The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

Englert welcomes ‘Welcome to Night Vale’

If Iowa City is a quirky town, Night Vale puts it to shame. The popular podcast “Welcome to Night Vale” describes a desert town in which everything strange is normal, and the normal is strange — and the creators of this creepy little community will visit the Englert Theater this weekend.

“Welcome to Night Vale,” written by Jeffrey Cranor and Joseph Fink, is a twice a month podcast styled as a community radio broadcast. While the regular episodes are only around 30 minutes, featuring an update on the community’s going-ons, the live shows are much longer than the normal episodes. However, being caught up on the episodes is not required to see a live show — including the May 3 performance at the Englert, 221 E. Washington St., starting at 7 p.m.

Voice actor Cecil Baldwin, who portrays the “Night Vale” radio host Cecil Palmer, said he had never expected the podcast to gain the kind of success it has in the past few months.

“[We] are all kind of downtown New York theater people, so if we have a project and maybe 500 people see it, then we are doing really, really well,” he said. “There are still people even now who are just discovering ‘Night Vale’ and are starting from the beginning, almost three years ago. It’s nice working on a lasting project, but I don’t think any of us ever could have imagined what this project would turn into and what it would mean in our lives.”

A typical, if it may be called typical, “Welcome to Night Vale” episode includes updates on the community happenings, pauses for fictional ads, editorials, hints of a romantic subplot, occasional phone calls taken in the studio, a rant or two, and a threat to the town of Night Vale that is resolved by the time the “weather” — a listener-submitted song — has been read. All this culminates with Palmer crooning, “Goodnight, listeners. Goodnight.” 

The podcast is particularly known for its representation of LGBTQA characters, strong female characters, and racial diversity. Some of the female characters are played by women of color, with voice talents that have included Symphony Sanders, Jasika Nicole, and Retta. Other people of color who have voiced characters in the show’s long history include Kevin R. Free who plays Kevin, as well as Dylan Marron, who plays Carlos the Scientist. 

Baldwin — whose character has been in a longtime relationship with Marron’s — said the LGBTQA story line was not initially intended to become a main plot point. 

“It just grew in a very organic way … Which is what I think a lot of people respond to,” Baldwin said. “It’s not a ‘gay and lesbian’ show, it’s not made by people who are looking to push any kind of agenda, it doesn’t exist to serve only the gay and lesbian community. It serves everyone, and it just happens to have strong, gay characters at the center of it. And I think it is something everyone is ready for: that gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered characters are just as important to the stories that can be told to everyone as opposed to a very specific part of a community.” 

Katheryn Bliss, a longtime fan of “Welcome to Night Vale,’ said the podcast has given listeners such as her a ‘renewed hope.” 

“So often in popular media, if there is a queer character, they’re either the sassy best friend who gives witty dialogue and helps the straight lead until it’s time to give the lead their spotlight back, or they are the lead, but their whole dilemma is centered on their sexuality/gender,” she said. “It does get tiresome when gay characters with so much potential in fiction get scrapped and turned into a story that focuses on only one part of their life. We’re seen more as a label than actual people.”

The closeness a listener might feel with “Night Vale” characters is not unusual for the ever-growing podcast medium, said Brian Ekdale, a University of Iowa assistant professor of journalism. He said these programs establish a repertoire with their listeners that isn’t seen much in other audio-based formats, such as radio.

“It may sound silly, but there is something even more personable about the fact that it’s going directly into your ears,” Ekdale said. “You put those earbuds in, and the distance between your ears and your brain is inches, and there is something really personable about that. And we develop these parasocial relationships with these people we listen to … It feels like we know them in a way that is really special and unique, and the really successful podcasts, whether or it be news, or fiction, or pop culture, they have these personalities, and these are people you feel like you’re buddies with and are listening in on a conversation you really want to be a part of.”

While touring may be more difficult than simply recording in the studio, Baldwin said it is worth it to live out the “dream job” he’s coveted since the age of 16.

“It’s amazing getting to go around the country and meet people who this thing that I’ve helped create means so much to them,” he said. “… This is an amazing way to really see what the response is to this piece of art that I’ve helped make. There’s a certain magic about live theater in that it’s unrepeatable; it happens in a moment, and you get to share that experience with a group of people, and you move onto the next city.”

“Welcome to Night Vale,” live show with musical guest Mary Epworth