Can the Internet Save the Radio Star?

This July, Welcome to Night Vale, created by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor and produced by independent publisher Commonplace Books, became the most popular podcast on iTunes, thus making it America’s de facto favourite podcast (a fact which only fueled its already-exploding international fanbase). By the time the mainstream media gained awareness of a grass-roots phenomenon it had no part in pushing, the consequent curiosity was evident: What was the appeal of the show’s sudden success? Was it comedy, drama, horror, mystery? And what does it tell us about the future of fiction in podcasting?



Welcome to Night Vale is radio news from a town that does not exist. Simple though it is, the premise has proven to be endlessly rewarding. New listeners may be overwhelmed at first by the sheer freedom and brevity with which the writers scatter their ideas; each bulletin, delivered in a few oblique sentences by the warm, tranquil voice of Cecil Baldwin (played by Cecil Baldwin, a completely unrelated individual), could easily provide the plot for a whole film, the genre shifting constantly. With every bulletin, the show may smoothly transition from dark comedy to psychological noir to creeping, apocalyptic horror, all in a span of minutes. And so, each episode becomes a conspiracy theory, a love affair, a prose poem and a ghost story… all capped off with the weather report, which takes the form of a song.



Comparisons have already been made to David Lynch’s ground-breaking work on Twin Peaks, though Lynch could never be this funny (at least not intentionally). The same can be said for Stephen King, another likely influence, whose plodding dialogue is a million miles removed from the lambent, lyrical and laconic phrasing of Night Vale’s regular updates. Even H.P. Lovecraft, whose always-lurking influence in pop culture has become suffocating in recent years, is revitalized when introduced to the Night Vale melting pot. But really, the feel of the show is unplaceable, and that is key to its appeal.

Daring experiments in genre-melding have undoubtedly grown in popularity over the past generation, but Welcome to Night Vale has won its fans with more than tales of supernatural activity and human absurdity: it has made substance out of its style. More than any of its human(?) inhabitants, the town of Night Vale is a character in its own right, and to spend 20 minutes in its sonic company is to be immersed in the eerie, intoxicating atmosphere it creates; a haunting, radiophonic ambience that feels like the soundtrack to a half-remembered dream, forever on the verge of becoming a nightmare. Put simply, Welcome to Night Vale is an entirely unique beast, and one that could only work in the medium it has helped revive.




In an interview with Brainwashed.com, Night Vale’s co-creator Joseph Fink decided to say what nobody else was saying. “I think right now is the best time in history to be an artist of any kind,” he argued. “It’s not the easiest time. It’s not the most lucrative time. But it’s the best time. You can do any kind of art you want without filters and distribute it to anywhere in the world in seconds. So find someone you enjoy working with. Find something you enjoy working on. Treat each other with respect. And see if something cool happens. It might.”

I yield to no one in my suspicion of optimism, but the logic of Fink’s argument is getting harder and harder to deny, and Welcome to Night Vale is its latest proof. Success, however unlikely, speaks for itself.




Of course, the root of that success is the quality of the show itself. Still, while it would be nice if Welcome to Night Vale did not become another case of over-excitable fandom overshadowing the cultural artefact which inspired it, the effects of such enthusiasm cannot be denied. Tumblr and Twitter have been key in raising awareness of the show, while elsewhere online exists a thriving, organic network of fan art, ‘mixtape’ playlists, fevered discussion and much evangelical preaching to those not yet converted to the cause (I may, just possibly, have been guilty of that last one).

It’s sometimes difficult to separate our desire for novelty, which is near-universal, and a hunger for the weird, which is often seen as more of a niche. Welcome to Night Vale stands at the crossroads of these two confused instincts. Clearly, it fulfills the classic qualification for an unexpected hit: give the audience something like nothing else available. Yet it also makes no apologies for the strangeness of its material; it revels in it, taking full advantage of their independence in answering to no one.




For the past decade, there has been a growing sense of uncertainty regarding the future of what was once referred to as ‘radio drama’. The appeal of the medium remains the same as it ever was: dramatised fiction for a purely aural audience is usually far less prohibitively expensive than film, television or even stage. Provided its ideas can find expression through sound effects, the imagination runs free, letting the mind’s eye do the heavy lifting. It can be made quickly as well as cheaply, and particularly suits writing that leans towards the topical and experimental. And the means to produce it are increasingly within anyone’s reach.

Nevertheless, radio drama—once America’s most popular form of fiction, with a heyday that ran from the Great Depression onwards—had sunk into near non-existence by the ‘60s, struck down by the rising behemoths of cinema and TV and only sustained in a few isolated enclaves.


In the UK, where its legacy is arguably even more embedded, the medium is largely the preserve of the BBC, one of the few major organisations in the Western world still producing original radio drama. As opposed to its radio comedy, which the Corporation typically views as a training ground for talents that might later be promoted to TV, BBC radio drama is treated as a kind of national treasure, written according to a formula that is not to be tampered with—although not one which is beyond the reach of recession-fuelled budget cuts.

In 2010, in a move symptomatic of changing attitudes, BBC’s Radio 4 axed the Friday Play from its schedules, ending a decades-old institution and leading the actor’s union Equity to declare radio drama “an endangered species.”

“Meanwhile,” observed the Guardian newspaper on June 20th of the same year, “those who predicted that podcasting would bring a new dawn for the radio play are still staring impatiently at the horizon.”


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