Jeffrey Cranor remembers the first reactions to the podcast that he and a friend created in 2012. They collaborated on scripts that ran on Facebook and Twitter under the title Welcome to Night Vale. When they posted the inaugural episode, they got about 50 downloads the first couple of weeks it was up, “which meant that we had 50 friends,” Cranor recalls.
The traffic picked up over the next few weeks. They were looking at a surprise success, but neither Cranor nor his co-creator Joseph Fink had any thought of quitting their day jobs.
Welcome to Night Vale continued to gather attention, averaging about 1,000 downloads a month as Cranor and Fink wrote episodes that told the story of a small desert town whose radio broadcasts include community updates, local weather, announcements from the Sheriff’s Secret Police and dark-hooded figures with unknowable powers. Its tagline was “Turn on your radio and hide.”
A year after the first posting, Cranor was hoping for 100,000 downloads. The program received 140,000. Then, in the 13th month, as Cranor recalls, “Something happened.”
Cranor is 42. He and his wife, choreographer Jillian Sweeney, moved to Saugerties a couple of years ago. He identifies primarily as a writer. He was born in Texas and studied Journalism at Texas A & M. After gigs at a few weeklies, he realized that it wasn’t journalism that he loved so much as writing for theater.
When the couple moved to Brooklyn, he became involved with the New York Neo-Futurists in their long-running show, The Infinite Wrench. Members of the company would write, perform, produce and direct short-short plays. They’d be put on a one-hour timer. Every week, Cranor said, the group would create new works and throw the previous week’s efforts out the window.
“It was always changing; we were writing for the now, for the moment. It really changed the way I looked at writing: It made it a lot more immediate, made the relation between actor and audience active rather than passive. It made me think about, ‘How do you connect? How do you tell a true story to an audience that’s hungry for a story better than their own lives?’” Ultimately, Welcome to Night Vale was his first attempt to answer those questions.
Podcasts were just looming on the horizon in 2011. Both men were enthralled by the format’s possibilities, even though early podcasts weren’t much more than improvised chat shows between friends. “You kind of just got to know them; it was a feeling I had growing up: listening to the radio, how close I felt to the radio host, how connected I felt to their voices…. So, we said, ‘We should make a podcast.’”
There were no fiction podcasts to speak of at the time, he said. Neither man felt capable of doing NPR-style journalism nor improvised comedy that was becoming common, so they decided to play to their strengths: “Both of us were writers. We made and told stories and we were into theater.”
That “something” that happened in the 13th month of the show? “We had 2.5 million downloads. And in the 14th month alone, we had 8.6 million. It was really weird.”
Weird, and gratifying, even shocking. Cranor said that he believes the program caught fire on Tumblr, and for whatever reasons, Welcome to Night Vale has been downloaded roughly 180 million times since it was first posted. The program has been performed on more than 200 stages in 35 states in 16 countries over the past three years. A print version of the program debuted at #4 on The New York Times best-seller list.
Cranor has long since left his day job. What started off as something of a lark has become a juggernaut of creative energy.
The success of Welcome to Night Vale culminated in the Night Vale Presents network last year. Its aim is to encourage independent podcasting from writers and artists who haven’t worked in the format before. To that end, Night Vale Presents has offered fictional podcasts by other artists including Alice Isn’t Dead and The Orbiting Human Circus (of the Air). Each debuted in the Apple Podcasts Top 10.
Cranor’s latest hit podcast, co-written with Janina Matthewson, is called Within the Wires, and it is described as “found audio from an alternate universe.” Using the conceit of a recorded museum tour, the second season, titled “Museum Audio Tours,” spins an allusive tale of a mysterious, sci-fi-flavored world that explores the complex relationship between the tour’s narrator and a renowned artist with whom the narrator has had a relationship.
Cranor describes this season as “a bit esoteric,” in that it requires the audience to visualize and make decisions about artworks that they have no idea about. It’s also playful, inventive and immersive – a dramatic example of how Cranor and his co-conspirators continue to blend writing and performing and acting into this still-evolving world of podcasting.
Within the Wires’ “Museum Audio Tours” season premieres on Tuesday, September 5, with new episodes every two weeks through January 9. The season will be available for free on Apple Podcasts, RadioPublic and wherever listeners can access podcasts. Visit www.nightvalepresents.com for links to additional podcasts.