Sweet ShitTown, Alabama
How a podcast investigating a murder has breathed life into the nature of love, and storytelling.
It is true that TV and the small screen are having something of a moment. Netflix and Amazon are seeing to that. But the media innovation that most warrants your attention concerns not the eyes, but the ears.
Audio is bursting to command the stage of your mind. We stand at the brink of an aural Spring, on the verge of blossom. Radio and podcasts are climbing new heights of innovation, produced with all of the frenzy and attention of the fabled writers’ rooms of HBO, Netflix and SNL. Audio is writing in sound, and its newfound brilliance deserves celebration.
This is ShitTown
The latest podcasting wunderkind of the Serial / This American Life stables dropped seven, hour-long instalments last week. It is politely labelled ‘S-Town’ across its endearing artwork.
And ShitTown is the best bingeing shit I have ever heard.
It does something new to the audio form. It layers the emotion of the novel with the urgency of a 7” Vine, whilst knitting the trustworthiness of a documentary with the intimacy of a private conversation. It is, like its Serial predecessor, a milestone achievement for ears.
Such declarations come a little easier, given that I have just spent a weekend at RTÉ, the Irish state broadcaster, exploring how to create standout documentary stories for radio.
The producers of ‘Doc on One’ brought us through the paces in some detail, and the learning was immense. Perhaps the most important lesson was their first theme: how to choose your story? They laid out a rather surprising double-edged mantra: ideas are the currency of a documentary; but ideas are cheap currency.
An idea only gathers value as a story if it is finely anchored; framed in a way that it becomes manageable and connects with many, and constantly honed to pack the most powerful punch. The work of the Doc On One producers always begins with this framing, and constantly revisits the framing decision as materials and interviews are gathered. In landing on the angle or route-in to a narrative, true creativity opens up. Any one idea can spawn a myriad stories. All of the success lies in the choice of how it is framed.
Over the course of three years, the creator of ShitTown (Brian Reed) gathered hundreds of hours of interviews from scores of people living in and about a clapped-out town of Woodstock in Bibb County, Alabama. At the centre is a charismatic, toxic, loveable genius of an antiquarian clockmaker, named John B. McLemore. Reed questions and cajoles and meanders with his interviewees, with the ostensible aim of uncovering a hushed-up murder.
And then a thing happens. An unpredictable, ungovernable thing.
And only in that moment does Reed discover the story he must tell, in the knowledge that the legwork he had heretofore done could accommodate the new framing. It is not telling spoiler-tales out of turn to note that the resulting story of ShitTown is more a disquisition of love than of murder; of life than of death.
ShitTown is a piece of journalism on a par with Capote’s In Cold Blood. Deftly, and with great art, Reed has suffused his work with depth, drama, pettiness and wisdom. It bears listening and re-listening, like the finest novel which, by dint of the great solace it confers on re-reading, rarely leaves the loyal reader’s line of sight.
A podcast which began with one idea likely to lead to one specific story, ended telling quite another story altogether. Its creator had the tenacity and imagination to wait until its essence appeared. In the end, the story was not planned – it was identified. And audio delivered a perfect medium to make it a reality.
We, the Storytellers
We in marketing, who plough the seas of ideas in search of stories, may feel that the fruits of our labours can lack a certain vibrancy on occasion. ShitTown provides inspiration to push boundaries, and not to lose our nerve in creating the stories we choose to tell.
It takes time, and craft, and diligence for an idea to rise up so perfectly that it becomes a tale truly worth telling. One which endures, even when the clocks cease to tick, and roses begin to die. Audio brings to us new tools to be savoured, and the means to be remembered for all time. Because great stories, unlike storytellers, are eternal.
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