Brian Reed, co-creator and host of the phenomenal podcast S-Town talked to Cornfield Magazine following his announcement of a UK tour starting this year. Brian revealed his reaction to the podcast’s unprecedented success, the emotional roller-coaster he experienced during its making, and how he plans to move on now that the phenomenal story has reached its close. 

Words by Evie Kissack

As a self-proclaimed fan of S-Town, the chance to speak to Brian Reed about his journey throughout the investigation was a very exciting prospect. I asked Brian the questions that I wanted to ask when listening to the podcast, and tried to find out more about the bizarre, unlikely and genuine friendship between himself and the late John B. McLemore. 

So the series shot to success, amazingly achieving 40 million global downloads in its first month, and has becoming increasingly popular ever since. What were your initial reactions to S-Town’s triumph? 

Awe…astonishment…gratitude.


Am I right in thinking you were married during the making of the podcast?

That’s true. It has been a very long time in the making, lots of things have happened. People have married, children have been born, and people have died. 


How did you manage balancing family life and the intensity of your working life?

That would be a really good question for my wife!

(Laughter)

I mean we both work a lot, she also has a very demanding job, and that sometimes can be hard, for sure. Luckily we both understand what it is to have deadlines. We both work in the media and are aware of the schedules. Often I work in the kitchen, we have a very small apartment, and there were certain times where I’d be working through the night playing soundtracks from tapes from down in Alabama. My wife would say things like ‘I’m trying to sleep and I keep hearing the voice of Uncle Jimmy. Can you maybe take it downstairs?’ 

(Laughter) So I guess my answer is that I don’t know if I did really successfully figure it out. My wife and I just kind of both put up with it. But, it wasn’t a slog, because I really loved the story. There was no reason to do the story, except that I loved it. There’s no news hook to the story, there’s no business imperative, the only reason Julie Snyder (my co-creator) and I did it was because we really liked it and wanted to share it with people. I found even in the moments where I was so exhausted, pulling all-nighters working to the deadline, I never felt resentful of the story, or bummed-out. Of course there were difficult moments, but I always thought, ‘I really like this story and will miss making it when it’s done’. 


You can really tell how involved and passionate you were with the story - it really comes through. I know you were working on it for around three years, which is such a significant amount of time to dedicate to one story. How does it feel now that the podcast has come to its completion?

It’s weird. I think at first it was very emotional. I felt a whole different mix of emotions for the first week/month just about having finished something that took a lot of time. But also, about the world getting to know John and seeing people talk about John in all corners of the world, and talking to you in the UK about it. Sharing him with the world was just very emotional. And now, a few months have passed and things have begun to go back into normalcy, a bit. It was a lot of different rushes of emotions at different points for the first few weeks, for sure. 


I can imagine. You can tell listening to the podcast that you really did build a strong relationship with John. Would you agree that he changed your life? 

Oh absolutely. Yeah, for sure. Fundamentally. He had a point of view on the world that will always stay with me. I find myself thinking of him in smaller decisions; he infiltrates smaller moments and will pop up when I don’t expect it. Particularly in appreciating the time we have. I’ll be riding my bike to an appointment and think ‘Oh, I shouldn’t just be thinking about getting to the next thing, I should be enjoying this ride’. It’s so small, and so cliché in way, but it’s also something that I think I certainly take for granted and I think a lot of people do. I’ll think of John in that moment, and start thinking about how to spend my time in a worthwhile way.


That’s such a lovely thing to take away from the podcast. I know that an email from John B. McLemore sparked off the whole podcast series and investigation. What was it about the email that made you ‘take the case’ and pursue his claims further?

First of all, I don’t get that many emails with the subject line ‘John B. Maclemore lives in S***town Alabama’. 

(Laughter)

It was slightly different from other emails in that sense. There was something about his email that had such energy and personality, as you can imagine his emails had the same personality as when you talked to him. So it caught my eye, and what he was saying was going on in his town, if it were true, was really bad. It seemed to be somebody worth looking into – it seemed at least worth a couple of phone calls. It was not a priority for me for a while; it took a long time to really get going with John, for almost a year. We kind of fell off…then got back in touch and we did eventually get on the phone. 


So was it after the first phone call that you decided you needed to go down to Alabama to visit him?

Not immediately. We talked on the phone for six to eight months or so before I went down there. I wanted to go for a little while, and I was able to get down in the fall and we had started talking in the previous winter. But, I knew after the first phone call this was someone I wanted to keep talking to, for sure. I wanted to look into what he was saying. It was while I was also working on other stories, but I was certainly captivated from the first time I started talking to him. 


It’s such a touching story. It must feel great to now be touring and hearing questions from the many fans of the podcast?

Yeah, it’s so cool! I made this for people to hear it, and I find that when I talk to people, read reactions online or receive emails, people are experiencing the podcast in very unique ways that I could have never imagined. People are having reactions, thoughts and ideas because of it. It’s delightful to talk to people – I’m really pumped to do that. To get perspectives from outside of the United States too, it’s surprising to me still!


Has the S-Town story reached completion for you then?

Probably. I would never shut the door on anything, but I feel like it isn’t the kind of story that we need to do a bunch of updates for. We modelled it after a novel. I know novels sometimes have sequels but I don’t totally think of it in that way. I think of it as something we created that’s cohesive, and I’m proud of it, and happy with it. I do see a lot of people saying, ‘We need follow-ups! We need to know what’s happening!’ but that’s honestly where I want to leave the story. I would rather have the audience wanting more, than thinking it went on for too long. I feel that that’s a good, sweet spot to be in. If people are frustrated that they want more…that’s kind of good to me. Sometimes series go on a little too long. 


I agree. You have to find the right point at which to finish a story. You’ve worked on other productions like Serial for This American Life – how did you get into investigative journalism and production?

Not long after I graduated I was lucky to get a fellowship at MPR (Minnesota Public Radio), which is like our BBC, and I fancied myself a writer but I didn’t really know anything about radio. I didn’t grow up listening to it, my parents didn’t really know what MPR was…but I had heard of it and I was looking for things to do at college. I applied for this fellowship on a whim, the day before the deadline, and got selected – they choose three people a year, who maybe haven’t done journalism before. You spend a year at MPR doing four different jobs, and one of the jobs is being a reporter. You get a placement somewhere else in the country, (most of the time you’re in the DC headquarters), and then get placed elsewhere. So that was my introduction to radio, it was really a trial by fire.  And then I was doing news features and interviews – what we call two-ways in radio – and not long after that I moved to New York and was lucky enough to get an internship at This American Life. So I started here as an intern about seven years ago in 2010. That was where I learned to do narrative and took my experience from radio and applied the fundamental skills I had learned in the first fellowship to long-form radio reporting. I learnt from Ira Glass and Julia Snyder and my other colleagues here. With a little break in there, I’ve pretty much been here ever since. 


The podcast began as investigating a potential crime story and it seems to turn to a really interesting, intimate picture of John’s life. Would you say that investigating people is where your interests lie? 

I would certainly say its one of my interests. I’m really interested in traditional investigative journalism. A number of the stories I’ve worked on here have been just that. I’ve collaborated with ProPublica, which is a non-profit investigative organisation here. I worked on a story for eight months that drew on secret recordings that a bank examiner made inside Goldman Sachs with the Federal Reserve. I’m not interested in finance at all but I liked the challenge of the investigative side of it. I’ve done investigations into FBI operations here that have gone wrong. I do think that in the nature of our storytelling, even if we are doing a serious topical investigation, we are trying to find the people inside of that world that can make it relatable. We don’t do things at This American Life just because they are important, we do them because they entertain us, or interest us, or amuse us. And often these things involve interesting people. There is a relationship between the two, for sure. We are looking for interesting people with interesting experiences. That’s one of the fundamental things we are looking for – John is the epitome of that. 


It must be difficult to do so, but if you could sum up your journey during the making of S-Town in a single word, what would it be?

Oh man. I was going to say ‘tedious and brief’ to steal something from John, but that would be wrong. I don’t think I can do it. There were times that it was so enjoyable but in a challenging ‘work way’ like engaging and trying to figure out how to tell the story…the process of editing and structuring. There were also parts of the report that were genuinely upsetting, it got really dark sometimes. There were points after John’s death where I felt terrible! But it was a life changing experience. 

---

Brian looks forward to his upcoming UK tour, giving fans the opportunity to hear how the legendary podcast was created. Part conversation, part Q + A, you’ll have the opportunity to ask Brian your burning questions and find out more about the intriguing world of S-Town. 

Coming to Birmingham Town Hall, 2nd October. 

For tickets and enquiries visit http://myticket.co.uk/ or call 0121 780 3333.

@BriHReed

 

Get In Touch

Drop us a line

Contact Info

We would love to hear from you and appreciate your feedback. Please get in touch with any queries or questions that you may have regarding the Cornfield Magazine.

Phone: 0121 796 6800

Email: info@cornfieldpublishing.co.uk

Website: www.cornfieldpublishing.co.uk

Address: Wythall Business Centre May Lane, Birmingham, B47 5PD

7+6=