Have you ever passed by a neighbor's garage and wondered whether they are recording groundbreaking radio inside of it? Maybe it's time you start, because Bay Area resident Roman Mars has been doing just that for the past three years, turning 99% Invisible, a "tiny radio show" about design and architecture, into one of podcasting's biggest success stories.
The radio legends of our time, including Ira Glass, Jad Abumrad, and The Kitchen Sisters, sing the praises of Mars and 99% Invisible, and with just one listen it's clear why. Although it may seem counterintuitive to examine something as visual as design and architecture through an auditory medium, the podcast engages listeners' imaginations in unexpectedly vivid ways.
Befitting this paradox, one of the most talked-about episodes explores "razzle dazzle" camouflage, which uses bold patterns to hide naval ships in plain view. Some of the podcast's most engaging episodes describe places almost no one can see, such as the mysterious art installation dubbed "Heyoon" that cannot be legally photographed or visited. Others explore universal visuals and feelings such as the unexpected impact of a broken window on a young woman's life.
Surprisingly, Mars is not an architect, although his excellent research and radio production could fool anyone.
99% Invisible describes itself as a podcast about "the 99% invisible activity that shapes our world" (also known as design), but for independent producers the award-winning show highlights the previously 99% invisible activity that shapes public media. As an independent production, 99% Invisible has raised funds with record-breaking Kickstarter campaigns that turned listeners into what Mars deems "the best bosses a radio program could have."
This local project started as four and a half minutes each week for KALW public radio in San Francisco with the support of the American Institute of Architects. Eventually Mars started to "stretch his legs" and share longer, unaired projects like this early episode about getting humans to Mars with his podcast listeners. In it he refers to his audience as his "99th Percentile," not knowing that in a few years they would help him bypass the public radio "muckity-mucks" and set his creativity free.
For its fourth season, 99% Invisible reached its ambitious Kickstarter goal within 92 hours. Over the course of the fundraiser it garnered over 10,000 backers, allowing Mars to promise weekly episodes, hire an additional producer and provide health care benefits for all those involved in the show, including interns. Ending with a total of $375,193, there was enough left over to start a seed fund for other innovative radio programs in coalition with PRX (Public Radio Exchange).
Mars said, "The time has come for us to replicate the success of 99% Invisible across all independent public radio and podcasting. For a couple of years I've been scheming with PRX to create a collective of exceptional radio shows that will push the boundaries of public radio. Modeled after 99% Invisible, we want to provide support for a select group of creator-driven, highly quality, entrepreneurial programs that will establish a path to success for the most talented audio producers in the world. We call it 'Radiotopia.'"
At the end of a recent, and arguably symbolic episode about elevators, Mars featured a clip of his sons Mazlo and Carver telling his family's best joke: "Knock, knock. Who's there? Radio. Radio, who? Radio not, here I come!" Mars is not just coming, he has arrived, and he plans to stay.
Starting on February 4, 2014, 99% Invisible will begin airing weekly episodes, not from Mars' garage, but from the shows' new offices in Downtown Oakland. Listen at 99percentinvisible.org. And listen to Michael Krasny interview Roman Mars for KQED's Forum.