If I’m going to talk about what makes good audio drama, and how to successfully engage an audience of upper teens and early 20-somethings in the 2010s, then this show has to be mentioned. It encapsulates everything that is modern storytelling, and yet it retains that classic aura that is necessary to the framework of any good audio drama. But a quick listen to any episode of the show might easily put off a first-time listener for how strange the show is. So how did this series set in a world devoid of any rules that we might consider necessary to follow a plotline become the most popular podcast in America in 2013? Let’s find out as we explore “Welcome to Night Vale”.
“Welcome to Night Vale” premiered in 2012 and as of the end of 2016, it has aired 100 episodes. The show’s popularity has also spawned a novel and touring live shows that are still going on today. The show takes on the format of a small town radio news station, so most of the episodes are simply monologues of the station’s newsman, Cecil. Other residents of Night Vale make appearances on the show as the episodes progress, but even when that happens, the show doesn’t stray too far from its monologue format. Some of the stories that Cecil reports on read like a narrative from a book, leading Cecil to put on voices and describe vivid scenes. Needless to say, the actor who plays Cecil (who is also named Cecil) is pretty doggone talented.
Night Vale is a midwestern American town, but nothing there operates the same way the listeners would consider the real world to work. For example, there are hooded figures who guard a dog park, which no one is allowed to think about or know about, and the truth is that the dog park eventually leads to a desert otherworld. Or how about this: the two candidates who ran for mayor of Night Vale were the Faceless Old Woman Who Secretly Lives in Your Home, and Hiram McDaniels… who is literally a five-headed dragon. And guess who’s in charge of the schoolboard? A sentient glow cloud… all hail the mighty glow cloud.
All of these things seem extremely strange on the surface, but as “Welcome to Night Vale” is a continuing story arc, the more episodes one listens to, the more one finds that it’s not nonsense at all. Night Vale has its own rules and structures that all connect and eventually do make some kind of sense, despite the fact that it requires the listener to think completely contrary to what he considers normal reality. And the neat thing is that the show leads the listener to think that way with immense success. This is why the show is absolutely brilliant.
Production-wise, the showrunners have been even more brilliant. The show is incredibly easy to make, only needing one actor, Cecil, to pull off an episode, so if there’s a voice actor for another Night Vale resident that isn’t available to be in an episode, there’s no problem. The show releases twice a month as a podcast, which is just enough to keep listeners interested until the next episode comes out. Explaining the wierd structures and rules of Night Vale, as well as heavily developing every character in the show, is also a great tactic for taking up time in the show, as well as keeping listeners engaged. And every weather report in the show is actually a musical performance, and all of the songs are submitted by fans of “Welcome to Night Vale”, so there are all sorts of growing musicians who are getting their music heard. As one more note of excellence, the show, while being a fictional news show (it’s really similar to the News from Lake Wobegan in “A Prairie Home Companion”), all of the stories and monologues usually revolve around comedy, making the show technically a dark comedy.
“Welcome to Night Vale” is really quite an excellently-done show, and even though it’s very non-traditional in the way of audio drama and radio shows, it has exactly what it needs to keep the younger audience interested in audio drama. Try it for yourself! You can hear the entirety of the series on iTunes podcasts and on YouTube. If you do decide to listen to it, let me know what you think of it in the comments below. Happy listening!