Podcasts and Diversity: 3 Points on Fiction’s Future

Photo credit: http://www.nicolassolop.com

Not so long ago, radio was a staple of the entertainment industry. You had your talk radio, your morning DJs, your rock n’ roll stations on FM, and so on. And to be fair, you still have them aplenty. But now, we’re seeing a massive upswing of Internet-based radio. Like podcasting. All of it ranges from NPR-style news programming to comedy shows where 4 people sit on a couch and make jokes for an hour and a half.

And thanks to podcasts like Welcome to Night Vale and The Black Tapes, audio dramas are now a thing. We can tell so many new stories in so many ways, all by using the freedom of the Web. It’s why I think (for the reasons listed below) that what we see in podcasting today is what we’ll see more of in fiction in the future.

More inclusive casting.

When I say that a show or a story is more “inclusive,” I mean that it takes a chance on telling stories from more than a standard or “safe” point of view. When we watch a TV show or a movie, we might find it remarkable that someone in a leading role is non-white, non-straight, or female. But because of the audio-only format, a podcast story can make it so very, very easy to erase those distinctions. I don’t think anything out of the ordinary when I hear Jasika Nicole (an African-American woman) playing a trucker in Alice Isn’t Dead, or when I hear Joshua Ilon voice a detective (who happens to be bisexual) in The Penumbra Podcast.

The more we as an audience grow comfortable with this kind of casting, I think the more likely we’ll see such changes in our visual medium, too.

More audience interaction.

Compared to traditional media, podcasters are a lot more open and acknowledging of what their fans can contribute to their productions. While you might have read about how authors and studios are still hating on fanfiction writers and YouTube uploads that use their content, fans of audio drama have been a major support to their creators. Whether it’s creating artwork or merchandise, running blogs and Tumblr pages to support their shows, or even participating in contests and live shows as part of the act, the audience comes first to every podcaster’s priorities.

More radical ideas for storytelling.

At a certain point, both the film and television industries have come to offer a very standard approach to how they want their stories told. Screenwriters have to abide by a very traditional set of beats, or else they’ll lose a network executive’s interest before they can ever find an audience to engage.

However, that’s not the case for podcasters. As Night Vale Presents has shown, it’s possible to tell a story however you choose, so long as the episode isn’t overly long or boring. Want to tell the story of a dystopian nightmare as a series of cassette tapes promoting relaxation exercises? Done. Want to add some surreal horror as the CB radio broadcasts of a lone trucker? Go for it. Want to resurrect the radio variety show as a genre? Hey, why not.

The point is, as good as many movies and TV shows are today, they do still have a follow a traditional format for delivering their stories, from the Three Act Structure to the Hour-Long Drama. But not podcasts. They can be as wild as they want, and they’ll still get their audience.

So, all of this should give you a pretty good idea of why I love podcasts. Now, it’s your turn. What are some of your favorite things about podcasts and audio dramas? What characters or concepts do you love in shows like The Black Tapes or Welcome to Night Vale, and why?

Flash Fiction: “The Man with the Broken Smile”

I’ve been catching up on episodes of Welcome to Night Vale this summer (and in case you missed it, I wrote a short meditation on the show). Enthralled as I am by its macabre style, I had to jot down this little haunting tale because it carries some of the dread and terror that I think most of us can appreciate.


The Man with the Broken Smile, by Alexander Paul Willging

Word Count: 526

A newcomer enters the town. He’s a well-dressed young man, with wavy black hair and impeccable wingtip shoes. He’s been spotted eating pie at the diner, taking strolls along the town square, and even checking out a book at the public library. Children stop and stare whenever he passes. Grandmothers cross themselves and whisper in quiet horror at his approach. But no one’s learned his name yet. They just call him the Man with the Broken Smile.

His smile is… well, it’s broken. There’s no other way to explain it. But it doesn’t match his eyes. His gentle, loving, rapturous eyes. Looking into them, you feel your guard drop. Everything seems to be okay for once in your life. Nothing scares or confuses or upsets you anymore. It’s all, finally, okay.

But then the stranger speaks with his broken smile. His lips don’t fully open or close. You catch a glimpse of yellowed teeth behind those lips, and occasionally signs of a blood-red tongue marked with terrible spots. The Man with the Broken Smile speaks so softly, so very softly, and you never quite catch every word he says, but the longer he talks, the deeper he gets hold of you. The more you hear, the more your body refuses to obey. Why would you disobey? Why, when your new best friend is right here? Could you even imagine a time before this conversation with your best friend began?

Surely not.

The Man with the Broken Smile tells you things that can’t possibly be true. He talks casually about the weather and the storm of emeralds that will be coming next week. He lists off the names of football players who will meet with terrible accidents the night before the next big game on Sunday, and adds the names of their loved ones who will miss them the most.

He tells you a joke (at least, he says it’s a joke) about a man being dragged from his home in the middle of the night by faceless men in white. They strip him naked in an unmarked van, drive him out to an unlisted warehouse, and force him into a vat of dough and butter. The Man with the Broken Smile is positively giggling when he gets to the punchline about the man being “a little overcooked on the bottom” when he’s yanked out from the furnace, baked and burnt to a screaming crisp before a dreadful feast begins. You ask who this man was, and the Man with the Broken Smile shrugs and says, “It doesn’t matter. No one loved him anyway.”

That night, you return to your home. Your stomach churns at the sight of baked goods in your fridge and your pantry. Even as you dump them all into the garbage can outside, you can still hear the Man with the Broken Smile giggling to himself.

And it’s with a creeping sense of dread that you suddenly remember that you made plans to meet with the Broken Smiling Man. To meet him for dinner.

At his place.

As you look around your quiet, empty house, you wonder if anyone will miss you either.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


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Welcome to Night Vale and The New Storyteller’s Style


Podcasts are to radio what modern streaming sites are to TV: the next step forward in the medium’s evolution. And just like with Netflix and Amazon Prime, the ability to string together stories for binge cycles or in bite-sized pieces is a key selling point for anyone looking to jump into a podcast. They’re perfect for when you’re on-the-go or when you’re looking for something to fill the background while you work.

And few podcasts have grabbed the Internet’s attention quite like Welcome to Night Vale. Set in a fictional desert town in the American Southwest, Night Vale is a comedic radio show about the bizarre events that transpire in that region, where every myth, monster, and conspiracy theory is not only true but competing with one another for total dominance (if not something worse than that). It is a terrifying yet familiar blend that resembles, as blogger Eileen Maksym puts itLake Wobegon meets H.P. Lovecraft.”

With that said, what is it about Night Vale that speaks so profoundly to its audience?

A collection of our greatest fears and dreads.

Night Vale is home to a vast and unyielding cornucopia of terrors, from the visceral to the existential. It’s the perfect breeding ground for your classic Cosmic Horror Story, where humanity is nothing more than a witless mutation gibbering in the dark of an uncaring and alien universe. The best parts are where everything is more unsettling than gory in its description, like a face that isn’t quite right or anything said by Cecil to make you question your memories and your significance in the world.

Black comedy at its finest.

Cecil Palmer has the perfect voice for casually dropping hints about mass casualties at the latest PTA meeting or packs of rabid dogs attacking schoolchildren (who defend themselves with shadow government-issued assault weapons and nerve gas). Something about Night Vale taps into that part of our brains where we’re not always sure whether to laugh or shudder in terror. So we usually do both (or at least, dear reader, I do).

A magnificent sense of continuity.

If there’s one thing I enjoy as a writer, it’s seeing other writers follow up on their previously established jokes or characters. Hearing Cecil come up with something new and vicious to say about Steve Carlsberg, or filling us in on the fate of the barber who once dared to cut Carlos the Scientist’s “perfect hair,” never gets old. It’s not just mining for jokes, but the way that they give the audience a sense of the passage of time. And in a story where eldritch abominations and ancient conspiracies lurk in plain sight, Time weighs heavily on the small town.

A real sense of community.

The writers and producers of the show have done their job when it comes to creating a fully fleshed-out, All-American small town. Cecil’s descriptions of the various residents, both human and horrific, are oddly charming. Not to mention the fact that he has several in-depth relationships himself, including with Carlos the Scientist, Dana the Intern, Khoshekh the Cat, and the Faceless Old Woman Who Secretly Lives In Your House.

Is Night Vale for everyone? Not necessarily. Some people enjoy a more suspenseful or grittier kind of horror, with lots of gory details, so this wouldn’t be their cup of tea. However, I find this kind of colorful lore engaging and I recommend it for anyone who wants some good listening material. It’ll make you laugh, cry, cringe, shiver, and think deeply about things you probably never wanted to consider.

Welcome to Night Vale is a podcast available on iTunes and for streaming on Libsyn. Learn more about the series at its official website.