Podcast Spotlight: S-Town

When Brian Reed first began his investigation of a supposed murder called in by a local resident of the little-known town of Woodstock, Alabama, the last thing he could imagine was the eventual creation of a podcast documenting the life, death, and mental health of a reclusive yet brilliant clock restorer haunted by his own unmatched intelligence. 

John B. McLemore, our genius and main protagonist (or more appropriately our central vigilante) lived and died in Woodstock Alabama, a rural settlement that can be found sleeping lazily just outside of Tuscaloosa. John, described by Reed as a “local Boo Radley” (for those who are familiar with the hermetic character from the pages of To Kill a Mockingbird) dedicated the majority of his time to the restoration of antique clocks, a feat only few in the world have the skill to do successfully. When John rested from his restoration tasks, his free time would be spent educating himself on matters of the world ranging from countless music and language lessons, to his primary interest, climate change. He was on a mission to become a citizen of the world. However, John’s immeasurable breadth of intelligence did not come with a price, the more knowledge he obtained the more clarity he gained surrounding the immense flaws of the world he lived in, an awareness that lead to his evetual suicide.

image via heavy.com

    Reed met John when John first called him inquiring about a murder he belived to have happened just a few blocks down from his ranch in Woodstock. John had stated that his reason for calling had much to do with the indifference and inaction dominating the residents of Woodstock as they attempted to brush the (potentially) committed crime under their rugs. After their initial phone call John, frustrated by the  rural disenfranchisement that has dominated southern culture, began to call Reed on a weekly basis, providing him with updates and cynical, yet brilliant commentary on the events that he witnessed in his “Sh*t Town”. Although Reed quickly discovered that the murder John had so ferverently fought to uncover did not in fact occur, it was the stories and rants John would relay to him during their weekly phone coversatioons that made him realize there was far more to these calls than empty complaints; there was a story. S- Town created by Brian Reed and Produced by This American Life tells this story through a patchwork of phoone calls and interviews all taking place in Wooodstock. The podcast tackles concepts of societal collapse, sexual repression, isolation, mental health, rural disenfranchisement, and of course, clocks, through the lens and life of a single man's mind, John B. McLemore, painting a stunningly beautiful yet equally painful image of Southern American culture.

Brian Reed: Image via The San Fransisco Chronicle

    Now, to the average eye, this theme may seem arbitrary. After all, why would someone want to listen to the story of a southern clock restorer from rural Alabama? Well, I’m here to tell you why you should go pick up a pair of headphones and start listening because this one is important. 

The most prevalent two themes dominating John's story are societal collapse and rural disenfranchisement. Through these themes, Reed presents a powerful image of what it is like to exist in a small town in the United States, as well as a graphic representarion of the culture that has developed in these rural communities due to centuries of isolation and indifference. Moreover, S-Town serves as a mirror, allowing listeners to reflect on both themselves, and their place within their community. In each character you meet, including John B. himself, you seem to find a commonality between them and yourself. The goal of this to spark a self analysis in the wider context of American society and culture. In a way, Sh*t Town, Alabama represents the trend of American impassivity that has ultimately triggered the societal and environmental collapse John B. had been so enthralled in throughout his final years. 

    Listening to S-Town inspires change. Watching and learning John B. as he navigated through his degrading and troubling mind forces listeners to face the issues plaguing our communities across the country, no matter the size. Although the troubles John B. faces in S-Town appear to be saturated in such a remote and small space, they are real, they occur nationally, and most importantly they are ours. S-Town tells us it is time to find the love behind our hatred when looking at the aspects of community we need to fix, and then work to make the change John B. McLemore fought hard for, but did not live to see.