A podcast from a small desert town called Night Vale has suddenly become the number-one podcast on the iTunes charts worldwide, beating Hamish and Andy and the venerable This American Life for the top spot. However, there is one tiny thing you need to know about Night Vale – it isn’t real.
Welcome to Night Vale is a podcast, formatted as a local radio show based in the town of Night Vale. Released every fortnight with episodes ranging from twenty to thirty minutes, the show keeps you ‘informed’ with what’s happening in town from its host Cecil Baldwin, the opinionated radio presenter and the audience’s guide to Night Vale.
Cecil provides an informative if slightly biased account of the town’s goings on. His angry rants about the Apache Tracker – a white man who wears a ‘comically offensive’ Indian headdress – and Steve Carlsberg break up the monotony of the usual news broadcast about the Dog Park, the Glow Cloud that rains dead animals, and Valentine’s Day massacres.
He also finds himself attracted to the newest resident in Night Vale – Carlos the Scientist, who wants to unravel the mysteries that surround the town.
“A friendly desert community where the sun is hot, the moon is beautiful, and mysterious lights pass overhead while we all pretend to sleep. Welcome to Night Vale.” - Cecil Baldwin, "Pilot"
Many of the things that Cecil reports on goes against our idea of normal
What makes the show unique is its presentation of what is ordinary. Many of the things that Cecil reports on goes against our idea of normal, but is presented in a manner that makes it seem mundane. The non-existence of a house behind the school is not disputed, although there are two identical houses on either side and the house appears to exist. A number of angels take up residence at Old Woman Josie’s house, and this is accepted just as easily by Cecil and the larger community. One of the angels even changed a light bulb for her.
“She’s offering to sell the old lightbulb, which has been touched by an angel. It was the black angel, if that sweetens the pot for anyone. If you’re interested, contact Old Woman Josie. She’s out near the car lot,” Cecil adds indifferently.
Everyday issues are mentioned in a refreshingly casual manner. Cecil spends a lot of air time talking about his relationship with Carlos and asking listeners for advice. The fact that theirs is a homosexual relationship is of little importance, and Cecil takes an interest in science because Carlos is a scientist. The white man wearing the Indian headdress is labelled as a racist quite early on, perhaps as an example of cultural appropriation. The fact that he later on turns into an actual American Indian does not, according to Cecil, make him any less of a racist.
To complete the apparent inversion of normality in Night Vale, the public is warned against the dangers of seemingly ordinary occurrences. Where we know Valentine’s Day as a (highly commercialised) celebration of love, Night Vale experiences it as an annual day of terror and destruction. Librarians are depicted as evil monsters who trap children in libraries and force them to read.
The plot moves quite slowly at times, closer to the progress of a local council rather than a book or TV series; yet if you zone out for a couple of minutes you will have little idea what’s going on. Each episode moves fairly quickly between a few different plot points, and if you zone in after a couple of minutes Cecil might be talking about kittens for some reason or another. Episodes do follow on from each other in a chronological order, but some things often go whole episodes without being mentioned.
Despite launching in August last year, the podcast’s popularity has skyrocketed over the past month or two – thanks in part to Tumblr and fans of NBC’s thriller Hannibal. And being the internet, the fandom community has produced their own fan works around the show – which I must admit, hooked me onto the series.
But what makes this more fascinating, especially with the fan art, is their imagination of what the characters look like. Welcome to Night Vale doesn’t feature elaborate descriptions about the characters of Night Vale – they are very short and basic. For instance, we’re not sure if Cecil is tall or short, fat or thin, or even human. The only concrete trait is his deep sonorous voice. And for Carlos, we only know that he has dark and delicate skin, a square jaw, beautiful hair and teeth “like a military cemetery” (according to Cecil).
The fans’ interpretation of the characters, especially with Cecil, are varied. The general consensus amongst them, however, depict Cecil as a somewhat dweeby-looking blonde with glasses. Some also add tattoos (covering his face and arms), tentacles and/or even a third eye.
Like I said, these are not officially what the characters look like. But will we ever see an official character design for Carlos and Cecil? Probably not. Speaking recently to Den of Geek, the creators say they don’t plan on it because it would “take the magic out”.
“I remember growing up listening to a lot of radio as a kid; my stepfather would listen to sports radio stations in the morning while taking me to school, and we’d listen to this host… And then one day I opened a newspaper and there was an article about him and it had a picture of him and I remember thinking ‘that’s really disappointing’,” Cranor says.
“Before that I had the whole world in my head. If you’d asked me to draw him, I don’t think I could have drawn a picture of what I thought this guy looked like, but I remember seeing the picture and it shattered something.
Welcome to Night Vale is one show that definitely needs to be in your podcast subscriptions list. The show’s unique trait – the fact that extraordinary things are ordinary in the small town – will definitely keep you hooked. The romantic storyline between Cecil and Carlos – which can be controversial in some parts of the world – is treated normally, which is a refreshing change.
Terence Huynh contributed to the report.
What makes the show unique is its presentation of what is ordinary