Night Vale is a strange place to visit.
From the hooded figures who gather at the dog park to the subterranean city found beneath Lane 5 of the local bowling alley, the people of the fictional Southwestern desert town treat odd phenomena as perfectly normal.
Of course, it’s not a real place, but the setting of “Welcome to Night Vale,” a biweekly podcast that brings to mind Garrison Keillor’s “News From Lake Wobegon” by way of David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks.”
But nothing in the town proves quite as surprising as the show’s success. Against all expectations, the quirky Internet radio program found a huge listenership in a relatively short time and became a prime example of how podcasts use their potential for creativity to find an audience. On March 7, the live version of “Welcome to Night Vale” brings its unique brand of weirdness to the Rialto Center for the Arts — where it sold out.
The term “podcast” was coined in 2004 to describe an Internet variation on the traditional radio show, released on audio files to be downloaded for free to iPods or other devices instead of being broadcast. Some of the most popular podcasts are simply long-running radio shows like “This American Life.” Thousands of other podcasts can only be found online through such outlets as the iTunes free media player and library. While many podcasts explore general interest news or comedy, others, like “Night Vale,” cater to niches.
In 2012, the Brooklyn, N.Y.-based co-creator of “Night Vale,” Joseph Fink, wanted to try his hand at the form and collaborated with fellow playwright Jeffrey Cranor to write the odd storylines.
“I didn’t want it to sound like the ones I already listened to, so I came up with the idea of a town where all conspiracy theories are true,” Fink explained.
Embracing the sky’s-the-limit freedom of the podcast form, the pair scripted the pilot for “Welcome to Night Vale” in the form of a community radio broadcast and produced it through Fink’s publishing company, Commonplace Books. For the show’s narrator, Fink and Cranor tapped stage actor Cecil Baldwin.
Baldwin described the continuing simplicity of the operation: “It’s three guys who use inexpensive microphones and free software to put up a free podcast twice a month.”
Each episode usually lasts under 30 minutes, with the fictional “Cecil” delivering Night Vale news and traffic reports, typically interrupted by otherworldly threats that get resolved by the show’s end, usually during the musical interlude. Much of the appeal of “Night Vale” lies in Baldwin’s performance, which alternates between sincere and sinister.
“Cecil’s very similar to me in a lot of ways,” Baldwin said. “He’s a very positive person, very optimistic, and that’s when it becomes dark comedy. He’s upbeat when talking about existentially horrible things like the inevitability of death — he’s so darn chipper about it.”
Fink and company released the pilot episode in June, 2012, with modest expectations. “We had no concept of one day having a fan base — that never even occurred to us,” Fink said. “We’d just ask, ‘What if we get a few people to listen to it who weren’t friends or family?’”
The show developed a word-of-mouth following, enhanced by positive online reviews and a Twitter account devoted to morbidly amusing one-liners like, “Home is where the heart is. You’ll never guess where we hid it though.”
The first-anniversary show coincided with an enormous growth in listeners.
“In June of 2013 we had 150,000 total downloads for our first year,” Fink said. “The next month, we had a total of 2.5 million, and in August we more than tripled that.”
The show’s creators attribute its popularity in part to the microblogging platform Tumblr, where fan art fired interest in “Night Vale.”
“We don’t describe our characters, so all of these great fan artists were depicting a whole set of characters people had never seen before,” co-writer Cranor said.
“Also, we have an openly gay couple at the center of the show,” Fink added, referring to the largely off-mic subplot about Cecil and Carlos, the handsome scientist investigating the town’s mysteries. “Right after that happened, the explosion happened. It was definitely something that people attached to, something people don’t see in media very often.”
“Night Vale” has leveraged its success to move outside the Internet, with a novel version to be published next year in addition to the touring show. The live version features a longer-than-usual storyline as well as guests such as folk musicians Danny Schmidt and Carrie Elkin.
In some ways, the show’s popularity resists simple explanation — it could simply be the right show at the right time in the right medium.
Baldwin said its appeal transcends its horror-story trappings. “Sure, it has a scary element, but it’s not like a horror film. I think young people latch onto it because it’s surprisingly wholesome, and has a strong sense of moral value. It believes in the power of goodness but doesn’t sugar-coat anything.”
You could say the success of “Welcome to Night Vale” is the exception that proves the rule, except with podcasts exceptional successes often are the rule.
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