The Podcast Becomes an Art Form

Written by Ryan Smith |

I’ll admit, I was late to the podcast game. Like a good number of people under the age of 40, I had listened to The Joe Rogan Experience now and again, and I enjoyed the weekly podcast that the writers of the television show Lost put out back when the show was airing. But that was the extent of my exposure.


Though I was late to the game, it’s safe to say I’ve rallied hard over the past couple of years. At this point, there aren’t many well-known podcasts that I haven’t at least sampled. Most range in quality from “great” to “good” to “that’s three minutes of my life I’ll never get back”.


There’s the 29-year-old, first-time-podcaster in Georgia who is solving an 11-year-old missing persons case in real time (great). Then, there’s the jerk who stalked his “friend” Richard Simmons for reasons that are still unclear to me (good). And who could forget that time Shaq used his podcast to profess his allegiance with Kyrie Irving as a flat-earther (that’s three minutes of my life I’ll never get back)?


But of the hundreds of podcasts I’ve tried, there are two that don’t even fall on that scale.


In October, I wrote about the podcast Serial as an example of how new media is significantly impacting the justice system. Serial got me, and millions of other people around the world, hooked on podcasts. And while other new true-crime podcasts have been coming online in droves since Serial debuted a few years ago, nothing has been nearly as compelling. In fact, to make a better podcast, the folks behind Serial had to make something that isn’t like Serial at all.


Created by the producers of Serial and This American Life, S-Town is a true-life podcast that debuted in March. Hosted by investigative journalist Brian Reed, S-Town is described on its website as follows:


“John despises his Alabama town and decides to do something about it. He asks a reporter to investigate the son of a wealthy family who’s allegedly been bragging that he got away with murder. But then someone else ends up dead, sparking a nasty feud, a hunt for hidden treasure, and an unearthing of the mysteries of one man’s life.”


This would be an apt description only to someone who thinks that “a rebellious prep school student explores New York City after being expelled” is a good way to sum up A Catcher in the Rye.


It’s hard to articulate what S-Town is truly “about” because it’s not really “about” anything at all, as much as it’s an examination of the human condition.


Even if there were a plot to describe, I wouldn’t spoil it for you. Because if you’ve yet to listen, I envy you. As the number of podcasts I’ve yet to sample has dwindled, I’d begun to lament a lack of originality and innovation. Then I heard S-Town, and I was reminded of the emotion I felt back when I watched The Sopranos for the first time. S-Town transcends what we’d come to expect from the platform, and transforms a media channel into an art form.


And when something is groundbreaking in nature – as both Catcher and The Sopranos were in their respective times – important questions are bound to arise. S-Town is no exception; in much the same way that Serial raised ethical questions about the thin line between journalism and exploitation, S-Town has received its fair share of criticism for what some view as an invasion of privacy. I’d never pretend to have answers to these complex questions, but I’ll certainly be listening if and when someone does. And I can promise I won’t be late this time.