A friendly desert community, where the sun is still hot, the moon is still beautiful, and mysterious lights still pass overhead while we all pretend to sleep. Welcome…to Night Vale.” The baritone voice of Cecil Gershwin Palmer (played by actor Cecil Baldwin) delivers this ominous intro to an early episode of the Welcome to Night Vale podcast.
The brainchild of New York–based writer Joseph Fink and stage actor Jeffrey Cranor, the show began in 2012 as an exercise in serial storytelling: short, twice-monthly reports from a desert town stricken by unexplained phenomena, from apparitions to hooded figures who hang out in the dog park after dark. Since its debut, Fink and Cranor expanded the brand into an umbrella network of seven podcasts, published four books, and launched multiple world tours—the latest of which arrives at the Neptune Theatre this month.
Welcome to Night Vale is one of many major touring podcasts to visit Seattle this year, including political talk show Pod Save America and NPR’s How I Built This. What was once thought of as an isolated medium of DIY home recording studios now embraces live shows as a viable source for audience development.
“You might have a million listeners, but who’s to say how many are more than peripherally engaged?” says Hank Green, podcaster and cofounder of the PodCon convention, debuting in Seattle on December 9. “A live show, something that’s not infinitely replicable—people understand that has value.” Touring presents an opportunity to interact with the most engaged base: fans willing to spend money on tickets for Welcome to Night Vale, a podcast they otherwise get for free. These shows also offer a revenue stream outside of traditional advertising. According to a report from the Interactive Advertising Bureau, ad sales should top $220 million in 2017, making tours less a necessity and more an opportunity to expand reach. Welcome to Night Vale does not currently run ads, so its ticket and merchandise sales help generate dollars usually driven by plugs for, say, Blue Apron.
What these live acts actually look like depends entirely on the podcast. Many talking-head shows, like the aforementioned Pod Save America and the uber popular comedy advice show My Brother, My Brother, and Me, simply record their shows in front of an audience similar to how they would in the studio. The McElroy brothers in particular—creators of MBMBAM and cofounders of PodCon—grew a rabid cult fan base and branched into multiple podcasts and a TV program, due in part to the success of their live brand.
Welcome to Night Vale lends itself to a live show in a different way, since the podcast—20- to 30-minute episodes comprised mostly of Cecil Baldwin reading from a script—began as an extension of an older live tradition, says cocreator Cranor. “It came from the idea of a campfire story, a monologue, just a single person with a microphone saying, ‘I have a story to tell you.’ ” During Night Vale’s early days, the team would actually put on short readings in the back rooms of Manhattan bars for friends. While the live audience has since grown considerably, the setup remains pretty much the same: voice actors, including Baldwin, in front of a mic telling a story written by Cranor and Fink for the tour, joined by musicians who perform the fictitious radio show’s weather forecast.
“Usually we all record separately in our homes,” says voice actor Symphony Sanders, who plays the role of precocious 17-year-old Night Vale resident Tamika Flynn. She began touring in 2014 and soon found herself on two-month stints with a skeleton cast and crew of around eight. “It’s a much more dynamic performance live. We get to play off each other. And listeners don’t realize how small I am!”
Cranor used to see tours through in their entirety—memories of cheap van rentals and motels that echo the first act of so many touring musicians’ stories—but now only occasionally hits the road, satisfied with writing scripts and seeing to Night Vale Presents’ various projects, including the new novel It Devours!, a mystery set in the eerie town. But he still thinks it’s the live shows that establish the most direct connection to fans. “To say ‘I’ve paid you this amount of money and you’ve made this art for me’… I’ve always preferred that over advertising.”