Welcome to Night Vale's podcast pilot episode begins simply enough — an announcement for the opening of a dog park, though dogs are not allowed, nor is anyone, and please don't pay attention to the hooded figures. Later, a commercial airliner disappears, then reappears in a gym, and Carlos the scientist with perfect hair discovers seismic shifts that leave everything perfectly untouched and a house that's not actually there — fellow scientists dare each other to knock on the door. Serene music plays as lights 100 feet above Arby's invite visitors from another world.
"I didn't want it to sound like any other podcasts I've listened to," says Welcome to Night Vale co-creator Joseph Fink. "Those podcasts exist — what's the point of doing it again?
Fink spent several months toying with ideas until he landed on the idea for a 20-minute news broadcast for a town "where every conspiracy theory is true and we just move on with our lives," he says. Welcome to Night Vale debuted in June 2012, and the twice-monthly podcast now regularly tops iTunes most-subscribed podcasts — currently it ranks above The Moth and NPR's Fresh Air.
Fink and co-creator Jeffery Cranor met via The Neo-Futurists theater company in New York. In 2010, Cranor wrote a two-minute play about time travel and asked Fink to work with him on a longer project. They met several times over the next several months, challenged one another with writing assignments, and premiered the two-person show What the Time Traveler Will Tell Us in 2011.
"It laid the groundwork for a two-person collaborative team," Cranor says. "Any art is even easier if you have someone working with you, and even easier if you really enjoy that person."
For Night Vale, Fink recruited fellow Neo-Futurist Cecil Baldwin — whose NPR-esque inflection gives Night Vale its curiously routine tone — to narrate.
The podcast exists somewhere between local news from "the little town that time forgot" in Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegon, Minn. and the commonplace oddities emerging from David Lynch's Twin Peaks, Wash. It's also a surreal and absurd tribute to innately weird small towns. There are segments for weather, announcements from the Sheriff's Secret Police and local news updates. The strangeness also bleeds into "word from our sponsors" segments (a recent episode ended with a chant of "Hulu!" that disintegrated into dead air over 10 seconds).
The creators and podcast team, including Baldwin, are taking Night Vale on the road — they'll present its new, nonpodcast episode "The Librarian" at the Civic Theatre March 11. The 60-70 minute live show features surprise guest actors and musicians. Baldwin, as usual, narrates the script. It follows the podcast's structure, with new segments, community calendar readings, traffic updates and whatever's going on at the city council. "We like to surprise people," Fink says. (The story's brief description: "A librarian escapes from the library, and Carlos is not adequately terrified.")
"We wanted to make something that doesn't condescend, doesn't reintroduce Night Vale to the fans," he says. "It's engaging and moving and a great story, but if you walked in off the street, or you're a friend of the person who loves the show, we wanted to make a fun experience of that. 'The Librarian' script kind of holds to that. That's the way we play with it — it's a theatrical experience, it's not a podcast."
Not only has Night Vale turned into a live theater show, there's a forthcoming book — it debuts in 2015. It also has a life of its own on the Internet, from its following on Tumblr to scores of fan fiction and art spinning off characters and stories from the show.
"That's just something common with fictional serials — people trying to sketch in on their own more of the world or be like, 'That part of the world seems interesting. I'm going to write something that focuses on it,'" Fink says. "It's really common but not something that's happened in podcasting."
"Once you make something and put it out for public consumption ... part of that project belongs to the public to interpret how they will and enjoy how they will," Cranor adds. "It is a real compliment to have groups of people discuss everything about it. It would be intrusive to tell the fans how to interpret our world."
Its Twitter account, @nightvaleradio, has nothing to do with the podcast. A March 6 update reads, "I know I sound like a broken record but tomorrow I'll sound like a misfiring engine and, next week, continuous loud television static."
"That's just something we both feed into," Cranor says, laughing. "We love Twitter as a venue for telling weird jokes. It's a great medium for that. ... Rather than use it to promote the podcast, it's a lot more fun for everyone involved to put weird jokes or little poetic phrases."
"Podcasting is just a stretch of time in which you put audio," Fink says. "It's still very young. One of the exciting things as an artist about podcasting is it's still young enough to have a chance to do something new, to push the medium somewhere it hasn't been."