Madelyn and Angel Dorta and Ernesto Valentine have been creating stories together since they were children. The three siblings would spin tales by taking turns telling portions of a plot line, meandering their way from beginning to end.
Once they got older, the stories expanded to short movies. One little horror flick they made while Angel was in high school, named "My Bloody Valentine," was the spark that got the siblings working together for real.
"Those two are among my best friends," Angel said.
They're still creating together today through Wrightwood Studios, the Quad-Cities-based multimedia company they started, and have graduated to podcasting. Their award-nominated podcast "Meteor City" is currently crowdfunding for the second season.
Madelyn and Ernesto both live in the Quad-Cities, while Angel lives in Lost Nation, a town of about 450 people about 40 miles north and a bit west of Davenport.
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Each sibling brings their own talent to the studio, which Madelyn said makes them stand out.
Valentine, 36, is a photographer and cinematographer, and first came up with the idea for Wrightwood Studios when he was 18. Angel, 33, started making music when he was little with a keyboard and boombox, and now scores and mixes music and audio. Madelyn, 29, first discovered her "superpower" at age 6 when she picked up a No. 2 Ticonderoga pencil and began to write.
Madelyn came up with the idea for "Meteor City" after visiting Detroit. The podcast premiered in 2018.
"Meteor City" is a sci-fi drama fiction podcast about Bianca Diaz, who returns home to Detroit 10 years after a meteor shower hit the city, killing her brother and father. Now dubbed Meteor City by residents and flanked by New Detroit, Bianca begins to uncover secrets about the city and those left behind. Madelyn said they'd had 150,000 listeners.
Every city has a certain vibe, Madelyn said, and Detroit’s is electric. The sounds of the city rumble up through its foundations, impossible to ignore. Certain areas also look like a natural disaster swept through.
“There was just this moment that I was like, ‘This city feels so alive, and I have to tell the story,’” Madelyn said. “It just felt right.”
Despite its fantastical elements, "Meteor City" is a story anyone can connect with. It's about not recognizing the world you live in and trying to find where you fit.
"It's a story that we all can relate to, of looking around the world and no longer recognizing it, fighting for your community and kind of having to face all the trauma that just comes with being alive," Madelyn said.
She knew from the start that "Meteor City" was going to be told in an audio format, and her brothers were immediately on board with the idea. Then they just had to figure out how to do it.
Twitter was a great help in both finding audio storytelling resources and connecting with voice actors who wanted to audition for the show. Casting Meteor City was one of the hardest parts of the process, Madelyn said, as they wanted to find a diverse group of voices.
Artists across Illinois and in the Quad-Cities are creating pieces about the COVID-19 vaccination.
None of the shows Madelyn listened to had Latina leads, and accents were nowhere to be found. She wanted a cast of voices that people could relate to, which led her to finding voice actors from all over the world to work with.
"Casting authentically and diversely is our mission, but that means that it was really hard to find our characters," Madelyn said. "There was a lot of searching; eventually we found our perfect cast."
The podcast audience has grown larger and more diverse in 2021, according to research from Edison Research and Triton Digital. The amount of weekly podcast listeners in the U.S. rose to around 80 million — or 28% of the population over 12 years old — in 2021, a 17% growth.
Fifty-seven percent of podcast listeners are white. The next largest demographic groups are Latinx at 16% and African American at 13%.
Writing in an audio format was new for Madelyn, and she had to start over after her first draft because it didn't work for audio storytelling. There was definitely some trial and error, she said.
Angel hadn't listened to audio dramas before starting work on "Meteor City," so he didn't have much to draw from for inspiration except for music he liked for the theme song. He was learning on the fly.
There were a few podcasts Angel found that he wanted to be able to compete with, like "King Falls AM," a supernatural comedy. While they had different tones, the show's score was so good that it inspired Angel to try to reach its level.
In 2019 "Meteor City" really started getting recognition, Angel said. The show was nominated for four Audio Verse Awards, in the categories of Best Writing of a New Dramatic Production, Best Audio Engineering of a New Dramatic Production, Best Performance of a Leading Role in a New Production and Best Original Composition for a New Dramatic Production.
"King Falls AM" was also nominated in the audio engineering category, Angel said, reaching his goal of competing with high-level audio productions.
"It started off as 'what if we could do this,' and turned into 'wow we're really doing this,'" he said.
The siblings aren't done growing Wrightwood Studios. They released a second podcast in 2019 called "Covencast: A Disaster's Guide to Magic," and are crowdfunding for the second season of "Meteor City." They're also diving into visual mediums as well as audio, having just released a trailer for the second season.
A future goal is to get a physical studio space for the siblings and those they bring in to work in, then to start working on short films and other projects in the Quad-Cities.
Madelyn has gotten questions about working with family a lot, she said, but she tells everyone it's worked out really well. Sometimes they need to navigate challenges, but their relationship means they don't even need words sometimes to get what each other is saying.
"It's kind of always what we've done," Madelyn said. "We're a very, very close knit family."