Tag Archives: Podcasts

What I Learned From the “S-Town” Podcast

The highly acclaimed podcast “S-town” reinforces two notions I’ve tried to follow in my professional and personal lives: Every lunatic caller deserves 10 minutes of your time and so does every person – lunatic or otherwise – you meet.

For those not familiar with “S-town,” it is the real-life story set in a tiny Alabama town where the show’s host, Brian Reed, is called on to investigate a possible murder.

As if that is not weird enough, the person who invites Reed, a guy named John B. McLemore, is, well, a bit eccentric.

McLemore is a Renaissance man of the highest order. He is erudite and articulate, his speech sweetened with a Southern twang.

In one of their first conversations, McLemore tells Reed that as a teenager he was into “the astrolabe, sundials, projective geometry, new wave music, climate change and how to solve Rubik’s cubes.”

McLemore also delivers long, lucid and hilarious profane-filled rants about his crummy little town (hence the podcast’s title).

It reminded me of something that I frequently preached (and practiced) in my work as a newsman: Every lunatic caller deserves at least 10 minutes.

Newsrooms are a magnet for people to call or email with tips about alleged corruption or consumer rip-offs, promote their inventions or weave tales of government oppression.

Some of them are crackpots or conspiracy theorists. Some have legitimate gripes that don’t rise to a news story. And then there are some where your news sense begins to tingle as they talk.

Such was the case when a woman called me with a story of how she had been married to a mobster, they had kids, he divorced her and the feds were interfering with her child support payments because the ex-mobster was now in the Witness Security Program.

Not only did the story check out and she had reams of documentation to back it up, but it led to a detail-rich narrative.

But my first inclination was to think that this was a prank phone call.

I can only imagine what that first call from McLemore to Reed was like and how the podcast journalist must have reacted. And yet Reed stuck with the story, making visits, doing interviews, gathering material for three years, leading  “S-town” to become a smash hit.

And it all started with an email and meandering conversations that would lead an ordinary listener to ask: Does your train of thought have a caboose?

Outside of newsrooms, Reed’s patience and openness offers another valuable lesson, and that is not to be quick to judge others.

I had some guy approach me outside of Penn Station with a hard-luck story of how he had just gotten out of prison and needed train fare to get to his brother’s place.

I listened as he showed me his prison ID and I recognized the institution, which led to more conversation. I gave him five bucks, shook his hand and wished him well.

I could have easily chalked him up as some panhandler unworthy of my time and been on my way, but I felt better for offering a few minutes of interaction.

Have I been burned by other encounters? Of course.

But I would still rather continue listening with my heart than my nitpicking brain.


What’s All the Fuss About Podcasts?

You may have heard about the latest podcast to make a splash, “S-town,” which, not to give too much away, tells the story about a man in the Deep South and the community he lives in.

It has gained widespread attention the way “Serial” did a few years ago.

So what is all the fuss about podcasts?

If you commute for 30 minutes or more, they will make a big difference in your life.

For the uninitiated, think of podcasts as radio in its heyday when families gathered to listen to “Little Orphan Annie,” “The Shadow” or Jack Benny.

Unlike radio, the programming for which can vary by location and time of day, podcasts are like the Netflix of audio: You can listen when you want and where you want.

There are thousands to choose from, but here are some of my favorites:

News and General Interest

“The Daily”: The New York Times started this 20-minute daily news digest. High production values and packed with news and insight.

“This American Life”: A granddaddy of story-telling shows, often with surprising twists.

If You Want to Cry

“Heavyweight”: The premise is the host revisits a decision – be it trivial or consequential but often tinged with regret — and explores how it changed a person’s life. It is well done and spot-on about life and human nature.

“Terrible, Thanks for Asking”: Heartache and tragedy abound in this show but not in a way that is at all maudlin.

The British Invasion

“No Such Thing as a Fish”: Ignore the title and listen. This is a gathering of smart Brits talking about the most interesting facts they’ve learned in the past week. Fascinating, fun learning on everything from history to biology and culture.

“Answer Me This!”: Fun show in which the three British hosts answer questions from listeners. It is light-hearted, rude and informative.

True Crime

“In the Dark”: A hard-hitting report that examines the kidnapping and unsolved murder of a boy and deeply explores how the police investigation was so botched. I was slack-jawed listening to almost every episode.

“Casefile True Crime”: This is hosted by an Australian and the accent takes a few minutes to get accustomed to but wow are these episodes deeply researched and they tell stories I’ve never heard before.

“Crimetown”: Offers an amazing historical glimpse into the mob’s control of Providence, R.I., and its crooked mayor. The interviews and recordings from years ago are fascinating. They are worth listening to for the New England accents alone.

“Sword and Scale”: Warning! This is not for the faint of heart. The stories are of some of the most grisly true crimes, replete with original 911 calls, court testimony and court records. Best to take in small doses.

“The Radio Adventures of Eleanor Amplified”: This is a hilarious send-up of radio shows of old, complete with sound effects, snappy writing and cliffhanger endings. Safe for the kids and good fun for the adults.

“Homecoming”: This takes a little while to catch fire but once it does, you are left wondering what’s coming next. Very intriguing plot that is well paced and performed.

For the guys

“The Modern Mann”: Hosted by Olly Mann, this is for and about guys, but with a British twist. Lightning-quick humor and entertaining.

“About Men Radio”: Featuring yours truly and a friend of 40 years, Pedro, and a cast of other childhood chums. It’s not about all men, just us men, but in telling specific stories about ourselves, I think we reveal, through humor, introspection and crude jokes, some larger universal truths about men.