America's Most Popular Podcast: What The Internet Did To "Welcome to Night Vale"

by Adam Carlson

“Welcome to Night Vale” is a twice-monthly, 25-ish-minute podcast featuring news, traffic, and weather out of a small town in the Southwestern corner of the United States that does not actually exist. The town’s dog park, which is forbidden, is fictional, as is the mayor, Pamela Winchell, who is probably demonic. The radio show’s host, Cecil Baldwin is real, kind of. One of his most-used words is “void.”

Created and written by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, out of New York City, “Night Vale” has been running for little more than a year. Fink told me that on the first anniversary of the series, in June, the episodes had been collectively downloaded about 150,000 times. The following week, they were downloaded another 150,000 times. As of this writing, “Night Vale” is the No. 1 podcast on iTunes, ahead of “This American Life,” “The Nerdist,” and “Radiolab.”

“It took us about a week to figure out that it was just somehow we had exploded on Tumblr and we don’t know why or how that happened,” Fink said.

Cranor has a theory, without any science to back it up: He credits “Hannibal,” NBC’s springtime serial-killing thriller, which has a ghoulish, actualized online fan base. (They are fond, for example, of Photoshopping a crown of flowers onto the head of its murderous star.) “I just started watching ‘Hannibal,’ just to see what it is, and I can absolutely see why there would be some crossover demographic or appeal,” Cranor said.

“What I see mostly are people talking to each other and people saying, ‘Thanks so-and-so for introducing me to this,’” he said. “Or the other one I see a lot of is, ‘What is this shit all over my Tumblr?’”

The first law of fandom is fungality: Like spores, any group of fans grows as soon as it spreads, a process made instantaneous by Tumblr’s dashboard. The “Hannibal” fandom is a particular example, and the speed with which it grew has been satirized in other parts of the web. Once its fans caught the bug, everyone did. “It really comes down to the right person posting about something, being the first to expose their network to it,” said Max Sebela, a creative strategist at Tumblr. “And if you can get up to date really quickly, it’s easy for everyone to establish a hive mind around something and just start gushing about it.”

In a pinch, fans tend to describe “Welcome to Night Vale” as a Lovecraftian love-child: “A Prairie Home Companion” as narrated by Rod Serling, and so on — comparisons which Fink has called “reductive” without saying they are wrong. (In the same interview, he said that fans from Texas assume, without much evidence, that the show is set in their state.)

Starting around July 5th, Sebela said they began seeing the fandom “spiral out of control” on Tumblr: During the seven days before we spoke, there were 20,000-plus posts about “Night Vale,” with 183,000-plus individual blogs participating in the conversation, and 680,000-plus notes. A common tag appears in all-caps, like, “15 eps in 2 days WHERE AM I.” Sebela described another common refrain: “I just marathoned. I know I’m going to finish it tomorrow morning on the subway.”

The newest episode is entitled “First Date” and tells the story of Cecil retelling the latest development in his love life to listeners. Longtime fans were eager for it: The host’s crush has been a recurring plot since the pilot. With “First Date,” it became canon — he is falling in love with Night Vale’s newest scientist, who has perfect hair and teeth “like a military cemetery” and whose name is Carlos.

Welcome to “Welcome to Night Vale,” a gay love story set in a town whose school board is run by a dictatorial Glow Cloud.

Forget your troubles, come on get happy. Throw all your skin away.

— Night Vale podcast (@NightValeRadio) July 23, 2013

Cecil Baldwin didn’t expect that his fictional counterpart would fall in love with Carlos. He didn’t expect to voice a fictional version of himself at all.

“It was very strange for me, I think it was in the fourth or fifth episode, when I read the script and found out the character’s name is Cecil — which, of course, is my name,” Baldwin said. “And I wrote Joseph an email and I was like, ‘So am I playing myself or is this supposed to be autobiographical or am I playing a character who just happens to be called Cecil or is it just a coincidence or is it kind of all three together?’ And Joseph was like, ‘Yeah, it’s really everything.’”

In the pilot, which Fink wrote as a sort of road map for the series’ founding idea — an idea, as he once described it, “of a little desert town where all conspiracy theories are true” — Baldwin’s narration has an Ira Glassian remove. “In all honesty, I try and keep things as simple as possible,” he said. Over time, Cecil has come more and more to life, and the performance is deeply sincere. It is also insane, quirked by grudges against townspersons like Telly the barber (who once cut Carlos’ perfect hair before wandering into the desert and losing his mind) and Steve Carlsberg. Fans often draw Cecil with a third eye.

The universe of fictionalized Cecils has grown so large in fact that each has begun friending the other. “I actually found out the other day that someone in South Africa made a Facebook page for Cecil Baldwin and invited me to be friends with Cecil Baldwin,” Baldwin said. “So I had that existential moment where I was like, ‘Should I be friends with myself?’ Now every once in a while, it’ll be like, ‘Cecil Baldwin said…’ And I’m like, ‘That’s right, it’s the weird doppelgänger-Cecil Baldwin who lives in South Africa.’”

Baldwin, who records the podcasts just a few in advance, didn’t see the Cecil/Carlos chemistry straight away. He thought that “because of the weirdness of Night Vale,” Carlos was just the perfect human being, like a “male model who threw on a pair of glasses and a lab coat.” Of course everybody loved him. “But then when the relationship between the two characters started to develop, I was so happy and so pleased,” he said.

It was a determined development (“First Date” was written months ago) that, paradoxically, developed organically: Fink and Cranor don’t map out the series with any great specificity. (It isn’t “Lost.”) And yet, Fink said, “We know these characters very well and so as we build them then, we just made the choices that seemed most honest, that seemed right for where they were going and who they were.”

Cecil rarely gushes on-air, unless he is gushing about Carlos. To date, there are have been four voices heard on the series: Cecil; Cecil’s Desert Bluffs’ counterpart, Kevin; the faceless old woman who lives in your house; and Carlos, who once called Cecil because he suspected that the town of Night Vale didn’t have a single real clock. “Some of them actually contain a gelatinous grey lump that seems to be growing hair and teeth,” he said in a phone message, which Cecil played for listeners.

In “First Date,” listeners learned that Cecil and Carlos had gone to Gino’s Italian Dining Experience and Grill and Bar for dinner, that they had enjoyed the restaurant’s dessert (“non-corporeal” carrot cake), and that afterward the pair ran tests on the trees in Mission Grove Park. All around them, the citizenry were being devoured by a buzzing, shadowy energy, which Carlos later excused himself to battle. All Cecil could talk about was love: “My sweet and only Night Vale, may you find love,” he said in the podcast. “May you find it wherever it’s been hidden. May you find who’s been hiding it and exact revenge upon them.”

“It’s nice to have queer representation in media that doesn’t poke fun at the characters’ relationship,” said Hannah Powers, who runs the fan blog Dark Owl Records.

Baldwin put it another way: “It’s nice that that is the least-weird part about the storyline.”

The “Night Vale” fan community is, as Cecil once described the condition of life itself, both “proud and terrified.”

There is art of almost every part of Night Vale. If it’s been mentioned on-air, it’s probably been drawn. “We kind of locked into this idea that because it is an audio format, people will fill in the blanks in a way that you wouldn’t necessarily get if it was a half-hour TV show,” Baldwin said.

There are two major “Welcome to Night Vale” blogs on Tumblr: Dark Owl Records and The Shape From Grove Park, which curate and reblog fan art and which the series’ creators have the opposite of an objection to. (There is, of course, Fuck Yeah Night Vale.) “Neither Joseph nor I have ever experienced anything like that, of having a fan base of some sort,” Cranor said. “And to take something that you do and to see people repurposing it and making it their own and doing some cool stuff and drawing things that we don’t have because we’re not a show, we’re not a visual medium, we’re a podcast — it’s really amazing to see what people’s ideas are.”

Cranor and Fink have bookmarked several pieces of art already, to buy for possible use in upcoming projects (there are postcards planned, and maybe posters, alongside the preexisting T-shirts). Fink singled out one artist, username: slodwick, who has designed a series of advertisements for the town, in varying shades of purple and green and black.

But there are so many others, particularly images of Cecil and Carlos and Old Woman Josie Who Was Visited by the Angels, which together create a fan-canon (“fanon”) for the town.

“These people are managing thousands and thousands of notes around their illustrations because they’re so weird,” Sebela said.

There is also A Softer Night Vale — a twist on the photo comic A Softer World, which overlays aphoristic text with a triptych of mundane imagery. (Sample: “Look within yourself./But to do that, you’ll need to find your body./The police are still searching. No luck though.”)

There is also an intro guide to the fandom, done entirely in Tumblr’s font-of-record, Comic Sans.

Carly Chwat, who started The Shape From Grove Park, is particularly fond of the fan-created photosets, which combine stock photos, original drawings, and graphics to capture, she said, “the juxtaposition of the creepy and bizarre elements with the small-town positive attitude.” Many of these sets include Zachary Quinto wearing glasses, as a fan-cast celeb-Cecil.

Chwat’s sister, Margaret, introduced her to the podcast. Margaret works nights as a copy editor in a small town in Georgia. “I spend eight hours a day reading and editing local news at my job — all about last night’s school board meeting and information from arrest warrants — so to hear some of the same information but with such ridiculous and terrifying additions as a Pteranodon attack, is really entertaining,” she said.

Margaret assured me that she was not Tumblr famous “at all.” But her “Night Vale” photosets are her most popular posts. “I think people want to see images from what they can’t actually see and build off what others have imagined,” she said.

Fans are marked in their appreciation for and adoration of the Cecil/Carlos relationship. “Shipping,” the pairing of two characters that possibly only exists in a fan’s headcanon, has become a litmus test for fandom. Warring ships have just as easily torn online communities into snappish factions (see also: Who, Doctor; Wolf, Teen; and, back in real life, Direction, One), each prone to lengthy explanations of why my characters are more likely to fall in love than yours and your characters aren’t really in love and oh-my-god shut up. But there’s only one romantic relationship in “Night Vale” and it has stirred little strife, though there are people, Margaret said, who fight over Carlos’ ethnicity. (In episode 16, Carlos is described as a “dark, delicate-skinned scientist.”) “But what I think is the best are the things that are weirdly, unconsciously the same, like most people draw Cecil with glasses,” she said.

Compared to its infant Tumblr presence, the “Night Vale” Twitter-dom is ancient. Founded last August, @NightValeRadio (which Fink runs with Cranor, in super-casual shifts) engages in the usual community interaction (retweets, replies) as well as updates on new episodes and Twitter-only one-liners. (“Current mood: incandescent swamp gas”; or, last Christmas, “A child was born on this day. A very hungry child. He is demanding food. He is so hungry. We are running out of food. He hunts us. Help.”) “For a long time, the Night Vale Twitter had a huge following that didn’t even know it as a podcast,” Fink said.

A child was born on this day. A very hungry child. He is demanding food. He is so hungry. We are running out of food. He hunts us. Help.

— Night Vale podcast (@NightValeRadio) December 25, 2012

One fan recently tweeted, asking for words of wisdom. Fink (or Cranor) responded: “they are written in a long dead language, a strange alphabet, on a buried artifact.”

Fans also exist away from their computers, just as “Night Vale” does. On the anniversary this summer, a party was held, featuring a live performance of the anniversary episode, “One Year Later.” Not every one of the new fans showed up — many of the new fans didn’t yet exist (this was in mid-June, on the cusp of the mushrooming) — but more than 100 did. Next time, there will almost certainly be more-than-100.

Cranor is used to attention, just not so much of it. “It’s much, much different when you’re talking about thousands of people having conversations about what you’re doing and how it positively affects them, and in some cases negatively affects them, and the thing that they really hope to see,” he said. “And the thing I think I’m learning right now is to take all that in, but also block a little of it out.”

In 2009, Fink watched one of Cranor’s performance pieces (discussing a book-burning in view of the book’s ashes); and in 2011, they wrote and performed “What the Time Traveler Will Tell Us.” So far in 2013, there have been 15 episodes of “Welcome to Night Vale.” Baldwin, a friend of Fink’s before all this and an ensemble member of the New York Neo-Futurists, didn’t know how long the project would last when he joined it. No one is talking about the end.

More live shows are planned (one is set for the fall, with some famous-y guests, though few details are final) as is more merchandise. A tour-able show, maybe; video content — all stewarded by Fink’s independent publishing house, Commonplace Books. @NightValeRadio recently announced that a new merchandise store will soon launch. The series is still supported by donations. “We’re trying to make it something sustainable,” Fink said. “We’re looking at the response, we’re looking at what we have, and we think this is something that could actually go somewhere.”

I asked Fink to describe his real-life fans, the ones he met at the anniversary party. He said that they were not unusual. “I have no idea what it’s going to be like now,” he said.

Adam Carlson recently fled Manhattan.