S-Town, the hit spin-off from the makers of Serial, differed from that podcast smash in one major way: It wasn’t serialized. Remember, a big part of Serial’s whole appeal is that it came out on a weekly basis. S-Town, meanwhile, released all seven episodes at once. It’s the first major podcast that came out with binge-watching (or listening) in mind, the way Netflix drops new seasons of its shows. Based on how big a hit S-Town became, the gambit worked. Here’s why the producers unveiled it all at once.
In an interview with the Longform podcast, S-Town’s producer and host Brian Reed explained that, while Serial had been made with TV shows in mind, he and his fellow producers were thinking about novels for this project. The more holistic, less didactic approach seemed like a natural fit, Reed said, for the “metaphors upon metaphors that John was handing me.”
“You don’t have to wait a week to read a novel,” Serial producer Sara Koening told Entertainment Weekly.
Reed said he and Koenig were especially inspired by John Williams’s 1965 novel Stoner, which Reed described as “the very small story of [the main character’s] unremarkable life. It’s just devastating.” They were drawn to the way Williams’s writing would casually mention small future events in a way that S-Town’s narrative ultimately did.
“I’d been around so long reporting this thing that I’d accidentally given myself the magic power of omniscience,” Reed joked.
There were other reasons why it came out all at once too. “We knew that we didn’t want every chapter to have to end with a cliffhanger,” Reed noted. “We didn’t have that many cliffhangers. We had some, but we didn’t want to have to. Like, it felt a little dirty or something — or just boring. We wanted some chapters to have quieter endings or idea or mood endings, and that would serve our ability to do that and release everything at once.”
There was another practical concern as well. Spoilers are always tricky when dealing with real-life journalistic stories, but there’s a shocking development in S-Town that changes the course of the entire story: John B. Mclemore’s suicide.
“If we were to release the first chapter you would Google John’s name and know that he died,” Reed said. “So, I always knew the first two had to come out together.”
Beyond that? Reed said he was “drawn to the experiment aspect of it.”
“I don’t know of anyone who’s done it, at least with a story like this,” he remarked.
Clearly, it worked. Episodes were downloaded more than 10 million times in just four days, setting a new record for podcasts. (Serial, for comparison, took seven weeks to reach that mark, though obviously there weren’t nearly as many episodes of the weekly podcast to choose from in the first four days.)
People like to binge things, as anyone who has ever wasted a weekend watching an entire season of House of Cards will tell you, and it seems like that structure works for podcasts too. If nothing else, S-Town’s release method helped it avoid a common complaint that latecomers to long-running serial podcasts often have: “I just caught up and now I have to wait for a new episode for the first time!”