A long-form love affair
Welcome to Night Vale' and other serialized podcasts keep listeners tuning in again and again
For one night only, Atlanta will be transformed into a small desert community peopled with monstrous librarians, levitating cats, and all-powerful glow clouds. The improbably popular podcast "Welcome to Night Vale," which can be compared to Garrison Keillor's "News from Lake Wobegon" by way of H.P. Lovecraft, brings its live show to Atlanta's Symphony Hall.
Last year "Welcome to Night Vale" offered a wildly entertaining, sold-out performance at the Rialto, anchored by the virtuoso vocals of Cecil Baldwin, who alternates between deadpan comedy and sinister insinuation as the town's community radio host. This year's show presents a new script that can be expected to draw on the podcast's quirky mythology and running jokes, while confining itself to a single story. The new show promises surprise guests to join Baldwin, and will feature music from Disparition, composers of the moody soundtrack for "Night Vale."
Meanwhile, on the Internet, "Night Vale" is not only a leading show in an overall podcasting boom, it's one of several that experiment with long-form serialization. Podcasts that build on rich continuity and narrative momentum give listeners even more reasons to be obsessed.
Serialized audio shows are nothing new. Before World War II, radio listeners nationwide tuned in for their favorite soap operas or cliffhanger adventures. Modern podcasts often apply old-school radio formats to a new technological platform. For example, the comedy podcast "Thrilling Adventure Hour" began as a live, monthly version of an "old-timey" radio show in 2005 before releasing recordings as a weekly podcast in 2011.
After its debut in 2012 on iTunes, "Welcome to Night Vale" creators Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor spent its first year presenting essentially self-contained stories with light continuity and subplots that came to a head with its first anniversary episode.
In becoming a grassroots hit with huge iTunes popularity, "Night Vale" has spent its second year exploring a much more complex narrative. Storylines involved an ominous corporation taking over the town of Night Vale, a radio station intern lost in another dimension, and a mayoral race between "the Faceless Old Woman Who Secretly Lives in Your Home and Hiram McDaniel, who is literally a five-headed dragon." As it reached a huge, action-packed climax last summer, "Night Vale" took a fascinating, learn-by-doing approach to tell a sprawling narrative from the limited point of view of a radio show, with occasional guests, campaign ads, and unearthly voice mail messages.
"Night Vale" taps into the deep roots that the horror and suspense genres have in radio. Other, lower-profile shows are taking advantage of radio's ability to fire the listener's imagination, like the well-produced zombie outbreak show "We're Alive: A Story of Survival" (the fourth season of which is currently in progress).
Despite its ardent fandom, "Night Vale" hasn't achieved the mainstream success of "Serial," a spinoff series of "This American Life." Journalist Sarah Koenig focused on the 1999 murder of high school student Hae Min Lee and the subsequent conviction of her ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed. The 12 episodes of "Serial" became appointment listening, as fans increasingly shared Koenig's fascination with the case's evidence, legal minutiae, and competing whodunit theories. In an interview with Mother Jones, "This America Life's" Ira Glass compared "Serial" to the unfolding storylines of the Netflix original series "House of Cards," except that, "you can enjoy it while you're driving."
"Serial" didn't offer a conclusive ending comparable to the HBO documentary miniseries "The Jinx," which helped in the arrest of an admitted killer. It seems possible that "Serial" influenced the decision of the Maryland Court of Special Appeals to approve Syed's application for leave of appeal and challenge his murder conviction. Koenig plans a second season, but the topic has yet to be announced and may not even involve another crime.
Speaking of "This American Life," monologist Mike Daisey, who had to apologize on-air for fabrications on the show's controversial Steve Jobs piece, experimented with long-form fiction podcasting with "All the Faces of the Moon." Over 29 nights in 2013 coinciding with a lunar cycle, Daisey delivered a series of live, original monologues totaling 44 hours, which created a sprawling novel of contemporary New York and magical beings. "All the Faces of the Moon" offers a dense, intricate combination of social commentary, personal narrative and Neil Gaiman-esque fantasy, although I confess I found it a bit of a slog after 20 episodes.
Serialization can send established podcasters in ambitious new directions. "The Adventure Zone" makes an intriguing spinoff of "My Brother, My Brother and Me," a comedic advice show from Justin, Travis, and Griffin McElroy. Often taking listener questions and springboarding to hilarious riffs, the show has been pleasingly consistent over five years and almost 250 episodes, but also a bit repetitive.
"The Adventure Zone" shares the comedic voice of "My Brother, My Brother, and Me," but shakes things up by recording the brothers and their father Clint embarking on an extended series of "Dungeons and Dragons" campaigns. The narrative unfolds like an ongoing, biweekly parody of sword-and-sorcery fantasy tropes with surprisingly engrossing action scenes, as well as frameworks for improvised, in-character humor. You'll tune in for the laughs, but stay to see where the Dungeon Master sends the adventurers.
History provides rich material for long-form podcasts, particularly Dan Carlin's "Hardcore History" and Mike Duncan's "Revolutions." Both focus on major world events over multiple hours of episodes, with the respective hosts having opposite personas. Carlin brings an intense, urgent delivery to a show that frequently explores military history in close-up detail. His ongoing series on World War I, "Blueprint for Armageddon," has published in five parts totaling 18 hours since October 2013, and has yet to finish.
In "Revolutions," Duncan takes a more dryly witty overview of modern history's times of political upheaval, with his current cycle on the French Revolution spanning 30 chapters and 15 parts (and currently on the brink of the Reign of Terror). Rather than oversimplify huge events, both shows do justice to the complexity of history while generating suspense in the rush to, say, the storming of the Bastille or the world-shaking battles of August 1914. Like "Serial," they're the kind of deep dives that make you ever hungrier for more details.
Podcasts have the potential to access captive audiences — especially drivers. Atlantans, for instance, have an average commute time of roughly 30 minutes one way, which can easily add up to hundreds of hours of in-car listening each year. Commuting listeners have the ability — and, increasingly, the appetite — to absorb a huge amount of podcast content. Confining shows to an hour or two seems like a missed opportunity, like sticking to short stories when a novel readership is available.
So, will podcasting formats lead to longer, richer and more complex stories, like the audio answer to cable dramas? Will long-form podcasts just be a flash in the pan? Turn to iTunes or your preferred podcast format to find out any day now.