When Fink, 29, began writing the “Night Vale” pilot script in 2011, he’d just been fired from his job as a customer service manager for a prepaid debit card company. Cranor, 40, was a database manager for New York’s Film Forum. The two had previously co-authored a play, and Fink approached Cranor about an idea he had to tell a story about people living in a desert town where all the conspiracy theories are true. They began recording episodes and were experiencing “steady growth” until Night Vale fandom found a home on Tumblr in July 2013. That month, Fink said, listeners downloaded the podcast 2.5 million times. By August, the number jumped to 8.5 million.
Their novel, a spinoff from the podcast, arrived last month and almost instantly became a bestseller. In March, before it even had a cover image, pre-orders catapulted the “Night Vale” book to the top of Amazon’s horror section and the top 100 books overall.
“This is f—ing unreal,” Fink tweeted.
“What happens when you have a popular Internet thing is you start getting lots of e-mails and messages from people who are interested in making money off the popular Internet thing,” Cranor said. “That could be film producers or TV producers or book publishers or comics or video games or things like that.” He confirmed that they were indeed approached about adapting “Night Vale” for all of those purposes but ultimately decided on writing a novel because “neither of us know much about making comic books or making TV or making film or making video games or any of the other number of things that came about.”
The duo revealed Tuesday that they would be writing a second “Night Vale” novel, and next year they’re launching two new non-“Night Vale”-related podcasts. Cranor and Fink were reticent about releasing details, but they did say that the first of the new podcasts would also be narrative fiction.
The runaway success of “Night Vale” is exceptional but it’s also emblematic of the way podcasts have evolved as another springboard to bigger, usually more established forms of media.
Crissle West is probably best known as a co-host of “The Read,” but this year enjoyed two major career leaps: She narrated a hilarious, widely circulated episode of “Drunk History” which saw Octavia Spencer portraying Harriet Tubman, and she began her tenure as a host on Beats 1 radio.
“Serial” is being adapted for television and its fans are eagerly awaiting its second season.
Podcasting isn’t just a hobby. It’s a real job. Still, much of the podcasting world feels uncharted and independent, though it probably won’t remain that way much longer. This week marked the launch of Acast, a platform and network specifically aimed at monetizing podcast streaming the way Spotify did with music, thanks to input from two ex-Spotify employees. For the most part, folks still access podcasts by subscribing to them in iTunes and downloading them — not unlike the way they used to consume music.
There are plenty of apps that stream podcasts — Stitcher, SoundCloud, OverCast and Podbay among them — but none are synonymous with podcast streaming. Acast sees an opportunity to become a behemoth, and it’s relying on its native advertising to get it there.
“I’m looking ahead to the time when everybody’s streaming audio and nobody’s subscribing and anybody’s getting whatever show they want across the open web or on Twitter or not necessarily having to go into an app to subscribe to a thing,” said Caitlin Thompson, Acast’s director of content. “It’s going to look a lot more like, ‘Oh, here’s a player that has just been shared with me.'” (Thompson worked for The Washington Post 10 years ago.)
One of the company’s most high-profile partners is Buzzfeed. “Another Round,” a podcast by Buzzfeed writers Tracy Clayton and Heben Nigatu, debuted in March. Last month they scored an interview with Hillary Clinton. Acast also boasts “Call Your Girlfriend,” co-hosted by Ann Friedman and Aminatou Sow.
“For me, being a creative type, I was always told, ‘enh, we can’t do that ’cause there’s not an audience’ or ‘we can’t do that ’cause there’s no money.’ And then all of a sudden, [the Acast co-founders] came along and they were like ‘Oh, we figured out how to untap the money,'” Thompson said. “You just have to show people the real money and you have to show them how invested and how fanatical podcast listeners are. Once they’re hooked and you make it easy for them to listen, the advertisers are super-pumped to get to them.”
Judging by “Night Vale’s” fandom, that fanatacism can run very, very deep.
It’s worth remembering that what’s happening now is a podcasting renaissance. After all, the medium’s existence stemmed from the invention of the Apple iPod (hence podcast), back when the device still had a click wheel and a grayscale screen. There was an enormous initial amount of enthusiasm for it, but it fizzled as the big media companies that jumped into podcasting began abandoning it. For a time, podcasts seemed like little more than a way to listen to NPR shows without being tethered to a radio.
Now, podcasts are increasingly resembling a marriage of public and commercial radio. For all its spooky weirdness, there’s something about “Welcome to Night Vale” that hearkens to the theatricality and familiarity of “A Prairie Home Companion.”
More than any other show, WBEZ’s “This American Life” can be credited for bridging radio and podcasting. After all, it was Sarah Koenig, one of its longtime contributors, who launched “Serial.”
Before “Serial,” “the things that did well were born in another medium but found extra success in podcasting, nothing that was was native to podcasting,” Thompson said. “‘Serial’ changed that. It changed the possibilities.”
Another “This American Life” alumnus, Alex Blumberg, was one-half of the driving force behind the NPR podcast “Planet Money.” Blumberg left NPR last year to launch Gimlet Media, a podcasting network that made Fast Company’s list of 2015’s most innovative media companies.
Not only did “This American Life” provide a template for compelling audio storytelling, but it also forged a path for expanding the format to television. And it made it cool. “Celebrities now have podcasts and it’s not seen as this slumming-it sort of thing,” Thompson said.
Now “Serial” will likely become a scripted series. In 2006, when Robert Altman released the film “A Prairie Home Companion,” written by Garrison Keillor and starring Meryl Streep, Lindsay Lohan and Kevin Kline, it seemed like a risky, one-off experiment that thankfully went well. Today, this sort of move seems fairly obvious.
Thompson likened the rise of podcasting to the blogging heyday of the mid aughts or the emergence of YouTube stars as another form of celebrity. The new era of podcasting, she said, is “disruptive.”
In choosing a novel as the first expansion of “Night Vale,” Fink and Cranor are not unlike the creators of the “Lizzie Bennett Diaries,” a YouTube series that functioned as a modern retelling of “Pride and Prejudice.” It became so popular it eventually led to a series of books based on the show.
Like blogging and YouTubing, a key element of podcasting’s benefit as a disruptor has been its ability to elevate diverse voices. There’s also the freedom it provides for unconventional storytelling (think Karina Longworth’s rabbit-hole treatment of Charles Manson in “You Must Remember This” or “The Worst Thing Ever’s” weekly deconstruction of “Grown Ups 2”), not to mention the freedom to curse, free of worries about FCC violations.
Cranor and Fink were quick to recognize the importance of podcasting’s democratizing effect and the way it informs their decision-making. They hired Dylan Marron, who is Venezuelan American, to voice the character of Carlos. Cranor initially played Carlos, but they tapped Marron because, as Cranor wrote in a Tumblr post announcing the change, “It sucks that there’s a white straight male (me), playing a gay man of color (Carlos).”
Such recognition also informs which podcasts Cranor and Fink find interesting. When asked for recommendations, Cranor name-checked “The Read” as one of his favorites. Fink is a fan of “You Must Remember This.”
“The thing [‘The Read’] does really well as a podcast is having two people in conversation who have such good chemistry and are so funny you just want those people in your ears because they become your friends in your earbuds,” Cranor said. “The other thing that is wonderful about [it] is that it’s a funny podcast — it’s comedy because they are funny people — and it covers entertainment and they have the advice stuff and the read at the end, which are all great. Buried in all of this entertainment is some really, really educational and important content about social justice as it deals with race, as it deals with gender, as it deals with identity and sexuality.”
Diversity, Thompson believes, is what’s going to make podcasting sustainable and insulate it from the boom and bust of its beginnings. She’s endeavoring to make Acast friendly to women, people of color, queer people — everyone who was mostly swept over when the first podcasting revolution began.
“I don’t want the thing to happen where it all went extinct to happen again, and I don’t think it’s going to this time,” Thompson said. “I think the technology has gotten a lot better. Acast is a big part of that but we’re not the only people trying to push it in that direction because podcasting needs to have a lot of different kinds of content the same way the web needs to have a lot, the way that TV has to have a lot. We’re at this incredible moment that’s really exciting where creative types are coming to podcasting first. It’s not just an afterthought.”