Don't pay attention to the hooded figures the next time you go to Ralphs.
If you're nodding your head in agreement, you're probably a fan of the podcast Welcome to Night Vale, and you're not alone. After all, it accomplished the rare feat of beating the podcast version of NPR's “This American Life” in iTunes' listing of top 10 podcasts overall in July 2013, and still maintains a place in the top 10. When you realize the podcast started in June 2012 and has no marketing outside of social media and word of mouth, it shows there's more that meets the ears.
Welcome to Night Vale is written by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, and Cranor (who also created it) describes the premise as “community radio from a small desert town where things like ghosts and angels and aliens are all commonplace parts of day-to-day life.” A live version is coming to Largo tonight through Saturday, as part of its West Coast tour (the performances are already sold out, except for the late show on Saturday night).]
The podcast, which comes out twice a month, has been described as “Prairie Home Companion” as if it was written by H.P. Lovecraft, which is funny when you find out that Fink admits to have never heard “Prairie Home Companion,” nor does he consider himself a fan of the classic horror writer. The podcast, however, was based on a list of unused story ideas of Lovecraft that was making the rounds on the Internet.
“It started out as just the idea of I wanted to do a podcast with Jeffrey,” Fink says, as they had collaborated on a play before. “I wanted it to be different than every other podcast I was listening to. I've always loved conspiracy theories – I think they're fascinating. So, where the idea of Night Vale really came from is just the idea of a town where every conspiracy theory is true, and it's not a big deal and we just move on with life from there.”
Narrated by Cecil Baldwin, who the two also knew through working with in theatre, the show covers the unusual events in the community of Night Vale with an unflappability that at times is both humorous and odd. You can see glimpses of this dichotomy on their Twitter feed, @NightValeRadio. For instance: “Let's call it a night. It's actually ash clouds blocking out all sunlight, but metaphors are helpful and fun rhetorical devices,” one status update indicates.
See also: our web series column, The Tangled Web We Watch
The show also has what it calls a “weather” segment – which is not weather at all, but music. “I don't have any particular logic or explanation behind it,” Fink says. “It just seemed ripe from the start that, okay, the weather will be music. I just liked that idea. It allows me to share music I really enjoy, and it allows us to bring in other independent artists and showcase some really great people that more people should hear about.”
Cranor, Fink and Baldwin are based in New York, but in September a series of coincidences led to a live show in San Francisco, which then led to an opportunity to perform at Largo in October, as well as an appearance at the Los Angeles Podcast Festival. After this week's Largo performances, the show stops in San Diego and then Arizona, with more tour dates being added. “They were such a great chance to like see our fans,” Fink says of performing live. “You don't always think you're going to get to do that as a writer.”
The draw of a podcast comes from the flexibility it gives to storytelling. “It's not really a story in the way that a book or a TV show is that has an arc and an end point,” Fink says. “We kind of think of it as a real-time news show for the town, and so it has to be structured that way where it's just this sort of ongoing universe. There's less of a barreling towards some specific end point.”
For more information on the podcast, the novel, or the tour, go to welcometonightvale.com. In addition to the podcast, a stand-alone Night Vale novel will be published by Harper Perennial in 2015.