When Brian Reed and Julie Snyder set out to make the S-Town podcast, they wanted it to be like a nonfiction novel, for your ears. And they succeeded! Like the great literary journalists that kicked off the genre, Tom Wolfe, Truman Capote, Joan Didion and more, they used the tools of fiction to make a true story utterly compelling. The plot is a slow reveal of the remarkable life of a mordant, self-destructive genius called John B.McLemore, and his small ‘Shit-Town’, Woodstock, Alabama. The podcast presents a memorable cast of characters, brought fully to life by rich Southern dialogue and evocative audio scenes. Reed’s deep immersion in the community over months and years shapes his perspective; as with other literary journalists, from Anna Funder (Stasiland) to Katharine Boo (Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity) his subjectivity becomes a strength. But unlike in books, it is Reed’s actual voice, with nuance of tone and tempo, that steers us through the story. Music and other sounds are carefully choreographed to further colour our understanding of McLemore’s baleful brilliance, as he battles his demons and follows his dreams as far as they can go.

I’ve mapped S-Town to classic tropes of literary journalism identified by key figures such as Norman Sims, Mark Kramer, Robert Boynton and Tom Wolfe himself. I did it to make the case that the narrative podcast form, when executed to the highest standard, should be admitted to the canon of literary journalism.

My article will be formally published in the Journal of Literary Journalism Studies in December 2021. It has been peer reviewed and was to have been published in June, but got delayed due to COVID-19 issues. The editor, Bill Reynolds, of Ryerson University in Canada, has kindly furnished an advanced copy, which you can find here.

Listen to S-Town podcast here.