My take on why WTN exploded.
1) The World: It’s a full-fledged radio drama. It’s not one-off stories – it’s an immersive world so when it shows up every two weeks, I know exactly what I’m getting – another half an hour in a strange little town with characters I know and care about. It’s like being glued into a TV show. You’re logging back in because the story is being created in front of your eyes and you can’t wait to see where it’s going, esp. since you know lots of other people are having this same shared experience with you.
2) The town: Taps into the narrative of a small American town that’s normal on the surface and subsumed by horror, paranormal, and “the weird” when you scratch the surface. It’s a classic in the American Horror genre.
3) The characters: The show began exploding in mid-July of 2013, which was right around the time (spoilers!) a major love story reaches an apex, so to speak (Episode titled: First Date). Reminds me of the way Friends exploded in the early 90s when Rachel and Ross first got together. People were rapt. I’ve read an interview with Joseph Fink where he states that in the show’s first year, they had 150,000 total downloads over the course of the year, then doubled that number in July of 2013 with that one episode.
The characters are interesting, and the main character, Cecil, is compelling. He’s emotional. He defends his bizarre little town at times even when he’s defending clearly horrible traditions. He’s unaware of his own brainwashing (often) but is still able to make value judgments and to care about the creepy weird little things that make his town his home.
4) The themes: Cthulu is popular right now, and ripe for satire. Weird, controlling big government = popular villain target.
5) Production: The creators connected through participating in an experimental theater troupe in NYC, and many of the talent used on the show (voice talent and other types) comes from connections they made there. So basically, a bunch of unknown but gifted actors and writers came together to contribute to this. This wasn’t one person’s brain child, and it’s hard to imagine that it could have been so successful without the ability of the creators to tap into friends/colleagues who had strong contributions to make (most noticeably, the amazing voice of the main character, Cecil).
6) Promotion: The music cross-promotion must help. The fact that every episode features a song from an up and coming new indie musician gives them a whole level of crossover exposure that very few fiction podcasts get.
Being in NYC in the theater community probably helped them get amazing indie musicians on the show, and I’m assuming that every time they featured one of those musicians, all of that person’s followers, twitters and otherwise, listened to Nightvale and were Exposed.
It’s a two-directional thing – I’ve personally bought at least one album from a musician I found on Nightvale (Dannie Schmidt) and looked up some of the other musicians, too.
7) The BIG ONE:
WTN tapped into people who had no interest in science fiction podcasts.
This is pretty important. There aren’t a lot of people who identify with the sci fi community anymore (even while the amount of spec-fic in media explodes!) But WTN didn’t grow its roots in the sci-fi community, which may have helped it spread — Because the number of people who’d enjoy WTN is clearly much larger than the number of people who would identify themselves as sci-fi fans or go looking for science fiction on a podcast.
Anyway, that’s my take. Hope I catch the next live show they do in DC!