Chris Stedman last heard from Alex Small in a scheduled e-mail telling him he had died by suicide. Attached were two audio files of Small speaking to an online friend who sounded eerily like Britney Spears.
Stedman puzzled over the message for weeks after Small's death in December 2019: "I just kept coming back to these files ... trying to figure out what he is trying to show me, like: Why did he send me these files?"
A professor at Augsburg University, author of "IRL: Finding Realness, Meaning, and Belonging in Our Digital Lives" and now podcaster, Stedman follows that question in "Unread," a four-episode podcast binge-released on iHeart Podcast Network. The series takes listeners through Stedman's search for answers about Small's digital life, and his quest for meaning in grief.
Small had been a Spears superfan for as long as Stedman knew him, but the person he was talking to in the audio clips — another fan from an online forum — made him curious. As the #FreeBritney movement gained traction last year, speculating about the meaning behind the singer's social media posts, Stedman decided to find out more.
He started interviewing Small's friends and digging into Small's social media accounts to find his interactions with people online, including that superfan-who-sounds-too-much-like-Spears and actual celebrities Small admired, like Fred Durst of Limp Bizkit. Doing so, he gained a greater understanding of the "incredibly multifaceted" person he'd been friends with for a decade.
"I hope that people can get a glimpse of who Alex was — his passion, empathy, uniqueness, humor — as well as the connections he made with people from all walks of life," Small's sister, Shoshi Shine, told the Star Tribune. "I also hope it encourages people to more often reach out to those they love; that a smile can be deceiving."
The first episode of "Unread" discusses the two men's friendship, Small's struggle with depression and Stedman's process of contacting friends, family and the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline after his death. The next two episodes introduce Small's friends, family and the search behind the files, before the conclusion in episode four.
The podcast is one of the first on iHeart Podcast Network to be released in full on its launch date because "it's the kind of story that really, once the momentum gets going, you kind of want to keep listening to it," said executive producer Beth Anne Macaluso. It's "almost like more of a personal memoir," which few podcasts explore, she added.
Guests on "Unread" include former MTV VJ Dave Holmes, investigative journalist Carrie Poppy and I.V. Staklo from Trans Lifeline, a transgender crisis hotline.
Carolina De Los Rios, a mental health and suicide prevention officer at Greater Twin Cities United Way, said "Unread" may shed light on things she hears from callers at the local Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
It's common for people to feel more comfortable, or less judged, sharing themselves in online settings, she said. And it's crucial, she added, for people who lose someone to suicide to ask why as a part of the healing process.
"For those who really go into the detective work, you realize that suicide is not the result of one single factor," she added.
Stedman, who finished writing "IRL," his second book, a week before Small's death, learned more about his friend through the online connections he made while dealing with depression.
"We can go online and find outlets to connect with people that maybe we can't find in other parts of our lives, and that was very much the case for Alex," Stedman said.
By sharing "Unread," he wants to do justice to a friend who changed his "whole world."
"I just really want everyone to meet this person who was so special to me, and who I think was born into a world that was not set up for him to survive it, to thrive in it."
Madison Karas • 612-673-7394
Resources for suicide prevention
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
Crisis Text Line: Text HOME to 741741
In Minnesota: Contact the Greater Twin Cities United Way at 651-291-0211