Invasion of the Pod People
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S-Town has rattled the conventions of longform audio journalism, broken podcast download records and provoked a deluge of obsessive online commentary and conjecture. Made by reporter Brian Reed with the team behind Serial and This American Life, the series is enthralling and disquieting, and marks another shift in podcasting’s creative renaissance.
At the centre of Reed’s series – set in the small town of Woodstock, Alabama – is one unforgettable character: the obsessive, eccentric and doomsaying horologist, John B. McLemore. In Reed’s rendering, McLemore is as vivid and novelistic as any subject drawn from the hand of Truman Capote.
Bringing a literary aesthetic to audio storytelling, S-Town explores poverty, prejudice, apathy, intimacy, greed and mental illness in America today. In its reception, it’s stirred rich and widespread critical discussions of the form – as well as debates about journalistic ethics. At the Athenaeum Theatre, with host Sally Warhaft, Reed will discuss storytelling, the unsaid, and knowing John B. McLemore.
Brian Reed is the host and co-creator of the groundbreaking podcast S-Town, which is a production of Serial and the public radio show This American Life. Reed is also the senior producer of This American Life.
S-Town was downloaded 16 million times in its first week, setting a new record in podcasting, and is currently the number one podcast on iTunes. Reed spent more than three years reporting and writing S-Town, which began when a man named John B. McLemore asked Reed to investigate an alleged murder in his small Alabama town.The series won widespread popular and critical acclaim for elevating audio storytelling into the realm of great literature.
Sally Warhaft is a Melbourne broadcaster, anthropologist and writer. She is the host of The Fifth Estate, the Wheeler Centre’s live series focusing on journalism, politics, media, and international relations, and The Leap Year, a Wheeler Centre podcast about Australians' lives in the fog of the Covid-19 pandemic. She is a former editor of the Monthly magazine and the author of the bestselling book Well May We Say: The Speeches that Made Australia.
Sally is a regular host and commentator on ABC radio and has a PhD in anthropology. She did her fieldwork in Mumbai, India, living by the seashore with the local fishing community.
In the last few years, podcasts have matured into the storytelling format du jour – with a little help from a certain sensationally popular true crime serial (ahem). Yet the surge of interest and excitement around audio features and podcasts has been gaining momentum for even longer, propelled by a diversity of formats.
Take the narrative artisanship of This American Life or the sonic vivacity of Radiolab; the topical deep dives of Slate’s Culture Gabfest or Phillip Adams’s Late Night Live; the animated storytelling of The Moth or Sum of All Parts; or the intimate conversations found in Death, Sex and Money or WTF with Marc Maron. The influence of these and countless other shows can be felt in today’s most interesting podcasts (insert shameless plug for the Wheeler Centre’s own successful forays into richly-produced feature-making, including Andrew Denton’s Better Off Dead, and The Messenger, here).
Beloved for their sense of proximity, their active listenership, portability and in some cases, ambitiously-crafted audio, podcasts have a unique ability to keep listeners in the company of their own choosing – and to render mundane tasks bearable. And since design show 99% Invisible’s record-breaking Kickstarter campaigns – podcasts have also shown promise in otherwise dim times for media businesses. What’s next for podcasting – and how could it be done better?
In celebration of all things audible, we’re bringing you some of podcasting’s best and brightest to share their thoughts and insights on the art (and business) of listening.