Hail the Glow Cloud: "Welcome to Night Vale" and the Podcasting Revolution
December 11, 2013
Imagine a place where all conspiracy theories are true. Where aliens, angels, and Lovecraftian horrors mingle with the citizenry; where a glowing sentient cloud is a member of the school board. Now, imagine that place has a community radio station. You've just entered the small desert town of Night Vale.
Last summer, the podcast Welcome to Night Vale reached critical Internet mass and became the most downloaded podcast on iTunes. I maintain that Welcome to Night Vale could only have happened via the medium of podcasting. Imagine the makers of WTNV pitching the concept to a group of media execs:
"OK, so there's this public radio station in a small town somewhere in the Southwest. All sorts of weird things happen there, but that's just everyday life to its residents. It's sort of like A Prairie Home Companion meets The X-Files. Oh, and the main character is a radio host named Cecil, who has a major crush on a scientist with incredible hair named Carlos. And wait, every episode will feature the weather report, which will have nothing to do with the actual weather. Instead, we will feature music by various indie groups. Whaddayathink?"
*crickets chirping, staring at the floor, shuffling feet, not making eye contact* "Ummm...we'll call you. NEXT!"
Thankfully, the good folks at Commonplace Books didn't have to get permission from the gatekeepers of traditional media to realize their vision of WTNV. They were able to go directly to the public and let consumers decide what they wanted. The early adopters shared their love of WTNV via social media, fan art, and fan fiction. Now, legions of fans eagerly await their bimonthly download to catch up with Cecil, Carlos, the Sherriff's Secret Police, the Hooded Figures, and the hated STEVE CARLSBERG. If you want to find out if someone is a WTNV fan, just say "HAIL THE GLOW CLOUD." If they smile and nod, you know you've found another Night Valer.
Do you want to make a podcast? All you need is a computer, microphone, and sound editing software. Just record, edit, and post. For the really bare bones approach, simply download the Soundcloud app to your smart phone and use your phone as your studio. If people like what you're doing, they will listen and they will share their love of your podcast via social media and do your publicity for you.
That's the beauty of podcasting. The democratizing effect of podcasting means we are free to choose from offerings that would probably never have found a home in traditional media. Consider comedian Paul Gilmartin's The Mental Illness Happy Hour, an interview show about living with mental illness that manages to be equal parts enlightening, heart-wrenching, uplifting, and hilarious. I've found myself laughing through tears during more than one episode. Again, I imagine the pitch:
"So, I'm a comedian best known for a show where we made 'Paul Reuben Sandwiches' between segments of the movie Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But wait...I'm also a recovering alcoholic living with depression. I'm going to record my friends, colleagues, and listeners while they spill their guts about their mental health problems, addictions, and traumatic life events. It will be uncensored, so the language will probably get pretty raw sometimes. And there will be jokes! Whaddayathink?"
*uncomfortable silence, squirming, fidgeting* "Are you sure you don't want to do another cooking show? We could probably do that. Anyway, we'll call you. NEXT!"
Major media players have discovered the potential of the podcast, and now big hitters like National Public Radio and the news networks have joined the fray. Nearly every comedian and improv group has a podcast. Chris Hardwick has parlayed his Nerdist podcast into a multimedia empire. But even though big media have entered the arena, anybody with a good idea and a computer can compete and rise to the top, as WTNV shows. Maybe you could be the next podcast star...