A Face Made for Radio

I’m not good at serialized stories. I’m not good at TV shows; I’m not good at online stories that update every week or so. I’m not good at webcomics. I’m not good at books with sequels. I’m not good at having to wait for the next part of the plot — hell, I’m just not good at continuity.

And I’m really, really not good at audio. I’m not very good at anything that isn’t text, actually — I was raised entirely on books, didn’t have cable until I was thirteen, the only TV I watched as a kid was reruns of The Simpsons and, when our bunny-ears television set wouldn’t show that, grainy Spanish-language episodes of Family Feud. I’m good at understanding and analyzing anything that’s got a narrative — but if I can’t see the narrative in words, well, it’s harder for me.

So falling in love with two serialized podcasts came as kind of a surprise.

The first I discovered in June of last year, about two weeks before the rest of the Internet did: Welcome to Night Vale. It’s a community radio show from a little town in the southwestern United States “where the sun is hot, the moon is beautiful, and mysterious lights pass overhead while we all pretend to sleep”. It’s been called Lake-Wobegon-meets-Stephen-King, or “NPR from the Twilight Zone”.

Personally, I like the second descriptor more, not least because WTNV has a habit of combining its deadpan humor and horror-scifi aesthetic with some wonderful social commentary. It’s narrated by a “community radio host”, Cecil. Recurring characters include Old Woman Josie, out by the car lot, and the angels that came to live in her house and fix her lightbulb (one of them was black); Hiram McDaniels, who is a) a blogger, b) a mayoral candidate, c) a five-headed dragon, and d) wanted for insurance fraud; and Carlos, an earnest and concerned local scientist and Cecil’s boyfriend.

I fell in love with WTNV about a year into its run. Its 50th episode recently came out, so I decided to listen to it all again. This not only gave me something to do on my morning commute, but also gave me an excuse to sit out in Washington Square Park and watch the sunset as I listened to Cecil talk soothingly about bloodstone circles, vague yet menacing government agencies, and the local dog park. (The city council would like to remind you that dogs are not allowed in the dog park.) I laughed, I smiled, I even cried a little, I was completely delighted.

After catching up on WTNV — and Jesus, the two-year anniversary episode was some of the best storytelling I’ve ever seen, or, uh, listened to — I cast around for something else to listen to. “Something fictional,” I told my friends, without much hope. “Like, not one where they talk about science or history, or whatever. Something funny, maybe? Just something with a story.”

And lo, the Thrilling Adventure Hour appeared, and it was really good.

“A new-time podcast in the style of old-time radio,” is what the Thrilling Adventure Hour calls itself. Like WTNV, it’s funny, clever, and amazingly enjoyable; unlike WTNV, it isn’t a single story.

Instead, each episode focuses on one of a few “radio shows” that are all part of the Thrilling Adventure Hour. For example, episode 1 is from “Beyond Belief”, a show about two married socialites who just want to drink martinis and flirt but keep being interrupted by ghosts and ghouls; #2 is from “Sparks Nevada, Marshal on Mars”, a cross between Star Trek and Zorro; #3 is “Jefferson Reid, Ace American”, a hilarious parody of 1940s war propaganda shows and comic books; #4 is “Tales from the Black Lagoon”, which purports to be the diaries of the “Hollywood almost-was” who played the Creature from the Black Lagoon; and #5 is back to “Beyond Belief” again.

While I have a special fondness for Sparks Nevada and Jefferson Reid, just about everything from the Thrilling Adventure Hour is gold. It really is just a radio serial, with all the cliches of its various genres wholeheartedly embraced and laughed at in equal measure. It makes you feel like you’re sitting next to your radio set in 1949 as your mother makes meatloaf and potatoes, which is a type of nostalgia that, unlike, most, I’m very willing to indulge.

Maybe that’s why podcasts appeal to me as a form of storytelling so much. I was raised on literature, and literature is unique because it’s the only form of storytelling we have that relies entirely on the written word. But it’s also different because it forces the consumer to engage with the story in a way that TV shows and movies just don’t. Readers have to imagine what characters look like, what their voices sound like, what their mannerisms are; they have to color in settings, let their mind fill in details that the author never did. Film and television give artists’ imaginations an incredible sandbox to play in; books hand that same sandbox to the audience.

So does radio. A glance through one WTNV fan blog will reveal a hundred different imagined versions of Cecil, Carlos, Old Woman Josie’s angels, and local floating station cat Khoshekh; though the Thrilling Adventure Hour doesn’t have the same number of devoted fanartists, it’s certainly got quite a collection of doodles, no two of which look the same.

For obvious reasons, radio serials aren’t quite as popular as they used to be. iTunes, which made podcasts easy and mostly free, didn’t really trigger a revival of the medium: the popular podcasts are educational, like Stuff You Should Know, or nonfictional stories, like the Moth Podcast. But I think Welcome to Night Vale, at the very least, proves that radio serials deserve more of our interest and time. I know I’d like to listen to more of ’em.

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