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? Continue reading