A primer on New York podcast Welcome to Night Vale
We talk to Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, the two masterminds behind the überpopular show, ahead of their NYC appearances.
Tue Oct 8 2013
Illustration: Steve Cup
That horrific thing crawling its way up the podcast charts? It’s Welcome to Night Vale, a fictional community-radio program that’s as hilarious as it is macabre. It’s the unholy brainchild of Brooklynites Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, who met through experimental theater troupe the New York Neo-Futurists. After collaborating in 2011 on a play called What the Time Traveler Will Tell Us, the two joined forces once more to cowrite Night Vale, in which a small-town radio announcer (voiced by fellow Neo-Futurist Cecil Baldwin) shares local news.
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The thing about this town is that the newly opened dog park is crawling with malevolent hooded figures, the high school’s star quarterback grows an extra head over the summer, and a faceless old woman lives in your house. Yes, your house. Thanks to a groundswell of Internet buzz, Night Vale became the No. 1 most-downloaded podcast on the iTunes Store earlier this year. Currently it’s at No. 2, just below NPR juggernaut This American Life.
With a few live Night Vale appearances coming to NYC this week (Thursday, October 10 at Roulette and Friday, October 11 at New York Comic Con), we talked to Fink and Cranor about the origins of the show, their influences and that mysterious blinking light up on the mountain.
Time Out New York: How did the idea for the show originally come about?
Joseph Fink: It started about two years ago. I wanted to do a podcast, because I’m very much into them. But I didn’t want it to sound like any of the podcasts I was already listening to, which are mostly stand-up comedians talking to each other about being stand-up comedians. So then I came out with this idea—a town where every conspiracy theory is true, and that’s just taken for granted, and we move on with life from there. And I wanted to do the podcast with Jeffrey, because I like working with Jeffrey.
Time Out New York: What’s the writing process like for a typical episode?
Joseph Fink: At first, the scripts were a bit more collaborative; half of each script was Jeffrey’s stuff, and half was my stuff. At this point, we generally take turns writing. But we do a lot of: “Hey, so I had this thought that in two months we could do this,” and the other person will be like, “Cool, I’ll keep that in mind.” And we edit each other’s scripts. So when I get a script from Jeffrey and he’s introduced some new plot element, we don’t even really have to talk about it. When I write my next script, that’s just [something] I can start building on.
Jeffrey Cranor: Yeah, like the two most recent episodes, “Dana” and “The Blinking Light Up on the Mountain.” We had both, separately of each other, written scripts that involved a blinking light up on a mountain. So we were like, Of course this had to match up.
Time Out New York: The world of Night Vale seems to expand a little bit with every episode. Is continuity something you guys think about a lot?
Joseph Fink: The first time Jeffrey and I sat down to talk about the show, I said, “I feel like we can do anything with this show—like, we can get as weird as we want—as long as we have very strict continuity.” Because then you’re building a world, and it’s a world that people can believe in. It doesn’t matter how weird that world is and what the rules are, as long as they’re consistent. I think it’s helped people feel more at home, because it feels like a real place, even if the rules make no sense.
Time Out New York: How did you decide on Cecil Baldwin for the voice of the announcer? His delivery is such a big part of the show.
Joseph Fink: I’d seen him for years with the New York Neo-Futurists, so I was just aware of him. He did a play about the fact that he has this great voiceover voice, but he never gets any voiceover work. And I thought, Yeah, I’ll find some use for that voice. And Cecil has turned out to be much more than just a voice, because we don’t direct him at all. We just send him the scripts and he sends us back recordings. His interpretation has always been entirely his own.
Jeffrey Cranor: We get very spoiled with him, because other guest voices come on the show and we’ll say, “What’s your direction here?” I just thought voice people knew how to do things.
Joseph Fink: “We just thought we’d give you a script, and you’d give us back a really good performance.”
Time Out New York: Where does Cecil record?
Joseph Fink: In his apartment in Harlem, using a $60 USB mike, when his neighbors aren’t yelling at each other. And it’s edited in my apartment, on free audio-editing software. We’re super high-tech here at Night Vale.
Jeffrey Cranor: Yes, crazy high-tech.
Time Out New York: When you first started doing the show, did you have any idea it would become as huge as it was?
Jeffrey Cranor: I think we always knew it was good, and that we liked it. And that’s not to say that we knew it was gonna be as successful as it was. I think our hope was that we would just continue to grow and build a bigger audience base. We did a live show in June upstairs at Webster Hall, right around the time we just started getting found on Tumblr. It was my first time watching strangers react to the show, and it was really neat to see people laugh and cringe along.
Time Out New York: What are some of your inspirations for the tone of Night Vale?
Joseph Fink: There’s the whole tradition of the American weird small town—The Twilight Zone and Twin Peaks. I’m not sure it's something that I think about much, but it’s almost its own genre now. The influences I think about are in terms of the language more than the subject matter [of Night Vale]. The writer Deb Olin Unferth and her book, Vacation, had a huge influence on Night Vale’s language and style. Just the way she writes—it’s a very dreamlike, strange style. And the playwright Will Eno is another one that’s a big influence, languagewise.
Jeffrey Cranor: In terms of horror imagery, I grew up obsessed with Stephen King. Also, David Lynch and Twin Peaks. And performance poetry had been a big influence for me as well. It’s so much about language and rhythm. In our show, we use a lot of complex, strange metaphors. For me, how words sound is just as important as what they say.
Joseph Fink: What makes Night Vale Night Vale way more than the subject matter is the language. Between the two of us, we’ve developed a very distinctive language style.
Time Out New York: Could you ever see Night Vale existing in another form aside from radio?
Joseph Fink: It’s all kind of vague plans, but another form is basically certain at this point. It’s just a matter of figuring out what that other form will be, and how to do it.
Jeffrey Cranor: Yeah, thinking about the universe of Night Vale and how to place it in these other mediums. But the podcast is what makes the show the show.
Joseph Fink: The podcast will always be our main focus, and anything else will be in addition to that. But who knows? Life is weird.
Time Out New York: The show has a huge following online, with lots of fan art in particular. Have you purposely steered clear of describing certain people and things, in order to leave it up to people’s imaginations?
Jeffrey Cranor: The thing about radio that’s so fantastic is that it’s a theater of the mind. You can use metaphor and vague imagery and be a little bit aloof, and people’s minds fill in the blanks. We’ve never felt like we needed to describe very much. Even when we listen to the episodes ourselves we realize, Oh my gosh, I have a very vivid, dreamlike image of what all of this is, and it’s my own. So I don’t need Joseph to spell out for me what, you know, Carlos [the scientist] looks like.
Joseph Fink: In general as a writer, I just am not very interested in physical descriptions. People are constantly e-mailing us being like, “What do you think this character looks like?” And the answer is, I don’t. I don’t have an image of Carlos, I don’t have an image of Cecil. I think about the characters entirely in terms of what they do and what they say and who they are. To me, what they might look like is irrelevant.
Jeffrey Cranor: I agree with everything that Joseph just said. You can quote us as both of us saying that simultaneously. I was lip-synching it the whole time while he was saying it.
See a live episode Thursday, October 10 at Roulette (7:30pm and 10pm; sold out), or catch Fink and Cranor discussing “The Art of Weird Podcasting” at New York Comic Con Friday, October 11 (1:45–2:45pm; Jacob K. Javits Convention Center, 1A15).
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Editor: Marley Lynch (@marleyasinbob)