News & Commentary

Is this the dawn of the golden age of radio drama? After 'Serial' comes 'Limetown'

Is the horror podcast Limetown the new “HBO show” of the internet airwaves? Jacob Robinson reports.
On February 8, 2004 reports began circulating from a tiny remote town in a quiet corner of Southern USA that something was seriously amiss.
Over 300 inhabitants of the small congregation of Limetown disappeared overnight and have never been heard of, or seen again. Media flocked to the scene but a team of security agents from an unidentifiable agency held them at bay and three days later left the scene with no evidence that anything had ever happened.
Now, intrepid investigative reporter for American Public Radio, Lia Haddock, is attempting to unravel the mystery of what happened to the town’s inhabitants. For her, its personal —  her long-estranged uncle is one of the missing.
Never heard of Limetown or the unexplainable fate of its citizens?
Well, for good reason.
There are solid hints that there very well may be a nefarious conspiracy shielding the town’s travails from the general populace. But the subjects of the podcast Limetown are unknown for a completely different reason — the program is entirely fictional.
But in the space of a mere three episodes it has shot to the top of the podcast charts around the world (though Australia seems to be lagging slightly behind) and set corners of the internet abuzz deciphering its cryptic clues to the fate of the town’s inhabitants.

The fourth episode of a planned seven episodes is set to be released next Monday, 2 November.
Billed somewhere in between The X-Files and Serial, Limetown is the brainchild of former NYU film cohorts Zack Akers and Skip Bronkie. Told in a style eerily reminiscent of the viral smash hit of this time last year Serial, Limetown is perhaps the first “HBO show” style fictional podcast — wielding high production values, an ever expanding (and sometimes violently contracting) cast of characters and a cliffhanger serial narrative style to tell a unique story.
But its slick production values and inherent qualities belie a highly fraught genesis.
Bronkie quit his job at Facebook to start a production company and after several failed attempts to find a financial backer, he and Akers  decided to go it alone and establish Limetown as their premiere effort. The duo recorded the pilot at the start of the year and shopped it around to many potential distributors.
“We sat on it for six months,” Bronkie told The Guardian. “We had something that we hadn’t really heard before, something we were really proud of, and we thought we should try to get some sort of distribution partner. We hit the ground running, talking to everyone we could. We were seeing if places that never had gotten into podcasts before would be interested in releasing a show under their banner.”
But no one took the bait and eventually Akers and Bronkie decided that if Limetown was ever going to come to life, they would need to go it alone.
“People don’t know what to make of it being a fictional show,” said Bronkie.
Therein lies the crux of the seemingly unlikely success of Limetown — it’s the first podcast that has successfully tapped into the overwhelming desire for serial fictional narrative. The patterns of entertainment consumption are continuing to evolve – binge-watching, streaming and ubiquitous devices are now the norm — and the content is becoming tailored towards it.
Yet, until now, no one has struck the right formula in the podcast vein.
Long before the invention of the iPhone, radio dramas were a common means of dispersing fictional dramas, yet the art of the vocal fictional narrative seems to have long been supplanted by the visual. If television has only relatively recently gathered acceptance as a genuine form for artistic expression, then podcasting is not even on the map.
Akers and Bronkie say that they approach Limetown as they would a film — they’ve hired a casting director to source actors and brought a sound designer, music supervisor and editor on board too.
But while the costs to bring the story to the small screen, let alone the silver would be considerable, the format offers few financial barriers to entry. Anyone with a basic sound recorder and internet connection can set up a podcast, which makes the comparative riches of Limetown’s composition such a wonder.
The bones of Limetown aren’t exactly a new concept; people have done small town intrigue before, sci-fi has long been an entertainment staple and even audio-only serial narrative have long been a permanent fixture of the airwaves.
And the parallels to other successful podcasts are readily apparent — Akers and Bronkie openly acknowledge the hugely popular surrealist sci-fi show Welcome to Night Vale as a major inspiration, while the stylistic similarities to Serial and its mothership This American Life are by no means an accident (the fictional radio station is called APR in comparison to the former’s NPR).
Most impressively, the narrative arc of LImetown seems to shift as new information is (supposedly) brought to life, mimicking the almost interactive nature of new evidence that Serial would uncover.
But even in the context of these obvious homages, Limetown still feels like a breath of fresh air. The sense that something wonderful is unfolding before you is palpable.
So where will Limetown go from here? Well it’s still too early to tell if the final stretch of episodes will be able to recreate the enormous buzz around its initial releases. But the first three episodes are all enthralling in their own nature, each revealing a new distinct element to the drama.
Where Limetown ends up taking its place in the pantheon of modern storytelling is unknown, but it’s clearly kicked down the door for a future wave of fictional drama podcasts to step through.

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