by Adam Carlson
Almost one year ago today, a very strange thing happened to the very strange podcast “Welcome to Night Vale”: It became very, very popular. On the show’s first anniversary in June, all of the episodes had been collectively downloaded about 150,000 times. The following week, they were downloaded another 150,000 times. For several months, “Night Vale” was, according to iTunes, the country’s most popular podcast.
Since last summer, the New York-based “Night Vale” has been able to capitalize on its fame: a book deal with Harpers; tours across the United States and Canada; stops at the Comic-Cons. Co-creator Jeffrey Cranor told me that the “unsustainable explosive growth” the show saw in 2013 has slowed, but that the download totals for each individual episode are still higher than the last, even at episode 47. “In a lot of ways, ‘Night Vale’ is still our thing — in almost every way it’s still our thing — in that we don’t really answer to anyone and it’s still us telling the stories we want to tell,” co-creator Joseph said.
The show is styled as a half-hour community radio broadcast out of a town where every conspiracy is true and truth is a lie. It is poetic and surreal and more and more beguilingly narrative, with a “Simpsons”-like investment in its townspeople.
What happens to a phenomenon as it ages? What happens to independent artists who have to sustain success? And what happens to a small Southwestern town when it gets taken over by an Orwellian supercompany that may or may not be an analogy for the sun?
I recently put all of these questions to Cranor, Fink and the mellifluous voice of “Night Vale” himself, Cecil Baldwin.
What’s the day-to-day like now — is “Night Vale” the full-time job?
Joseph Fink: I mean we both have jobs. There was a moment where we stopped doing those jobs. I think long before that though, “Night Vale” did become more and more work to a point where we couldn’t be doing the amount of work we’re doing on “Night Vale” right now and also be doing full-time jobs. There’s just not enough time in the day. Especially once the tour came in, too. You can’t have a day job where you’re just like, “Hey, a few times a year I’m going to leave for three-five weeks.”
Cecil Baldwin: Yes, I mean it definitely is kind of my full-time job. Obviously I work on other projects as well, but it seems like every day I do something involving “Night Vale” that kind of requires attention, and usually it’s a lot of planning things. It’s not the glamorous nature of getting to go to the shows, but it’s a lot of the nitty-gritty stuff as well. A lot of emails. A lot of “replying-all” to emails.
Has the production (writing/recording) process changed at all?
CB: I think we all kind of collectively, even once we became more popular, went, “Well if it’s not broke, don’t fix it.” I think we all just kind of said, “This is the way we’ve been doing it and it’s obviously very comfortable for us, so let’s keep doing it.” Joseph has sort of an office now and he had set up a microphone in his office and he’s like, “Listen if you ever want to come over and record.” And I’m like, “Nope, I’m good.”
How is the book coming along? Are you turning in a draft soon?
JF: We very wisely organized it so we have both a very large live show and a deadline for our first draft of a book all in the same week.
Jeffrey Cranor: Mmmhmm!
JF: So we’re working to have the first draft of the book done in the next three or four weeks here and are also simultaneously writing the hour live show. So that would be why, this month, most of it is writing.
JC: But we’re very very near, I would say we’re more than three-quarters of the way done with the “Night Vale” book. And then we’ll turn it into our editor in June and then we’ll have a bunch of months of back-and-forth: “No, redo this.” “You redo this.” Etc. etc. However editing works. I’m not sure.
So what can you say about it? Fans are baffled and amazed and curious about what shape the book will take. Is it narrative? What part of the world does it take place in? Is it predominantly Cecil?
JF: To answer the seed of your questions: It’s a novel. It’s a fairly, as far as “Night Vale” goes, straightforward narrative novel. It’s characters and story. It does not focus on Cecil. I think a lot of the characters from the podcast are of course a big part of the book because it takes place in a not-very large town, but we weren’t very interested in retelling a story we already told. So we have kind of focused on parts of Night Vale we haven’t really been able to talk about in the podcast.
JC: Cecil is definitely a character in the book, but we knew being a novel and not a podcast, you can’t tell it with the same voice. It’s a novel, meant to be read. So we knew we needed it to not be one long Cecil talk show. That would be a very weird talk show to have.
You guys are coming off a lot of touring this spring, with the whole Night Vale family — special guests and not just the three of you.
JF: It was simultaneously really fun and kind of awful, because it’s a month of sitting in a car. Either you’re sitting in the car or you’re at work pretty much the entire month. And so that’s really hard but at the same time, it’s a month of billing new places and hanging out with your friends and your work involves putting on this big live show, which is a lot of fun to do so that’s really great. It was interesting — while I was touring I started reading Get In the Van by Henry Rollins about touring with Black Flag when he was in his twenties. And what I got out of it, besides the fact that Henry Rollins in his twenties was really hard to take, is that we’re having a much more comfortable tour than a struggling rock band. We slept in real beds. So it puts some perspective on it, reading about touring with a low-paying punk band in the ‘80s.
CB: I got home and all my friends and my family were asking me, “How was it? How was it?” And I said, “Well if the worst thing that you can say about a tour is that you didn’t have as much time to sightsee as you possibly wanted, then that’s a really good thing.”
Tell me be about the fans who came out to each show.
JC: A lot of people, when we were able to stick around and sign for people, people brought us artwork all the time. Joseph has a whole house full of deer paintings and paintings of deer wearing pictures of deer around their necks. It’s phenomenal. It’s fucking phenomenal.
JF: Honestly, I can think of one time where someone threw something at my face. And it’s just a general code of conduct really in any situation, you shouldn’t throw things at people’s faces. Other than that, the interactions with the fans were really entirely positive and amazing.
CB: It totally ran the gamut, from the fans that are wearing a glow cloud outfit that takes up four seats and you’re like, “Wow you took a lot of really amazing hard work into it, but how do you sit down?” There’s a lot of that. All the various Cecils. Third eyes and microphones. And then there are the kids that are obviously really into it, but who are very specific about what it is they like about the show. Like I had a girl give me a hammer after one of our shows — not anything special or fancy, just like a hammer you would find at Home Depot. And I was like, “Gosh, thank you for this.” She was like, “Oh, it’s so you can beat off the Strex pets.” To her it was very important that I receive this hammer.
I remember Atlanta, actually, the fans in Atlanta were really amazing. A guy came up to me after the Atlanta show and told me that “Night Vale” had gotten him through his last tour of Afghanistan, and I don’t know if it was just him or the other men and women in his unit that listened to it. But he was so affected by it and he didn’t have anything to sign, but he literally waited in line for half an hour or whatever to meet me and shake my hand.
For this next tour, were you like, “You know what we should do? Let’s go to Canada”?
JF: I think we’ve been talking about a lot of places we want to go, so this seemed like the next one that made sense. We’ve definitely got a lot of Canadian fans. We’ve been hearing about them for a while. And there were also just a lot of places on this March tour that we didn’t have time to get to, Austin and Denver and Salt Lake City. So it was nice to kind of pick these up. Nothing is set in stone for the future, but this won’t, I think, be our last tour.
When you say you were hearing from Canadian fans — like do you guys know that you have a lot of fans in Ireland or Brazil?
JC: We are of course far and away most popular in terms of downloads in the United States, but Canada, the UK, Australia are all kind of right up there. These are the other well-populated English-speaking countries. We definitely have followings in Europe. Germany is up there, I think Ireland is up there. New Zealand.
JF: In Norway we’re doing pretty well.
JC: Downloads don’t always translate into ticket sales in a place, and it’s even harder to tell when you’re going to a non-English-is-a-first-language place. But at the same time, it’s a good measurement for saying, if you don’t have very many downloads for Brunei, then maybe you don’t go to Brunei.
Don’t forget to set your clocks forward. Don’t forget to confuse time with numbers. Don’t forget the vastness of space.
— Night Vale podcast (@NightValeRadio) March 9, 2014
You guys will be at the inaugural DashCon and then are kind of wrapping up the tour at San Diego Comic-Con, which you didn’t do last year. You’re doing a crossover event with “The Thrilling Adventure Hour.” That’s going to be big.
JC: We’re doing signings at the Topatoco booth, so we’ll definitely be there. Pending what San Diego Comic-Con comes back with, we’ll probably do a panel.
CB: I have no idea what to expect. We’ve sort of been building on our Comic-Con experiences: last year we were at New York Comic-Con, we were kind of a late entry for that. I think we literally applied for New York Comic-Con an hour before entry had closed, and then we did one panel and then we left. We just did Emerald City Comic-Con in Seattle, which was amazing. After touring for a month, I did a lot of damage where I would just walk around the floor and see somebody’s art or somebody’s graphic novel and I’d be like, “I like that, I’m going to buy it.” I got out my phone and started Googling “queer comic book artists Emerald City Comic-Con” and made a list of all the booths I wanted to go to of people that were making either queer-themed art or were queer artists themselves and I just wanted to go meet them.
And I don’t know if I’m going to necessarily get the opportunity to be the fan that I want to be at San Diego. It just sounds huge. It sounds massive, and everyone says that the Comic-Con takes over the entire city, like you can’t go out to breakfast because there’s a panel in a restaurant — everywhere.
The show has gotten a lot more plotted, I think, and maybe a lot weirder? You have a lot more story to perform off of.
CB: It’s slightly more structured. I love the idea of like, What’s going to happen next? It’s a more traditional storyline where the end of an episode comes and you’re left with a question of what is going to happen to Cecil. What is going to happen with StrexCorp? These are more traditional ways of storytelling. Keep in mind, we’re also gearing up for our big two-year anniversary show. But then I imagine that once the season finale happens, the anniversary happens, Joseph and Jeffrey will probably kind of ease up on the gas a bit and it will be back to the more experimental — Jeffrey and I were talking over some experimental ideas for episodes and they’re… get ready. Next year is going to be no different.
JC: We definitely don’t think in terms of, like Joseph said, seasons. There is more of a big finale feel to it, but more so because it was a chance to do a live show in New York around our second anniversary so it seemed a good time to have a long, full script with a lot of special guests and things like that. But maybe next June on our third anniversary, we won’t necessarily think the same way we might have [of] a more traditional approach to what that show would be.
JF: Also with the June 4 show, not only are we doing some plot stuff, it was also just an excuse to do, because we’re going to have so many special guests, there were just a number of moments that involve characters interacting that we always wanted to see or involving other actors that we always wanted to see. It kind of allowed us to build those moments because we had an excuse to bring those people in.
With “The Auction” — I think that’s when I realized that the show was doing something essential with Cecil, that they were going to make him into a whole character with a whole lived history that we didn’t know yet.
CB: And what was great about that episode was that it was guest written by Glen David Gold, the amazing author who wrote Carter Beats the Devil. He had so many little details that were just brilliant that really made that episode sparkle. And the language — I think I might have written an email thanking for him for that episode, but man was it hard to record. The language was so dense and it was so ornate. Like I think there was a sentence that was a paragraph long. Very much in the style of “Night Vale,” where a story will start in one place and by the end it ends up in a totally different place, and he did that in one sentence.
But yeah, it’s so true: We’re getting into the idea of, What are these relationships? Why does Cecil hate Steve Carlsberg so much? We’re starting to put tentative answers to a lot of the fan questions. It’s like a Dickens story, and I feel like the world of “Night Vale” is becoming an intricate tapestry in a very similar way, where a small detail or a minor character from the first year might become the major character of an entire plotline three years later.
I was wondering in just the last week or so, have you heard from fans? With “Company Picnic,” we don’t know what’s happened to him. He’s gone away. Are people distressed?
JC: Oh my God yeah, we’ve definitely gotten a lot in the last two episodes of distressed emails and tweets.
JF: Somebody called me a terrible human being on Twitter after that episode.
JC: And we’ve gotten called “monster” a lot. Between “The Visitor” episode with Khoshekh and then the last two episodes with “Company Picnic” and “Parade Day,” those three episodes I think have gotten us the most all-caps tweets and emails sent to us.
CB: I love the variation on the more “traditional” “Night Vale” episodes. By adding new voices to the show, it expands the world of Night Vale and allows the listeners to view the characters and world from varying points of view. The fans have definitely been very vocal about their desire to have Cecil return to the radio booth, either out of love of myself, the character, or because Kevin, Lauren and the rest of the Desert Bluffs crew are so creepy and unsettling in their corporate cheeriness.
When we spoke last year, a large part of the show’s funding came from donations. Now you have the merch store, which is evolving/expanding, and live shows. I wanted to know if the infrastructure supporting the show is more formalized?
JF: Yes and no? We have more people now. We have Jodi, our literary agent, who’s amazing, and we have our booking agent, because it could be really hard when you’re two people who have no experience in this to book a 23-city tour. That’s very difficult to do. And we did actually most of it last tour and it was… unpleasant, so we didn’t want to do that again. We’ve gotten approached about all sorts of things, but for the most part we really just want to make sure that everything we do with Night Vale is something we can do and and we can make sure we’re doing it well, that we’re doing something worth experiencing.
JC: Yeah, we’ve kept it fairly independent. The donations we’ve kept that going because we’ve kept that show free, but I mean that in the sense that we don’t charge money for it and also in the sense that we don’t put ads in the middle of it. And I think having to look at an ad, whether it’s in the middle of the highway or on a TV screen or on a radio show, it’s a cost. It’s not a financial cost, but it’s a cost to the listener or the viewer or the driver. We’ve never taken like an active political stance against podcast advertising, it’s a great source of revenue for people, but for our show it never fit. So the donations have been really nice and people have been very generous to help us pay the artist involved and to keep the show hosted and the merchandise helps in that way.
You could probably get Taco Bell or Irish Spring to pay you for your “a word from our sponsor.”
JC: Listen, I’m telling you, we’ve actually written an email to a sponsor that kept asking us to consider a sponsorship on the show and we kept saying, “Great, we would happily do it. But we maintain total control.” And they kept coming back with, “Yeah yeah, sure sure absolutely, you guys are creative writers, do that. Here are some talking points.”
JF: If Taco Bell or Irish Spring wanted to pay us for those ads exactly as we had written them, that would be totally fine with us. The chance of that happening is very slim.
JC: That was kind of what it came down to is: You’re welcome to pay us. The ad won’t mention your product other than the name and will be something very weird or possibly grotesque or existential.
JF: And we would not charge them at all if, say, Irish Spring wanted to go with a “whose hands are these?” campaign. I think if that’s a thing that they want, they’re welcome to have it.
Adam Carlson lives in Georgia. He writes.
This interview has been edited and condensed from a series of phone calls and emails.