Before reality TV and social media made it easy for people to be famous just for being famous, listeners of local radio stations got their time in the spotlight by participating in outrageous stunts for cash and prizes. In 1982, Allentown, Pennsylvania AM outlet WSAN enticed three people – Ron Kistler, Dalton Young, and the late Mike Mackay – with the chance to win a new mobile home by encouraging them to sit on the station’s outdoor promotional billboard.

As America’s financial struggles impacted Allentown and other once-successful industrial areas, the contest was a valuable opportunity for its participants to better their lives. It was also a cause celebre for the station, with the three men who occupied its billboard getting some brief attention in the national press.

It eventually became a cause for civic humiliation, as Young was ordered to withdraw after getting busted by an undercover cop for drug solicitation while he sat on the billboard. After 261 days, Kistler and Mackay exited the billboard and walked off with new cars, new homes, and well-deserved vacation trips.

Having grown up in Allentown, writer/director Zeke Zelker saw the story of that unforgettable period in local history as more than a nostalgic curiosity. Using his fascination with the 1982 event as creative fuel, Zelker wrote and directed the new film BILLBOARD. Premiering later this April, and set in the present day, BILLBOARD stars John Robinson (ELEPHANT, LORDS OF DOGTOWN) as Casey Lindeweiler, who takes over his father’s cash-strapped radio station, WTYT, and comes up with an imaginative way to keep it on the air: a billboard sitting contest.

In this instance, four people – the financially ailing Josh Richards (Michael Fegley), young artist Shelby Reynolds (played by Cristina Lucas Tissot), stroke survivor Ellen Snyder (Kristyn Koczur) and obnoxious fame seeker Clark Thompson (David Lind) – compete against each other to win $960,000 (representing the station’s frequency on the AM dial) and a mobile home. Though each of them have different motives for participating in the contest, they are all connected by their search for a better life.

David Lind plays the attention-seeking billboard sitter Clark Thompson in Zeke Zelker's web series THE BILLBOARD SITTERS.

David Lind plays the attention-seeking billboard sitter Clark Thompson in Zeke Zelker’s web series THE BILLBOARD SITTERS.

Those four characters are exclusively examined in BILLBOARD’s complimentary 25 episode web series, THE BILLBOARD SITTERS.

Premiering a few months before BILLBOARD’s incremental national release, each episode of THE BILLBOARD SITTERS will be available for $2.99 on the movie’s web site (link at the end of this article).

The series debuts on February 1st on Facebook Live and YouTube, with social media pages for its four characters launching the same day.

Filmed throughout Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley, both the feature film and web series are part of an impressive transmedia experience created by Zelker. Also part of that universe is the movie’s fictitious radio station (located at Debuting on February 1st, the station will live stream music from nearly a thousand up-and-coming indie alternative rock bands, plus updates on the billboard sitting contest seen in THE BILLBOARD SITTERS. WTYT’s Twitter account (also linked below) doubly serves to promote the series and the station, as well.

While the fates of the radio station and its four billboard occupants are explored throughout BILLBOARD’s narrative, the movie primarily addresses how the contest impacts WTYT’s employees, its listeners and community lawmakers. “We (see) the billboard sitters a couple of times throughout the course of the film, but the main action of the film takes place within the radio station, where you can see two sides of the same story and how media and community play a big part in the success – or failure – of things,” says Zelker.

Though the sitters occasionally appear in BILLBOARD, their presence is seen in every part of Zelker’s transmedia endeavor. “These four characters are in all the content that we’ve created, as well as (in) their submission videos to become the contestants,” he comments. “The radio station is also on different things, too. Those four characters are probably more so in all the content than any other character in the project.”

Kristyn Koczur stars as Ellen Snyder in THE BILLBOARD SITTERS.

Kristyn Koczur stars as the persevering stroke survivor Ellen Snyder in THE BILLBOARD SITTERS.

Meanwhile, THE BILLBOARD SITTERS is a comedic contrast to BILLBOARD’s introspective look at how the media’s responsibility to the public intersects with the preferences of the people who consume media.

“It (the series) tells the side of the story from the perspective of the billboard sitters and what they’re going through as part of this contest that the radio station puts on,” explains Zelker.

By delving into the personalities and desires of Josh, Shelly, Ellen and Clark, THE BILLBOARD SITTERS explores how people can turn to – and against – each other when their luck has evaporated.

“It’s interesting why each of them are up there and how quickly that changes, (plus) the alliances that are made, and the fissures that are created amongst the different contestants, and the sort of things they do to one another and then together to actually survive,” Zelker remarks.

THE BILLBOARD SITTERS also turns its lens on how inequality in modern-day America has split its citizens into contrasting classes, forcing some of the less fortunate to do incredibly exploitative things. “It’s a very interesting study on humanity and (it’s) also a microcosm of society, where you have the haves and have nots; those people that get provided for, and those people that can’t,” says Zelker. “They (the sitters) are all in this together, but they’re also in it to win it, and so they’re also against each other, as well.”

As one part of what Zelker calls a “cine-experience”, THE BILLBOARD SITTERS is also a production that invites viewers to engage with its narrative atmosphere in ways that dramatically transcend unidirectional visual storytelling. “I firmly believe in crowd co-creation, where you give an aspect of a film or the project over to the audience and let them become a part of it, just like all the bands on WTYT 960 all submitted their music to be part of the project, which is really cool. There’s over a thousand bands (from) all over the world on it.”

Out to find a better life for himself and his family is Josh Richards (played by Michael Fegley), one of the four contestants in writer/director Zeke Zelker's THE BILLBOARD SITTERS web series.

Out to find a better life for himself and his family is Josh Richards (played by Michael Fegley), one of the four contestants in writer/director Zeke Zelker’s THE BILLBOARD SITTERS web series.

Zelker also encouraged would-be sitters to participate by video submissions. “(For) how we cast the web series and the film, we created an aspect where people would create videos stating why they feel they’d be a good billboard sitting contestant,” he says.

“We ended up casting part of the film based off of those videos, (and) those videos ended up being (for) a contest. They’re all on Two out of the four actors submitted videos, and then we ended up auditioning them in person. That is actually how we ended up casting two of the four billboard sitters.”

Differing from the complex universe of the 2011 Sundance Film Festival transmedia sci-fi short film PANDEMIC (which Zelker produced), the filmmaker decided to make THE BILLBOARD SITTERS more realistic, more accessible, and more digestible to audiences who are used to consuming digital media in small segments.

“The reason why I wanted to do a web series of it (THE BILLBOARD SITTERS) is because I wanted to release aspects of it over the course of time and see how the audience reacts to things happening in real time because the audience will react to something in bits and bites a lot quicker than they’ll be able to react to something in long form.”

With THE BILLBOARD SITTERS’ characters linked to BILLBOARD, the radio station, social media and vice versa, Zelker has also made it easier for viewers to keep up with the action in BILLBOARD’s multiverse without having to play catch-up. Having multiple entry points is also important, (as is having) different parts of the story being told on different platforms where people can jump in and jump out at their leisure and be equally entertained, (while) not necessarily having to see all the content.”

Consisting of four newcomers, THE BILLBOARD SITTERS’ cast endured every weather condition from heat to hail during the series’ four week outdoor shoot. As the actors sat on a specially constructed billboard overlooking the Allentown, Pennsylvania-based Rothrock Motor Sales parking lot, Zelker was amazed as much by their perseverance as he was by their performances.

“Ask any actor that’s in a film where you’re completely in the elements for four weeks on a billboard next to a major highway. It’s pretty challenging. It was a very large undertaking for such a small project, but they learned a lot. I think they all grew a lot through this process and this project. I’m just very grateful that they were willing to take it on because they had to be committed to me (for) over a year and a half while I shot different aspects of the project.”

Cristina Lucas Tissot plays artist Shelby Reynolds in THE BILLBOARD SITTERS.

Cristina Lucas Tissot plays a promising artist, Shelby Reynolds, in THE BILLBOARD SITTERS.

Like the series’ cast, Zelker’s crew also battled their physical limits and Mother Nature during production of THE BILLBOARD SITTERS. “In terms of natural things, we had to embrace it. We just had to go with the flow,” explains Zelker.

“(On) those days that rained, we had to shoot in the rain. Those days that I wanted it to snow, I had to wait for the snow. There’s all these sorts of things that we had to do just to be patient. We had to be very organized because (we were) making sure that all the pieces fit together.”

Connecting those pieces, Zelker and THE BILLBOARD SITTERS’ producers labored to make every part of the show’s multimedia arrangement work as efficiently as a 4/4 rock ‘n roll backbeat.

“If you would take the entire film and all the web series episodes and put them all in a particular timeline, they all tell one very long linear story. I think it’s over five and a half hours of content. (We were) trying to make sure that everything was succinct and (we were) making sure everything continuity-wise made sense and so forth.”

Hoping that his latest offering will connect viewers through the participatory world of transmedia, Zelker vies to make THE BILLBOARD SITTERS and its adjacent content as thought provoking as it is entertaining. “The takeaway I’d love the audience to get is how we treat one another, how news cycles work and how what we can do online can really affect other people,” he explains. “There’s quite a bit of responsibility I think we all have to have with the advent of social media and using it responsibly. That’s what the entire project really is about.”

While Americans still have life and liberty, Zelker says that THE BILLBOARD SITTERS is about how economic struggles have forced many of them to redefine “the pursuit of happiness”. “What our tagline is is ‘surviving the American dream’. It’s a matter of trying to seek out opportunity and then trying to live the American dream from it. Then, the other side of it is because it doesn’t seem even attainable anymore.”

(NOTE: Zelker says that all episodes of THE BILLBOARD SITTERS are not yet closed-captioned, but that he’s working on adding that feature to each episode.)





(For WTYT):



(For WTYT):