Local podcast taps supernatural side of Williamsburg

Contact Reporterhbridges@vagazette.com

With a laptop, a microphone and a propped-up script between them, Phillip Merritt looked across the table at Philip Burcher.

"Are you ready to go?" Merritt asked.

So began the recording session.

As Burcher recited his lines for an episode of the "Lost in Williamsburg" podcast, Merritt listened intently, interjecting occasionally.

"So I would kind of speed that up a little bit," Merritt said at one point.

"Just a little bit more intense," he suggested later. "Almost shouting, not quite."

For someone so assured in direction, it's hard to believe Merritt had no idea how to make a podcast just four years ago.

Nearly 17 episodes of "Lost in Williamsburg" later, you could say Merritt has figured it out. He writes the script and composes the music. He records, edits and creates the artwork.

A landscape architect by day, Merritt produces the podcast in his own time, devoting an estimated 40 hours to each episode.

It's his creative labor of love.

"It's just so much fun to work on," Merritt said. "It's like a puzzle."

"Some people do sudoku, trying to figure out where all the numbers go," he said, "but this is like where do the notes go? Where do the sound effects go?"

Podcast inspiration

A podcast is not radio, and not quite streaming.

It's a digital media file downloaded from the Internet. Often, podcasts are produced as a series, and listeners can subscribe.

Survey data from Edison Research reveals that, as of 2016, 21 percent of Americans age 12 and older said they had listened to a podcast in the past month. That's nearly double the number of listeners from 2013: 12 percent.

And 36 percent of Americans 12 and older have ever listened to a podcast, according to the Edison survey data.

During work days spent sitting at his computer and drafting, Merritt started listening to online archives of classic radio programs, such as "Suspense" and "CBS Radio Mystery Theater."

That sparked the idea of starting his own podcast, but he didn't act on the idea until listening to an episode of "Welcome to Night Vale," a popular podcast about a fictional town.

"It was basically one guy talking into a microphone," Merritt said. "That's when I realized I could give podcasting a try."

From scriptwriting to editing, he's learned by doing, and that's all part of the fun. For Merritt, who has a background in fine arts, podcasting is just another creative outlet.

"At work, it's a creative job, but it's sort of practical creativity," Merritt said. With podcasting, "you get to do crazy, wild stuff."

Supernatural Williamsburg

Merritt describes "Lost in Williamsburg" as a "multigenerational soap opera."

Essentially, the serial drama follows Cats with Benefits, a present-day rock band that includes students at the College of William and Mary whose lead singer strangely disappears.

Episodes teeter between present and the past, flashing back to Thomas Jefferson's time at William and Mary. Other characters include Hexabeth Blackhard, an 18th-century tavern owner and sorceress, and Margaret Souter, an amateur sleuth.

"It's not exactly horror," Merritt said. "It's kind of like campy suspense."

And it shows a different side of Williamsburg.

"Basically, it's just sort of pretending what if there was something strange and supernatural going on in the town," Merritt said. "The town has a lot of history, so there's lots of potential for stories going back hundreds of years."

Colleen Kennedy, a longtime friend of Merritt's and associate professor of English at William and Mary, reads the part of Hexabeth Blackhard. She's lived in Williamsburg for several years.

"You can imagine yourself in the tavern back in the day, because you've been in the (Colonial Williamsburg) tavern," Kennedy said.

Merritt said he's intrigued by the "tension between reality and fiction" in the Historic Area and nearby areas. In "Lost in Williamsburg," Merritt likes to push that tension to the extreme.

"What is left out of the standard history we are presented with? What are the motives of the community leaders and business people who run the town? What if there is something sinister going on?" he said. "It's fun to speculate about that."

Local flavor

Burcher admits he'd never heard of podcasts before Merritt invited him to read the character of John Dunhill in "Lost in Williamsburg," nor did he have acting experience.

That's not far from the norm for the nearly 70 others Merritt has involved in the podcast — friends, coworkers, William and Mary faculty and students.

"I really like to get that local flavor, and convey some of that to people outside the area," he said, particularly with local accents.

Burcher, who has a Tidewater accent, grew up in Hampton, worked in Newport News and has lived in Williamsburg for years.

"I think that your regional accent is as much a part of you as any other ingredient," Burcher said. "Anybody can speak with a radio voice, but not many people can speak correctly with a Tidewater accent."

Linda Hertzler, co-owner of Hertzler and George and Merritt's employer, had a bit more acting experience than others involved, with a bachelor's degree in theater arts. She said playing Lady Macbeth has always been a bucket-list item.

"My character in the radio drama is the closest I'm going to get to that," she said of her role in "Lost in Williamsburg" as serial killer Valerie Dunhill.

Much of the recording takes place one-on-one in actor's homes. Reading lines alone was different than any performing Hertzler had done, and she voiced surprise at the finished and edited product, as did Kennedy.

"It's so behind the scenes, but what (Merritt) does is phenomenal," Kennedy said.

Kennedy's performance garnered a 2015 Audio Verse Award for Best Actress in an Ensemble Role, and the podcast has either won or been a finalist for select Audio Verse and Parsec awards.

The podcast's following isn't large – Merritt estimated 100 to 150 listens per episode.

The joy lies in the learning, the creation, the challenge, and seeing others discover that same joy.

"It's rewarding for me to find someone who's like, 'Oh, I couldn't possibly do anything like that,' and you challenge them, and they come through, and they enjoy it," Merritt said.

Bridges can be reached by phone at 757-345-2342.

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