‘Serial’ got us to listen every week, and ‘Limetown’ is upping the ante.
Details were vague from the start about the Limetown research facility, which housed 327 of the world’s greatest neuroscientists and civil servants in White Cotton, Tennessee. All anybody knew was that the facility was built to reach a “full understanding of the human brain,” which sounds wacky, but you can do wacky with a billionaire investor.
It wasn’t given much attention until Feb. 8, 2004, when 911 calls began pouring in from inside Limetown’s gates, and the responding police officers and firemen were threatened with gunfire if they tried to enter the complex.
When the gate was opened on Feb. 11, all 327 residents had disappeared, leaving only smoldering fires in their place.
That’s how Zack Akers and Skip Bronkie’s fictional podcast, Limetown, begins. It has the undeniable feel of an NPR program—in fact, the narrator is a reporter for a fictional public radio station called APR (American Public Radio). Her name is Lia Haddock, and she’s looking into Limetown’s disappeared residents for personal reasons: Her uncle was among the neuroscientists who went missing the night something went wrong and the facility was filled with screams, then silence.
That silence is not, however, found in the podcast. A massive cast keeps the story building through near-constant chatter. If a voice isn’t engaged in an interview with Haddock, it’s sampled from a fictional news broadcast that covered the incident, a phone call, or Congressional hearings.
Akers and Bronkie were filmmakers before diving into the pilot of Limetown, and quickly realized that scheduling is a massive pain with both mediums.
“The pressure of the production days doesn’t change from film to audio.”
“We had a stacked cast, over 27 people—many SAG actors and actresses—but with limited time on set, and no time before production for rehearsals, things had to go perfectly in our precious windows in the studio,” Bronkie told the Daily Dot. He’s the co-creator, producer, and one of the show’s five story developers. “The pressure of the production days doesn’t change from film to audio.”
“Post-production was actually the thing that made me go insane, but that’s sort of always the case,” Akers said. He’s a story developer and co-creator as well (the third is Dave Yim, another story developer and the series’ editor), and also helms the writing and directing of the episodes. “Finding solutions in the audio format were different from visual storytelling, but equally as awful in their own ways… It’s still hard as hell.”
Work on the podcast began during the summer of 2013, with the pilot recorded nearly a year later in May 2014. The development, recording, and post-production were all done during Akers and Bronkie’s nights and weekends—Akers was working on several other projects, and Bronkie held a full-time job. Eight months would pass before they had a finished cut of the pilot episode, which went on SoundCloud as a private link. The next step was the search for distribution. Bronkie explains that was a lengthy period: “It was really, really hard to have this baby and not ship it.”
While they went into the pilot episode with carefully metered expectations, they really, really liked the finished product.
“We realized we sort of had something special, something we hadn’t heard before in this medium,” said Bronkie. “We wanted to see if we could find a distribution partner, rather than simply release it on our own”
“We like rattling the idea that podcast episodes have to be released on a regular, weekly cadence.”
That didn’t work out. After six months of hounding distributors for a partnership, Bronkie decided to leave his full-time job and founded Two-Up Productions with Akers.
“We made Limetown our first official project,” Bronkie said. “We green-lighted the rest of the first season, and self-distributed the pilot starting August 2.”
Episode 2 debuted Sept. 13, so there’s quite a gap between releases so far.
“We like rattling the idea that podcast episodes have to be released on a regular, weekly cadence. We think about this more like a mini-series, with seven installments, that will hopefully be like nothing you’ve ever heard online before.”
The gap between the first two episodes was something the two counted on, and they hoped it would allow plenty of time for a fanbase to build.
“Our subscriber numbers have grown exponentially over the post month,” said Bronkie. “One unique characteristic of the podcast medium is that you’re dealing almost entirely with subscribers, so they’ll have new episodes automatically downloaded to their phone.”
This allows listeners to feel like they’re actively involved in Haddock’s investigation. With a fictional show presented as a non-fictional event that’s unfolding in real time, the alert of a new episode gives fans the rush of new clues and information.
The first episode is all questions: What was the Limetown facility working on? Where did the 327 people inside its gates go? Were they dead or alive? Why was it that anybody able to share info on these matters had either gone missing or was in hiding? Who ordered the security team to guard the gates of Limetown against emergency responders on the night everything went awry?
Episode 2 could be described a podcast noir.
“Story-wise, we could not have done this without knowing where we were going,” Akers said. “We know what each episode is, and what the story is we’re trying to execute in season 1.”
The series is still just two episodes deep, so it could all go south. Luckily, Bronkie and Akers seem at ease with that happening.
“Even if episode 2 completely bombs, and everything goes to hell, this whole thing still wouldn’t be a failed experiment,” said Akers. “I think it shows a hunger for something different in this medium, and it would be cool if this inspires others to do the same, or leads to the next great show.”
Is it possible that the practice of inviting friends over to sit around the radio and listen to dramas—something that was put to death by the advent of the television—could come full circle and return as a facet of podcasting’s evolution? Limetown is certainly a good testing ground.
Look for more clues in episode 3, which will appear whenever Lia Haddock unravels more of Limetown’s mysteries.
Photo via Limetownstories.com