Welcome to Night Vale: a triumph of the fandom

Art & Lit

Welcome to Night Vale has been on the iTunes list of the Top 10 most popular podcasts for months now. Presented as a radio show for a fictional town, Night Vale is enjoying the kind of mainstream success that radio drama hasn’t seen in years. It’s got a very specific vibe – creepy but entertaining, which makes it excellent listening for fans of Twin Peaks or Stephen King. Night Vale‘s residents take the strange happenings of the town in their stride, the narration of such events as a dictatorial glow cloud or children growing second heads. The narration of Cecil Baldwin, deadpan but deeply sincere, is both witty and incredibly powerful; the show creates a stronger atmosphere using just voices and music than many television shows accomplish over a season long period. The writing is quick and clever, interjecting bright characterisation to the dryness of a radio caster’s job – a great example of this is how the usually contained Cecil gushes about Carlos the scientist and his beautiful hair. The narration is quirky and dry without relying on irony. It is not just the homage to small town American radio shows, NPR and Lovecraft that many of its reviews are making it out to be. It is a smart and lyrical piece of work that may come from influences within the wider genres of sci-fi and surrealism but is more than just the sum of those parts. It is an exercise in ingenuity: the show maintains a Twitter account that manages to be more funny in 140 characters than Stephen Fry. Night Vale‘s weather reports are delivered in the form of an indie musical arrangement by a different artist every episode, each song reflecting the tone of the narrative.

Sophie Baggott
Sophie Baggott

Charming and addictive in its own right, Night Vale is also a fascinating example of how we consume media. The podcast blew up the charts unexpectedly as the result of its growing fanbase on Tumblr. Producers of television and film have a history of not paying much attention to internet fandoms but there has been a growing awareness of how fandoms on Tumblr and Twitter can really shape the way a show is viewed. Creators credit the sudden spike in interest to a crossover demographics from NBC’s Hannibal, postulating that fans of the eerie show latched onto Night Vale and it’s similar vibe. While there’s some truth in this, the vehicle for such conversion was undoubtedly the internet and the dedication of fans on these sites. Night Vale‘s fandom is particularly creative, adapting the regular framework of fandoms to fit the audio medium. In place of the fanfiction that characterises the fanbases of other mediums, Night Vale‘s fandom has come up with a variety of visual aids for the show they love. Fan art depicting Cecil and Carlos the scientist, posters promoting the show using the established aesthetic of purple and black and even transcripts of the show made by fans who want to make its content more accessible. The show’s creators, who make absolutely no money off the podcast despite its success, are appreciative of the fans and their contribution to Night Vale‘s popularity in ways that producers of other media have not yet come to be. Mainstream media is only slowly coming around to the idea that fandom is a force for good, both in terms of viral marketing and creativity. Both the people who make Night Vale and the ones who love it are excellent examples of this: these are people who are inspired by the things they consume, who make art for no reason other than their own desire to communicate and share their talent and ideas.

Another thing that’s wonderful about Night Vale‘s success is that now thousands of people are tuning into what is essentially a radio drama on a fortnightly basis. Radio drama is more than just a lost art, a piece of nostalgia left behind from days before television and the internet. It is a lot cheaper to make possible than television or movie which means two very essential things. First of all, it takes a lot of the pressure off. With the low budget, there are no necessary expectations that the project will bring home the bacon. This leaves a wide open field for the industry to take risks with new, even first-time writers. Secondly, it allows the imagination to run free: the introduction of the supernatural (as in Night Vale) does not require the host of special effects that would be costly on a more visual medium. It’s exciting, it’s a world of untapped possibilities. Whether or not radio drama will ever be profitable in its own right is debatable but its an excellent stepping stone; a chance for fresh talent to stretch their writing muscles and get in the business of having their work heard. This is what co-creator, Joseph Fink, means when he says in an interview with Brainwashed that it is the best time in history to be an artist of any kind.  You can make anything you want and the internet is your oyster. Monetary satisfaction aside, it has never been easier to have your creations seen, read, or heard by other people. Night Vale and its fans are excellent examples of this.