Radio is a dying medium. Traditional radio, anyway. It, like television and newsprint, is succumbing to the new “consume at your convenience” paradigm that we’ve all accepted as a byproduct of the Digital Age. TiVo, ebooks and magazines, podcasts – these have made it possible for us to enjoy things on our own terms. And, bonus, we never have to miss anything. And radio is still powerful, I suppose, when it needs to be. I’m thinking mostly of situations like breaking news or emergency information when power and phones are down. But we have access to almost everything entertainment-wise that’s on the radio in some different way. Music or talk shows are downloadable. In fact, I suspect that the intention of the creators, or at least the expectation, is that the stuff be downloaded rather than listened to during a live broadcast. The mindset has changed more than the material.
So I think it’s interesting that some of the things I like the most on the radio seem a bit old-fashioned. Because what does that even mean? Take A Prairie Home Companion, for example. In my head, that’s how all radio from the first half of the last century sounded. Before video killed the radio star, so to speak. I may be completely wrong, but I like to think of wholesome American families huddled around lively variety shows for good, clean entertainment. (I’m not sure why I have to use the verb “huddled,” but nothing else feels quite right in that sentence. It’s as though these folks are inherently discomfited by their lack of technology, despite their ignorance of that lack. The linguistic center of my brain is a condescending jerk, I think.) Even in the beginning, in the 1970s, Garrison Keillor was resurrecting an obsolete enough format that the show seemed novel and charming. It still does. Now it’s an NPR staple and an odd American cultural touchstone. I love that show. Keillor’s voice is like that weird tea with too much honey that my mom used to give me when I was sick. Comforting and warm and makes my ears buzz.
Building on that premise, but moving somehow both backward and forward in time, I’ve found some really cool old-school-radio-style podcasts recently. My new favorite is Welcome to Night Vale. Think about that period I was talking about before, with the adorable huddled family. Radio was the easiest and most reliable way to get information out into their community. One could be fairly confident that almost everyone was listening, and if they weren’t some busybody would fill them in. Radio and newspapers were vital to these people’s businesses, social interactions, livelihoods, as essential as our smartamaphones are to us today. I don’t know why, but I always think of ruddy midwesterners listening to the farm report while they’re eating pot roast and planning out their next morning on the ranch. It’s all very Norman Rockwell.
Welcome to Night Vale is a little more Norman Bates. The show is basically just community updates: traffic, weather, upcoming events, civic notices. But the small desert town of Night Vale is the stuff of nightmares. Conspiracy theories, strange lights in the sky, ominous figures, portals to other dimensions. The list goes on and on. What’s awesome is that the narrator/deejay takes all this whacked out shit as just a matter of course, and so we do too. The more you listen and get to know the oddball characters (who are exactly the sort of people you’d expect to continue to live in a town like that), the better and more hilarious the otherworldly shenanigans become. I highly recommend. Begin at the beginning, though. There are only thirty episodes or so right now, so you can get caught up pretty quickly. And, hey, bonus: for once I’m not behind the curve on something, you guys! This show’s only existed for a year. So I guess I’m not ahead of the curve, either. No achievement unlocked there. But not behind. Go, me. Apparently Welcome to Night Vale was the number one downloaded podcast this July, beating out This American Life for a minute. No small feat, that. This American Life is a monster, the gold standard by which all other podcasts set their ratings goals. (Speaking of which: do you think Ira Glass had to make some sort of Robert Johnson-esque deal to get that awesome? Because it’s such a simple show. I wonder why it’s so fascinating.)
What I like most about it is the way they’ve hijacked a format that doesn’t lend itself well to storytelling and somehow made it work without sacrificing either the style or the intention. This show, these stories, would not work on paper. Not even a little. Not like this, anyway. The idea of a deejay, an average Night Vale-ian, sitting in his booth talking away, just doing his job, while all around him creatures of the ether are wreaking havoc, and he has to report on how the little league game is cancelled because a glowing cloud is raining dead animals onto the field? That’s fucking brilliant. The framing of it, the structure of the writing, is beautifully done. Well played, gentlemen, well played. Another double plus cool thing is the weather report on Night Vale is just a music break. They play one song by an independent artist per episode. I’m getting a pretty great list of bands I’ve never heard of, and a few that I had heard of and then forgotten about. What’s awesome is that he never says anything about the weather report not being a weather report. It’s very cheeky. I enjoy cheeky.
Anyway, check out Welcome to Night Vale, before it becomes a behemoth and you feel like you’re behind on your pop culture knowledge. I hate when that happens to me. Which is all the time. And if I’m missing out on any other good podcasts, let me know. I might have a podcast problem. Is there radio rehab for that?