When Ken Layne self-published the first issue of The Desert Oracle in the spring of 2015, he never expected it to be read by anyone outside of the Mojave Desert. The small print quarterly, which explores strange phenomena ranging from the mythic (ghost towns and UFO sightings) to the macabre (cults and murders), was initially distributed only to cafes and bookstores within a short drive of Layne’s home in Joshua Tree, where he has spent roughly the last decade. “I grew fond of the idea of something that you could not see on the internet, something that was secret,” Layne says. “This was something that you had to make a small commitment to get and, as a reward, it was a physical artifact.”
If launching a publishing project at a time when even legacy magazines are scaling back their print editions or folding altogether seems counterintuitive, then doing so for an intentionally limited audience — of desert rats, no less — might seem even more so. But to Layne, a longtime political blogger who spent years penning sharp commentary for sites like Gawker (where he was christened its “America correspondent”) and Wonkette (tagline: “nasty vile little snark mob”), The Desert Oracle was an antidote to the internet news cycle in which a story’s value was measured by page views.
“I just couldn’t take it anymore. I just did not give a damn about anything I was writing about and the whole thing ended up feeling like trolling, and not because of the people I worked with or the sites I worked for but because you cannot control your audience,” he says. “Any dingbat who has any bozo idea about anything or agenda will come barge into your story that you’ve spent painstaking hours trying to form into decent writing or a decent narrative and it just doesn’t matter, you know? Nobody reads anything.”
But plenty of people are reading The Desert Oracle, and finding it no longer requires a two-hour drive east from Los Angeles on the 10. In fact, the bright yellow zine that bills itself as “the voice of the desert” has developed a cult following that now stretches far beyond the Joshua trees and saguaro cacti of the American West: It’s stocked at independent bookstores such Skylight in Los Feliz, and readers with Oakland, Brooklyn and Silver Lake ZIP codes comprise a considerable chunk of its roughly 2,600 mail-order subscribers (subscriptions run $25 annually for four issues). A new incarnation of The Desert Oracle as a radio show and podcast is even more accessible. It’s also free and widely available on the internet, the same medium that Layne had not too long ago been eager to ditch.
Broadcast for the first time this past June out of the community radio station Z107.7 FM, The Desert Oracle Radio has since been embraced by media figures — earning Twitter shout-outs from Layne’s former L.A. Examiner colleague and current Reason editor Matt Welch and New York columnist Heather Havrilesky, who called it “moody, concise, hilarious and really fucking weird” — and desert hipsters alike, thanks to its monthly show at the Ace Hotel in Palm Springs. In late September, it was named one of The Lifehacker staff’s favorite podcasts — the site was coincidentally formerly owned by Layne’s alma mater, Gawker Media. By the end of that month, it had shot to the No. 1 spot on iTunes’ list of travel podcasts. Layne estimates his podcast subscribers now number in the tens of thousands — more than the entire population of Joshua Tree. Like the print zine before it, the audio iteration of The Desert Oracle has once again transcended its small desert audience, ironically, despite Layne’s best efforts.
But if you ask Layne, the best way to listen to The Desert Oracle Radio is not by streaming it on iTunes but by accidentally stumbling upon it on the radio while driving down a lonely desert road on a Friday night at 10 p.m., its local broadcast time slot.
“Radio is so much more romantic to me than a podcast, so I wanted it to be on the radio in the high desert [where] you could drive around and listen to it and have the atmosphere of the show be the soundtrack of where you are,” he says, comparing it to the way a driver might serendipitously discover a program by Art Bell, the so-called godfather of paranormal radio, on the local airwaves. He says he’s heard from fans of the podcast who have their own rituals for listening to the 28-minute episodes, over a campfire or during a nighttime walk, for example. “I think people get that it goes really well with certain times of day, certain moods, and it’s probably not something to put on when you’re at a birthday party, unless you want to scare the children.”
Layne’s fascination with the desert began when his family moved to his dad’s native Phoenix from New Orleans when he was around 12 years old. Later, as a newspaper reporter on the environmental beat, Layne sought out desert towns across Southern California, attracted to their desolation and their wide, untouched swaths of natural landscape. While working for an “afternoon tabloid” in Oceanside, he spent years living in “a real honky-tonk kind of town, marines fighting in the street” on the edge of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.
After a short stint in Los Angeles in 2007, he packed up and moved to the Mojave for good, feeling liberated by a new golden era of blogging in which writers didn't have to be shackled to the people and places they covered. “But I felt like I was living a kind of double life, because I was in this New York and Washington media scene, and L.A. before that, and it did feel very separate from my daily life,” Layne says. “And I was aware that my daily life was eccentric and not something that you’re going to be able to launch a web vertical over, so I had to just kind of come to terms that.”
Eventually, Layne leaned into the weirdness of his surroundings, writing a column called “Desert Rattler” for the now defunct alt-weekly L.A. CityBeat, and later launching a travel website called Highways West. “The way that places seem to hold and connect different strands, especially places that are so out of the way that should not have such an outsized pull in world history, those places always fascinate me, and deserts in general have lots of those places,” Layne says. “Deserts tend to be where world religions are founded and philosophical schools, and there’s something about a wild and harsh natural landscape that pulls out these big things from humanity. … And then, you know, they also inspire people to make atrocities like Scottsdale or Phoenix or the Las Vegas suburbs.”
But Desert Oracle, in both its print and audio forms, gives Layne his most dedicated platform yet to investigate his favorite subject, which he does with the thoroughness of a reporter and the curiosity of a local. He now works on both projects full-time, writing the show through dictated field recordings he makes during his daily walks and weaving them together with interviews, phone calls and other segments while also singlehandedly publishing and distributing the print zine. The popularity of the podcast has been an unexpected bonus.
“It’s always a surprise when something half-assed goes correctly,” says Layne, who adds that he had no idea podcasts were so popular when he started broadcasting his own, primarily as a local radio show. He plans to move its hosting from the local community radio station’s web server to a more official podcast network sometime in the next week. And though he once shunned the internet after becoming disillusioned by online journalism's advertising structures, he looks forward to a day when he might soon record paid advertisements on The Desert Oracle — in his deep baritone voice, and accompanied by plenty of ghoulish desert sound effects, of course.