'S-Town' takes 'Serial' learnings seriously

S-Town's creative team: julie snyder, ira glass, brian reed, sarah koenig. via wired.

S-Town's creative team: julie snyder, ira glass, brian reed, sarah koenig. via wired.

It didn't seem to me like S-Town, the new podcast from Serial and This American Life, had an abundance of hype leading into its release. The announcement of a new show from one of the world's most popular podcasts (TAL) and the perhaps world's most recognizable podcast (Serial) was obviously newsworthy, and coverage of it made the rounds across all the outlets that regularly cover podcasting, as expected, and all the outlets that never cover podcasting, but do cover Serial, also as expected.

The end of Serial's first season didn't seem to sit well with listeners who treated it like it was a House of Cards-type drama that would come to a nice, neat, conclusive ending. Of course it didn't -- real-life stories don't end like fictionalized ones. Sarah Koenig's expert narration and hosting ability was almost too good, making the story in that first season feel more like high-budget, dramatic entertainment than on-the-ground reporting. Adding to that, the second season of the show wasn't met with as much fanfare; the result, hypothetically, was that maybe people got burnt out by Serial's flame as quickly as they ignited it.

I was, clearly, wrong. As of March 30th, in iTunes Podcasts, you'll find the following data points that prove me incorrect: S-Town occupies the first banner slot in the Podcasts homepage promotional carousel; it occupies the first slot in the "New & Noteworthy" list; it's No. 1 on the Top Podcasts chart; each of its seven episodes are ranked No. 1 through No. 7, in the order of their chronology, on the Top Episodes chart; Serial is No. 3 on Top Podcasts, which, wow; and This American Life is No. 4 on Top Podcasts. It's safe to say that S-Town will be the most anticipated podcast release of the year. I'm interested to see, come year's end, how highly its seven episodes ranked amongst the most-listened-to episodes of the year in iTunes Podcasts' database, if they provide such data.

This won't be like Serial, which did catch fire with speed, but which many people still took their time getting around to. S-Town could become highly culturally relevant extremely quickly, due to its execution in taking the learnings from Serial's first-season success to heart. Here's how that manifested itself to me, after I enjoyably plowed through the entire series in less than two days.

Edit, 4/6/17: S-Town received 10 million downloads in its first four days of release (Serial took seven weeks to hit that number), and it already has nearly 1.5 million subscribers to its feed (Serial has 2.4 million, and This American Life has 2 million). 

It's 100%, unabashedly, bluntly built to binge.

Let's reverse-engineer some math here. When Serial's first season was released, in 2014, the podcast landscape looked a lot different than it does now. Monthly podcast listenership by Americans aged 12 and up increased from 12% to 15% between 2013 and 2014, and was up to 21% in 2016; basically, a lot more people are listening to podcasts now than they did back then. It's absurd to claim that Serial is the root cause of all that growth, but we do know the show introduced many people to podcasts for the first time on its way to becoming the quickest series to crack 5 million downloads, garnering nearly 70 million downloads and streams less than a year from its first release.

While Serial had already become a phenomenon before its first season ended, I'd wager that a huge chunk of season-one Serial listenership jumped on the bandwagon either as the season reached its final few episodes, or after the season was concluded altogether. This takes for granted the nature of people being slow to take up recommendations (even high-profile ones) and takes into account the podcast landscape at the time.

The end result of all that? It's likely that tons of people discovered Serial in a way that permitted them to binge through it. By the time they subscribed to the show, there was already a backlog of episodes to catch up on, if not an entire season. The nature of Koenig and Co.'s storytelling made Serial very easy to listen to all in a row, but it still wasn't really built with that in mind -- at least not comprehensively. S-Town is built that way, through and through.

  • The episodes of S-Town are simply named Chapter 1, Chapter 2, etc., through Chapter 7. The episodes were uploaded in "backwards" order -- podcast feeds have their oldest (or first) episode at the bottom of your podcast player when you look at them, but S-Town was uploaded so that Chapter 1 would be at the top of that list. You can click play on it and never have to touch your phone again until Chapter 7 ends.
  • Each episode of S-Town begins the same way. Sarah Koenig says, "Support for S-Town comes from SquareSpace. Chapter One." Then host Brian Reed begins his storytelling. Some of the episodes are sponsored by Blue Apron instead, but whatever. The point is that you're into real content ... and not an advertisement ... five seconds into the series, and into each episode. Since this is the case for every episode, the distance between the end credits of Chapter 3 and the beginning of Chapter 4 is a total of a few measly seconds. The next episode starts before you even have time to dig your phone out of your pocket to pause.
  • Most obviously, all of the episodes were released at the same time. While this might annoy "Podcast Zero"-type listeners who like to empty their queue as often as possible, it certainly encourages binging in every way. The show doesn't even consider that you might not be binging -- there's never a last time on S-Town-esque recap of material covered in previous episodes, and rarely does Reed spend more than a few seconds catching you up on something he already mentioned. They're fully assuming that the maximum time between your listening to Chapter 7 and your listening to Chapter 1 is, like, a few days.

Solely from an execution standpoint, Koenig and the S-Town team take these three large steps -- all unusual for this medium -- in an attempt to craft a new model for podcasting based on their learnings from the performance of Serial's first season. My personal guess that I'll venture here is that this was all even more solidified by learnings from Serial's second season, which likely saw a significant listener drop-off after its first few episodes. Aside from its material not being as genuinely intriguing as the first season drama, those listeners who were able to binge through the story of Adnan Syed probably felt less inclined to see the story of Bowe Bergdahl through its conclusion when the episodes weren't already all there for them. Just like with television, you're more likely to stick it out through a few boring episodes of a series when Netflix is firing them off one after the other, than if you have to wait a week for the next episode, and let the disappointment of the previous one ruminate in your mind longer.

"A Rose For Emily," by The Zombies, is S-Town's theme music. I'd never heard this song before; it's brutally sad, and great.

It gets off to a fast start.

Chapter 1 starts off in an extremely lit way, IMO. Reed is telling you some stuff about clocks, then he mentions a murder. I didn't listen to any teasers for the show at all -- didn't even read the show's synopsis in iTunes -- so I was hooked by the 1:47 mark of the first episode. It's just a super clever intro, and I won't spoil it any further for people who haven't listened yet. I really enjoyed it.

Either way, the writers here show they placed a huge importance on earning and keeping listener attention from the get-go. The first episode of Serial's first season ends on a high note of intrigue and emotion -- something to keep the listener wanting more before they've realized they're actually invested in the story. S-Town accomplishes this admirably, as its first episode establishes the show's main character, John, in relatively extreme detail. I say "relatively" here because of how much more we'll learn about John -- in its totality, S-Town is a remarkably in-depth piece of storytelling.

With only seven episodes in the series, there isn't much time to waste, and a slow start could have prevented people from even making it through the first chapter.

It's not afraid to find a new direction.

This series isn't afraid to change course. Reed careens the listener through an abrupt change in direction only two episodes in (so, if you don't agree with me about the super fast start mentioned above ... just ride out through the end of Chapter 2 for the real goods), and then subtly tilts into another course-correction not long after. As a result, this isn't seven hours about one guy in a small town in Alabama; it's two hours about one thing, then two hours about something else, then three hours about something else, all tied into this one guy. Before you know it, the story has evolved into an investigation of someone's character and worldview, and of racism, injustice and high-stakes drama in rural Alabama. Considering how hyper-focused it was to start, I was really fascinated by Reed's slow zoom-out in terms of scope.

My note of not wanting to discuss spoilers in this post is handicapping me here now, so I won't write more about S-Town's actual content. Suffice to say the show manages to shoehorn a heck of a lot of stuff into seven episodes. It was a fun enough ride that I've already re-downloaded all the episodes back onto my phone so I can listen again ... and there are only like two podcasts episodes I've ever listened to more than once.

The team behind S-Town realized, clearly enough, that they had a great story on their hands. It's refreshing to see that story handled in such an expert and interesting way.