A check-in with ‘Welcome to Night Vale’ at it turns 10

When Welcome to Night Vale premiered in 2012, Jeffrey Cranor and Joseph Fink had no idea what it would become. Wandering the off-off-Broadway world in New York City, the creators and co-writers just did what they always did: went from project to project, hoping that maybe a few friends would watch or listen would.

Ten years later, the “Night Vale” podcast has become a hugely popular storytelling vehicle, chronicling a fictional, dystopian desert town “where every conspiracy theory is true.” With millions of downloads per month, it has spawned an entire universe of books, live shows (including his ongoing 2022 world tour) and even more podcasts under the Night Vale Presents umbrella.

Narrated by voice actor Cecil Baldwin, Night Vale is a sort of masterpiece theater for those interested in the weird and unusual: think A Prairie Home Companion meets Stranger Things meets Twin Peaks. Similar to “News From Lake Wobegon,” “Night Vale” adopts a community radio format and vaguely chronicles a Southwest American town that’s “hard to leave and hard to enter” where the residents interact with various supernatural creatures and events living together . Celebrities have flocked to visit Night Vale – Retta, Mara Wilson, Will Wheaton and Marc Evan Jackson have lent their voices to characters like Old Madam Josie and the Faceless Old Woman Who Secretly Lives in Her House.

To mark the podcast’s 10th anniversary, The Times sat down with Fink, Cranor, Baldwin and several other cast members to reflect on a decade in Night Vale and what fans of Unlicensed can expect to hear.

When Welcome to Night Vale started, did you have any idea what the show might become? What did you originally intend to do?

Joseph Fink: We’ve all been involved in the New York off-off-Broadway scene. When you’re in this world, you’re constantly making projects. Then you do something and 20 people see it, and you go and do the next thing. Jeffrey and I had just written and performed a show called What the Time Traveler Will Tell Us. I thought, “Let’s work on another thing.” When we started, that was the plan. Let’s do something and maybe a few hundred people will hear it.

Jeffrey Cranor: When we first started, we set up a Facebook page and a Twitter account to spice it up a bit. When we released the first episode, we hosted it on my personal website. I think we had 54 downloads. We were hoping to slowly grow it over time. We didn’t really have big plans, like, “One day we’re going to tour the United States and Europe, and we’re going to release some books and try to build a TV show on top of that.”

Cecil Baldwin (Cecil Gershwin Palmer): The expectations weren’t. We met at a coffee shop in New York City and Joseph had a $25 mic in a t-shirt he loaned me for the first few episodes. There was no planning — it was really an experiment in “there’s a shortage of fictional episodic podcasts that don’t sound like old golden age radio” that was more modern storytelling, like a play that happens to be set in an auditorium. The two writers capitalized on that, saying, “Well, what if we combined neofuturism, podcasting, ‘The X-Files’, Will Eno and Neil Gaiman and see what happens?”

A man at a microphone holds a script.

Welcome to Night Vale co-founder Joseph Fink at a live reading.

(Chona Kasinger)

The podcast industry has obviously boomed in the decade since Night Vale began. How has the show responded to or benefited from the popularity of podcasting as a medium?

Baldwin: It’s very scripted. It depends a lot on the language. I’m a classically trained actor; I did Shakespeare and Molière for many years. I have this love of poetry that I apply to the writing that Joseph and Jeffrey send me each week. I think that was something very new, in addition to the fact that I’m recording from home, I’m my own director. I read this main character as queer because I’m a gay man myself. And it just got wrapped up in the official story of Night Vale. This has alerted many LGBT+ listeners that this podcast is a place where Night Vale is a terrible town to live in, but there’s still a normality that treats everyone as completely equal.

Finch: When we started Night Vale, we really thought we were going to be late for podcasting. There have been so many shows. We were drawn to podcasts precisely because we listened to a lot of them. Of course, now it feels like we got ahead of almost every podcast people are talking about because things changed quickly after Serial — there was a real dividing line. We did big live tours before Serial, but back then we had to explain what a podcast was to all the theater staff because they really had no idea what we were doing there. That never happened again after 2014.

What has surprised you about the response from fans over the years, particularly in terms of how listeners are bringing their fandom to social media and cosplay?

Finch: Our initial surge in popularity was 100% Tumblr. There was this huge word-of-mouth explosion. I didn’t even know what Tumblr was. I had vaguely heard the name but had never looked at the website. I didn’t know what it did or what people did with it. I think if you write something with an audience in mind, people can smell it. We had written this thing entirely for ourselves. It’s found this kind of audience that we never expected, but that’s wonderful. Whenever we do a live show, the staff often says, “Your fans are the nicest fans.” And they really are.

A woman at a microphone holds a script.

“Welcome to Night Vale” voice actress Symphony Sanders

(Chona Kasinger)

Symphony Sanders (Tamika Flynn): Cosplay is always so impressive to me. It’s always exciting to see a Glow Cloud or a Hooded Figure or a Huntokar. I think our audience grew up with us too. When I started, most of our audience was much younger. Now almost 10 years have passed. People who are still in the fandom have grown up, some of them have families of their own. I don’t feel like I’ve gotten older, but then I see people say, “I’ve been listening to that since high school.” And I’m like, “And that was…?” [Laughs.]

“Night Vale” has always been naturally interested in conspiracy theories. As conspiracy theories have taken over mainstream conversation in recent years, has that impacted the Night Vale universe?

finch: I think it would have to, right? Much of this is not conscious, but so many of the ideas come from what [we’re] Think and feel this week. There were definitely times when we were like, “Oh god, our parody literally came true.” We have a character called Pamela Winchell who gives ridiculous press conferences. There was one where she ended the press conference by hiding in the bush. And then, of course, Sean Spicer hid in a bush to escape the White House press.

Baldwin: In my role as a performer I find it much more interesting to treat heavy things lightly and light things heavy. People often talk about it [conspiracies] are extremely serious and very self-important. I find that a bit banal. We all saw the X-Files in the 90s. we loved it But it has already happened. How can I interpret that as an artist? And it’s about treating these deep, dark conspiracy theories like another Tuesday.

They have a new show coming out in November, Unlicensed, which is set to take place in Los Angeles. What can you tell us about the new show without giving too much away?

Finch: “Unlicensed” is a detective story from LA. We wanted to write a modern detective story, but one that doesn’t take place in any of the cool parts of LA. She’s in Azusa, Oxnard and Vernon – just places that aren’t in a lot of those classic LA stories, but these are real places where real people live.

It’s about an unlicensed private detective named Lou and her new assistant, Molly. They get a new case where a young girl comes up to them and says, “My younger brother ran away and came home. But the boy that came home is not the boy that left. That’s not my brother.” And in classic LA Noir style, this very small, odd case expands into this huge nationwide conspiracy that includes cults and backroom deals. I’m very proud of it. We’ve spent a lot of time looking at California mystery writers and thinking about what works about them. Also, this was the first show that we brought into a writer’s room with people we’ve worked with before and who helped develop the story with them.

A woman at a microphone holds a script.

“Welcome to Night Vale” voice actress Meg Bashwiner

(Chona Kasinger)

How did the live shows develop? What do you bring to a live recording of “Night Vale” that you wouldn’t get by just listening to the pod?

crane: We decided early on that we wanted the fans to like it when we did a live show. But we don’t want it to be stuff they’ve heard before. So we would write brand new material. It also had to be something that you could bring to the show with your girlfriend or your roommate or your mom or whoever and if they’ve never heard the podcast to try and do a show that’s for them right away too is accessible.

Meg Bashwiner (Deb the Sentient Patch of Haze): There’s this thinking in the world of theater these days that it’s unaffordable, it’s for old blue hair. That’s not who’s in the Night Vale movies. It’s a young audience, a queer audience, a dynamically diverse age audience: young and old, parents and children. It’s generational. It was affordable for the most part – we try to keep our tickets under $45. It’s a way for people listening alone to come together. There is a lot of community spirit.

Finch: After almost 10 years of live shows, many of me feel that the heart of “Night Vale” is in the live shows, almost more than the podcast. It’s that family of people who’ve written and performed together around the world that really created that momentum. I’m very, very proud of what we’ve done.

https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/story/2022-06-15/welcome-to-night-vale-podcast-10th-anniversary A check-in with ‘Welcome to Night Vale’ at it turns 10

Sarah Ridley

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