Op-ed: Finding the True Voice of ‘S-Town’

For many Southerners, the new podcast S-town feels like coming home.

It starts with the drawl. Whether your hometown is a big city, or the smallest, one-stoplight corner of the world, you know at least one person with that sticky, sweet, distinctively southern drawl. It’s something so unheard of once you live in a city – or even travel farther north than Richmond – that the first soundbyte of the podcast’s main character, John, brings to mind friends, family members, and neighbors who you know who sound just like him.

The podcast highlights things that are distinctly southern – whether New York-based producer and host Brian Reed notices them or not. The tightly wound connections of kin, the hodge-podge housing situations of many of the characters—even some of the socioeconomic factors that situate the South in today’s political climate. Vox calls the podcast definitively “southern gothic.”

But, as Brian dives deeper into the unique quirks and idiosyncrasies of the town and its people that many southerners are all too familiar with, some have felt that something just feels off, not in what Brian is reporting, but how.

The podcast is a cross between reporting and narrative, with many aspects of southern life brought up so poignantly—but naively—that it sometimes brings a chuckle of fond recognition. But, throughout the podcast, it becomes exceedingly clear—and even Brian himself admits—that the story is being reported by an outsider—a “yankee” as the townsfolk say. And often, that’s exactly the problem.

Josh Axelrod’s MediaFile article from Thursday gets part of the story right: S-town is the “Trump country” that has been overlooked by much of the media, oft portrayed only as a joke or stereotype on T.V., and it is helpful to have outsiders try to empathize with the people here.

But at the same time, there’s still more that’s missing. Even if the podcast is covering a once-forgotten corner of America, it’s still a story told, and filtered through, a northern “coastal elite.” The story seemingly romanticizes S-town, and the Southern communities it has come to represent, often portraying situations and people as quirky instead of rightfully problematic. Allowing listeners to proverbially peek into the town from the comfort of their earbuds is like the empathy version of taking someone to a drive-through Christmas lights show—they get to look at all the pretty lights, but they never actually have to get out of their cars and walk in the cold.

It’s a story about the pain and hurting of the deep south that is packaged up, wrapped nicely with a bow and presented for a coastal elite audience to consume like watching people in a snow globe. It turns S-town into a place of cultural tourism and armchair ethnography for Brian, and, by distribution, his audience.

This is not to say everything about S-town is bad, or that all Southerners feel uneasy. Plenty of Southerners have expressed their delight with the podcast, and it is still a well-produced audio narrative that’s enjoyable to follow. S-town is not in and of itself bad; but it shouldn’t be seen as a precedent.

As the Trump administration progresses, there will undoubtedly be increased attempts by urban, coastal media organizations to try to “understand” Trump voters and “middle America.” But to truly understand these communities and the people who live in them, it will be imperative to see these people as equals—who laugh, learn and love just like everyone else. And one of the best ways to do that is to allow Southerners, and those in “Trump’s America,” to tell their own stories.

While diversity in storytelling is another topic entirely, a quote from Forest Whitaker on the inclusion of black stories in larger conversation could also apply, in this situation, to Southerners:

“We have to not limit ourselves to just a color palette, but we have to be able to say that those people of that culture should be allowed the opportunity to be able to tell those stories. More specifically, that they should be given the room to explore their own social experience, their own life, their own race, their own culture alongside all the other stories told too.”

While S-town could be considered a beginner’s foray into the South, the media will have to learn to empower people in marginalized communities and demographics to tell their own stories rather than always serving as an intermediary. At the same time, listeners must also understand the context of what they’re listening to and never lose sight of the personal biases that affect us all.

At the end of the day, S-town still feels like coming home. Yes, there are stories to be told from millions of S-towns across the country. But, giving a true voice to the “silent majority” in these towns for years to come might not be what S-town offers, or even come from a podcast at all. Perhaps, instead, all one needs to do to hear the voices from these towns is just listen.

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