Transom will feature a few of these podcasts in the coming months, and our first is “99% Invisible” by Roman Mars. Roman creates lovely little form-is-content pieces about design. They stick with you. Come check out an episode or subscribe to the whole thing, and read Roman’s encouraging notes about making creative work. –Jay A
A Favorite Episode of Roman’s: 99% Symbolic
Although I have a hard time pulling out one episode to represent all of 99% Invisible, I chose this one about the design of city flags because I had the most fun making it. During production, I found I couldn’t say “vexillology” very well (that’s the proper name for the study of flags), and rather than practice it until I got it right, I incorporated that into the show. I even set up my wife (who provides the voice of the NAVA guidebook) to say it for the first time on tape, knowing she’d screw up, too. It was all a devious plan. This show also explored a topic that I had been wondering about for years and I think you can detect the excitement in my voice.
About 99% Invisible
I’m terrible at pitching stories and I’ve never felt particularly skilled at producing radio pieces for other people. I like making my own shows. Shows, not pieces. There’s something about the way a collection of stories in a show answers “the question” over time (usually over an hour), which makes it a more satisfying product than a single radio piece. However, I can’t produce a standard length, weekly radio show all by myself anymore. That’s why I love producing a thematic, ongoing series like 99% Invisible.
It’s a tiny radio show (averaging 5 minutes) about all the thought that goes into things most people don’t even bother thinking about. I lucked into the job when KALW and the San Francisco Chapter of the American Institute of Architects decided to collaborate on an “architecture minute” series of modules to run during their local presentation of Morning Edition. I signed on to produce the pilot and found that this world of design and architecture was the perfect lens to view all kinds of stories that I loved.
Because the show is short, it’s relatively cheap and manageable. With the help of AIA-SF and KALW, 99% Invisible got connected with a local design company called LUNAR that generously underwrites half of this year’s budget (we’re still figuring out how to get the rest). Because it’s ongoing, I get to produce stories about all kinds of things, creating a scatter diagram of sorts, and the resulting regression line is the thesis of the program. Week to week, I add one data point and the central idea of the show adjusts slightly. In this way, I get to actually finish and lock a story, but the narrative continues on as the program explores all aspects of design:
The stories come to me in a variety of ways. The AIA-SF has assembled a couple of meetings with local architects, engineers and designers who serve as the show’s brain trust. Picking the right story is a lot about picking something I know I can address adequately in four minutes. The subject has to be a little surprising and open your eyes to something you may not have noticed before.
The big pitfall of other design related journalism is that it tends to focus on glorifying objects. That doesn’t interest me. I’m only interested in the story of objects. Occasionally, I’ll violate this mandate and gush about the greatness of maps, but I try to keep that at a minimum. It’s story over glory. I usually only start a piece when I have some kind of hook that makes it fun to produce. This could be an audio sample I want to use, or a joke I think will be funny, or some clever use of music I envision. The need to scratch that itch moves that idea to the top of the queue. I start producing from that point and work my way out. Sometimes the gag gets cut, but it’s the little irritation around which the pearl forms (“pearl” is an apt metaphor for the process, not necessarily the product).
Radio vs. Podcast
Right now, I produce a 4.5 minute version of the program to fit into C block of Morning Edition on KALW in San Francisco (each episode runs three times a week). I also carry it on REMIX, but I’ve never pitched it to any other stations. Initially I didn’t bother pursuing station carriage, because after the pilot run of 13 episodes, I wasn’t sure I was going to make any more. The response on KALW and online has been so great that I’m producing new episodes all year and I’m considering going after a few other stations to carry it. Contacting program directors is on the list of things to do, but since it isn’t related directly to weekly production, it’s the last thing on the list. The drive to get it on other stations is somewhat diminished by the wide reach of the podcast. The web strategy took over as the national distribution strategy. I focus heavily on the web presence and “PR.” I email blogs that might be interested in the show and use twitter and facebook to promote new episodes and connect with the audience. This takes a shocking amount of time, but it feels much more productive than reaching out to a public radio station which is, almost by definition, uninterested in hearing from me as a producer.
There is a slight tension between the radio audience and the podcast audience. On the radio, shorter is almost always better. Keeping everything tight, and fitting neatly into a standard clock, makes broadcasting 99% Invisible easy (I also don’t take away too much time from the show I’m covering). The short length works against me for the podcast. The most common complaint I get is that the stories are too short. I can’t make radically different versions with the time I have, but I have begun to offer a slightly longer version for the podcast to help address this concern (I also use the longer version on REMIX). I put the extra work into the podcast version because the audience is so responsive and engaged that I want to please them. If their major complaint is that there isn’t enough of my show, then I’m happy to work more to make that better for them. The limits of space, time, and money make it impossible to please everyone, but I’m trying. Making two versions of the program also gives me a convenient, creative escape hatch. There’s always a painful cut to the story that I have to make to fit my time slot. Knowing that the podcast, web and REMIX audience will get the longer version, and this is the one that is archived, assuages my anxiety when those tough edits have to be made.
“Quantity Time is Quality Time”
This is my motto for parenting, but it also applies to radio production.
Producing more is the best route to producing better. That’s the great part about doing your own series. I don’t know who I stole this from, (Maybe Ira? It’s usually Ira.) but I think each of us has a finite amount of terrible radio in us, and you have to work to get it out. You can’t think it out. You can’t study other pieces and avoid it altogether. Producing radio is the only real answer. The greater the churn rate, the faster you’ll be free of that awful radio lurking right below the surface. I encourage everyone to devise a series, make deadlines, and go for it.
About Roman Mars
Roman Mars is the host and program director of REMIX Radio from PRX, a 24 hour, experimental public radio story stream broadcast online, on XM satellite radio and public radio stations across the country. He is also the host and producer of KALW’s 99% Invisible, a 5-minute radio show about design and architecture. The 99% Invisible podcast recently peaked at #8 in the iTunes rankings for all podcasts, as well as #1 in both the Arts and Design categories. Mars has worked on staff of the Third Coast International Audio Festival and NPR/PRX’s Snap Judgment. You can hear more of his work at romanmars.com.