Sunday, May 24, 2015

Welcome to a Podcast Phenom

In order to become an engaging serialized story, whether it is a novel, TV show, or anything, it must first be inventive and new. Tried, overused themes are quickly lost among other stories. Instead, a piece that is new has a chance to build a group of followers. To remain relevant over a longer period of time, though, it must continue to adapt but also stay true to its beginnings. I’m speaking broadly, of course, but this is exactly what happened to the podcasting phenom, Welcome to Night Vale.

To understand this show, first, you must understand podcasts, and they are difficult to understand unless you are already hooked on them. They truly can be sort of addicting. Beginning in the mid-2000s, the easiest way to understand them is as an on-demand form of information and entertainment. I’m sure most of you have heard of the captivating drama, Serial, which enthralled millions each week and has left listeners eagerly anticipating a second season. Ultra-trendy, these downloadable audio files are a viable replacement to talk radio. In fact, many shows on National Public Radio are already found on-demand in the podcast form. They are easy to make, inexpensive to share, and (usually) free of cost to access.

Because basically anyone can make one with cheap software and tools, they can be found on an incredible range of topics, sports, news, science, comedy, anything that interests you. Podcasts can be incredibly informative, or they can be a regular form of entertainment. I think committing to a podcast is one of the best ways to learn about a subject that you wanted to get into. And some of them, I look forward to as much as I do a weekly comic book or TV show. There are so many of them, though, that it is sometimes difficult to choose which ones are the best and to dedicate so much time to these shows.

Without going into specifics, it is equally difficult, or nearly impossible, to describe Welcome to Night Vale to people who have not listened to it. The best way I can describe its clever storytelling is in the same vein as Garrison Keillor’s long-running “News from Lake Wobegon” only in the soothingly sinister community of Night Vale. It is a “radio-drama” in every sense of the word, in that characters and places are instrumental to fleshing out the goings-on of the community.

The town of Night Vale is illuminated by the relaxing voice of Cecil Palmer, the local radio host. And while everything appears to be normal to him in the radio station, events are decidedly not normal to listeners. Eerie events and non-corporeal beings plague the town, but all the while there is a peaceful nature to the town. Even with all of the confounding and dangerous developments that take place, it is difficult to listen to each episode and not feel compelled to live there. That is the charm of the show.

A show like Welcome to Night Vale is successful for the reasons outlined above. It is unique and fresh, and constantly building on the established history of the town. Credit to the show’s creators, Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, for developing such an enjoyable and successful program. And it certainly is successful. Each episode is downloaded thousands of times. A novel is expected this upcoming fall. The team has added a live show which sells out as quickly as Justin Timberlake. I’ve been fortunate to see them live twice, and the fanbase is so positive that it is a treat to be a part of such a devoted group of people. There are many inside jokes that build from episode to episode. A new fantastic song is featured each time in an intriguing way. Numerous well-known guest stars, such as Mara Wilson and Wil Wheaton, have made voice appearances. All of this has contributed to its rise and success.

It is innovative in the fact that there is hardly anything like it. It is released bi-monthly, so the two weeks is plenty of time between episodes to get excited about what is to come. There have been some great story arcs where it becomes a trial to have to wait so long for the next installment. I have been up many nights at midnight, refreshing until the new episode came available. It is a fairly small time commitment (half an hour, twice a month) so anyone can really give it a try to see what all the hype is about. Please set aside some time to listen to it. (Some advice: It’s best at night.) Each episode closes with a proverb, and so I end with my own recommendation: Enjoy yourself… but never too much. And stay out of the dog park.

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