Entering the Brave New World of Podcasting

“Welcome to Night Vale” exemplifies the podcast phenomenon

“Welcome to Night Vale” is a twice-monthly podcast about the fictional American desert town of Night Vale and the very, very weird things that happen there.

Welcome to Night Vale” host Cecil Baldwin and members of Disparition’s backing band, during a live show.

Presented as a series of Night Vale Community Radio bulletins by station announcer Cecil Gershwin Palmer (actor Cecil Baldwin) and occasionally joined by actors doing other characters, the podcast includes unsettling news briefs such as “It is possible you will see hooded figures in the dog park. Do not approach them.”

Also: helpful news-you-can-use about the unmarked helicopters circling above a local children’s play area. “Are the unmarked helicopters circling the area black? Probably world government. Not a good area for play that day. Are they blue? That’s the Sheriff’s Secret Police. They’ll keep a good eye on your kids, and hardly ever take one.”

Add in the many strange Night Vale residents that Cecil refers to during his “broadcasts” — including the Faceless Old Woman Who Secretly Lives in Your Home and a five-headed, 18-foot-tall dragon named Hiram McDaniels who once ran for mayor of Night Vale — and this is one quietly nightmarish place to live. (Oh yes, and the community radio station’s interns keep dying. It happens.)

“Night Vale is what happens when you have an isolated American desert town where every single conspiracy theory is true,” said Joseph Fink, who co-created and co-writes the podcast with Jeffrey Cranor. “It’s just that kind of place.”

Cecil Baldwin and Meg Bashwiner perform in the “Welcome to Night Vale” live show.
Credit: Whitney Browne

A SOLID SUCCESS

To say the least, listeners around the world love “Welcome to Night Vale.” Since Fink and Cranor started posting their podcasts online in 2012, their show has been downloaded 150 million times through iTunes, Soundcloud, Youtube and www.welcometonightvale.com.

Fink and Cranor also published a novel in 2015, “Welcome to Night Vale,” which has been well received and nominated for the Goodreads Choice Award for Best Science Fiction. A second novel will be released in the fall and is available for pre-order on Amazon.

Such is the popularity of this low-key horror podcast — aptly described by blogger Eilenne Maksym as Lake Wobegon’s Garrison Keillor reporting from Batman’s Arkham Asylum — that Fink and Cranor have been able to stage, record and sell tickets to live podcasts in 200 theaters in 16 countries.

The content from these live broadcasts is separate from the original podcasts, and are packaged into “live albums” for sale at www.welcometonightvale.com. The podcasters sell a range of Night Vale-themed apparel, artwork and accessories through their website.

“The merchandise sales, along with our live shows, have allowed us to earn enough to make ‘Welcome to Night Vale’ a full-time job for both of us,” said Fink.

A HUMBLE NIGHT VALE-STYLE BEGINNING

The success of “Welcome to Night Vale” illustrates what is possible in the Brave New World of Podcasting.

“Even with heavyweights such as HBO and ESPN pouring money into podcasts, a small indie producer can still succeed in the medium if their content catches on,” said Fink.

This observation certainly applies to “Welcome to Night Vale.”

Cecil Baldwin on stage as narrator of the “Welcome to Night Vale” podcast and centerpiece of the live show.
Credit: Whitney Browne

It started for the two New Yorkers when Fink had been fired from his customer service job at a prepaid debit card company, and Cranor was a database manager.

“We came from the New York theater scene, where everyone has ideas, but no one has money to stage them,” said Fink. “This is where the style of ‘Welcome to Night Vale’ came from: just one person standing on a bare onstage telling a story, with no costumes or props.”

Even today, the podcast employs the same economical style in its live shows, with only a microphone or two to capture the audio.

The program’s understated, satirical wit generated considerable word of mouth in its initial season. “We had about 150,000 downloads that first year, which was respectable,” said Fink.

As the duo kept recording new podcasts — not making any money from their efforts at the time — the show’s popularity grew until the fans set up their on page on the microblogging site Tumblr in July 2013.

“Then things exploded,” Fink said. “In our first month on Tumblr, ‘Welcome to Night Vale’ was downloaded 2.5 million times. The next month, the number jumped to 8.5 million downloads, and things have been steady ever since.”

HANDS-ON

There is a central reason the “Welcome to Night Vale” podcast has stayed popular with its fans, and continued to extend its reach and roster of projects. That reason is Fink and Cranor’s ongoing personal involvement in the podcast, both as main writers and guiding forces to Night Vale’s select group of contributors.

“We still write the scripts, and work very closely with the people who help us put on the live shows and our other projects,” said Fink. “Even today, Jeffrey and I are the two main creative forces of Night Vale Presents.”

In doing so, Fink and Cranor have not lost sight of the low-key stylistic magic that made “Welcome to Night Vale” a success in the first place: Their content still crackles.

Take Episode 103 (“Ash Beach”), 102 episodes after the pilot from which this article’s first snippets were quoted.

“We’re getting reports that the grand re-opening of Ash Beach is going … well, oh, not well as in good,” Cecil announces on Night Vale Community Radio. “So the beach, which is completely black and not at all connected to any body of water, is apparently really hot, and beachgoers are having a difficult time getting the dark ash stains off their burning skin. Also, there are reports of hazy humanoid figures emerging from the ash. They have long thin arms, gaping mouths with hundreds of tiny square teeth, round glowing eyes, and they shimmer in and out of visibility.”

Strange? Yes. Unsettling? Certainly! But there is no doubt that the “Welcome to Night Vale “podcast fits the tone of our time and proves that a low-budget yet quality audio production can still tear up the internet, even in 2017. After all, 150 million downloads can’t be wrong.



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