By Kevin Barnum
At first glance, the podcasts “S-Town,” released in March, and “Serial,” first released in 2014, seem to have much in common. They both rapidly rose to massive popularity and became the most talked about podcasts of their time. They both hook the listener in with the intrigue of an unsolved murder. They even both share much of the same creative team — “S-Town” was produced by Serial Productions, a production company formed by the creators of “Serial.”
“S-Town,” however, is decidedly not a reincarnation of “Serial,” a fact that becomes clear to the listener for two reasons. First, as “S-Town” progresses, we quickly realize that murder is not the driving force behind the story as it was for “Serial.” Instead, the story focuses on the man who first brought the murder to the producers’ attention: John B. McLemore. We soon learn that John is an eccentric antiquarian horologist (he fixes old clocks) who is angry at the world for almost everything, and even angrier at his hometown, which he has dubbed Shit-Town, (S-Town for short), by whom listeners are roped in by the desire to better understand John’s pessimistic worldview.
But “S-Town” also departs in another, and perhaps more radical way, from its “Serial” ancestry; “S-Town” is not a serial. In a sharp break from podcast tradition, Serial Productions decided to release all seven episodes of “S-Town” at once, giving podcast listeners the binge-listening experience that had so long been lacking from the form.
Though new to podcasts, the binge-model is, of course, not new as a concept. The television industry has long understood the advantages of the binge model over the serialization model. Apocalyptic prophecies of the death of traditional television at the hands of online streaming services like Netflix and Hulu are repeated so often now that they are almost trite. Regardless, the value in the binge model for the viewer is very real; it allows one to see whatever show one wants, whenever one wants it.
It seems now, too, with the success of “S-Town” that the podcasting industry will recognize the power of the binge model, and in doing so, will take the podcast form to its logical conclusion. When audio shows first began to be released on the internet, it meant listeners could hear a program without having to wait for it to come on the air and could access it any time after it premiered. Now, if in our culture of instant gratification, more shows start to follow “S-Town’s” model, listeners will no longer even have to wait for another episode of a podcast to be released. Perhaps people will start to devour podcasts with the same fervor that they would a new season of “House of Cards.”
This revolutionary release format may be partly to thank for the success of “S-Town.” But part of the show’s success also stems from how well suited the content is to this binge-listening format. Both reviewers and the show’s producers have acknowledged “S-Town’s” novelistic quality. The listener consumes the show on his or her own time, more like a paperback novel than a serial novel, not only because of the release format, but also because of the pacing of the story. “S-Town” is less about its plot twists (although it has its fair share) than it is about exploring its characters and getting lost in the labyrinth of their hometown.
And getting lost in S-Town is exactly what this new release format allows one to do. The listener can forget about the passage of time because the release of an episode no longer corresponds with the passage of a week. The episodes are there despite time, not because of it.
The irony of “S-Town” being the podcast that frees listeners from their awareness of time is that the characters in the story cannot help but to think about time. At one point in the story, host Brian Reed explains that John B. McLemore wrote an essay in which he calculates the number of meaningful days that there are in one’s lifetime. John’s painful awareness of how much time he has left to make something of his life is all too apparent. But at another point in the story, Reed visits the home of one of John’s friends and finds a house filled with clocks that John has restored. The man explains that he has always been fascinated by clocks, recalling his initial enthralling revelation that, “the measure of time had something to do with me.”
In John’s case the passage of time seems an unending and painful slog that one must struggle to wrestle anything from. But to his friend, time becomes an ally, something you work with rather than against. And in this way, the creators of “S-Town” show us their awareness of what they have done: they know that they have given us time back on our own terms, not produced and prepackaged for us by the dictates of a strict weekly schedule.