By Charley Locke for WIRED.
True-crime investigations, fictional radio shows set in small towns, long-form obsessive pursuits of a reclusive fitness gurus — the biggest hits in podcasting in recent years have taken a lot of varied forms. But the latest one trying to jolt the industry is doing it using an even more unlikely genre than most: musical theater.
On the surface, 36 Questions, which stars Hamilton alum Jonathan Groff, is a narrative podcast about a couple working out their marital issues through song. But for producers Zack Akers and Skip Bronkie, who produced the 2013 fiction podcast Limetown, it’s the first step towards a podcast channel built around experimentation. It’s the start of a master plan to lure listeners away from long podcast series and into a sprawling ecosystem of audio aimed at evolving what podcasts can be. “There’s an unlimited amount of ways to go right now, because the podcast form is so young and so pliable,” says Akers. “How can you mix up the form, how do you mess with the audience in an interesting way?”
Akers and Bronkie first worked together as college roommates, studying film and TV at Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. After graduating, they went their separate ways: Bronkie worked as a creative director at Facebook and Pinterest; Akers produced sports documentaries. But 10 years later, in 2013, Akers came to Bronkie with an idea for a way to do the kind of work they’d pursued as undergrads without having to secure a Hollywood budget. “Standing on my train going to work, everyone on my subway car has headphones in: This is an audience,” says Akers. “So I called Skip and said we should do a fictional podcast and treat it like a film.” Bronkie, who had just read World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, was game. His suggestion: An oral history podcast.
The team spent the next year writing and producing Limetown, a six-episode story about a town where all 327 inhabitants disappeared. Today, there are dozens of fiction podcasts: Homecoming, The Bright Sessions, four shows from the Night Vale Presents network alone. But when Limetown launched in July 2015, a reporter or researcher hunting through found footage wasn’t yet a trope. The show quickly developed a devoted following, making it to No. 1 on the iTunes charts.
While producing Limetown, Bronkie quit his day job at Pinterest and decided to pursue their company, Two-Up Productions, full-time. For filmmakers, the cost of audio fiction — voice actors, studio space, sound engineers — seemed like a bargain. “It’s less costly than producing a television series or film,” says Bronkie. “Without the visual aspect, you can go into the studio for a single day and come out with a half-hour episode.” His tech background came in handy, too: Thanks to his time working at lucrative tech companies, the two were able to self-finance the $90,000 season of Limetown, recouping the costs afterwards through ads, a prequel novel, and optioning the TV rights to IMG.
From Mimicking Movies to Mimicking Musicals
After the success of Limetown, the pair went looking for something to create the same impact. Their solution? A musical.
“When Skip suggested it, I laughed — why would we ever do a musical?” says Akers. “But I knew because I was scared and it was so different that it was what we needed to do as a company.”
For a storyline, they landed on a couple using “The Experimental Generation of Interpersonal Closeness,” a list of 36 questions popularized by a 2015 “Modern Love” column, as a last-ditch effort to save their marriage. And because Limetown owed so much of its success to Akers and Bronkie’s experience as filmmakers, they turned to experts for 36 Questions’ musical aspects, bringing on composers Ellen Winter and Chris Littler, who spent the next 18 months writing it.
Writing a podcast musical was a unique challenge — even for Winter and Littler, who play together in Chamber Band, a project Littler describes as creating “story-oriented songs in established universes”. (Previous albums include Deities, where songs take place in Dungeons & Dragons, and Careers, set in the world of The Hunger Games.) An audio-only musical posed limitations: They had to cut a narrator role and an ensemble; they decided not to feature more than two voices in a scene, so listeners can track dialogue; they integrated orchestration into the action. (At one point, Groff’s character asks his wife to turn off a record player, thereby letting the audience know the couple doesn’t just have a string section playing live in their living room.)
But the podcast format also had benefits. A typical Broadway cast recording sounds as it would from an orchestra seat: like the actors are singing 30 feet away. In a podcast, it sounds like you’re in the room with the actors. With exposition and dialogue interspersed with the songs, 36 Questions sounds like a little bit of both. “It’s very immersive — your ears are in the space with the characters,” says Winter. “It’s as if you’re on stage with the actors, surrounded by them,” adds Littler.
Playing to the Base
The journey of 36 Questions will end on July 24, after a three-episode run. That’s a short series by podcast standards, but Akers and Bronkie hope it’s enough to lure listeners in — and keep them around. To that end, they’re not releasing the episodes on a separate 36 Questions feed in iTunes, but rather on Two-Up’s podcast channel. That way listeners who subscribe to Two-Up for 36 Questions will automatically get whatever the company works on next. “Doing everything on one channel means we can keep a loyal fanbase,” says Bronkie. “You now have a home for these riskier, weirder ideas.”
Podcast producers usually don’t pursue one-episode projects; one-offs make it hard to build a following and climb the iTunes popularity charts. When producers have successfully made shorter seasons, it’s often as part of a broader series with existing name recognition, like The Heart’s four-episode mini-series on sexual abuse. What Two-Up is doing is different. Akers and Bronkie want their feed to use a variety-channel approach, retaining listeners who like their style while experimenting with genres that don’t fit into the serialized mold. Two-Up’s next project, for example, is a 75-minute “audio film” about weather vane thieves, ham radios, and “flawed characters making bad choices in 1979 rural Maine,” out at the end of 2017. And because of the relative cheapness of podcast production, they can try a lot of things and draw in new ears along the way.
“The entry point of indie filmmaking is so high — it’s so hard to reach an audience of significance,” says Akers. “Podcasting, with this channel, cuts through a lot of that, and gets to a bigger audience very quickly.”
They’re cagey about future podcast ideas beyond the feature-length project, but committed to experimentation — and to maintaining a filmmaker’s perspective. “We want to make something that sounds like a movie for your ears, cinematic and rich,” says Bronkie. To find out what that sounds like beyond musicals and found footage mysteries, you’ll just have to re-up Two-Up.
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