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Spoiler Alert: Lots and lots of spoilers! If you haven’t listened to the S-Town podcast, and don’t want major details of the story ruined for you, please avoid reading this post. You’ve been warned. Seriously though this will totally ruin it for you so don’t read it.

Over the weekend my wife and I devoured all seven simultaneously-released episodes of S-Town, the new podcast from Serial and This American Life which launched on March 28.

The following hastily-written-and-probably-too-long blog post encapsulates my initial reaction after listening to all seven episodes straight through over three days. It’s not an episode recap; I haven’t spoken to anyone else about S-Town except for my wife; and I haven’t looked up anything about what critics or fans have said about it so far. As a result, I may get some of the details wrong, but these are some of the questions I thought about over and over again after finishing S-Town.

Why did Serial and This American Life launch the series the way they did?
I had no idea S-Town was even coming out. I may have read some rumblings about a season 3 of Serial at some point, but when my wife told me she just found out the third season had just been released, I didn’t believe her. It turns out she was right–sort of.

S-Town was apparently produced by Serial and This American Life, but was not being billed as Serial s3. Instead, S-Town is its own free-standing, seven-episode podcast. Here’s the description of S-Town from its official website:

John despises his Alabama town and decides to do something about it. He asks a reporter to investigate the son of a wealthy family who’s allegedly been bragging that he got away with murder. But then someone else ends up dead, sparking a nasty feud, a hunt for hidden treasure, and an unearthing of the mysteries of one man’s life.

I subscribe to about 20 podcasts, many of them produced by NPR, so it was hard to believe a new podcast like S-Town, with public radio pedigree, would have flown under my radar.

Was this intentional?
Part of what made Serial’s first season so successful–besides that awesome Mail Chimp sponsorship–was that it came out of nowhere. Most listeners didn’t know anything about the story of Adnan Syed, they likely hadn’t heard of Sarah Koenig, and some probably hadn’t ever listened to a podcast before. Then Serial punched us in the face with some of the best storytelling you’ll find in any medium, and we were blown away.

On the heels of a great season 1, season 2 had high expectations. Some fans, including myself, even donated money to NPR/Serial to help Koenig make season 2. Without getting into detail about why season 2 was disappointing, suffice it to say it was a letdown for most fans expecting as compelling and labyrinthine a story as we got in season 1.

For those reasons, perhaps, Serial and TAL decided to keep a low profile, and release S-Town as own entity, with little fanfare and only a loose connection to Serial–allowing fans like me to go in with tempered expectations. To borrow a five-dollar word from S-Town’s subject, John Brooks McLemore, I’m guessing producers saw what happened with s2 and took a proleptic* approach to S-Town’s release to guard against such high expectations and let S-Town be judged on its own merit.

*Prolepsis: a rhetorical tool in which one anticipates possible objections in order to answer them in advance. John B uses this word in the first episode; Brian admits he had to look it up.

And why all seven episodes at once?
I go back to the failure of s2 of Serial again on this one. The reporting of the story as they learned it was what made Serial s1 so great, but s2 felt like it was poorly planned, with the cadence of new episodes changing from one week to two, as they were simultaneously updating us (and then not updating us) on the story from s1. I believe they released all seven episodes of S-Town to “prove” that the story had been fully reported on and was now a completed season we could consume all at once or spaced out however we want. This isn’t a new tactic; Netflix does this all the time with its original content. I wouldn’t be surprised if they realized Serial s3 the same way.

What was the actual timeline for the events that take place in S-Town?
From what I recall, John B first contacted Brian in 2014, they had a phone call a few months later, and eventually Brian went to visit John B in Alabama. I believe the first visit was at some point in 2015.

S1 of Serial ran from October to December 2014. Did John B contact NPR, or Serial, during that season or after? Did the reporters and/or producers involved think they might use John B’s alleged claim about an unreported murder as a season of Serial? If not, it seems strange that Brian would even bother to investigate John B’s story–though when I heard John B and Brian’s first phone call, I assumed he was providing accurate information.

And how deep into the story did Brian decide that John B’s story was podcast-worthy? And how did he decide to continue reporting after John B’s claims had been proven false? Why did he decide to continue reporting after John B died? Did he wait until he had everything he needed before deciding how to organize the information and tell the story across seven “chapters”?

I guess the question I’m really asking is…

Did Brian just get really lucky that John B–in life and in death–was as interesting as he was? Or does Brian–and the people who sign his checks–deserve credit for sticking with the story?
Like any other successful endeavor in life, it seems like this was a combination of luck and skill. Brian’s reporting of this story is tremendous, but the story of John B. McLemore was delivered on a silver platter. But give him credit for seeing that silver platter under a ratty Benjamin Moore t-shirt.

Did John B really call Faye as he was committing suicide? 
Maybe Serial s1 trained me to question everything, but without a call log or audio of John B calling Faye, I’m not 100% convinced he did. Faye doesn’t really give us a reason to doubt her, except that she didn’t get in touch with the first seven people on John B’s contact list–which he hand-delivered to her for this very reason–to let them know John B had died. Was this forgetfulness or laziness on her part? Was John’s lawyer, Boozer Downs, involved somehow in some sort of cover-up?

Or is the more logical explanation simply that Faye unintentionally let the task of calling John B’s contacts fall through the cracks? Given how much John B entrusted Faye to carry out his posthumous requests, I just can’t get past this error, but the idea that it was part of a greater conspiracy to steal from him seems far-fetched.

Did Tyler steal the gold? Was there any gold? What did he tell Brian off the record in the final episode?
I kept going back and forth about whether there was any buried treasure, but if anyone knew about it besides Faye (who said it John B had gold bars wrapped in a towel in the freezer) I figured it would be Tyler. Did he take it when he went to the house to gather John B’s valuables so the Florida cousins couldn’t get to them?

When Brian asks Tyler if he ever found the buried treasure, and Tyler asks him to turn off the recorder before answering, it’s implied that he found something. I’d almost rather not know this conversation took place if I can’t know what was said!

Was Tyler a con-man? Was he feigning affection for John B, knowing he could take advantage of the situation? Did Tyler egg John B on to kill himself while he was drunk, as Rita (the Florida cousin) suggested?
I don’t think Tyler was there when John B killed himself, and I think he may even be telling the truth when he said he refused to go over to John B’s the night he killed himself, even after John B told Tyler he was going to commit suicide.

I do wonder if Tyler was fed up with John B after we learned about John B’s “church” ritual of asking Tyler to mutilate his body with tattoos, piercings, and later whippings. If I’m Tyler, I might have taken a little something for my trouble after John B had passed away, knowing I’d more than enough to earn it.

So are we just assuming John B’s depression was brought on by mercury poisoning from his unsafe practice of fire-gilding over 30+ years?
It certainly seems that way, but I can’t help but wonder if Brian asked five other doctors, he might find a few who would say John B was just depressed, and they couldn’t conclude with certainty that it was related to the mercury. Of course it doesn’t really matter except to add yet another layer of complexity to an already complex character.

How should we take the information delivered in Brian’s coda?
After we hear an excerpt from John B’s suicide note, we assume the series is over. But then Brian layers one remaining piece of information that may or may not color our view of John B, Shit Town, and really the whole story we just heard.

When Brian tells us that John B’s great-grandfather built his fortune on the backs of the neighbors he stole from, he’s implying, in my view, that John B’s expansive patch of land, his home, his garden maze, and every material possession he has–including, perhaps, some hidden gold–was ill-gotten.

Does Brian want us to think John B is a hypocrite, that for all his rants about his town’s state of dysfunction, it was people like his own great-grandfather that made it this way? Or does this answer the question of why John B, for as much as he hates Shit Town, has never left? Or why he’s driven to right all the perceived wrongs of his fellow man, including those in his town, as a way of canceling out the evil deeds of his family?

I agree with the decision to save this information for later in the story, so that it doesn’t bias us against John B and we’re free to form our own opinion of him regardless of what his family did three generations before. But I might have liked some more detail around his family history. I wonder if Brian found this information too late to add it somewhere else in the story, so he stuck it at the end.

What was S-Town? And was it good
Genres are tricky sometimes. People starting calling Serial a “true crime” podcast, and it was, but the real-time nature of it, the way the story evolve as Sarah Koenig told it, made it something special.

Was S-Town simply a biography of an unusual man started when he was alive and finished after he died? Was it an obituary? Or was it simply an experiment in storytelling, in audio journalism?

I kind of don’t care what it was. And I don’t care that we don’t really have a resolution about John’s hidden treasure, or Tyler, or Faye, or the cousins, or even John’s mother, Mary Grace, who was supposedly flourishing once she was out of John B’s care.

Having been trained by Serial to follow a story so closely for months, only to be deprived of the closure I knew all along I wouldn’t get, I didn’t expect closure with S-Town, either. But I went along for the ride anyway, and I was glad I did.

What did you think?

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A few weeks back I blogged about my latest audio obsession, the new Taylor Swift album the Serial podcast.

At that time I made a couple of predictions about the podcast, which have since come true.

My first prediction was “plot” driven—with plot in quotes because this is actually a real-life murder, not a prime time procedural. (It’s also WAY more provocative than the average prime time procedural.) I said that the story Serial’s Sarah Koenig is telling would evolve as people familiar with and/or involved in the case hear the podcast and reach out to her with their input. Sure enough, in episode #9, this happened.

A former classmate of the then-teenagers involved in the case contacted Koenig to refute, with confidence, the prosecutor’s timeline for the murder. This “witness” coming forward was a direct result of her hearing the podcast and wanted to contribute some information she believed Koenig (and the police) didn’t already have.

For the man who sits in jail convicted of murder, Adnan Sayed, it’s not clear whether these out of court testimonies 15 years later will ultimately help or hurt his case, but I suppose they can’t make things much worse for him.

(I also recently came across an article about the complicated ethics of Serial that’s definitely worth a read for fans–even if, like me, you disagree with it.)

The second prediction I made was about the business side of Serial. Serial is a free podcast whose first season has been funded by This American Life, a syndicated public radio show that relies on donations and scant advertising partners (Mail Kimp, anyone?) to keep itself on the air. (Serial is a spin-off of This American Life and debuted its pilot episode on TAL.)

I predicted/suggested that Serial would/should charge something—anything!—for downloads of its episodes. What better time to do it than now, when Serial is the #1 podcast on iTunes? People are clearly into the show, and the mainstream media (plus my blog!) is taking notice.

But rather than charging for episode downloads–now that they have us completely at the mercy of Sarah Koenig’s storytelling (including those bits and pieces she undoubtedly knows but has yet to share)–Serial is doing what public radio usually does: they have asked, rather than required, listeners to contribute money to fund a second season of the show. The suggested donation is $10, which can be done by simply texting SERIAL to 25383.

With the constant debates about how much is too much to pay for content—the cable bundle debate in particular—I think $10 to help fund a show of Serial’s quality is a steal. So far I’ve listened to about five hours of Serial content (all nine episodes of the show) and Koenig has yet to set a final end date or number of episodes for season 1.

Last year I opted not to give money to Zach Braff’s Kickstarter campaign to fund his movie I Wish I Was Here, which was eventually funded without me and made into a pretty good movie. The basis for my decision was that it isn’t my job as the potential consumer to fund the making of creative endeavor such as a film; instead it’s my job to decide, based on trailers, reviews, as well as the creator’s previous body of work (in this case one of my favorite films, Garden State, whether to pay to see the film once it’s made. And that’s what I did.

Serial has given us nine free episodes. Fans have heard enough to know just how good it is. Now it’s on us, by donating a few bucks, to see how good it can be in season two.

Are you a fan of the show? Do you plan to help fund a second season of Serial? Why or why not?

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I wasn’t a lemonade stand kind of kid.

Instead, when I was 8 or 9 years old I told my mom that when I grew up, I was going to own an entire fleet of ice cream trucks. Back then ice cream was the most valuable currency I dealt in. So, naturally, my dream job involved having unlimited access to it.

I would sit in an office above an ice cream distribution center—where the ice cream men went to fill up their trucks on in the summer—and do whatever one does in an office when one owns an entire fleet of ice cream trucks. (This was before the internet and even before computers were ubiquitous, so I imagined some sort of hopper for my papers and maybe even a paperweight.) And the best part, I told my mom, was that she could come visit me at work whenever she wanted and I’d give her free ice cream.

More than two decades later, shockingly, I do not own a fleet of ice cream trucks. I do not have an office above an ice cream distribution center. Hell, I barely even eat ice cream anymore. As best laid plans of third graders often go, this one sort of fell apart after I got really into Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

For Alex Blumberg, the host, producer and subject of the new podcast StartUp, there’s a little more at stake than free ice cream.

Blumberg is best known for his work with public radio, including the program This American Life (producer) and podcast Planet Money (founder, co-host). But he recently quit both those gigs to start his own project: he’s starting his own media company which will focus on producing and distributing high-quality audio content via podcasts. Oh, and the best part–for us, anyway–is that he’s letting listeners in on the process. Here’s how Blumberg describes it on his website:

This show follows what happens next – my difficult journey from man to businessman. It’s a classic start-up story, but one that’s recorded in real time. I’ve documented disastrous pitches to investors, difficult conversations with my wife, and tense negotiations with my co-founder. The result is an honest, transparent account of something that happens all the time, but that we can rarely listen in on: starting a business.

StartUp is not a prescriptive how-to guide to starting a business from the ground up (this, despite several episode titles beginning with “How To”). It’s quite the opposite. It’s a show about a guy who knows very little about starting a business, and what happens along the way as he starts to figure it out.

The weekly series, which premiered on September 5, is just seven episodes in. So far Blumberg has taken us through a failed investor pitch, the process of taking on a business partner (after realizing he couldn’t do it alone), figuring out how to share equity with that business partner (a very cool insider’s look at emotional side of the process), assigning a value to a company that doesn’t make any money yet, and even picking a name for the company.

As I’ve written about previously on this blog, I’m big fan of ABC’s Shark Tank. On that hit reality show, entrepreneurs come to the sharks (i.e. potential investors) with a fully (or partially) formed companies asking for investments in exchange for shares of their businesses. Some entrepreneurs get deals, others are sent packing. On the show it all seems so simple.

StartUp is, in many ways, a prequel to Shark Tank.* As of episode #7 Blumberg’s company, Gimlet Media (for the origin of that name, check out episode #5), is still “pre-revenue.” On Shark Tank most pre-revenue business don’t get a deal unless the idea is very, very novel.

 *If StartUp is the prequel to Shark Tank, then shows like Hotel Impossible, Restaurant Impossible, and The Profit–all of which deal with businesses gone bad–are the sequels.

For those of us who have dreamed about owning their own business—for the record the ice cream thing is still on the table, though I haven’t figured out what I’d do all winter yet—and those who haven’t, StartUp gives listeners a fresh look into those steps between concept and actually taking those steps towards turning that concept into a living, breathing, (and hopefully) profitable thing.

The most interesting stuff for the listener tends to be that which is most gut-wrenching to Blumberg–from figuring out how much equity to give his partner (episode #3), to the constant self-doubt that comes with starting a business in your forties when you have a wife and two young children to consider every time you make a decision about anything.

In episode #2 Blumberg debriefs with his wife on the phone after an investor, Matt Mazzeo, in Los Angeles. Blumberg has been out to L.A. before, in episode #1, to meet with Mazzeo’s business partner, Chris Sacca. Mazzeo and Sacca are venture investors and business partners at Lowercase Capital. They have successfully invested in the technology space. After talking with Mazzeo, Blumberg is left with a pit in his stomach:

I’m feeling the same shitty way I’m feeling the last way I was out here. … It just makes me feel like I don’t know what I’m doing. … This is the thing: I’m sitting there talking to this guy and I’m describing something that feels like the biggest thing I’ve ever done, a scale beyond my wildest imaginings, something that I can’t even tell if I can pull off, and it’s totally not big enough. Like it seems small to him.

This is a really important insight, and one that I suspect a lot of startup business owners face when pitching investors. Especially in the tech space.

Can you or I invest in companies like Gimlet Media?
Episode #7 was about crowdfunding Gimlet Media. According to the episode, the 2012 Jumpstart Our Business Startups (JOBS) Act allowed for Americans to invest in private companies like Gimlet Media, which they were formerly not allowed to do. This means that through companies like Alphaworks, would-be investors could go online, find a company they wanted to give money to, and in exchange they’d receive equity in that company. (This is different than sites like Kickstarter, where you “donate” money but don’t receive any equity.) A Shark Tank for the Average Joe, right? Wrong.

Due to current Securities and Exchange Commission regulations, only “accredited investors,” i.e. those who make $200,000 a year and/or have a network worth of $1 million, may do so. (Alphaworks covers this in their FAQ.) If you’re an Above Average Joe, invest to your heart’s content. Otherwise you’re out of luck until the SEC loosens those regulations. Fortunately for Gimlet Media, they had enough friends in high places–in part thanks to attention the StartUp podcast has been getting–to get to their investment goal.

New episodes of StartUp are available about every two weeks. Whether you’re a future ice cream magnate or not, I recommend you give it a listen.

You find the StartUp podcast here: http://hearstartup.com/ – or you can use a podcasting app on your phone or tablet and search for StartUp. Happy listening.

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Of all the entertainment media competing for my attention–hundreds of cable channels, Netflix, YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter–its a modest little public radio podcast that’s got me completely consumed.

You may have heard of Serial (more likely you haven’t), a  podcast off-shoot of the more well known National Public Radio (a.k.a. NPR) show and podcast, This American Life (TAL), hosted by Ira Glass.

I’m a regular TAL listener, so when I downloaded episode #537, “The Alibi,” I was expecting the usual radio magazine-style fare TAL produces each week–that is, four or five stories tied to that episode’s theme. But this time TAL was trying something a little different.

The episode was actually Serial‘s first episode. Rather than producing a new episode around a new theme each week, reporter and Serial host Sarah Koenig tells a new chapter of the same story, one about a high school kid named Adnan Syed who in 1999 was convicted of strangling his classmate and ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee.

Koenig was made aware of Adnan’s story by a friend of Adnan’s family last year. Once she started digging, she couldn’t stop. So as Adnan Sayed sits in jail for a crime he (maybe) didn’t commit, Koenig has been working to uncover any fishy details about the case that might prove his innocence–or guilt.

With what I’ve told you so far, the show admittedly sounds like something from a network TV legal drama. But if you listen to the show–and I’m urging everyone who reads this to listen to the show–Koenig’s tireless investigation and simple-yet-compelling storytelling style will hook you in, and you’ll be like me–waiting around for Thursday mornings, when the latest episodes of Serial are available for download.

As we listen to Koenig’s investigation unfold each week, we’re still not quite sure what to think about Adnan. Koenig is going about her reporting professionally and impartially as far as we can tell, but I would guess she wants Adnan to be innocent of Hae’s murder. (I would guess a lot of Serial listeners feel the same way.) And some–but not all–the evidence she gathers suggests that maybe, just maybe, the police and the court system got it wrong and Koenig is a few weeks of research (and podcasts) away from cracking the case wide open and springing Adnan from his prison cell, where he’s been for 15 years.

I’ve spoken to a handful of people about the show–I’ve also avoided most of the media around it, for fear of spoilers–and the sense I’m getting is that Sarah must know more than she’s letting on. She must have everything neatly laid out on a storyboard and is rolling information out in bits and pieces to keep us tuning in each week. And why wouldn’t she? How could she go into this thing telling this true story of a (possibly) wrongly convicted man without knowing what the ending is?

Well perhaps this is the biggest twist in the series so far: she doesn’t know what the ending is.

In an interview with Vulture published on Thursday, the same day Serial‘s sixth episode became available, Sarah admitted that she doesn’t know where the story is going. Here’s what she said in the Vulture interview:

I am not playing all of you. If you guys only knew how this is put together. I’m not far ahead of you. Episode Five just aired, and I just did a first draft of Episode Six this afternoon, so I am pretty much creating this thing in real time now. Yes, I could say, there was a point where I thought I knew the truth. And then I found out that I didn’t know as much as I thought I did, and I did more reporting, and now I don’t know what I don’t know again! Are you mad at me? Don’t be mad at me!

That’s nuts! It also might be genius.

I’ve railed on many a fictional TV show for not knowing where the story ends and making dozens more episodes than the story actually needs simply because it’s profitable. But in the case of Serial, a non-fiction series, not having an ending (yet) might be the smartest thing they could do. For one, they’ve eliminated the chance of spoilers online because A) Koenig likely knows more about this case than anyone in the world and even she doesn’t know everything; and B) it brings tremendous credibility to the series in that Koenig is reporting a lot of these as she learns them herself rather than having a chance to over-produce and edit the crap out of it, like you see on so many “reality” TV shows these days.

What’s also fascinating about the show is what it’s doing for the medium of radio–or more generally any audio platform. Serial storytelling is a throwback to the olden days before TV. I find myself amazed at how engaged I am while listening to Serial, which is nothing but talking and some sparse background music. I’m not quite ready to cancel my cable, but it’s nice to be reminded that if the story itself is good enough, it doesn’t really matter what the medium is. (By the way, Serial is the #1 podcast on iTunes in the U.S. right now.)

(I shouldn’t be giving the Serial people any ideas, but they probably should be thinking about monetizing right now, if not for this season/story than the next. TAL relies heavily on donations, along with a handful of advertisers. If ever there was a time to start charging per episode, or per series, it’s now. Hell, I’d pay it.)

Of course Serial‘s uncertain status (re: its ending) is a tremendous risk. If Koenig makes 12, 15, or even 30 episodes of the series as the story continues to become more and more complex–I can also easily see more potential witnesses coming out of the woodwork when they hear the show–and at the end of it all there’s nothing but speculation about Adnan’s guilt, what was the point?

In my estimation there are going to be two schools of thought if the Adnan Syed story ends without a resolution:

  • The people who will have enjoyed the ride so much that the unlearned truth won’t matter as much as the journey to get there.
  • The people who will be furious because they “wasted” so many hours waiting for some absolute closure that never comes.

Like many listeners out there, I want to see Koenig’s indefatigable efforts lead to Adnan’s conviction being overturned–while also finding Hae’s true killer. (Or, if Sarah finds enough evidence against Adnan that it’s impossible not to believe he did it, I’d be okay with that, too.)

But I don’t know if we’ll get that. And I don’t know what a lack of an irrefutable ending will mean for the next season of Serial. Will we demand that Sarah gets all the way to the finish line before we start listening to how she got there? Or will we double-down on Serial, knowing that Koenig is as much along for the ride as we are?

I highly recommend you check out Serial at http://serialpodcast.org/ (Don’t know how to listen to podcasts? Watch this video in which Ira Glass teaches his elderly friend how to do it: http://serialpodcast.org/how-to-listen)

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