporter is a living thing in the story. But there wasn’t a ton of strategizing on our part; it’s just that often that’s the best way to do it on the radio, as if I’m telling the story to a friend in a bar. We try to pay attention to the way we’d tell each other stories like this in a casual way. [For example,] I would explain what I was up to. I’d say, “I wanted to know this, so I called this person.” For this story, a lot of people were calling me and asking me questions, asking me to look into something, and so it seemed like I needed to be in the story. The whole premise of the story is that John reaches out to me. That’s the whole reason the story exists, this interplay between me and other people. It’s part of the fabric.

I think we are often expecting the host or narrator to become part of the show to some extent, but it’s different with “S-Town” because listeners have become so attached or even endeared to you in this show. People talk about you with emotion. I think that’s new for a radio show like this.  

It’s a surprise to me when I get that from people. When I’m writing the show, I’m thinking that I’m telling you about these other people. That’s how I think about telling a story. And I’m more comfortable talking about other people rather than myself and what I say, but it was surprising to get this response where people are saying they think I’m guiding them through it. But of course, I’m talking to them for seven hours. I didn’t internalize it; I thought listeners would fall in love with these characters and would have conflicted feelings about the people I’m telling you about, but I’m not going to be anything to them. I just didn’t have that self-awareness.

I’ve talked to listeners who even become protective of you during the course of the show. Maybe that’s one reason for the endearment. There are a couple moments that are very uncomfortable — when the man at the tattoo parlor is being so racist, in particular — yet you managed to always keep your cool and keep yourself focused on the story. Was there ever a moment when you thought “This is too much”? When they really upset you?

I don’t know that I would commend my handling of that. I mean, how are you supposed to handle that? If I was actually being true to myself I would’ve told him off, argued with him. In that moment I was the underdog, I was alone in the place, doing something a little risky, asking about a murder. I don’t know this guy, this isn’t the matter at hand that I’m here to investigate, and so I’m trying to find something out that is totally unrelated. So, to tell someone off, or cause tension over these comments wouldn’t serve the main piece, but it makes me feel really uncomfortable and horrible to let those things slide.

It’s complicated. Reporters find themselves in situations sometimes where you’re there for one reason, and other things get said that make you uncomfortable but aren’t germane to the story you’re there for, and it’s a tricky one to figure out. I’d like to do a better job personally in figuring out if there are ways that we can somehow bring those moments into our stories more even if those stories aren’t about that.

The racism I encountered wasn’t isolated to that one night. People I was spending more time with would make remarks that I didn’t like and they’d want to become my Facebook friend and then they’d see that I have a wife who is black and as a reporter I don’t want people to censor themselves — that’s the antithesis of what you want someone to do. But once, before I accepted one of their Facebook friend requests, I explained, “This is my family.” It went fine and the comments stopped. So it did have the effect of censoring them. And while I was glad to not have to deal with those comments anymore, I don’t know what the right way is to handle this. It’s a discussion we need to have. You want to challenge things but you also need to accomplish what you’re there to do.

As someone who grew up in this culture, I felt they were taunting you, trying to shock you with some of the stuff they were saying.

That’s interesting that you say that. A number of the Northerners or New Yorkers that I’ve talked to point to that scene as making them uncomfortable, insinuating that the people in the scene don’t understand that they’re going to be on the radio and that could be the only explanation possible for why they’d feel comfortable saying stuff like that. But when I talk to Southerners they point out that this is a thing people do to outsiders in those situations, that they’re testing you. I believe that’s more what it was. I’ve talked to the guy who said those comments shortly after the story came out and he loved the story. It was a very strange conversation. He acknowledged that people were saying he was a racist but also agreed with the portrayal of him because he felt it got both sides of him and he wasn’t ashamed of who he is.

Obviously we are all now haunted by the memory of John, but are there other characters on the show who really haunt you?

John’s friends, the people I called on his contact list. I wouldn’t say they haunt me, but I feel very sad that they were not at his funeral, both for them and for him. I take that list as meaning that he would have wanted them to know and to have the chance to come to his funeral. The fact that none of these people who were so important to him, and on his list, were there — I felt so sad during that process of calling people.

At the end of the show you warn Tyler that he should think twice before revealing it to you if he ever finds the gold. He tells you to turn off the recorder for a moment and then we’re told that the two of you had a discussion on the porch of his trailer. So, any chance you can expand on that?

That is something I can’t say anything else about.

By Silas House

Silas House is the nationally bestselling author of six novels. His latest, "Southernmost," will be released in paperback on June 4.

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