The lawsuit brought by the family of a deceased man at the heart of the podcast S-Town has reached a settlement with Serial Productions, nearly two years after it was first filed in federal court in Alabama. At issue was whether the podcast, which was downloaded more than 92.5 million times, violated Alabama’s right of privacy law.
Terms of the agreement weren’t disclosed, but Cooper Shattuck, one of the attorneys for the family of John McLemore, told Variety the estate has “no objection or claim to the podcast, nor does the estate have any objection or claim to any future uses of the podcast or the journalistic and creative work relating to John B. McLemore by the defendants or their designees.”
Serial Productions CEO Julie Snyder also told Variety that she is “relieved” the lawsuit has been settled and said McLemore was “absolutely an active and consenting participant” in the podcast.
The lawsuit against the podcast producers was filed in July 2018 by the estate of John McLemore. Producer and host Brian Reed emailed the staff of This American Life in 2012 asking they investigate a suspected murder in his hometown of Woodstock, AL. McLemore struck up a rapport with Reed, and after several emails and telephone calls he traveled to Woodstock to investigate the allegations. There Reed interviewed McLemore and several others in Bibb County, AL. The result was the seven-episode series S-Town.
But what seemed like a regular true-crime podcast quickly takes an unexpected turn, when in the second episode, Reed concludes that, after his investigation, he believes no murder occurred. That leads to a falling out between Reed and McLemore. The remainder of S-Town focused on McLemore’s life — and death. It moves from exploring McLemore’s sexual orientation and experiences, depressed thoughts, suicidal ideations, financial affairs, physical and mental health issues, as well as instances of self-harm that McLemore is alleged to have undertaken, including paying to have his nipples tattooed with an empty needle. The show also included what the court says were details about his 2015 suicide.
In a ruling last March, the Alabama court rejected an attempt to have the lawsuit dismissed. U.S. District Judge Scott Coogler wrote in a 10-page decision that he believed there was enough of a question to proceed with a case with the right of privacy law at its center. Then in January Coogler ordered attorneys representing the family and Serial Productions, This American Life, Chicago Public Media and S-Town producer and host Brian Reed, to try to resolve the lawsuit in front of a court-appointed mediator. If no agreement had been reached, the case was scheduled to go to trial in January 2021.
Boost For Sale Prospects?
The settlement could help advance the rumored sale of Serial Productions. The New York Times earlier this year was said to be in “exclusive talks” to buy the Chicago-based company in a deal that valued the company at about $75 million.
Serial Productions was created in 2017 by Sarah Koenig, Julie Snyder and Ira Glass three years after Serial was born as a side project to their work at the WBEZ Chicago-based radio show “This American Life.” The Wall Street Journal said the trio remains the owners of Serial Productions.
Serial Productions has said it plans to further expand beyond its flagship show, which after having a breakout 300 million downloads during its first season failed to match that success with its follow-up second and third seasons as the number of series available to listeners grew exponentially during the past few years. The show’s website says the producers are currently accepting pitches for a story to focus on in Serial’s fourth season. But it says no decision has been made on when season four will be released.