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‘99% Invisible’ podcast host Roman Mars looks back at 10 years of uncovering design

“99% Invisible” podcast host Roman Mars is moving into the print world with a book that comes out in October. Photo: Podcast Movement

Roman Mars has been the host of the podcast “99% Invisible” since it launched Sept. 3, 2010, as a collaboration between San Francisco public radio station 91.7 KALW and the American Institute of Architects. Its mission was to explore “the hidden world of everyday design.”

Ten years later, the show continues to do just that.

Expanding from just one employee to about a dozen, “99% Invisible” tackles very visible issues of design in everything from movie title sequences and hand-painted signs to things that were literally hidden, like a massive 41-by-37-foot scale model of San Francisco that was missing for 80 years and a 120-foot Gold Rush-era ship called the Niantic that was uncovered 20 feet below street level next to the Transamerica Pyramid.

It’s inspired a whole generation of podcasters, has been consistently ranked one of the top podcasts on iTunes and in October is traversing into the printed world for the first time with the book “The 99% Invisible City: A Field Guide to the Hidden World of Everyday Design.”

To celebrate a decade of “99% Invisible,” The Chronicle spoke with the show’s host and producer, Roman Mars, about his favorite podcast memories and its upcoming book.

Q: You’ve been doing the show for 10 years. Has your audience grown enough that perhaps the hidden world of design is only 98% invisible now?

A: When we started, people on the internet were already talking about design in a different way than I had ever experienced before. So, the space we occupy is the space that a lot of people occupy these days, not just because of us, but because of a collective will for this type of storytelling.

Q: Your very first story was with Dennis Paoletti, an acoustic designer, about moving the information desk off to the side of the atrium in the San Francisco Public Library. How did you decide on the topic for that first episode, and what was that process like?

A: Originally the show was just me, and I wanted to talk about a piece of San Francisco architecture on the radio. There’s an expectation of a certain quiet type of sound in a library, and I was sitting in the atrium hearing the noise and didn’t think anyone else had pointed it out before. That’s when I knew the show could work, and that I could tell a story about an atrium. I just found the weirdness of this noisy atrium, and how Dennis dealt with it, fascinating.

Q: What episodes are you proudest of?

A: I’m as proud of our recent episode about the Freedom House Ambulance Service, on the origin of paramedics in Pittsburgh, as anything we’ve ever done.

We had been working on it for a year, and it came out at a time when it was incredibly relevant to the moment because of the national discussion of the Black Lives Matter movement. Black people being pioneers and not getting credit for it is a story that’s unfortunately timeless.

There’s another recent one called “Roman Mars Describes Things as They Are,” and it’s me telling little histories of things in my house because of COVID-19. There was something about that one where people said it was like the boiled-down essence of the show. I did it completely on my own, like I used to, and usually in one take, walking around and reading off of taped-up scripts.

One of the fun parts of the show is that we get to decide exactly how we want to make it, and that still changes from week to week after 10 years.

Q: You have a book coming out with Kurt Kohlstedt called “The 99% Invisible City,” and you’ve said, “This book is dedicated to the nerds who want to know the stories, and they don’t know half of the stories.” Have you been holding out on us all these years?

A: We wanted the book to exist for a reason, and not just be a transcript of the episodes. And the main reason was to access the collective knowledge of the show in a way that’s searchable and fun.

We saw there were many big ideas we never covered on the show, so we cast them in a new way that fit into a larger thesis. Some things we used never made it to air, like one of my earliest interviews about cisterns in San Francisco. It didn’t really work outside of San Francisco, but it really worked in the context of the book.

“The 99% Invisible City” book covers some topics that didn’t make it onto the podcast. Photo: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Q: What’s an example of a favorite story you worked on that didn’t quite fit into the show?

A: I was obsessed with the design of a road sign called the W4-2. It’s a sign indicating a lane is ending. It didn’t work for radio because I have to use my hands to indicate the diagram, but Kurt wrote some articles about it because I infected him with my obsession about a truly, poorly designed sign.

Q: Let’s go back to 2014 when you founded the podcast network Radiotopia, which launched with a total of seven shows: “The Truth,” “Fugitive Waves” (later renamed “The Kitchen Sisters Present”), “Strangers,” “Theory of Everything,” “Love and Radio,” “Radio Diaries” and “99% Invisible” as the flagship. What was the impetus behind that?

A: A few years into the show, I launched a Kickstarter to hire producers because I realized a little podcast without station support could support itself that way. With Radiotopia, I wanted to teach other shows how to support themselves, and because I wanted the best producers in the world to be independent of the public radio system. So that was really the impetus.

I was trying to correct all the things I thought were wrong about paying producers of public radio. It was a different era; there was no Gimlet (a podcast distributor) and no “Serial.” It was like we were building a ship as we were sailing.

Q: How much of your own design went into building your studio in beautiful downtown Oakland?

A: The truth is, when it comes to thoughtful design in my own space, I don’t walk the walk.

The studio was OK at first, but it really got cleaned up when Katie Mingle, our senior producer at the time, wanted to make it look nice for guests from Radiotopia. It’s weird because I care about design, but I also have to work at my desk.

Q: Would you ever make a movie?

A: I made “99 P.I.” to be exactly what it is, and any deviations from that always felt unnecessary. These days, podcasts are treated as a launching ground for bigger and better things like a movie. Every time someone approaches me to make a movie, they ask what I want to do, and I tell them, “I want to make a podcast.”

“The 99% Invisible City: A Field Guide to the Hidden World of Everyday Design”
By Roman Mars and Kurt Kohlstedt
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
(400 pages; $30)



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