The creators of the hugely successful Welcome to Night Vale show return to Ireland for a live event, writes Marjorie Brennan.
When Joseph Fink and his writing partner Jeffrey Cranor set out to make a podcast in 2011, their expectations were low but their ambitions even lower.
“We were writing a play together and we both really liked podcasts. We would start our writing meetings by talking about podcasts we were listening to,” says the New York-based Fink. “When we finished the play, I wanted to keep working with him and it made sense to make a podcast. It wasn’t about business potential or even audience potential. Our goal at the beginning was just that anyone who wasn’t a friend or family member would listen to it.”
Fink and Cranor were surprised when their podcast Welcome to Night Vale, which follows the creepy goings on in a small desert town, got 150,000 downloads in its first year. Then social networking site Tumblr entered the frame.
“I genuinely did not know what Tumblr was. I had heard the name but I didn’t know what it was or what it did,” says Fink.
Once fans started to spread the word on the site, the popularity of Welcome to Night Vale exploded.
“Tumblr found us and in the first month of our second year, just in that month, we had 2.1 million downloads. The second month, we had 8.3 million downloads. It was very much an overnight thing. I wouldn’t have known how to advertise on Tumblr if I wanted to.”
Night Vale is a scripted show that takes the form of a community radio bulletin hosted by a mysterious character called Cecil. It has now become one of the most downloaded podcasts in the world. While factual and true-crime shows such as Serial are often seen as trailblazers of the form, Night Vale was ahead of such shows in terms of success and, as a fictional podcast, was also unusual.
According to Fink, the podcast’s emphasis on storytelling came from the writers’ background in theatre.
“We were working in the downtown New York theatre scene, and a lot of the feel of Night Vale came from the work being done there. It is often done very simply because nobody has any money. So there’s no big sets or costumes and a lot of it is how gripping can you make a story when it is just a person standing on stage talking to you. That was what I wanted Night Vale to reflect — how interesting can you make a story when it is just a person talking to you, without sound effects or even dialogue.”
In the wake of the huge success of the podcast, it was obvious that fans had an appetite for more related content, so Fink and Cranor decided to take the show on the road. While live podcast shows draw big audiences now, when the Night Vale performances began five years ago, it was a more unusual venture.
“We all came out of theatre so we knew how to perform and put on a live show so it made a lot of sense for us. A podcast is free so in order to make money from it, you have to figure something else out. But while we knew how to put on a show, what we didn’t know how to do was tour. Those first couple of years was a lot of hard learning by experience on how touring works.”
The latest Night Vale-inspired live show, A Spy in the Desert, has toured all over the US and hits Dublin tomorrow. It is the fifth outing for a Night Vale live show in the capital; Fink says the podcast is particularly appreciated by Irish fans.
Fink describes A Spy in the Desert as a show about secrets — their value and why we keep them. He says it is a standalone performance and will also appeal to people who haven’t listened to Night Vale.
The increasing popularity of podcasts has been facilitated by technological advances such as streaming and smartphones. Fink says it also a more inventive and flexible format than radio.
“With podcasting, you can do all sorts of things you can’t do on radio. We’ve done things like release two different episodes which tell the story from two different points of view. We’ve released an episode that has three different endings depending on how you download it. All of this goes back to storytelling and I think as long as there are humans, there is going to be a strong storytelling tradition in one form or another.”
Podcasts have also been increasingly mined as a source of content for film and television. A TV adaptation of Welcome to Night Vale is currently in development with Sony Pictures Television and FX, although Fink isn’t holding his breath.
“It sounds exciting from the outside but on the inside, television just moves so slowly. Going from podcasting where we are sometimes writing things two weeks before they are
released, it is strange in TV, where even if things are going well, it takes three to five years before anything happens,” he says.
As for the growing army of podcasters trying to stand out in an increasingly crowded field, Fink has some sage advice.
“I don’t think there is a way to force an audience. Welcome to Night Vale found an audience organically. The key is the key to any art, which is make something you enjoy because then, in the worst case, even if you don’t find an audience, you are making something you are proud of. Make sure you are working with people you like. Be supportive of other people. The more you are part of an artistic community, the better off you are, even if what you are working on doesn’t find an audience maybe the next thing will because of this community you’ve formed around you.”
A Spy in the Desert, Vicar St, Dublin, tomorrow, Jan 30, 7.30pm