Only on the Internet could a modern serial audio drama, especially one that has a production team that could fit in a phone booth and plays like a radio show written by H.P. Lovecraft, become a huge hit—but the surreal, darkly humorous “Welcome to Night Vale” is currently the #1 podcast on iTunes.
The premise of the series itself is a trifle hard to explain. In-universe, it’s a radio show hosted by Cecil Palmer, a fictional version of his voice actor, Cecil Baldwin. In each episode, he reports on current events in Night Vale, such as the sheriff’s Secret Police, the mysterious hooded figures around town, and the Glow Cloud that rains small dead animals and later joins the PTA.
It also features a gay love story from the first episode, with Cecil waxing poetic about Carlos the scientist, his perfect hair, and his caramel voice. The interaction between the two is, by far, the least strange thing about the series.
The podcast, written by co-creators Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, is a production of Commonplace Books; its first episode was put out in June 2012. In an interview with The Awl, Fink said that in mid-June 2013, the series’ first anniversary, altogether the episodes had been downloaded about 150,000 times. That was about when their popularity exploded: a week later, they were all downloaded another 150,000 times.
Fink told the Awl, “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.”
The mystery is fitting, given what the series is like; co-creator Jeffrey Cranor told 429Magazine, “The show itself was founded on the idea: ‘what if there was a town where every conspiracy theory were true.’ Complicated (conspiracy) theories can be great narratives, and we wouldn’t have ever started this show if we didn’t love them ourselves.”
In keeping with the show’s mysteries, very little is actually described; this gives “Welcome to Night Vale” something of an interactive element, and as such a very active fandom. As Cranor explained, “it’s all theater of the mind. So listeners are bringing their own history, their own hopes, their own creativity, to the story.
“No theory is wrong until it is, and a lot of the ideas about what’s going on in Night Vale (or with Cecil) are probably plausible.”