The podcast is presented as a series of community radio broadcasts from the fictional town of Night Vale, a place where all the conspiracy theories are true. Episode by episode, the team build up a roster of characters (each with their own epithet, like "John Peters — you know, the farmer") who are woven in and out of each others' storylines through bulletins from Cecil, the station's announcer.
There are recurring moments of brilliant and surreal comedy, especially the messages from the advertisers:
You come home. The lights are off. You get an uneasy feeling. Suddenly, the phone rings! You remember that you do not have a phone. It rings some more.
"They are waiting for you," a whispery, gender-indeterminate voice tells you. "It is your time," it says.
You turn on the light. You laugh again, wondering why it took you so long to turn on the light. Gosh, it was dark, you think. "Hello?" the voice asks.
You hang up, glad you remembered to buy Tropicana Orange Juice, at least. Tropicana Premium Orange Juice is made from the freshest oranges, with no added flavors or preservatives. Also, you should get caller ID! It's the 21st century; how do you not have caller ID? Really.
And the traffic reports:
Let's have a look now at traffic.
There's a man. Imagine him. He's leaning on a fence, shirtless and weary. He seems wise near the eyes, but his impatient feet suggest insidiousness. He's marked with dried mud, and maybe some very deep but quickly-healing cuts – from the tree branches, most likely, or perhaps the birds.
OK, I'm not telling you the whole truth. It was definitely the birds.
Imagine these cuts and scratches, dry and brittle now, but tender to the touch. He is certain he did not offend the birds, but he is uncertain whether his complacency was construed as equal to said offense.
Picture this. Picture the man leaning on the criss-crossing metal wires, waiting. The birds are gone, but other things are coming. He doesn't know specifically what, but he knows it'll come for him.
You know this, too, because I have told you.
The man says nothing.
There's never not something that has been displaced, marginalized. There's never not something that, when feeling pressed to the wall, to a place with no room left to run, gathers its numbers, gathers its forces, and turns, savagely, on its oppressor. Turns viciously, and without inhibition, even on those who merely look like its oppressor.
Do you catch my meaning? Can you imagine the scene I am explaining?
How much of the world makes sense to you?
What does it mean to be a hero? To be a human?
The man thinks about his heart. It beats. It beats normally. Earlier, it did not beat normally.
Think about your own heart. Is it beating normally?
Listen. I'll give you a long moment.
How is your heart?
Do you remember the man? The one on the fence, shirtless and scarred, with the normally-beating heart? He's not real. Take him out of the story, but leave the story. Take him out, leave the story.
Do you catch my meaning?
This has been traffic.
As you can see, there's an awful lot of use of the second-person in the writing, which is surprisingly effective at conveying both comedy and horror.
Every episode also features a musical interlude (presented as "the weather") from an independent artist. These are incredibly eclectic and they miss for more more than they hit, but when they hit, they skewer me. Exhibit A: The Tiny's "Closer," which I have now listened to about 10,000 times:
Night Vale is a widely loved phenomenon, and it's easy to see why: the writers have managed to find a sweet spot between the deadpan, gnarled intricacies of Lovecraftian horror, conspiracy theory, and New Weird; and the giggling, giddy, self-aware, silliness that makes Bizarro so much fun. Every single episode has moments of genuine spookiness (aided in great part by the superb sound-design and voice-acting), but also moments of utter hilarity.
If you want more, including a thoroughgoing compendium of all the characters and situations, as well as fan-transcripts of all the episodes, check out the Night Vale wiki on Wikia.