Whenever I’m out of podcasts (which is, real talk, several times a month), I do the (probably) obvious: I go to my podcast app, check the top charts, and see if there’s anything new hanging out in the top 100 (or top 200 or 300 if I’m really digging, yes, I’m well aware that I may have a pod-problem.)
I’m used to the usual suspects appearing in the top 10. This American Life, Ted Radio Hour, Stuff You Should Know, Serial, Radiolab, Freakonomics Radio, Fresh Air. You tend to see a lot of NPR’s babies in those top slots, or stuff from media heavyweights like the aforementioned Ira Glass, who podcast nerds know as the boss man behind This American Life and Serial. If a podcast is high on the charts, it usually has serious backing. Which is why it was so surprising to see Limetown appear in the number one slot recently. Three seconds of Googling later, and I found that Limetown was neither an NPR affair nor was it an Ira Glass’ latest entry into the podcasting world. The show was created and is produced by two podcasting newbies, filmmakers Zack Akers and Skip Bronkie. It seemed a near-impossible feat, for two total outsiders to bust in and rapidly ascend to the tip-top of the charts.
“This podcast must be whoa-good,” I thought to myself. Then I downloaded and listened to the first two episodes and was thrilled to discover it was JUST as whoa-good as I had suspected.
The radio drama follows Lia Haddock, a reporter for the fictional NPR stand-in American Public Radio, who launches a seven-part series investigation into “Limetown,” a community of over 300 men, women and children who all disappeared Roanoke-style from their tiny community ten years ago and were never heard from again. (Minor-ish spoiler alert, by the end of the pilot episode, we find out that not everyone who has been counted as missing is QUITE as disappeared as suspected).
I had the privilege of talking with show creators Zack and Skip about how their grand podcast experiment became the most smashing of successes. Zack had been a fan of podcasts for years, but it was only after tuning into “Welcome to Nightvale ( a podcast that follows the otherworldly going-ons of a fictional desert town via its local radio station) that he “realized the potential of the medium sitting their waiting to be taken advantage of.”
Zack and Skip knew they wanted to partner in storytelling, and as filmmakers (they two met in film school) they had considered making a micro budget feature-length film or a short film with a larger budget, but ultimately they decided to pool their resources and focus their efforts on creating a narrative podcast. They started kicking around ideas and then, inspired by Skip’s recent read of Max Brooks’ World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, they realized, as Zack explained to me, “Oral history is perfect for podcasting. It’s ingrained in the DNA of the medium.” Inspired by the zombie oral history, Zack and Skip asked themselves: “What if you told the story of an event you just made up?”
Over the course of 2014, the team wrote and recorded their pilot episode and then spent the first half of 2015 trying to find distribution for their project.
“It’s the wild west in podcasting,” Zack explained. “There are limited avenues, and we approached all avenues, but no one knew what to do with [Limetown]. It’s different and unconventional. It’s not a money grab. At a certain point, we said f— it, let’s put it out there. Then it took off organically through word of mouth.”
The podcast was featured on the iTunes banner and by the taste-making lifestyle blog A Cup of Jo, which Zack and Skip credit for helping their show ascend the charts and quickly build an audience. When the podcast began to get press, it was referred to as a “fictional Serial” or a “Serial meets The X-Files/Twin Peaks/Welcome to Nightvale,” a comparison I think is apt (so apt, I make it in this very piece), but I would be remiss if I didn’t let the team explain why they’re trying to sidestep this comparison.
“Serial sort of legitimized the format,” Zack explained. “It made podcasting a legit cultural thing and it broadened the audience in a way that makes our show possible. Still, we’re uncomfortable being compared to Serial because we know where our show is going… Everyone in the industry owes Serial a hearty handshake, but we distance ourselves from being compared to them. We respect them too much.”
There’s a reason why the comparisons exist. There’s more than a little bit of Serial‘s host Sarah Koenig in the fictional Lia Haddock. These thoughtful and intrepid women are on similar quests, to dust off a mystery from years ago and try to once and for all get to the bottom of what happened on the fateful day that is the crux of their obsession. Of course, Limetown is very much its own creature (see all the other works it has been compared to by its critics and creators), but to ignore the fact that these two stories with a similar thrust both hit big this year would be to ignore that this emerging subgenre of detective fiction. Our culture has held a torch for episodic mysteries from the Victorian Era straight on into the present (See: every Sherlock Holmes story, every Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade novel, every episode of Law and Order: SVU), but in the last few years it seems audience are less interested in neat and tidy endings and more interested in the mystery in question being the entry-point to a full-blown existential crisis for the characters affected by the central event.
That is to say, these detective-types are working diligently on cases that perhaps were not meant to be solved, and the process of solving might very well be the undoing of our detective(s). One can see these themes playing out in television shows Limetown has been compared to (X-Files and Twin Peaks), as well as the recent existentially-obsessed True Detective. You could even make an argument for shows as disparate as Lost and Pretty Little Liars embracing the messiness of their mysteries rather than the neatness of a straightforward through line and a clear and defined ending. Not only is podcasting as a medium having a moment, but its moment is dovetailing beautiful with the genre of the hour, the messy mystery that was, perhaps, never meant to be solved. It’s not about whodunnit, but rather, it’s about the detective’s interior life, which often includes a descent into the heart of darkness.
Of course, Limetown is only a few episodes into its limited run, so whereas we certainly hope for Lia’s sake that she handily solves this mystery and emerges from this whole scenario relatively unscathed, the vibe we’re picking up from these first eps is that she’s going to get dark and deep with this thing. Which is not so great for her, but hella great for us as listeners. The more complicated and weird this story gets, the better a yarn it’s going to be.
So, what’s next for Limetown? The podcast has announced that it will be a seven-part series. Three episodes are currently available for download, the fourth episode does not have an announced air date. Limetown is not a weekly download podcast, and the creators are very comfortable breaking the scheduling mold.
“The show has an unconventional cadence,” Zack acknowledges. “We want to make the best show we can possible make, so we’re not going to compromise show with arbitrary dates. Every episode is it’s own thing. This is just our honest approach.”
“We’d love to break notion regular cadence, Skip adds. “Look at this more like seven parts of a film.”
Though the two have certainly heard from their fair share of impatient fans hungry for their next Limetown fix, Zack points out that, “There are worse problems to have then people really wanting to hear your show.”
Look at it this way, we’re not sure when the next ep is dropping, so the actual rollout is as much of a mystery as the story of the show. Now that’s medium meeting message.
(Image via Limetown website.)