Let me make one thing clear: I hate talk radio. I don’t “do” podcasts. I’ve never listened to Serial.
…That said, even I think I’m an ignorant faux-snob for being able to write that statement. Talk radio, NPR, podcasts—these are deservedly-lauded forms of entertainment with rich histories, and exciting futures. I am culturally aware enough to know that the flash hit Serial is but an exceedingly popular recent example of something that is vast, varied, and worthy of my attention.
So what’s my deal? Why am I the listening-equivalent to that hipster asshole who “doesn’t watch TV”?
In short: I got burned hard and young by my beloved father forcing me to listen to crackling AM radio throughout my childhood. His two standbys were any show about money…and a certain personality whose name rhymes with Mush Fimbah…
Endless hours of listening to topics and voices I personally found at best boring, and at worst actively offensive, eventually resulted in a 27 year old who politely smiles and nods at podcast recommendations from her friends, knowing full well she’ll be listening to TSwift on her commute home, notWelcome to the Night Vale.
But the times, they are a-changing, so I’ve decided to embark on a podcast education to finally determine, once and for all, if I really do hate listening to recordings of people talking, or If I just need to get over my past trauma and embrace this thing that, seemingly, a whole lot of other people love.
Therefore, I would like to welcome you to the first entry into a new series here on Back of the Box: “The Podcast Hater”—though to reiterate, I really am the worst type of hater because I’ve never even listened to any podcasts. I hate without knowing, and that, my friends and readers, is what needs to change. I can’t promise you insightful comparisons in the reviews and discussions to come, but I can promise my honest opinion.
For my first foray, I’ve selected Limetown, a relatively-new fictional podcast from Two-Up Productions, “which follows journalist Lia Haddock as she investigates the infamous disappearance of a doomed research facility.” It is described as “Serial meets X-Files.”
Created by Zack Akers, Skip Bronkie, and Dave Yim, the first episode released on July 29th, 2015. The second episode came out on September 13th. A third episode is coming…at some point. A planned 7 parts are still in production as I type and the creators seem quite at ease with their irregular posting schedule, as seen in this interview with NiemanLab. The first two episodes are about 30 minutes long and at the writing of this article, I’ve listened to one of them.
I’ll start with a recap.
The episode begins in chaos with sound bites from a garbled 911 call in which a distressed woman calls for aid to Limetown. Then there are news reports from “The Event” describing a confusing scene in which journalists and first responders arrived to the gates of the town only to be turned away by private security with no explanation. Three days go by, at which point the security dissipates, the gates open, and the people who enter the town find it completely disserted with absolutely no sign or whisper of the 327 men, women, and children who lived there.
At this point narrator Lia Haddock introduces herself to be a journalist for American Public Radio who “It seems, was always supposed to tell the story [of Limetown].” She explains that 10 years have passed since the Event at Limetown when 327 people vanished into thin air and in all that time there has never arisen even the barest whisper of a real explanation—only conspiracy theories and conjecture. She admits to having an uncle (not one she was remotely close to) who was one of those who disappeared at Limetown, and a general lifelong obsession with the unsolved mystery.
She gives background: Limetown was established in June of 2002 in an undeveloped region of White County in Middle, Tennessee. It was built and funded by Real Lore (actual spelling unknown, that’s just what I heard), which apparently was merely a front company funded by R. B. Villard who is described as a former telecommunications titan and one of Forbesmagazine’s most wealthy men on the planet. The billion-dollar development was intended to house researchers for a passion project of Villard’s, the vaguely stated purpose being “to gain a full understanding of the human brain.” The celebrated neurologist at the front of the project (in other words, the mad scientist being backed by Villard’s money) is explained to have been Dr. Oscar Totem, “a volatile genius.”
It is revealed later in the episode that Dr. Totem is the only person from Limetown whose remains have ever been found: charred teeth were discovered in the ashes at the base of a stake in the town at which, seemingly, Totem was burned alive.
The episode features recorded sound bites from Totem at a conference before the Event, and from Villard at a Congressional hearing afterwards. Both are more tantalizing than informative. Sound bites also come from family members of those lost—typical, though nevertheless authentically heartbreaking tales of final phone calls and left behind tokens.
The other key voice (so it would appear) that was introduced in episode 1 was Terry Hilkins, a reporter from the Spartan Sentinel of Tennessee who covered the Limetown Event. Hilkins assists Haddock in providing the audience with background and there is a recording of him giving her a brief tour of the now-closed-to-the-public town remains.
That portion of the episode describes a picturesque town of abandoned story-book homes with white picket fences, now all hollowed by dry rot. The town was apparently named after the caves of limestone that riddle the land underfoot, and to which all the homes are connected to. The central research facility, which is primarily underground with a lone entrance built into a hillside, is described as eerie and “…dynamic, as if the structure is actively crawling from the earth, or being dragged back into it.”
The episode seems ready to wrap up at minute 26—indeed, Haddock herself tells listeners that this was meant to conclude the first episode, “What We Know”.
–But then the cliffhanger comes: the reporter, Hilkins, calls her, out of breath and frantic. He tells her he has someone on the other line who she should talk to: a Survivor. The line switches, there is a harrowed and terrified exclamation, then a calm voice saying that they will only talk to Haddock, no one else. The mystery person drops from the call and Hilkins asks Haddock to stop recording…[cue end credits].
And now for my thoughts:
“Ok. I’m intrigued.”
I found the narrator’s voice to be pleasant and entirely not-irritating—so, we’re already doing way better than ol’ Bob Brinker. I found the format of quickly switching between various sound bites, voices, and recordings to be generally easy to follow. A sign of good editing, I assume. All in all, I was impressed with the production value (she said, knowing absolutely nothing about how podcasts are produced). I can tell you that it seemed a sizeable ensemble and the NiemenLab articles states there were 27 actors involved.
I also thought the writing was good. There did not appear to be too many wasted words or filler content. The messaged seemed clean and stripped, with just enough extra to not feel rushed. As a reader, I’m always hoping to be struck by the language. I long for those one or two lines in a novel that make me stop and want to read them again, to savor their flavor like a fine wine. I’m happy to say that Limestone, episode 1, had one such, when the “mad scientist” is pontificating at a conference, long before Limestone and his demise:
“Because I am an optimist when it comes to my fellow man. I do not think we are as limited or as powerless as we sometimes feel. We shouldn’t look to the stars and feel smaller. We should look to the stars in defiance and be able to reveal the power, the magnitude, of the uniquely gifted human mind. The Human Mind—there is a mystery there we must live in, must thrive in, it is there in the darkness that we will find the light that unites us all.”
Mmmm…that was tasty.
“Cataclysmic mystery befalls small backwoods town” isn’t exactly an original premise by any means, but that doesn’t mean it can’t still be interesting if handled with skill and imagination, which this podcast does appear to be doing. Furthermore, judging from the popularity of shows likeX-Files and Supernatural, I think there is a clear inclination of audiences to enjoy intrigue set in “sleepy” towns that are easy to imagine (drive through one, you’ve driven through them all) but not quite close enough to home (and reality) as to make us inspect our own towns with unease.
Despite having never listened to Serial, I know enough about it to see the similarities: female journalist working for Public Radio investigates a complex issue wrapped in vagaries and mystery. However, the NiemenLab piece explains that not only was the script written before Serial released, but the similarities will quickly dissipate over future episodes. Something tells me things will get far weirder in Limetown than they ever did in Serial.
And that’s good—I like weird. I like Lovecraft, Mieville, VanderMeer, etc. I don’t like horror, really. And therefor I’m liking that the feeling I’m getting from Limetown is that something seriously weird might be coming, not necessarily something horrifying.
If the first episode was meant to introduce the world, sketch out the Big Mystery, endear you to the narrator, and intrigue you to actually care about all of it, then I think the show creators succeeded, and I’m going to stay tuned.
Check it out: