Internet Saved the Radio Star: The Rise of Podcast Drama
Welcome to Night Vale, the news show from a town that doesn't exist, has quickly and unexpectedly become America's favourite podcast. As the next stage in audio fiction's evolution takes shape, it also confirms the curious, enduring appeal of stories on the radio.
"Hello listeners. In breaking news, the sky. The earth. Life. Existence as an unchanging plain with horizons of birth and death in the faint distance. We have nothing to speak about. There never was. Words are an unnecessary trouble. Expression is time wasting away. Any communication is just a yelp in the darkness. Ladies, gentlemen, listeners, you. I am speaking now but I am saying nothing. I am just making noises, and, as it happens, they are organized in words, and you should not draw meaning from this."
-- Welcome to Night Vale, #5: 'The Shape in Grove Park'
Strange things do not happen in Night Vale. There is simply a different definition of 'normal'.
In this small town in the Southwestern United States, angels appear before old ladies. PTA meetings occasionally open tears in the fabric of space-time. Hooded figures steal babies, and for some reason everybody lets them. The Night Vale secret police (not to be confused with the World Government, whose black helicopters forever roam the sky) go about their mysterious business. Terrible, terrible things happen at the Dog Park. The weather is music.
Night Vale is a place where everything is threatening, untrustworthy and inexplicable, and the best attitude to see you through the madness is one of ironic but wary detachment. It is, in other words, entirely a product of our time.
This July, Welcome to Night Vale, created by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor and produced by independent publisher Commonplace Books, became the most popular podcast on iTunes, thus making it America's de facto favourite podcast (a fact which only fueled its already-exploding international fanbase). By the time the mainstream media gained awareness of a grass-roots phenomenon it had no part in pushing, the consequent curiosity was evident: What was the appeal of the show's sudden success? Was it comedy, drama, horror, mystery? And what does it tell us about the future of fiction in podcasting?
Welcome to Night Vale is radio news from a town that does not exist. Simple though it is, the premise has proven to be endlessly rewarding. New listeners may be overwhelmed at first by the sheer freedom and brevity with which the writers scatter their ideas; each bulletin, delivered in a few oblique sentences by the warm, tranquil voice of Cecil Baldwin (played by Cecil Baldwin, a completely unrelated individual), could easily provide the plot for a whole film, the genre shifting constantly. With every bulletin, the show may smoothly transition from dark comedy to psychological noir to creeping, apocalyptic horror, all in a span of minutes. And so, each episode becomes a conspiracy theory, a love affair, a prose poem and a ghost story... all capped off with the weather report, which takes the form of a song.
Comparisons have already been made to David Lynch's ground-breaking work on Twin Peaks, though Lynch could never be this funny (at least not intentionally). The same can be said for Stephen King, another likely influence, whose plodding dialogue is a million miles removed from the lambent, lyrical and laconic phrasing of Night Vale's regular updates. Even H.P. Lovecraft, whose always-lurking influence in pop culture has become suffocating in recent years, is revitalised when introduced to the Night Vale melting pot. But really, the feel of the show is unplaceable, and that is key to its appeal.
Daring experiments in genre-melding have undoubtedly grown in popularity over the past generation, but Welcome to Night Vale has won its fans with more than tales of supernatural activity and human absurdity: it has made substance out of its style. More than any of its human(?) inhabitants, the town of Night Vale is a character in its own right, and to spend 20 minutes in its sonic company is to be immersed in the eerie, intoxicating atmosphere it creates; a haunting, radiophonic ambience that feels like the soundtrack to a half-remembered dream, forever on the verge of becoming a nightmare. Put simply, Welcome to Night Vale is an entirely unique beast, and one that could only work in the medium it has helped revive.
"Is there life beyond what you know?
Hallucination thrives on my stereo..."
-- Rob Zombie, 'Dead City Radio and the New Gods of Supertown'
In an interview with Brainwashed.com, Night Vale's co-creator Joseph Fink decided to say what nobody else was saying. "I think right now is the best time in history to be an artist of any kind," he argued. "It's not the easiest time. It's not the most lucrative time. But it's the best time. You can do any kind of art you want without filters and distribute it to anywhere in the world in seconds. So find someone you enjoy working with. Find something you enjoy working on. Treat each other with respect. And see if something cool happens. It might." ("Celebrating Their Corpse-Strewn Future: Welcome to Night Vale", Anthony D'Amico, 25 May 2013) I yield to no one in my suspicion of optimism, but the logic of Fink's argument is getting harder and harder to deny, and Welcome to Night Vale is its latest proof. Success, however unlikely, speaks for itself.
Of course, the root of that success is the quality of the show itself. Still, while it would be nice if Welcome to Night Vale did not become another case of over-excitable fandom overshadowing the cultural artefact which inspired it, the effects of such enthusiasm cannot be denied. Tumblr and Twitter have been key in raising awareness of the show, while elsewhere online exists a thriving, organic network of fan art, 'mixtape' playlists, fevered discussion and much evangelical preaching to those not yet converted to the cause (I may, just possibly, have been guilty of that last one).
It's sometimes difficult to separate our desire for novelty, which is near-universal, and a hunger for the weird, which is often seen as more of a niche. Welcome to Night Vale stands at the crossroads of these two confused instincts. Clearly, it fulfills the classic qualification for an unexpected hit: give the audience something like nothing else available. Yet it also makes no apologies for the strangeness of its material; it revels in it, taking full advantage of their independence in answering to no one.
For the past decade, there has been a growing sense of uncertainty regarding the future of what was once referred to as 'radio drama'. The appeal of the medium remains the same as it ever was: dramatised fiction for a purely aural audience is usually far less prohibitively expensive than film, television or even stage. Provided its ideas can find expression through sound effects, the imagination runs free, letting the mind's eye do the heavy lifting. It can be made quickly as well as cheaply, and particularly suits writing that leans towards the topical and experimental. And the means to produce it are increasingly within anyone's reach.
Nevertheless, radio drama -- once America's most popular form of fiction, with a heyday that ran from the Great Depression onwards -- had sunk into near non-existence by the '60s, struck down by the rising behemoths of cinema and TV and only sustained in a few isolated enclaves.
In the UK, where its legacy is arguably even more embedded, the medium is largely the preserve of the BBC, one of the few major organisations in the Western world still producing original radio drama. As opposed to its radio comedy, which the Corporation typically views as a training ground for talents that might later be promoted to TV, BBC radio drama is treated as a kind of national treasure, written according to a formula that is not to be tampered with -- although not one which is beyond the reach of recession-fuelled budget cuts.
In 2010, in a move symptomatic of changing attitudes, BBC's Radio 4 axed the Friday Play from its schedules, ending a decades-old institution and leading the actor's union Equity to declare radio drama "an endangered species."
"Meanwhile," observed the Guardian newspaper on June 20th of the same year, "those who predicted that podcasting would bring a new dawn for the radio play are still staring impatiently at the horizon." ( "Don't touch that dial: the threat to radio drama" , Leo Benedictus) That may be starting to change, but by no means are we there yet.
"I did radio back in the era when we did radio drama."
-- Martin Milner
There always seem to be a suspicious amount of people ready to pronounce an artistic medium dead. The death of print was being proclaimed 20 years before I was born, and my fingers are still stained with newspaper ink. Prior to the HBO-inspired Renaissance we are forever being told about, TV drama would periodically receive similar diagnoses of imminent mortality. The entire comics industry, despite filling the multiplex with its latex-clad cash-cows, has a permanent, Edgar Allan Poe-esque obsession with its own demise, forever convinced the end lies just around the corner. At various points in living memory, the same could be said for opera, modern dance, poetry... The list goes on. One might be forgiven for thinking there were those who wish these things would quietly fade away.
It's not just the fact that radio's role in our lives has changed as is often the case with the arts. Additionally, we sometimes labour under the nagging, irrational impression that its best work is in the past, its golden age ever-receding in our memory.
Orson Welles at work on The Shadow
(1930s) (photographer unknown)
And yet, just because the average family no longer gathers around the wireless after dinner does not mean the radio vanished from our lives. There are countless people, from office drones to construction workers to delivery drivers to kitchen staff, who live and work with the radio (or, increasingly, the podcast) as a constant background companion. In the latter half of the 20th century, radio and its evolutionary offspring were realigned into something we absorb while doing other things.
On this subject, I know some people who are rather firm in their condemnation. The view is that if you engage with a work of culture, entertainment or intellectual stimulation, you focus on it and nothing else. You do not read a book on a trampoline, they argue; there is no such thing as "background" music, merely music you are not fully appreciating. Granted, I have some sympathy with this philosophy -- some things should not be treated as the cultural equivalent on air-conditioning -- but I never quite allied with it.
This is because, like it or not, we are now a multitasking civilisation. There's a good chance you're reading this on a browser with multiple tabs open; does a podcast hum in the background, an mp3, a Youtube video, a streaming TV program? This is all before we even leave our computers. This is the way we live.
The fact that our lives are a tangled pattern of interconnections is hardly a new observation, but the age we live in means such perpetual plate-spinning has never been more apparent. This, I believe, goes some way to explaining the rise of the podcast, and cemented its status as audio drama's new natural home. Because the podcast, the radio, the voices that emanate from your speakers -- they all have access that no other medium can replicate. Unlike film or television, which requires you to become a staring, silent zombie for the duration, or the book which transforms you into a statue save for the act of page-turning, the podcast can slip inside your head, no matter what you're doing. Whether we're driving to work, eating dinner, lying in bed in the darkness... we can surround ourselves with stories, and thrill to hear voices even when no one's there.
"I like doing radio because it's so intimate. The moment people hear your voice, you're inside there heads, not only that, you're in there laying eggs."
-- Douglas Coupland
I admit, I came late to podcasts, which explains my somewhat geeky enthusiasm for them. To a writer, a person who spends their time sitting alone in a room for painfully prolonged periods, having other voices to fill up the silence is often invaluable. And I like the fact that they are often small, genuinely independent ventures - it appeals to the part of me that's still twelve years old and thinks Pump Up the Volume is the coolest movie in existence.
As a result, with weekly fixes, I maintain a manageable addiction. The incisive, acidic political journalism of Citizen Radio with Jamie Kilstein and Allison Kilkenny satisfies my pirate radio fantasies. Chris Sims and Matt Wilson eviscerate pop culture like good-humoured axe murderers on War Rocket Ajax. New tunes, counterculture updates and like-minded laughs come courtesy of the badass Jen Bernstein at The Stash.
As you may notice, these are all non-fiction podcasts. As with the evolving world of radio, the bulk of podcasting's output remains factual (though the swamplands of political talk radio do test this definition a tad). Audio drama exists in the shadow of the still-mighty audiobook industry, which has adapted to the age of the internet far better than its brethren. But slowly, incrementally, this is starting to change.
From podcasting's dawn, there have been plenty who felt its intimacy would provide a worthy new home for the rebirth of audio drama. However, most of the early efforts which followed were products of pure nostalgia, attempting to recreate the past, with little thought given to the possibilities of the future. It was only when some started taking advantage of the medium's independence and creative freedom did audio drama take steps towards saving itself.
However much we may bemoan the passing of radio drama's golden age, the bygone status quo was always a matter of quantity over quality, with some discreet gems hidden within. The vast bulk of radio fiction, as Orson Welles learned the hard way, was soap operas, pulp fiction and deeply pedestrian theatre. The BBC's longest running radio drama, The Archers, is a perfectly horrible example: for longer than I or even my parents have been alive, this "everyday story of country folk" has tediously documented the saga of stuff happening on a farm... for over 17,000 episodes. It is exactly as bad as it sounds.
Obviously, this aspect of radio drama's legacy needs no reviving. Dreck is rarely in short supply, and the kind of lazy, demographic-inspired thinking which commissions it should be removed from the equation wherever possible. Welcome to Night Vale is an inspiring example of what can happen when this is case: not only does the artistic standard of the work rise, but the masses may surprise themselves with unpredicted taste.
Before it broke through the pop culture firmament, most seasoned cultural commentators would have pegged Welcome to Night Vale as a textbook 'cult favourite', not a runaway smash leaving all competitors in the dust. And yet, the left-field option may prove to be a winner. The bizarre may yet become fashionable.
Welcome to Night Vale, though its popularity is obviously unmatched, is not alone. Another interesting example is the Fruits Basket Radio Drama, a charming adaptation of the best-selling shojo manga, made by and for Western otaku as a fan-driven project initiated by the film-and-anime critic Hope Chapman. Like Welcome to Night Vale, the audioplay brings an unknown quality to Anglophone audiences, utilising a style of radio drama not widely know outside of Japan (one of the few countries where the medium remains a considerable cultural force). It's all the more fascinating because of it, as well as an example of the high quality such efforts can achieve.
The point is, the term 'uncommercial', the spectre which has belligerently guided radio drama and many other arts besides for as long as any of us can remember, has broken down as a working definition. Predictive indicators of what the general public may or may not find interesting or appealing have never seemed more untrustworthy.
One might hope that industry wisdom might take a lesson from this, but it seems unlikely. That's why Welcome to Night Vale emerged off the grid; it was the only place something so unashamedly different was ever going to be allowed to thrive.
Some unpleasant facts still remain: the vast majority of audio drama podcasts remain labours of love, with little to no financial reward, at a time when writers, actors and creatives of all stripes are having more than enough difficulty sustaining themselves. As the popularity of audio fiction continues to rise, that will hopefully change. But that depends on us appreciating the appeal of these sound sculptures, mind movies and books with voices: the atmosphere they can create, the flights of imagination they can provoke, and they musicality of storytelling they can produce.