The title of a recent Wired article on Welcome to Night Vale pretty much sums it up: “Welcome to Night Vale, the #1 Podcast on iTunes You Didn’t Know Existed.”
Well, if you keep an eye on the iTunes Top Podcasts charts, you’ve been familiar with Welcome to Night Vale—a bi-monthly podcast written by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor of Commonplace Books—for quite some time. The podcast, which began in June 2012, has also rocketed around the Internet this summer, receiving increased coverage in part due to hordes of Hannibal fans crossing over to the Night Vale fandom, according to Cranor. But for the rest of us, Night Vale is unfamiliar terrain.
Twice a month, community updates from the desert town of Night Vale, dispatched by the deadpan radio host Cecil, are piped through the virtual radiowaves. In Night Vale, the most extraordinary of circumstances—strange, flickering lights overhead and hooded figures traipsing through the local dog park—are treated in the same vein as an public service announcement to encourage your children to stay hydrated while they play. Of course, you’ve also got to watch out for the hovering helicopters to make sure that your kid doesn’t get snatched up while they’re at the playground, so maybe it’s not so normal, after all.
Night Vale, of course, isn’t a real place, and Welcome to Night Vale certainly isn’t a realist endeavor. Encounters with the supernatural are treated as commonplace, for lack of a better word, and that is exactly what draws in thousands of listeners every month.
I had never heard of Welcome to Night Vale until the Wired article made its way across my Twitter feed; shortly thereafter, a friend recommended that I give it a try as an antidote to a dull Friday evening. I downloaded the first episode, and my headphones were filled with Cecil’s voice (as narrated by the actor Cecil Baldwin): “A friendly desert community where the sun is hot, the moon is beautiful, and mysterious lights pass overhead while we all pretend to sleep. Welcome to Night Vale.”
Welcome to Night Vale operates entirely in its own universe, with a vocabulary that is somewhat familiar to those who know what life in a small town is like, peppered with allusions and descriptions of unexplained phenomena that—while jarring to the listener—earn little concern from Cecil. Cecil is our window into this foreign world, and we are buoyed by his biases and quirks. In a particularly telling segment of the first episode, Cecil intones, “And now, for a brief public service announcement: Alligators, can they kill your children? Yes. Along those lines, to get personal for a moment, I think the best way to die would be swallowed by a giant snake. Going feet first and whole into a slimy maw would give your life perfect symmetry.”
The podcast has a rabid fan base that has earned much acclaim for working within the conventions of fandom—often an intensely visual realm—to flesh out the cast of Welcome to Night Vale. Without the flashy effects of visual media, Welcome to Night Vale relies on the quality of its writing, the talent of its narration, and—perhaps most powerfully—the minds of its audience. The podcast’s rapid takeover of the number one spot on the iTunes Top Podcasts chart—a position it’s held for some time now—contradicts many of our assumptions about the ways in which media is consumed. We are often told that the deterioration of culture is a product of the millennial generation’s short attention spans. We can’t sit down to read a book because we’ve been conditioned to expect the visual pyrotechnics of blockbuster film. We can’t focus on anything for very long because we expect everything to appear as a soundbyte.
Welcome to Night Vale’s twice-monthly installments typically run between twenty and thirty minutes long, and while they’re certainly on the shorter side, they require total focus to keep up with the rhythm of this unusual town. In the first episode, just a few seconds of distraction might land you in the middle of this segment, with no warning at all: “Lights, seen in the sky above the Arby’s. Not the glowing sign of Arby’s. Something higher, and beyond that. We know the difference. We’ve caught onto their game. We understand the lights of Arby’s game. Invaders from another world. Ladies and gentlemen, the future is here, and it’s about a hundred feet above the Arby’s.” And that’s definitely a strange place to land.
For all Welcome to Night Vale’s distinct otherwordliness, Cecil’s observations often resonate beyond the spooky city limits of Night Vale. Baldwin’s voice brings Night Vale to life, and it’s easy to see why thousands of listeners have flocked to this modern take on the old-fashioned radio program. Welcome to Night Vale‘s particular brand of science fiction isn’t off-putting to those—like me—who have never felt fully at home in the genre. The delivery of these supernatural news items is about as mundane as you can get, and there’s something really fascinating at work in that dissonance. I was hooked after the first episode, and I can’t wait to catch up.
You can download Welcome to Night Vale for free from iTunes, Sticher, Lisbyn, Feedburner, and Soundcloud. For more information on Welcome to Night Vale, check out their website.
The Welcome to Night Vale logo was created by designer Rob Wilson.