I love podcasts, but I don’t think I’d pay for one.
Podcasting, though, is not a zero-cost endeavor. It takes time, of course, as well as equipment, talent, and web hosting. Get enough subscribers, and downloads can slow to a crawl without the support of costly bandwidth. Despite being distributed for free, podcasts, after a certain point, have to make money to stay operational. Most of the time they seem to do that with Audible ads. Dear god. So many Audible ads.
The way that Welcome to Night Vale has monetized its highly successful podcast is far more interesting and fun than constantly being bombarded with ads for Stamps.com or whatever. On top of soliciting donations and selling merchandise, the horror/comedy podcast has embarked on a series of live shows throughout the country. I caught one of their Portland performances this past Saturday night, and while I was expecting to be entertained, I was surprised at how good it was.
More after the jump.
It would be very, very easy for Welcome to Night Vale to half-ass its live shows. Given the popularity of the podcast and the rabidity of the fanbase, the creators could easily just show up, read through an existing podcast script, and take people’s money. A live show could be fairly perfunctory, simply an excuse for die-hard fans to breathe the same air as the creators they enjoy, and show their support with the dollars they spent. That’s pretty much the business model of most comic book conventions: Fans spend money, see creators in the flesh, spend some more money, and leave. The ultimate “event” of many ticketed events is simply seeing that creators you like are actual meat-beings that you can shake hands with, and little else.
(This isn’t necessarily a negative thing: Fans get to know that they supported something they enjoy, and creators get to go home and live on the money they make. I once paid a fair amount of cash to see Neal Stephenson read aloud and then answer a few questions, and felt fine about it.)
The creators of Welcome to Night Vale, though, didn’t just tick boxes and go through motions on Saturday night. The live show they’ve created wouldn’t actually work as a podcast. It’s a one-man show (with some special guests) that takes advantage of the specific theatrical environment. Cecil Baldwin, the podcast’s principal voice actor, is a deft performer, and was able to very subtly pivot between acting like a radio announcer to acting like a more conventional stage performer or comic, depending on the demands of the moment. He's also far funnier live than through headphones, with his stiff, stony demeanor clashing comically with the outlandish events he's describing. Night Vale derives a great deal of humor from describing fantastical events in a banal fashion, and the live show played that up to excellent effect.
The event also benefited from the substantial contributions of Jason Webley, a musician who seems to be the apogee of enthusiastic street performers everywhere. Webley's short opening set included a delightful song about giraffes, and he later came out to give the audience a bluegrass lesson that involved a lot of screaming. You... you had to be there. But it worked.
Going in, I thought that the show was going to be a diminished version of the podcast. After seeing Night Vale live, though, I might very well think of the podcast as an adaptation or version of the theater experience I had on Saturday. If this is how Night Vale is going to make its cash, then more power to them. Seeing a show like that beat the hell out of listening to another damn ad for Stamps.com.