Every now and then a story comes along and lights the world on fire.
The medium of the podcast has provided us with several such intriguing tales, none more so than S-Town, which was downloaded a record-breaking ten million times in four days on its release and which has racked up a whopping forty million downloads overall. Ryan Tubridy was joined by the reporter behind the story, Brian Reed, who is a Senior Editor at legendary podcast base, This American Life, to ask how this phenomenon came about.
"I wasn’t even looking for stories. I was reading an email account for the show I work for, This American Life, where listeners write in to give their reaction to stories… Amidst those was a note from John B. McLemore, saying (he) lives in, I’m not sure if I can this word on Irish radio, but S-Town Alabama… The content of the email was John saying how terrible the county he lives in is and mentioning a couple of instances of corruption and wrongdoing including a murder that he said had happened that someone had gotten away with… It just seemed like it was worth a phone call or two."
We’ll leave it to your imagination as to what the ‘S’ in S-Town stands for. Brian made that phone call and soon found himself down the rabbit hole of John’s colourful life while investigating a murder. Brian describes John as "fascinating, hilarious and darkly funny". Living deep in the woods in a house unchanged since the 1860s and working as an antiquarian horologist, Brian says John was a reporter’s dream.
"What John wanted us to do was to come and expose how much of an S-Town his county was… I chose the murder as a way to focus the reporting… While doing that we were always trying to understand S-Town through John’s eyes and why he saw it this way. There was always this dual reporting track. We were investigating this specific incident but also I was getting to know John and trying to understand the place he lives as he saw it and eventually, a year and a half into reporting on the murder, I kind of figured out what happened. Then something else very dramatic happened after that that took the story in a completely different direction."
The dramatic incident was John’s tragic suicide in the midst of Brian’s reporting. Brian has come to the conclusion that mad hatter’s disease had a part to play in his death.
"Mad hatter’s disease is kind of a colloquial, almost literary term, for mercury poisoning. The mad hatter’s disease comes from the fact that hatters would use mercury to affix felts to the hats for years… There’s a case to be made that he may have suffered from it because in working on old clocks, you take mercury and burn it… John did this for years according to many people who knew him and so he was repeatedly exposed to mercury fumes over a long period of his life and he displayed a lot of the personality characteristics like irritability and mood swings and suicidal ideation that are associated with mercury poisoning."
The story that John exposed has captured imaginations the world over. If you would like to hear more from Brian about this gripping tale, you can see him in the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre on September 29th as part of the Dublin Podcast Festival.