S-town doesn’t stand for sustainability town, but the S-town project bears on sustainability because it’s a documentary project sort of like the ones that anthropologists, folklorists, ethnomusicologists, and sociologists undertake and call ethnography. S-town, as many readers will recall, was a very popular NPR podcast that aired early last spring. An example of personal journalism, it was a radio documentary edited by Brian Reed and sponsored by Serial and NPR's This American Life. Reed followed up an email received from one John McLemore, an eccentric resident of a small Alabama town, who called it in S-town. As I recall from listening to the podcast last April, the persistent McLemore invited Reed to visit and investigate an alleged murder. It turned out there wasn’t a murder after all, but McLemore fascinated Reed so much that he kept coming back, eventually becoming friends with him and learning about the community from McLemore’s perspective and meeting some of McLemore’s friends and acquaintances. The documentary gradually reveals aspects of McLemore’s mysterious life, as Reed came to understand it. Reed documented his conversations and phonecalls with McLemore by recording them with audio equipment. S-town consists of these audio recordings, edited and intermixed with Reed’s narration of his quest, first to investigate the supposed murder, and eventually to understand McLemore. But the narrative changes abruptly after McLemore commits suicide. Now Reed’s quest shifts: he wants to understand why McLemore killed himself, which must, he thinks, be further tied up in the mystery of his life. In the process, though, Reed has to contend with the people who want to inherit McLemore’s estate, or parts of it. One of McLemore’s closest friends, a man named Tyler, believes (probably correctly) that McLemore wanted him to have certain of his things upon his death. He takes them from the estate, whereupon McLemore's cousin and heir, who has not been in McLemore's life for many years, shows up to claim her inheritance and asks the police to arrest Tyler and charge him with theft. Reed is upset by all these events, and he feels sorry for Tyler, who as the story ends is facing a likely arrest and court date, while Reed tries to tie up the loose ends and offer his explanation of McLemore's life and death.
S-town gained a great deal of attention in the media. There were articles about it in The New Yorker, in The Atlantic, and on line, both as it went along and at the end. It was heralded as a breakthrough in personal radio documentary, but at the same time questions were raised about the ethics of what some saw as an invasion of privacy, first McLemore’s, and then Tyler’s. My take at the time was that McLemore probably was happy with the attention and would have welcomed the podcast. Tyler, on the other hand, was not one to want the spotlight. He had been in trouble with the law for the kinds of minor infractions that some teenagers and younger adults who have little in the way of education, resources or prospects get involved with. He was not someone who listened to public radio and probably did not understand the kind of project that Reed was involved in. Even if he did, he did not have the ability to protect himself very well other than by refusing to cooperate--but then, he would have compromised his relationship with McLemore, who had invited the attention; and McLemore was his employer. In many ways, Tyler was representative of the underclass of people ethnographers have documented in the South—poor whites—ever since they were sketched in nineteenth-century fiction as “Crackers,” and later portrayed as hillbillies. The best-known documentation of Tyler’s people in Alabama was Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, the book originally published in the early 1940s by James Agee and Walker Evans, and reprinted many times since—also an example of personal journalism, as intense if not more intense than Reed’s radio documentary. Privacy concerns were expressed about it, also, but Agee and Evans used pseudonymns for their subjects. Reed’s documentary broadcast their real names.
As media events do, S-town faded from public consciousness during the summer. But then in September, it was revealed that Bryan Jones, the prosecutor in the case of the alleged burglary of a few of McLemore’s items after his death, had doubled the number of charges against Tyler, after having listened to what was revealed on the S-town podcast. He also argued against Tyler’s release on bail, based on some things Tyler said that Reed recorded and broadcast. Jones told the Tuscaloosa News that “In the podcast, he basically admits to the trespass and the burglaries and thefts.” What Jones didn’t say was that Tyler believes these items are rightfully his because, even though he had not specified it in a will, McLemore promised them to him.
Last month, in a plea deal Tyler admitted guilt for taking lumber, junk vehicles, and a laptop computer from McLemore’s estate, in exchange for a ten-year suspended sentence, plus five years to be spent on probation per agreement. Would Tyler have been found out at all in the absence of the podcast? Probably; the McLemore heir reported the items missing, and the sheriff would likely have found Tyler and the items anyway. He made no attempt to hide them, and the old junk cars would have been obvious in his yard. Would the sentence have been less than it was? Probably, though some would argue he was lucky the judge didn't give him jail time. And what did Tyler think about his privacy having been compromised? “Hasn’t really helped much,” he told WTVM-13, a central Alabama news station. “Sometimes I regret ever speaking into that microphone because I was probably upset, or wasn’t thinking clearly.”
Personal journalism of this sort is subject to invasion of privacy suits, of course, but there is little likelihood that Tyler or any of the inhabitants of S-town will sue. Ethnographers, also, are subject to similar legal action, but the professional ethics standards of our disciplines—anthropology, folklore, sociology, ethnomusicology—published on the websites of our professional societies, state that we have a responsibility to protect the interests of our subjects and consider the possibility of harmful consequences, inform our subjects of any, and obtain their informed consent in advance. Almost all do. I don’t know whether Reed obtained informed consent—possibly he did—but the point is not just to obtain consent, but rather to refrain from publishing ethnographic materials that could have harmful consequences. Cultural sustainability requires documentation, but documentation that does not conform to standards of ethics will not sustain anything—or anyone—in the long run.