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Aug. 28, 2015, 11:10 a.m.
Business Models

Serial meets The X-Files in Limetown, a fictional podcast drawing raves after just one episode

“Serial had to stay nonfictional. At the end of the show, it didn’t necessarily mean that it had a conclusion. That’s the biggest advantage we have: We’re making it up. So we can give you an ending.”

Ten years ago, hundreds of men, women, and children living at a research facility in Limetown, Tenn., disappeared, never to be heard from again. Now a young journalist for American Public Radio, Lia Haddock, is investigating their disappearance, in a new podcast that’s drawing comparisons to Serial (of course) and The X-Files.

The X-Files is probably the more apt comparison: Limetown is fictional. In real life, there is no Lia Haddock, or Limetown, or American Public Radio.

But you’d be forgiven, at least for the first few minutes of the first Limetown episode, for thinking that it might be a real, crazy story you’d somehow never heard about before. Limetown’s creators, Zack Akers and Skip Bronkie, met as film students at the NYU Tisch School of the Arts. They’re not purposely trying to fool anyone, but their background in film has given them a refreshing view on podcasts: Why can’t they be more like movies?


“First and foremost, Skip and I are people who love film,” Akers told me. “That was always our passion. But it’s very cost-prohibitive and risky to venture into film right away; it’s a difficult market to crack.” Podcasting, meanwhile, seemed like “a medium that was ripe for storytelling — and also a cheap way to tell the stories that we wanted to tell.” As he and Bronkie saw it, podcasts are generally thought of as inherently nonfictional — but there’s no reason they have to be.

“I love This American Life and Radiolab and listened to them for years,” Akers said. “This style, where you have interviews interject themselves into the flow, and everything is designed so neatly and tightly: I loved that. That’s the world I wanted to be in, but place our fictional storytelling template into it and see what happened.” He was also influenced by Welcome to Night Vale, the cult podcast favorite that “has this bizarre soundscape that did something completely different with the genre than I’d ever experienced.” Just as Night Vale takes the style of community radio as its jumping-off point, Limetown riffs on the intimate sound of Serial and other podcasts with public radio DNA.

“It was an incredible creative constraint. We were two filmmakers who knew we couldn’t make a feature film on top of our nights and weekends and day jobs,” Bronkie said. “There was no reason we couldn’t take what we know about narrative and documentary film and put it into a podcast.”

Akers and Bronkie are scarily young considering everything they have achieved. Akers, who grew up in Tennessee, graduated from Tisch in 2008 and quickly got work making sports documentaries, for HBO Sports and then for Flagstaff Films. He also cowrites screenplays with the Zimbalist brothers, who are best known for producing and directing sports documentaries in ESPN’s 30 for 30 series. Bronkie, who grew up outside Buffalo, began working for Facebook “in my first three weeks into college” as an in-house filmmaker and creative producer. He worked at Facebook for eight years, during college and after: “I would go out to Palo Alto Thursday through Sunday, then go back to school Monday to Wednesday.” After that, he went to Pinterest as a creative and film director.

Then, a few weeks ago, Bronkie and Akers started their own production company, Two-Up Productions. Limetown is their company’s first project, but it’s been in the works for a couple of years: Akers began writing the script in 2013, and they cast and recorded the pilot — which includes 27 actors — in May 2014 in New York City. (An earlier version of the script put the town in South Dakota rather than Tennessee.) The first episode of Limetown was released on July 29, 2015.

Bronkie and Akers had discussed how nice it would be if they could get a few hundred listeners; Bronkie said his “secret stretch goal” was 10,000 listens for the whole series. Limetown exceeded that in its first week: It was featured on the homepage of iTunes three days after its release. “That was when we thought, Oh, this is a real thing now,” Akers said. “It was always real to us. But now we have people all over the world listening to us and sending us messages.”

Many of these listeners want to know when Limetown’s second episode will be released. “Our schedule is going to be unconventional,” Akers said. The first season of Limetown has seven parts; they’re all outlined, and “we know what’s going to happen,” but only a couple of episodes are fully written. Akers and Bronkie aim to release an episode roughly every other week, starting in September. “I have to get married on the 19th, so we’ll get [the second episode] out before then,” Akers said.

Akers and Bronkie are funding the season themselves, and estimate it will cost about $30,000 to do seven episodes. “I heard this interview with Adam Sachs, [CEO of] Midroll, the other day,” Bronkie said. “He said the only way to make a viable business out of a podcast is to do it in one very standard format. You have to be able to churn out 50 episodes a year, and the costs have to be incredibly low to keep up with that pace of production. So you get a lot of podcasts that, while very interesting, sound very similar and in that same format.

“We approach this with a totally other mentality: What if it wasn’t a viable business?” he joked.

At this point in our conversation, he and Akers were both giggling. They’re not all that worried about having an irregular release schedule. “We need to get them out at a pace where people don’t forget what’s happening, but at the same time, I do think the consistency [of traditional public radio] is a little archaic,” Bronkie said. “Having an inconsistent release schedule is more like what happens in the real world. If Lia is exploring this story in present day, well, sometimes an episode might just be 40 seconds of breaking news. We want to play with that.”

Consistent schedules exist “for people who want to make money,” Akers said. “For us, it’s more that we just want to create the best possible content…If people want to give us money, that’s fantastic, but because what we’re doing is so unconventional, and the opposite of how everyone has made money [in podcasts] so far, that was certainly not our aim.”

That said, Akers and Bronkie do think of Limetown as a business. Bronkie quit Pinterest to work on Two-Up Productions full-time, and Akers is heading in that direction while wrapping up some other projects. “This is the time to get involved in something if you want an investment to pay off. For us, at the very least, we see this as a great calling card for our production company,” Bronkie told me.

They are also thinking about new ways to promote their podcast. “At some point in the future, Facebook will invest more in an audio product,” Bronkie said. (Recall that he spent several years working there.) “So should we be uploading the podcast to Facebook, even though it’s audio-only and they mute the autoplay? The upsides are that the distribution is incredible, and we know by this point that if you have your content within the Facebook ecosystem, versus linked externally, you do get better distribution.” For now, a Limetown clip is embedded on the podcast’s Facebook page, as a video with only a bit of accompanying text. (Prepare yourself for future debate on Facebook as the dominant platform for distributed podcast content.) You can also listen to it on YouTube.

Limetown draws comparisons to Serial in part because Serial was a sleeper hit that changed the way people think about podcasts, and in part because, like Serial, Limetown has a female investigative protagonist. (She’s played by Annie-Sage Whitehurst.) But Lia Haddock isn’t a fictionalized Sarah Koenig; Akers and Bronkie find some perceived parallels between the shows a stretch. Akers pointed out that he wrote Limetown before Serial came out, and thinks that as Limetown progresses, “the comparison will be less and less.”

“We’re not coming after Serial,” Akers aid. “Serial was the biggest thing in the medium, and we’re glad it exists, because it broadens the market. But we’re not shaping ourselves in its image.

“Serial had to stay nonfictional,” he added. “At the end of the show, it didn’t necessarily mean that it had a conclusion. That’s the biggest advantage we have: We’re making it up. So we can give you an ending.”

POSTED     Aug. 28, 2015, 11:10 a.m.
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