Wednesday, April 26, 2017

I've just finished listening to a podcast, aided by a train journey to and from London. It's called S-Town. It's very good.

I was alerted to it by a couple of the girls I work with who have just guzzled it up. It's produced by the people who make This American Life. You may have heard of a previous podcast they produced called Serial. This was its successor, not from a story point of view but from a conceptual point of view.

I can't really tell you anything about the story without spoiling it for you but the story begins with a murder. And then the journalist, Brian Reed, and his producers I guess, try and unravel what's gone on. Which leads to all sorts of dark extraordinariness. 

It must last something like five and a half hours in total. Seven episodes that vary in length from 45 minute to just over an hour. Half the length of a self-respecting box set. So it's comparatively bite-sized.

A lot has been written about it online which I've deliberately avoided. The only thing that makes me vaguely uneasy about it is the ethics. If it's true - and I believe it's true - is it really right that This American Life are using people's lives in this way, effectively for entertainment? In lots of ways, the story is anything but. S-Town is one of the main featured 'character's' pet name for the town he lives in - Shit Town, he calls it. Which kind of sets the tone for the rest of the story. 

And to be fair, this aforementioned man, John B McLemore, got in touch with the radio station asking them to come and cover this story. So he offered himself and his town up as lab rats. You could argue that he offered up the town on their behalf - they didn't get any choice - but then they didn't have to speak to the journalist man. They could have said no. And they do seem to have mostly said yes.

Then I thought that if it had been a podcast about the final days of Tsar Nicolas II in Ekaterinburg, I wouldn't have doubted the ethics. Or if it had been a podcast about Watergate, say, I wouldn't have doubted the ethics. So I guess the question hinges on whether people that don't voluntarily put themselves in the public eye should reasonably be used as a source of a news story. But I have no truck (and indeed, delightedly admire) The Guardian's new feature on knife crime which is using real people's stories, real people living here and now in this very country, to kind of sell papers. So what is different about this?

I think my internal jury is still out. But I do know that it's an incredibly elegant piece of incredibly compelling story-telling. It made me cry - repeatedly. Always my benchmark for great 'art'. So maybe that makes me a terrible person for 'supporting' such storytelling. I suspect I'll be damned for worse on judgement day.

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