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16 June 2017

S-Town Podcast

Record-breaking: the S-Town podcast was downloaded ten million times in the four days after its release earlier this year

Record-breaking: the S-Town podcast was downloaded ten million times in the four days after its release earlier this year

THERE may be something distaste­ful in talking of undertaking as “the death business”, but business it most certainly is. Last year, it was worth £1.7 billion, and the cost of the average funeral has doubled in the past decade. This is where “the disruptors” come in. Disruptors are upstart companies intent on upset­ting the established business model.

Breakfast with the Disruptors (Radio 4, Monday of last week) promised a head-to-head between the old guard and the Young Turks over a plate of bacon and eggs; but it is fair to say that this was a pro­­gramme designed more for the MBA crowd than for fans of a Full English. The presenter, Tim Samuels, managed with only one of his case-studies to get two opposing spokespeople to meet; and that was a couple of solicitors, one of whom would sell you a will for £500, and one who could knock something off for you on the internet for £50.

With neither will-making nor undertaking could I see how this underlying business philosophy of paradigm shifts and cyclical renewal made it beyond the simple mantra that “You get what you pay for.” But the programme got more interesting when we met the people who are striving to shift the greatest para­digm of all: that life ends in death.

We heard of elaborate strategies to stave off the inevitable, using plasma transplants and the ox­­­idis­ing agent NAD. There is something unnerving about these projects, not because one is necessarily averse to the idea of enhanced longevity in itself: just to the longevity of the sorts of people who develop them.

Omnes vulnerant, ultima necat”: “All [hours] wound, the last kills.” I doubt John B. McLemore, who inscribed this motto on several of his clocks, would have had much sympathy with the aspirations of those particular “disruptors”. But then, again, by the end, McLemore had little sympathy with anything or anyone. A virtuoso melancholic, a prolix, potty-mouthed mis­anthrope, McLemore is the subject of S-­Town, the sensationally popular documentary-­series podcast pro­duced by the American syndicated radio show This American Life (downloadable at stownpodcast.org).

Downloaded a record-breaking ten million times in the four days after its release earlier this year, S-Town is part of a new pheno­­menon in broadcasting which induces a kind of immersive, ad­­dictive engagement.

S-Town starts off as a murder mystery, turns into a reality-style drama of small-town rivalry, and concludes as a sympathetic portrait of a troubled and brilliant indi­vidual: a clockmaker whose work was recognised throughout the world.

The producer’s skill in turning investigative journalism into a story of novelistic texture and depth lies in the manipulation of the time-line so that the listener does not find out everything at the same time, or in the same order, as the presenter, Brian Reed. The result is a series to which, for the week in which I was immersed, no other radio came close.

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