:: all hail the glow cloud: presenting the fantastic as ordinary ::

In 2014, I began studying for a degree in Communication at the University of Technology Sydney. As part of my degree, along with my major (Information and Media) I’m also required to take a submajor (generally analogous to a minor). My submajor is in Media Studies. My final assignment for my first-year subject in my submajor was a research article on a subject of my choice. I opted to write my article about the podcast Welcome To Night Vale, focusing primarily on how what might be considered unusual or otherworldly in our world is seen as utterly normal in Night Vale.

‘A friendly desert community where the sun is hot, the moon is beautiful, and mysterious lights pass overhead while we all pretend to sleep. Welcome to Night Vale.’ (Commonplace Books 2012)

So begins the first episode of the podcast Welcome To Night Vale. Written by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor and produced by Commonplace Books, Welcome To Night Vale is structured as twice-monthly ‘community updates for the small desert town of Night Vale, featuring local weather, news, announcements from the Sheriff’s Secret Police, mysterious lights in the night sky, dark hooded figures with unknowable powers, and cultural events’ (Commonplace Books n.d.) that are broadcast by radio station Night Vale Community Radio. Since the June 2012 release of its first episode (Commonplace Books 2012), Welcome To Night Vale has become a cultural phenomenon that, at one point, displaced Radiolab and NPR’s This American Life as the most popular podcast on iTunes (Virtue 2014).

Night Vale, however, does not exist in the real world, and nor does Night Vale Community Radio. The town of Night Vale is entirely fictional, existing only in the imaginations of its writers, its vocal artists and its many fans.

If Night Vale and its residents are fictional, however, how does this explain Welcome To Night Vale’s popularity? Its popularity may lie in the podcast’s ‘presentation of what is ordinary’ (Hill 2013). Everything that occurs in Night Vale is presented as completely ordinary and even mundane, from the from the Dog Park that dogs and people are not allowed to visit (Commonplace Books 2012), to the librarians at the Night Vale Public Library that are depicted as ‘evil monsters who trap children in libraries and force them to read’ (Hill 2013), and even the resident angels who are all named Erika (Commonplace Books 2013). Night Vale Community Radio host Cecil Palmer even goes so far as to remind Night Vale residents that ‘you should not know anything about this. The structure of Heaven and the angelic organisational chart are privileged information known only to the City Council members on a need-to-know basis’ (Commonplace Books 2012). Welcome To Night Vale’s listeners are treated as if they are residents of the titular town, with the presence of an outsider known only as Carlos providing an insight into how Night Vale might be perceived by someone who is unfamiliar with the town and its many quirks.

For this research article I will be investigating message in the medium (McLuhan 2003) as it relates to Welcome To Night Vale, and by making use of content analysis have chosen to answer the following question:

How has the presentation of the fantastic as ordinary in Welcome To Night Vale contributed to its popularity?

The message in the medium

‘The effect of the medium is made strong and intense just because it is given another medium as “content”. The content of a movie is a novel or a play or an opera. The effect of the movie form is not related to its program content. The “content” of writing or print is speech, but the reader is almost entirely unaware either of print or of speech.’ (McLuhan 2003, p. 31).

The format or medium in which an idea is transmitted has an impact on its message. The medium of Welcome To Night Vale is sound, being a podcast, which together with its ‘presentation of what is ordinary’ (Hill 2013) may well have contributed to its popularity. A podcast is an audio or video file created for use on an iPod or other media player, enabling users to ‘view or listen to downloadable files wherever or whenever desired’ (Morris 2006, cited by Baker, Harrison, Thornton & Yates 2010, p. 7). The portability of Welcome To Night Vale means that its listeners are not limited to listening to it on the radio or their computer – any number of episodes can be downloaded onto a media player of any description, to be listened to (for example) during a morning or afternoon commute.

Another feature of Welcome To Night Vale is that beyond superficial details, only one main character has received an explicit canonical description – Carlos. Cranor and Fink ‘very intentionally leave off most physical description unless it’s for, like, a joke, like mentioning that someone has spider eyes or something’ (All Things Considered 2013). This, along with its medium of sound, also impacts on Welcome To Night Vale’s message. Listeners are able to decide for themselves what each character looks like, with Cranor and Fink answering the question ‘What does the character Cecil [or Kevin or Old Woman Josie or _____] look like?’ with ‘What do YOU think they look like?’ (Commonplace Books n.d.) Welcome To Night Vale fan fiction authors and fan artists use this deliberate lack of description in the podcast’s canon to their advantage. Cecil, for example, is often depicted in both fan fiction and fan art with tentacles tattooed on his body (Viria 2013; Burgie 2013) or with a third eye on his forehead (ohwhatamess 2013; Japhers 2013). A number of fan fiction writers have taken Cecil’s tattoos a step further, depicting Cecil as possessing actual tentacles:

‘The tentacles had been the strangest thing to get used to in their relationship – Cecil usually kept them tucked into his shirt (which did sort of make him look like a bipedal camel, but Carlos wasn’t going to say it) or, more preferably, snuggled under a tunic. Carlos had never dated anyone with tentacles before. Before Night Vale, Carlos hadn’t even seen anyone with tentacles before.’ (Anonymous 2013)

Queer characters and same-sex relationships are also depicted in the podcast. Cecil and Carlos are canonically queer and have been in a committed same-sex relationship since episode 32, ‘Yellow Helicopters’ (Commonplace Books 2013). Another character, Earl Harlan, is implied to be queer and may have been in a relationship with Cecil at one point (Commonplace Books 2013). Cecil and Carlos’ relationship features prominently in fan fiction, with more than half of the 4,196 fan works published on Archive of Our Own in the Welcome To Night Vale category tagged as ‘Carlos/Cecil Palmer’ (Archive of Our Own 2014).

Community radio as represented in Welcome To Night Vale

Community radio is different from other forms of broadcasting – it is ‘a non-profit service that is owned and managed by a particular community’ (Fraser & Restrepo-Estrada 2002, p. 70). One of its ‘principal functions’ is to ‘reflect and promote local identity, character and culture by focusing principally on local content’ (Fraser & Restrepo-Estrada 2002, p. 70). The radio station depicted in Welcome To Night Vale, Night Vale Community Radio, has as its primary role providing ‘community updates for the small desert town of Night Vale’ (Commonplace Books n.d.). These updates are in the form of local news, event and community calendar announcements, traffic, sports and weather reports, and occasionally exhortations for Night Vale’s citizens to support various causes. As with all things Night Vale, these updates are mostly unique to the show’s universe. For example, in episode 46, ‘Parade Day’, Cecil reports on the imminent Parade Day. His report takes the form of a thinly-veiled plea for the citizens of Night Vale to support teenage fugitive Tamika Flynn in her attempt at overthrowing Strexcorp Synernists Inc. (Commonplace Books 2014), one-time owners of Night Vale Community Radio. In episode 19A, ‘The Sandstorm’, a sandstorm has an adverse impact on traffic:

‘And now, traffic. Highway officials are warning all Night Vale residents to stay off the roads. The sandstorm is making travel nearly impossible. We are told that several cars have stalled near the southbound offramp at Exit 6 on Route 800. Traffic officers reported that each car screeched to a halt, and through the rushing sand they could see dozens of drivers and passengers running into the road, pairing off, and then fighting. They noted that each fighting pair seemed to be of the same build, gender, age, and were wearing the exact same thing. Also, unrelated to the sandstorm, all stop signs and traffic lights have been taken down for their bi-monthly polishing. They’ll be back from the cleaners on Tuesday, officials said.’ (Commonplace Books 2013)

The most unique part of Welcome To Night Vale, however, especially when compared to real-world radio, is the weather. Night Vale weather takes the form of songs that have been submitted to Commonplace Books for potential inclusion in each episode (Commonplace Books n.d.). What makes the weather in Night Vale particularly interesting is that while each episode’s weather is playing, Night Vale citizens ‘stand in awkward silence for a bit’ while they wait for it to finish (Commonplace Books 2014).

Another feature of community radio is that it serves to prepare those who are interested in radio broadcasting for careers in this field. It is ‘perhaps the most fundamental activity undertaken by community radio stations … there are many examples where community radio has prepared future broadcasters for professional radio careers’ (ElGhul-Bebawi 2005, p. 116). Night Vale Community Radio serves this role in Night Vale, providing education and hands-on experience in the world of radio broadcasting. Two of the podcast’s characters, Cecil and Dana, started out as interns at Night Vale Community Radio. The key difference between real-world community radio stations and Night Vale Community Radio is that interns at Night Vale’s radio station have a high mortality rate, which Cecil at the very least views as completely normal:

‘If you are related to Jerry Hartman, afternoon board operator at Night Vale Community Radio, I am sorry to inform you that he is probably dead or at least corporally absorbed into management permanently. Jerry and Chad the interns will both be missed, but we will surely see them in the Thanksgiving Day Dead Citizens Impersonation Contest, which this year will be in the employee lounge under the Night Vale Mall from 11am to 9:45pm. There will be a cash bar and two Twister boards.’ (Commonplace Books 2012)

Content Analysis of Welcome To Night Vale

Content analysis is a research technique used for ‘making replicable and valid inferences from texts (or other meaningful matter) to the contexts of their use’ (Krippendorff 2004, p. 18). It consists of three stages:

  1. Conceptualisation of the phenomenon
  2. Planning or research design
  3. Data collection and analysis (Riffe, Lacy & Fico 1998, p. 33

Welcome To Night Vale as a whole features a number of story and character arcs. For my content analysis I selected ten episodes of the podcast, with the aim of determining which arcs and characters featured most prominently in these episodes:

  1. 34. A Beautiful Dream
  2. 35. Lazy Day
  3. 36. Missing
  4. 37. The Auction
  5. 38. Orange Grove
  6. 39. The Woman from Italy
  7. 40. The Deft Bowman
  8. 41. WALK
  9. 42. Numbers
  10. 43. Visitor
I took down notes about the characters either featured or mentioned, along with the events taking place in each episode. Each episode was listened to three times to ensure I had not missed any important details.

I discovered that in these ten episodes, three story and character arcs featured most prominently:

  1. Megan Wallaby
  2. Tamika Flynn’s revolution
  3. Former intern Dana trapped in an alternate plane of existence

Megan Wallaby

Megan Wallaby is introduced in episode 18, ‘The Traveler’. She is the daughter of Tak and Herschel Wallaby, and is described in that episode as ‘an adult man’s detached hand’ (Commonplace Books 2013). Episode 34, ‘A Beautiful Dream’, expands on this description:

‘Five pudgy fingers extend from the stump of a wrist within a metal-banded wristwatch. The palm is pink and healthy, and the back of the hand is covered in thick, dark hairs. The hand wears a silver pinky ring inscribed with Cyrillic. This must be Megan Wallaby.’ (Commonplace Books 2013)

‘A Beautiful Dream’ focuses on the acquisition of a computer by Night Vale Elementary School, ‘the first computer purchased by the Night Vale School System since The Event in 1986, after which all computing machines were forbidden’ (Commonplace Books 2013), in order to allow Megan to communicate with her teachers and classmates. By the end of the episode the computer is deactivated after it takes over everything electrical located within Night Vale, once more leaving Megan without a means of communication.

Megan’s character arc concludes in episode 40, ‘The Deft Bowman’. In this episode, Megan finally receives a full-body transplant, in the form of ‘an enormous bald-headed man, with some faded flower tattoos, and a left arm that stopped in a rough stump just above his wrist’ (Commonplace Books 2014). Cecil ends the episode by saying that Megan ‘is going to enjoy the childhood she feels she has missed out on. We won’t mind if she smashes through a few walls, or crushes a few rib cages in hugs. If this is what she wants, we will support her, because she is beautiful … Megan’s truth…is. She is finally happy. Happy in the body she was born without’ (Commonplace Books 2014).

Tamika Flynn’s revolution

We are first introduced to Tamika Flynn in episode 28, ‘Summer Reading Program’. She is part of a group of children who are imprisoned in the Night Vale Public Library by the town’s librarians, and is described near the end of this episode as having ‘her mouth clenched in a blood-crusted snarl, and carrying the severed head of a librarian in one hand, and a gore-streaked sticker chart in the other’ (Commonplace Books 2013). In episode 35, ‘Lazy Day’, Tamika becomes the head of an ‘organised militia’ comprised of the children who survived the events of episode 28, and wears ‘the detached hand of a Librarian around her neck as a warning to any who would dare face her that she has already defeated the most fearsome creature imaginable’ (Commonplace Books 2013).

At the beginning of episode 36, ‘Missing’, Tamika is reported by new station owner Strexcorp as having gone missing, with Cecil reading out a Missing Child Report on-air (Commonplace Books 2013). She is later spotted ‘standing atop the pedestal of one of this town’s most historical works of art: the 138 year-old bronze statue of actor Lee Marvin, just outside the Night Vale Post Office’, telling the gathered crowd before her that she had not gone missing at all, and that they should ‘stop looking for her’ (Commonplace Books 2013). Three episodes later, during ‘The Woman from Italy’, Tamika and her militia are spotted ‘sabotaging any business owned by Strexcorp – which is getting to be most of them at this point’ (Commonplace Books 2014). This particular arc is one of the longest-running in the podcast, finally concluding during episode 49B, ‘OId Oak Doors Part B’, with Tamika leading her militia in chasing out Strexcorp from their headquarters by ‘slingshotting copies of Stephen Covey’s best selling self-help book, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People’ (Commonplace Books 2014).

Former intern Dana trapped in an alternate plane of existence

Dana is a former intern of Night Vale Community Radio, first introduced in episode 19A. She becomes trapped in the town’s dog park during episode 20, ‘Poetry Week’ (Commonplace Books 2013), and subsequently spends the next thirty episodes trapped in first the dog park and later a desert located in an alternate plane of existence that bears a striking resemblance to the desert that surrounds Night Vale (Commonplace Books 2014). She manages to break into Cecil’s broadcast during episode 41, ‘WALK’, wanting to tell him ‘something important’ (Commonplace Books 2014), but never manages to catch his attention. During her interruptions of the broadcast, she describes the desert that she is trapped in, including a mountain with a blinking light located at its top:

‘I found a door out in the desert, but it was chained shut on the other side. From behind it, I thought I smelled that particular Night Vale smell – the smell of home, like sour peaches and linen. Like freshly-cut wood and burnt almonds. I knocked and knocked, hoping someone from back there would hear it and let me through, but it never opened. I wasn’t even sure which side was supposed to open. I knocked on both sides, but…nothing. I kept walking and found myself back at the mountain. There is a blinking light up on the mountain. And so there is nothing else for it. It is time for me to climb. The face of the mountain is steep, and lined with sharp ridges and crumbling ledges. This will not be easy. I wonder if anything ever will be?’ (Commonplace Books 2014)

In the two and a half years since Welcome To Night Vale’s debut, it has become a cultural phenomenon. Even though Night Vale is not a real place, it is nevertheless beloved by its many fans – fans who have given Night Vale Community Radio, the town of Night Vale and its residents a life outside of the podcast through their writing of fan fiction and creation of fan art. It is spooky, strange and even a little otherworldly – and I would venture to say that its creators, voice artists and fans like it that way.


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