In 2012, an antique clock restorer from a small-town in Alabama contacted a producer at This American Life, asking for help solving a murder.
In 2017, the story of what followed that first contact captivated millions of listeners and, as a result, thrust a Shelton, Conn., native into the spotlight.
Brian Reed, a 2003 Shelton High School graduate, is the host and an executive producer of S-Town — a podcast from the creators of Serial and This American Life. S-Town centers around an eccentric and brilliant clock restorer named John B. McLemore. It was released in seven chapters on March 28.
In the first week, S-Town reached what The New York Times described as “blockbuster status” in the podcast world, with 16 million downloads.
Reed, who worked on the Gael Winds student newspaper in high school, is now a senior producer at This American Life and lives in New York City with his wife. He told The HAN Network he has a hard time describing S-Town, without giving anything away to those who haven’t listened yet.
“It starts off as one thing and — as it did in real life — it shifts underneath your feet, multiple times,” Reed said. “It’s an investigation into the mysteries in one man’s life and in his town.
“It’s a murder mystery, a treasure hunt and a nasty Southern feud,” he said. “It’s also about love.”
Reed had a front row seat to the cultural phenomenon that was 2014’s Serial podcast. The first season of Serial investigated a 1999 murder and shattered all podcast records at the time. It was produced by Julie Snyder and Sarah Koenig, Reed’s colleagues at This American Life. Snyder is also an executive producer on S-Town.
When Serial Productions announced S-Town’s release, Reed said they were prepared for attention, but not at this level.
“The number of people downloading it and the positive reaction, I didn’t take it for granted,” Reed said. “It’s a weird story and I thought it would get more of a cult following.”
Reed doesn’t agree with those who view S-Town through a political lens — as a story about “Trump-country.” His first interview with John B. took place in 2014, well before Donald Trump was on the national stage as a Presidential hopeful.
“I think looking at this story as a way to understand ‘Trump-country’ —whatever that means — is misguided,” Reed said. “Shelton, Connecticut is ‘Trump-country’ — 60% voted for Trump. It’s weird to me in the first place to label it that way and it’s not a useful framing for this.”
Some of his favorite reactions to the podcast have come from people in Bibb County, Alabama, where the story takes place.
“Some of the most interesting response to S-Town is from people living in Alabama or the South, who say it’s familiar to them or they can relate to it,” he said.
During the whirlwind of success, his family and friends in Shelton have been a big support. His parents, Howard and Paula Reed, still live in Shelton. His brother, Adam Reed, is also local.
“I’m a good son, I visit,” he joked of coming home.
After S-Town’s release, his family updated him, via group text, on where they were in the story, sending quotes and sharing their favorite parts. He recently attended a family get-together where he was gifted a sundial — something that figures prominently into S-Town.
Reed is now often on the other side of the interview table, as he’s been featured in national media outlets and invited on talk shows. Overall, he says, life hasn’t changed much. He’s had a few people recognize him on the street — a strange feeling for a radio producer.
Back in 2012, Reed couldn’t imagine the journey an email would launch.
He recalls fondly his first telephone conversation with John B. McLemore and how it enthralled him.
“It’s not a phone call I will ever forget,” he said. “It was one of the most engaging and fascinating conversations I’ve ever had.”
That conversation is now in Chapter 1 of S-Town and having a similar effect on roughly 20 million listeners, and counting.
To find out more about S-Town, visit STownPodcast.org or download it where podcasts are available.