Dirty Old Town

13 April 2017 Katherine Smyrk

Dirty Old Town

Cartoon by Zev Landes

The city is thronging with people. Buskers belt it out, trying to be heard above the cacophony of thousands of feet on footpaths, of trams clattering down the hill. I hear none of it. As I pace the block I am thousands of kilometres away – in Woodstock, Alabama. 

I’m on my lunchbreak and I am listening to S-Town, the newest production from the makers of This American Life and, 2014’s podcast darling, Serial

When S-Town was first announced, it was unclear what it was about. We were told that S-Town stands for Shit-Town, the nickname given to his place of birth by the show’s protagonist. But the rest was pretty vague. A clockmaker in America’s South, a murder, Southern accents so strong they sound fake, a curious New York reporter, Brian Reed. 

I eagerly anticipated the day when all seven episodes would drop into the podcast collator on my phone. The first episode was a wild ride of conspiracy theories, unfolding in a way not dissimilar to Serial. But by episode three nothing was what it had first seemed, and what had begun as a
murder-mystery had turned into something very different. Darker, in a way. Gothic. A twisting journey that careens through the topics of poverty, small-town psychology, mental health, treasure hunts and even the solace and sadism found in tattoos. By the end of the season I had cried on the tram, laughed loudly in a hushed queue and sat still-as-a-stone in my bedroom while an hour whisked by without my noticing.  

With This American Life and Serial behind it, this podcast was always going to be good. TAL has been captivating audiences with its startling stories of regular people since 1995, and could be argued as the place where podcasts all began. The first season of Serial, a gripping whodunit investigating a murder even as the series was going to air, not only won a Peabody for public service by the media, but was the fastest podcast to reach 5 million downloads on iTunes. S-Town has hit 10 million in four days.

Serial was oft billed as an audio version of a TV drama. S-Town is different. Producer Julie Snyder (who was also a co-producer on Serial) said to Vanity Fair that the show was more like a novel than a TV show. “You don’t read a novel that way, where you have it episodically delivered,” she said. “It’s more the thing that’s by your bedside stand, and maybe you bring it with you and you’re reading voraciously, or taking your time more and living in this world for a week and half.” 

What was said of pornography (if you can think of it, it’s been made), could now be applied to podcasts. But S-Town, like its predecessors, seems to have reached out of the nerdy black hole of audio storytelling and hit the mainstream.

This show is a great example of a podcast that makes things that happened elsewhere, to people you’ll never know, seem like they are playing out in front of you. The voices and the stories become familiar, like a memory of a life you’re not quite sure you ever lived. Through two tiny earbuds, this podcast transports you...to Shit Town, Alabama. 

» Katherine Smyrk (@KSmyrk) is the Deputy Editor of The Big Issue

This article first appeared in Ed#534 of The Big Issue.