Driving through the Southwest one fall, my daughters and I spent at least 8 hours listening to tales of a small desert community on an iPod attached to my car stereo. As the red Arizona landscape gave way to gray and white sand dotted with yucca and Joshua Trees, the community radio host discussed topics including, but not limited to: The Faceless Old Woman who Secretly Lives in Your Home, a series of angels who all happen to be named Erika and The Man in the Tan Jacket (and how no one knows exactly what he's up to and no one remembers what he looks like or what he says to them—although they do remember his deerskin briefcase). Somewhere in those hours, there was also mention of lights that constantly hover over the town's local Arby's and a five-headed dragon named Hiram McDaniels.
The desert setting was perfect for being absorbed into the Welcome to Night Vale podcast, a grassroots serialized storytelling project which started in 2012. The fictional community of Night Vale has a mystery meets sci-fi meets comedy meets straight-up nerdy flavor to it; the town's stories are told through a community radio format, hosted by Cecil Gershwin Palmer (voiced by actor Cecil Baldwin). Night Vale has several criss-crossing story lines and revolving cast of characters and most fans listen alone in their rooms, while commuting to work or while driving across the desert with their family. However, fans will have an opportunity to schmooze with other fans at an upcoming Welcome to Night Vale Live event at Oakland's Fox Theater.
“I love playing Cecil Palmer. He's kind of a wide-eyed optimist about a lot of things and it's really nice,” says Baldwin. “I think one of the reasons people have gravitated to the show is that its not a very cynical look at life. It's a very realistic look at life and it has at its center this character who is so optimistic and so filled with heart that you can't help but love him. He's so eager to make his community work and its just refreshing.”
Baldwin, who met producers Jeffrey Cranor and Joseph Fink while he was working with Neo-Futurists, a Chicago-based theater company, jumped at the opportunity to narrate the story of Night Vale.
“Joseph was kind of a struggling writer, trying to get his work produced sending it off to literary magazines and all of the things you do when you're a writer and he approached me saying he was thinking about doing something different, a podcast of fiction stories. And he had this kind of weird idea about a small town community radio where bizarre things happen and are just sort of part of everyday life,” he says. “It was funny and scary and complex and everything an actor would want to take on so I said yes.”
Welcome to Night Vale follows a season format, similar to television, which allows listeners to get hooked and the team produces the show on a shoestring budget. Cranor and Fink provide the script and Baldwin records the show in his Brooklyn apartment. With over 60 episodes, a new Welcome to Night Vale book due out next fall and a third year of touring with live events, the ad-free program has gained listeners who share a love for good stories akin to the Twilight Zone, Outer Limits and Tales of the Unexpected.
“Podcasting is very intimate. I think one of the reasons people respond to these characters so much—especially with Cecil—is that its a very intimate experience,” says Baldwin. “But an audience brings energy to the show and its like this dance between you and the audience; making them laugh, scaring them, its storytelling in its oldest incarnation.”
As the story of Night Vale develops, fans fall in love will Cecil Palmer. We root for him when he falls for Carlos the Scientist, a man with perfect hair. We worry about him when he faces the almighty power of StrexCorp and the Smiling God of Desert Bluffs. We laugh endearingly at his blog which features stories about Khoshekh the floating cat that hovers in the station's men's room. We sometimes think that Cecil's extreme optimism has a hint of denialbut we love him just the same.
And as for his relationship with Carlos, one of the biggest, most burning questions about Night Vale's future is: Will station management will give Cecil time off to visit Carlos in the Desert Otherworld?
To this, Baldwin simply replies, “all I can say is listen to the podcast and you'll find out.”