Podcasts, a term for an audio-only show distributed via the internet, didn’t really enter the zeitgeist until “Serial” came along. The first Peabody Award-winning season of the spinoff of “This American Life” focused on the trial of Adnan Syed and captured the attention of millions.
However, two years before “Serial” spawned, “Welcome to Night Vale” was already changing the medium.
The majority of shows to come out in the industry’s infancy are simply public radio shows one can listen to on demand. If I missed NPR’s “Morning Edition” or “Wait, Wait…Don’t Tell Me” during the live broadcast I would just go to iTunes and download it later. The comedy show “Car Talk” is still one of the most downloaded podcasts even though it ended in 2012.
If a show didn’t originate on the airwaves, then it borrowed radio’s style and presentation. For the most part, a podcast is either a one-on-one interview or three dudes on a couch discussing what’s new that week in a certain topic.
Yet “Welcome to Night Vale” went in an entirely different direction with a fictional narrative about a mysterious town in the southwest. Each 30-minute show features host Cecil Palmer reading the small town’s news that’s abnormal to everyone but the residents. Whenever Cecil breaks for a weather report, a song by a real-life independent artist is played. Imagine a more modern take on “A Prairie Home Companion” with a heavy dose of “The Twilight Zone.”
One episode is about how a cloud of gas that makes people chant, “All hail the mighty glow cloud!” becomes president of the school board. There are frequent mentions how no one is allowed to acknowledge the existence of or enter the dog park, including dogs. Boys in the desert town are encouraged to join the Boy Scouts and become an Eternal Scout, a rank that’s six levels higher than Eagle Scout. Recent episodes have been about the trial of Hiram McDaniels, a literal five-headed dragon and ex-mayor of Night Vale.
Just as “Serial” inspired dozens of other true crime podcasts, the success of “Welcome to Night Vale” opened the door to a multitude of scripted and spooky podcasts.
“Limetown” follows journalist Lia Haddock as she investigates a small town in Tennessee. Over three hundred people disappeared from the town a decade before her arrival. Another show, “The Black Tapes” also centers on a journalist exploring the paranormal mysteries like those found in “The X-Files.”
In “The Bright Sessions” the story doesn’t come from a reporter but from a therapist. Dr. Bright records her patients as they open up about living with supernatural abilities. These are just a few one can find with a few clicks of the mouse.
The creative minds of Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, “Welcome to Night Vale’s” creators, aren’t satisfied with the current story-telling landscape either. Fink decided to create “Alice Isn’t Dead,” a show about a truck driver trying to find her wife, earlier this year. Since there’s no news broadcast, the program takes the form of Keisha’s diary tapes. The plot is more sinister than “Welcome to Night Vale” too, with the haunting Thistle Man lurking at every gas station and rest stop.
Cranor couldn’t let Fink have all the fun so he premiered “Within the Wires” in June. While the others seem to take place in present day, this show is set in some sort of dystopian future. Formatted like self-help tapes, the first half is a normal meditation exercise while the second side of the cassette is a hidden message to the protagonist. Each message is a series of instructions on how to escape the facility and be reunited with the narrator.
With three podcasts between the pair, they started having the shows under a “Night Vale Presents” hub and added a fourth show to the mix. “The Orbiting Human Circus of the Air” has no writing by Fink or Cranor but is instead the project of Julian Koster of the band Neutral Milk Hotel. Koster plays a janitor of the Eiffel Tower who just wants be in the program broadcasted from the top of the tower. Harkening back to radio plays of old, the variety show features music, monologues and other surreal segments.
The Night Vale crew has also been busy with a novel and multiple live show tours. Since it’s only uploaded twice a month, it just reached its 100th episode on Dec. 14. The entire celebratory episode was guests and cast members like Mara Wilson, Marc Evan Jackson, Wil Wheaton and Jackson Publick toasting Cecil on his accomplishment. It’ll resume again in February, making now the perfect time to catch up.
Fake news may be a problem of late, but I see no problem with this fake news. Here’s to your first 100 episodes, Night Vale. May you have at least 100 more!
This column was originally published in the December 28, 2016 edition of the Valley Courier.