A podcast nearly four years in the making, S-Town is the first project from Serial Productions, a company Sarah Koenig and Julie Snyder formed after their hit 2014 podcast, Serial, consumed the internet.
Reporting for the project started in 2013, and S-Town premiered on March 28 with all seven episodes, or chapters, available for download.
The podcast follows the story of an allegedly corrupt town in Alabama and one man’s desire to solve a local murder. What also unfolds is a broader look at life in a small southern town and how claustrophobic it can feel to those who live there.
S-Town received 16 million downloads in one week and is currently the No. 1 podcast on Apple Podcasts in 10 countries, including the U.S., Canada and the United Kingdom. Snyder, the executive producer, felt the story becoming more like a novel than a typical public radio show or podcast.
Part of the intrigue around the first season of Serial was the intense deep-dives; listeners used their internet sleuthing skills and joined Reddit to try to get to the bottom of Adnan Syed’s murder trial.
“That wasn’t something we had anticipated, because it hadn’t been done before,” said Snyder. “By releasing S-Town all at once, we side-stepped that problem.”
Host and executive producer Brian Reed began research and interviews for S-Town in 2013. He uncovered a family story with problems ranging from racism and homophobia to climate change. As Reed gathered interviews from Bibb County, Alabama he attempted to keep his legitimate curiosity at a level that didn’t offend.
“At one point, I sent a cut of the first three episodes to a This American Life reporter from South Carolina, and asked him if we weren’t just trolling around in southern Gothic masturbatory stereotypes,” said Snyder. “People from the South have been telling us: ‘Welcome to our world, and also, it’s way more complicated than that.'”
Six minutes into the first episode, there is an 11-minute segment of just a two-way interview between Reed and John B. McLemore, the central “character” of the show. That editorial choice “broke eight million structural rules for podcasting and public radio,” said Snyder. But it served as a red flag for listeners that they’re in for a different kind of experience.
“It was an unconscious signal to adjust your expectations,” she said.
As the format of the podcast itself was genre-bending, Snyder also wanted the ad spots to be flexible. Blue Apron and Squarespace, two veteran podcast advertisers, were the exclusive partners for S-Town, but are only briefly touched upon during the episodes, so as to not interrupt the listener.
“S-Town is a very scene-based show, and we wanted the ads to also feel similarly,” she said. “We recorded the Blue Apron ad copy at a school, which has nothing to do with what Blue Apron even is, but we pitched the idea to Blue Apron the same way we thought about the show: it’ll be arty, weird, and fine.”
The Squarespace spot is read by Koenig at the top of the show over a “musical bed that also came from the world of the show,” said Snyder. “We wanted the ads and the show to feel like a family together.”
“Not all true crime podcasts make for good stories,” Snyder said. “We look for reporters and creators who have a fire in their gut and who want to either make something weird, something different or that raises the bar or makes an impact.”
Snyder and Koenig maintain flexibility when deciding if a story will be produced for more seasons of Serial, which there will be, or for the weekly radio program This American Life.
“A lot of talented reporters and producers have that fire, but they also have to know how to execute it,” she said. “It doesn’t work if you’re doing a story just to feed some beast.”
Listen to a preview of Chapter 1 of S-Town below.