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‘Welcome to Night Vale’ creator talks new podcast, future of the form

How the weird podcast made it big, and why the industry needs an Emily Nussbaum.

Cecil Baldwin, the narrator of "Welcome to Night Vale," on stage at a recent live performance. (Photo courtesy of Night Vale Presents)
To listen to an episode of Welcome to Night Vale is to dip a toe into the world of the uncanny, and then to take a step in, and finally jump in, whole hog.

Creators Jeffrey Cranor and Joseph Fink have seen tremendous success in the growth of the podcast and launched a second, Alice Isn’t Dead, which just began its second season, in addition to two more podcasts which they are supporting under the production company Night Vale Presents. Those are Within the Wires and The Orbiting Human Circus.

Earlier this month, the Night Vale crew held a four-show run of live performances at The Bell Jar, in Gowanus. We were curious about the future of the show and about the future of podcasts, and had a chance to talk to Cranor, specifically about how something so deeply weird came to such popularity.

But first, a little history of Welcome to Night Vale. It’s a story about a small desert town called Night Vale, where the angels have gone on strike to achieve official recognition, there’s always an update about “the strangers,” and the local high school’s auto-shop teacher displays some of his inventions at the Museum of Forbidden Technology. Those are, more or less, the subjects of the last three shows. It’s all narrated by Cecil, the main character, who in fact is named Cecil, and is a Brooklynite. In 2013, the podcast rose from relative obscurity to No. 1 on the iTunes most downloaded podcast chart.

I'd love to bring the podcasting level up that there are Emily Nussbaums reviewing new shows.

“The audience exploded one day in the summer of 2013, about a year into the run of our show our audience went from a few thousand downloads a month to a few million downloads a month,” Cranor told Technical.ly by phone. “It seemed to happen in the Tumblr community. I think we made a good story that resonated with people and I think some of it was that we hear from our fans how empowering it is to have a canonically gay actor [Cecil]. That wasn’t something we’d thought of as a marketing thing, it was just part of the story.”

Since the success of Welcome to Night Vale, there are several podcasts which have come to renown by telling stories — Serial and Gimlet Media’s Crimetown and Homecoming, among several other breakthrough hits — though most podcasts do retain the structure of single-episode topics or the classic two-to-three people talking with each other.

“We didn’t really think about whether or not it would work, it just sounded fun and podcasting isn’t super expensive to do with one narrator and music underneath and free editing software,” Cranor explained, of Night Vale‘s beginning in 2011.

Back then, Cranor worked in nonprofit fundraising (strategies of which Night Vale listeners might be familiar) and Fink was handing out flyers and selling green energy on the street. The two met (and are still active) at a theater group called the New York Neofuturists, an East Village theater troupe of neoweirdos who create innovative, immersive theater.

While Cecil and the show’s music composer, Jon Bernstein, remain in Brooklyn both Cranor and Fink have moved upstate. With the touring shows, ad sales and the Welcome to Night Vale network of podcasts, the two have been able to make podcasting their full-time jobs. In our interview, I offered to Cranor that that’s cool. He paused, before agreeing.

“It really is cool, it is, really,” he said.

What would be cool now, Cranor thinks, would be to continue to experiment with and to elevate the form of the podcast.

“I think podcasting is so immersive and so personal that they could become as big a part of the national conversation as a new television series,” he said. “Look at S Town and Missing Richard Simmons. I feel the conversations nationally are almost bigger than any TV show you could name. I’d love to bring the podcasting level up that there are Emily Nussbaums reviewing new shows.”

Series: Brooklyn

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