The podcast ‘prequel’ for those obsessed with S-Town

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Amy Swales
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If you devoured S-Town as soon as the episodes dropped in March (and you probably did – the show from the makers of Serial was downloaded an unprecedented 16 million times in the first week of release alone) you may be interested in an earlier series – one that John B McLemore himself was a fan of.

KunstlerCast is a show featuring author James Howard Kunstler, who was named in S-Town protagonist McLemore’s suicide note, and who discusses themes of suburbia, urban sprawl and American culture – all topics McLemore was interested in.

And Kunstler says the horologist used to contact him regularly, resulting in the author even trying to persuade him to move away from Woodstock, the place McLemore had dubbed S*** Town.

Now the makers of the podcast say KunstlerCast, which ran from 2008 to 2012, serves as something of a “prequel” for those interested in McLemore’s perspective on humanity, revealing the topics he would immerse himself in.

“For those who really want to explore John B McLemore's world view and what shaped it – his fixation on climate change and economic collapse, his rants on sprawl and the built environment, and especially his disdain for tattoos – all the source material that inspired him is in James Howard Kunstler's podcast,” according to the creator and former host Duncan Crary.

“In a way, the KunstlerCast is like the ‘prequel’ to S-Town that serves as a background to the kinds of thoughts and issues McLemore was clearly immersed in.”

S-Town’s Brian Reed, of podcast royalty This American Life, decided to tell the story of McLemore after McLemore contacted him believing there’d been a cover-up of a murder in his hometown.

While Reed found no evidence of a cover-up, he became fascinated with the highly intelligent yet clearly troubled McLemore, as well as his family and friends, and ended up working on the series for three years before it was released in March 2017.

While a runaway success, the series also proved somewhat controversial because it delved so deeply into the life and background of a man who had originally consented to be involved with the podcast but who died during the making.

In an interview with Pacific Standard magazine, Reed said the team had considered what to include “carefully”: “There are lots and lots that I learned in the reporting that I didn’t put in the story because we felt that what it added to the story wasn’t worth either the sensitive nature of it, or maybe it touched someone who was still alive, and we didn’t include it for that reason.

“But I also don’t believe that when a reporter is doing a story about someone who has died, that they can only include elements that the person consented to when they were alive. I don’t believe that’s an ethical problem, and there’s a whole world of journalism about people who have passed away. The whole enterprise of that journalism is to learn more about [those people] than we understand from when they were alive.”

Kunstler recorded a new episode following S-Town and his discovery that he’d been named in McLemore’s suicide note as one of the writers he’d read.

He said of speaking to McLemore: “He was flamboyantly Southern and he sort of played up on it. And I enjoyed talking to him.

“Eventually he started talking to me about the town itself that he was living in and how he called it ‘S*** Town’. And how everything in it was busted, rusted, shot up, broken, deformed, messed up, ruined – you know, in some way that everything including the human personalities and families and relations in the town were all in some kind of terrible condition.

“It all seemed kind of emblematic of the ruined condition of the fly over heartland of America that ended up voting for Trump."

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Amy Swales

Amy Swales is a freelance writer who likes to eat, drink and talk about her dog. She will continue to plunder her own life and the lives of her loved ones for material in the name of comedy, catharsis and getting pictures of her dog on the internet.