The peculiar triumph of the “Welcome to Night Vale” podcast

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Ben Roden

Asst. Arts & Culture Editor

In a media landscape dotted with sequels, prequels, reboots and remixes, truly original narratives are becoming increasingly difficult to find. The “Welcome to Night Vale” podcast stands as a fascinating example of what can happen when artists embrace creativity and throw convention to the wind. “Night Vale” is excellent not just because of its strange and engrossing content, but also because it leverages the podcast as a unique and powerful medium.

Created in 2012 by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, the podcast is presented as the fictional radio broadcast of Night Vale, a small town located somewhere in a surreal and disturbing iteration of the American southwest. The broadcasts consist of news reports, community announcements and advertisements read by local talking head Cecil Gershwin. The structure of Night Vale’s broadcasts is mundane, but the content is anything but. Night Vale is a sinister and dangerous place, circled by government helicopters and beset by hooded figures who communicate with bursts of electrical interference. Gershwin (played by actor Cecil Baldwin) announces everything from angel encounters to nefarious time-travel experiments with deadpan aplomb.

Speaking to NPR, creator Joseph Fink said the genesis of Night Vale was “this idea of a town in the desert where all conspiracy theories were real, and we would just go from there with that understood.” What makes Night Vale such a vibrant and unsettling place is how this central idea frames the contrast of small-town Americana and otherworldly intrigue; it’s a place where the city council squabbles about the mayoral eligibility of citizen Hiram McDaniels (because, you know, he’s a five-headed dragon), a sentient glowing cloud rains animal carcasses on local businesses, and weeknight PTA meetings are sometimes interrupted by cross-dimensional dinosaur attacks.

In some ways, Night Vale represents the last vestiges – or perhaps the revival – of “Weird Fiction,” the exuberant 20th century pulp to which writers like Ray Bradbury and Stephen King owe much of their inspiration and success. A writer for the San Antonio Express-News once said that Ray Bradbury’s imagination “asks ‘what if’ and then answers.” This seems an apt description of Night Vale’s charge.

Night Vale celebrates weirdness for its own sake, but there’s also an element of wit to the proceedings that give the writing a sharp satirical edge, which is especially evident in the attitudes of Night Vale’s crackpot citizens and the strange, grim advertisements Cecil reads from time to time. “When life seems dangerous and unmanageable, just remember that it is, and that you can’t survive forever,” one such ad declares, “Denny’s Restaurants: why not?”

It was Night Vale’s madcap invention and wry existentialism that made it a hit, but independent of its content, “Night Vale” should be celebrated for the way it acknowledges the qualities of its chosen medium. The podcast’s bi-monthly release allows for a layered, slow-burning approach to story building. The writers dole out information carefully, burying and reviving gags and incorporating anecdotes into a strange, yet somehow consistent, mythos. The story of Night Vale relies as much on the listener’s own supposition as it does on the explicit release of information. It’s a fun, organic way to tell a story, and one that would be almost impossible to pull off using any other medium.

“Welcome to Night Vale” is bone-chilling, uproariously funny and surprisingly perceptive. At once an astute parody of community radio, a satirical exploration of American life, and a wonderful work of dark, unfettered imagination, “Welcome to Night Vale” is hard to categorize, but easy to recommend. All hail the mighty glow cloud.