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Brian Reed of S-Town on It's A Long Story

Experimental storytelling: 
S-Town's Brian Reed

The podcast's host and Ann Mossop talk taking risks in storytelling and the art of failure for It's A Long Story

Justin Tam

S-Town's rich and thoughtful storytelling captured the attention of audiences from around the world. Brian Reed, its host and co-creator, originally set out to find a new story for This American Life. Instead, he spent three years investigating the life and tribulations of small town Alabama resident John B. McLemore. The podcast captured audiences with the twists and turns of life in Bibb County, presenting an audio story akin to great literature.

On our next episode of It's A Long Story, Ann Mossop had a chat to Reed about experimenting with radio, his relationship with McLemore storytelling and the importance – and art – of failure.

Listen to It's A Long Story here.

On growing up:

"I was particularly interested in historical memory, the ways history is remembered and affects the present."

"I was a theatre kid. I did the musical every year and every summer ... I was also on the school newspaper."

"I just remember feeling, [This American Life] makes sense to me ... this is a really cool way to be thinking about radio stories."

“[My mother] was reading Grapes of Wrath in a book club ... she got really upset at the ending. I think that upset her."

"We do stories ... that teach us something about the world that we didn't know before."

Dan Ilic and Brian Reed. Photo: Prudence Upton



Brian Reed and Ann Mossop - It's A Long Story

On challenging storytelling:
"We do stories that interest us, that amuse us in some way or that teach us something about the world that we didn't know before. Or that sound different than we've heard before on the radio.

“When you're reading a novel and you open the book, it might just start with the character in the middle of doing something ... you may be in the middle of the book and a new chapter opens with some new character or situation ... you're trying to orient yourself, but you don’t put down the book because it's a novel and that's how novels are ... we wanted to try and do that in a podcast and try and convince listeners to give us that leeway in the storytelling."

“I don’t know that I could create characters like a novelist actually does. I'm very grateful for reality ... I'm grateful to have it to draw on. I don't think I could sit at a blank computer screen and type out a character. I'm not sure I could do that.”

“It's a sad and somewhat, I hope, beautiful story about your town ... and I hope you appreciate it.”

Dan Ilic and Brian Reed (S-Town) in the Concert Hall

On what it means to fail:
"Killing [a story that's] mediocre is a triumph. Dragging something mediocre over the finish line and making it decent is really hard ... it's not that fun."

"You need to experiment ... interview people and have it not go well. You need to run at a lot of stuff to make the stuff that's great."

On taking a risk with radio:
"My colleagues are always thinking experimentally, it certainly was empowering and emboldening ... they'd been talking about trying something new for a while, they'd keep their expectations low as to what the listeners would be, and just thought of it as an experiment ... and so I think it was very emboldening to just be able to trust ourselves when it came became time to think of the next experiment."

"I was like to Julie [Snyder], I don’t know what else to do besides go down [to S-Town]. Do you think it's worth it?'

"We often do that with stories, where we don’t quite know ... but part of it is trusting your gut."

“If there had been a murder, maybe it could have been contained in one [This American Life] episode."

“If we take a tangent, we'll sometimes literally and very crudely say we're about to take this long tangent but trust us it's worth it and we're going to come back to the story at the end ... we'll actually say that on the air."

"Please listen. This isn’t a bad story about your town. It's a sad and somewhat, I hope, beautiful story about your town and a guy who lived there, and I hope you appreciate it."

"It wasn't a cold relationship but I don't think it was a friendship."

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