S-Town Feels like Bad Management

Spoilers are below, beware!

In late March the creative team behind Serial & This American Life launched a seven-part series titled S-Town. Serial & This American Life are excellent programs in their own right, with Serial’s first season bringing the medium of podcasting into the mainstream and some even linking the show’s popularity with a retrial of the murder case that was the season’s main focus. This American Life has been a steady NPR staple for over two decades now, and has continually brought forth great pieces of journalism in radio & podcast format.

Upon the “surprise” announce, I was really excited to listen (like most podcast listeners). Having listened to it starting this past weekend, the first few episodes were great exposition & got me quite hooked. I listened through the first 4 hours intently whenever I could catch a half-hour here or an hour there. I began to feel a little unsatisfied as I neared the end however, never feeling like any story arc was sufficiently closed, but held out hope that most if not all would be explained in the final few chapters. Eventually it became clear that there would never in fact be a conclusion - each plot point rambled down various story arcs that ultimately led nowhere or were never addressed or disclosed. I finished with an unsatisfied feeling, believing the story could have been boiled down into 4 episodes, or a few featured American Life pieces.

The narrator & reporter for the story, Brian Reed, dates some of the recordings to 2015 & also details how much time’s spent reporting this story. He travels to Alabama quite frequently & spends a lot of time with John B. & friends, renting motel rooms as makeshift recording studios and attending probate court hearings. He becomes emotionally invested in the story, due to the alluring character of John. B & the pursuit of an interesting story revolving around a small-town murder & cover-up. When the bombshell hits that John. B has committed suicide, the curiosity of S-Town and its strange proceedings are as hot as ever.

However, the trail seems to run cold. The story really goes nowhere. And for a story that seems as promising as it was outrageous, it has all but disappeared. The last 5 episodes are tangentially related to the previous content - in fact, part of the podcast’s beauty is it’s shift in trajectory before you really know what’s happened, and all of a sudden you’re listening to the intimate details of a person’s life who you’ve never met. But in that transition from murder mystery to a monument on empathy, I smell sunken costs in both time & effort attempting to be recaptured.

The S-Town podcast, as great as the reporting was given the circumstances, feels to me like a project that had been invested in and relied on only to dry up as time went on. Inarguably, the story was initially compelling & almost assured to be a hit coming off the backs of 2 of the most successful podcast franchises in the world. But, the story that was chased was really never there. The amount of hours & money (and potentially planning) that had been invested were too great to not continue, or to scale down in size. The show must go on, and costs must continue to be sunk to finish it.

The podcast is akin to an enterprise company’s tech project that was pitched around a buzzword (such as Big Data or IoT), promising at its start but has become severely mismanaged down the road. It feels like a product that has become a money dump, a budget suck, and must continue only for the sake of never admitting it was a failure at its core all along. These projects are never fun to work on, and the results are almost never good. Yet they continue because in the moment, it feels easier to let inertia continue & finish the project than to wipe our hands clean, admit we were wrong, and launch into the next venture. S-Town feels like this type of project because the original story pursued was riveting and well-told & in line with the creative team producing the podcast, Serial. Much of the podcast’s initial marketing around the release of the podcast specifically referred to the Serial team as the producers, and almost all initial media coverage contains made reference to Serial. The podcast was being billed as a true-crime podcast, but that never really came to fruition. Instead, it become about something much different, which seemed like a plan B for the story that never quite materialized.

Even being markedly different than Serial, S-Town is still a smash hit. It’s been seen favorably by most listeners and critics alike, and I’m sure will be one of 2017’s most revered podcasts. I quite enjoyed it myself (mostly), but still left feeling unsatisfied, like I promised an experience that never really came to light. I applaud the team on their ability to produce high-quality, engaging podcasts and look forward to the next piece out of their workshop.