Night Vale, Neverwhere and the Magic of Audio Theatre

Hello listeners. Except, of course, you are not listeners but readers, since I work within the written medium. The medium of sound, however, has recently swung into my focus and imagination.

Cards on the table, I’ve been plugging into Welcome to Night Vale, a podcast written by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor detailing, in the style of a perfectly believable community radio station, the hijinks of a completely unbelievable town. Night Vale is an idyllic little community in the middle of the arid desert, occasionally graced by mysterious glowing clouds that drop small animals on everyone, black angels that help little old ladies change light bulbs and strange hooded figures making use of the dog park which the townsfolk are advised not to enter. There is also a hovering cat suspended in space in the men’s bathroom of the radio station that the voice of Night Vale, Cecil, is rather fond of.

It’s been likened to The Twilight Zone for the ears, bizarre (and funny) stories strung together by the running narratives of the townspeople and the gentle, amiable news broadcast style delivered to us in Cecil’s mellow voice. There’s a mystical sense of magical realism and it’s utterly odd in the most engaging of ways. Roll with it, don’t ask too many questions, suspend your disbelief and do not talk to the angels, they do not exist and only tell lies.

With Night Vale’s explosive popularity, musings on the audio medium have begun to waltz in my mind. The radio drama seems like a genre based in another age, belonging to an era of gathering around the wireless with the family, and everyone has bob haircuts and Dad’s smoking a pipe. When radio was the most prominent technology, of course audio theatre was running wild, popularity booming from the 1920s to the late 1950s. Even when television was wowing everyone with the fact that it existed, the radio play genre was still going strong.

We need not look further than War of the Worlds to note the power of audio theatre, with the famous case of H.G. Wells’ alien invasion story quite literally capturing the imaginations of a nation. A lot of the radio play was presented, much like Night Vale, in news bulletin style to provide a sense of realism… which worked so well that people flew into a panic and (reportedly) believed that aliens were actually attacking the world. It was a rather cruel trick to pull in the pre-war tension, but it was clever nonetheless. I doubt anyone has stumbled across Night Vale and thought it was real (lord help them), but it raises the question: is the audio medium still so powerful?

I say sure it is. The genre is not as prominent, but still alive and well, though it’s coming at us from the corners of pop culture rather than in the main stream of things, which is both interesting in terms of evolution and awesome because it’s opened up the indie market, and that’s where the gold is often found.

The cast of Neverwhere


Just this year an adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere was broadcast on BBC Radio 4, starring James McAvoy and Natalie Dormer. As well as controlling my breathing through the raging fire of need for this that has unfurled in my heart, I also have to note that this shows that radio dramas are not only still being produced but being treated like a big deal. Other big names applying their smooth vocals to the fantasy world hidden in the nooks and crannies of London are Christopher Lee, Benedict Cumberbatch, Anthony Head, Sophie Okendeo and David Harewood. That’s a lot of celebrated people behind those microphones.

The business of casting for a radio drama is pretty cool going both ways—on one hand, you can listen to famous actors trying their hand at a new type of performance, getting a wholly different sensory experience from being their audience. On the other, the industry opens the doors to a lot of new talent, both in the writing, the performing and the putting together of the plays.

Since audio dramas are relatively cheap to produce, stations can take much greater risks and hire unknown writers and production teams, giving them a greater range of productions than if they were, say, the terrified film industry clinging to their tried and true blockbusters in hope of breaking even. There are no expensive visuals, only the words and sound effects, leaving the rest up to the listener’s imagination and the medium open to a wider range of new talent. And with that talent, embracing issues and topics that may be taboo on mainstream or government radio. To use the Night Vale example again, Cecil’s friendly, surreal reports are punctuated with his affectionate sighing about a scientist named Carlos with perfect hair. Not just teasing, but a legitimate queer romance subplot? What?

This goes up another level with the wonders of the Intertubes and the podcast phenomenon—much in the same way it has opened the doors to independent music, audio theatre and radio stations can be (relatively) cheaply and easily made available to the whole world. A quick Googling reveals internet-based audio theatre companies Finalrune and The Wireless Theatre Company, the latter of which is sponsored by BBC Radio 4 (the same dudes that gave us the Neverwhere play which I desire to get into my ears with the power of a thousand flaming supernovae). And countless more, getting progressively more indie the further you go. The beauty of the podcast is that it preserves, even in this cynical technological age, the initial charm and essence of the radio play: entertainment for the sake of entertainment, free to the masses if only you tune in.

If radio plays aren’t specifically your thing, there are a myriad of talk shows available ranging from satirical and topical like The Bugle (I’d tune in just for the puns) or you could just listen to voice actors talking about everything and nothing for hours on end. iTunes sells podcasts, but there are also plenty just available freely on the web.

Voices of the Bugle podcast... yelling at each other

Good listening

Either way, the point remains that not only can you listen to actors and comedians rambling on (which can be a greatly soothing and hilarious experience) to your heart’s content, but you can also seek out less famous voices more honed to your individual tastes. The widespread appeal and availability has opened the doors to unknown creators being able to be appreciated and people being able to appreciate them, which is not always something that happens on mainstream radio.

You also have to point out the merits the medium has for the blind, who cannot in fact see. As for everyone who does still have their vision intact, being an audience to only sound provides an entirely different experience. We can’t rely on the visual cues we’re so used to, and have to build the images of what’s happening entirely in our own minds—which, of course, can work to varying degrees. Audio plays can be a bit clunky in terms of having to be stuffed with exposition at times to create the image of what’s going on, and when narrated out loud amidst sound effects and dialogue it can feel less smooth than if it were read on a page.

However, it also provides lots of fun with dialogue scripting and voice acting, which is a different kind of process entirely; much in the same way stage acting is different to screen, with emphasis and emotion channelled in very different ways to convey characterisation, mood, suspense etc. The audience experience is different and engaging. You can sit down and listen piously, or you can have the stories nattering in your ear as you go about your daily business, something you can’t so much achieve with television or books. You do have to be careful not to zone out, though, because when you snap back into focus there’s no telling what will be going on (especially with shows like Night Vale. Drop focus for one second, and suddenly there are pterodactyls interrupting town meetings via a rip in spacetime).

Audio books are also a thing, a glory to the world that should not be discredited, getting many people into the worlds of fiction and breaching whatever walls might prevent them from getting there with text—again, take note of the inclusiveness of the medium to people who cannot see, and thus miss out on Hollywood’s affection for special effects. On that note, with the way the mainstream film industry is apparently going, maybe a step back to smaller budget entertainment like radio theatre is going to be the next big thing.

That has been all from me at The Afictionado this week, my faith in a genre and medium kindled and my interest surely piqued. Oh sweet goodness I need to get my hands on that Neverwhere thing.





Filed under Pop Culture Ponderings

5 responses to “Night Vale, Neverwhere and the Magic of Audio Theatre

  1. Agreed – radio (and more widely, audio) is an underused treasure. I can quite happily listen to Cabin Pressure and the Penny Dreadfuls instead of much of the comedy available on television and in the cinema. Panel shows tend to be better since they can’t rely on flashy sets and have to pull through on the ability of their participants, cheaper productions mean that more non-mainstream comedy gets aired, and personally I can take adults behaving daftly much better when I can’t see them.

  2. Why hi there, can’t believe I missed this. I’d like to add that you can derive your news from the radio (the BBC runs about four) and if you like the odd audio book if you swelve into the swell of podcasts you can find some catered to thattataste, a good one is the Phillip k dick philosophical podcast.

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