99% Invisible

radiotopiaRadiotopia, like National Public Radio (NPR), is a network bringing podcasts together under one roof. It’s a wild west in podcast-land, and networks like Radiotopia give creative minds the support necessary to produce shows. Today I want to tell you about Radiotopia’s flagship show, “99% Invisible” (99PI).

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What is 99PI? 99PI is a show about architecture and design… Whoa now, let’s take a big step back there. 99PI is a show about the constructs of our lives, and the incredible parts of it that are often tediously crafted, and frequently overlooked. That’s more like it. True, this is a design and architecture show, but really it’s about unnoticed parts in our world that most take for granted, or never even consider. 99PI brings intrigue out of the mundane and observations through an architectural lens.

Architecture, in this case, refers to buildings of course, but also encompasses its broader definition: the structure of anything. 99PI picks at simple things, like escalators that squeak, and shows you the symphony behind it. 99PI examines common items, like money, and finds out why it’s designed the way it is. What comes out is so engaging that often you will forget what you were working on and just listen.

It’s hosted by producer Roman Mars, who is becoming one of my favorite hosts, alongside Jad and Robert from Radiolab. Good hosts to me share a common thread, and that is their truly honest interest in the subject matter. With Roman, you can really hear it in his voice; it feels so genuine and authentic. It’s apparent that Roman, with or without 99PI, would still investigate and read up on everything he does for it. Roman’s enthusiasm is contagious, and he makes it feel like you are listening to a friend tell you about their favorite hobby.

Now, to start your listening experience I recommend number 115 “Cow Tunnels.” I’m not going to spoil this episode by telling you whether they exist or not, though even if I did, it would still be worth listening. To keep it brief, there may, may not be, or may have been tunnels for cows to be herded through under Manhattan. Supposedly, the tunnels were created because cows were causing traffic issues, and interfering with the increasing volume of personal vehicles on the road. Join the 99PI team as they investigate whether the myth is true or not.

Next, I’d suggest you listen to a more typical 99PI episode, number 125 “Duplitecture.” Duplitecture is architecture that is copied from other places, as a fully usable imitation. More specifically, China, and its incredible feats of duplitecture ranging from the Eiffel Tower, the White House, and even whole European towns. It’s important to note, Roman remarks, that China is not the only place that does duplitecture. The U.S. uses it constantly, such as The White House, which was actually created in the image of a building in Dublin that is currently used as part Parliament. 99PI producer Avery Trufelman makes the point that “when Americans build buildings that draw from European elements, we’re being inspired. When the Chinese do so, they’re ripping off, they’re copying, they’re con artists, and I think that’s unfair.” What really drew me to this episode was a quote from Roman that “lack of talent, plus stealing, equals creativity.” What Roman is getting at, is that when you try and imitate someone’s work, you are using a different set of tools and materials, both physically and mentally. So what you create cannot be a perfect replica, but is instead mutated to become something unique.

One more for you, listen to episode 114 “Ten Thousand Years.” In this episode, the 99PI crew interviews a team that has a job of finding a way to inform Earth inhabitants ten thousand years from now that an area contains highly dangerous radioactive material. The complexity behind such a simple sounding task is astounding, and is such a great thought exercise of what will become of earth in that amount of time. If that doesn’t grab your attention, then maybe genetically altered cats that detect radiation by changing color will? Even if they don’t, check the episode out, it’s worth it.

Looking back over the podcasts covered in the Muse, literally all of them have come from or are affiliated with NPR, except 99PI. This is truly a testament to NPR for supporting and funding amazing shows. Producing podcasts can be very difficult because it’s a free service for people, but not a free service to create. Radiotopia and 99PI took a modern approach to funding, and successfully completed a $250,000 Kickstarter for their next season of groundbreaking shows. What makes podcasting so beautiful, is that it can give a platform for alternative “radio” to exist, and sometimes thrive.

I expect as podcasting moves forward, more individual shows will band together to support one another, get into people’s ears, and hopefully find funding. The more ears they get into, the better chance they have of finding support to keep themselves going, which is good for all of us! If you find a show you love, then consider helping it out with a donation, or at least pass it on to your friends. I’m always open for suggestions too, so if you hear anything, send it my way by leaving me a comment on our website!


Born in Seattle, raised in Bellingham, Joel is a real cloud loving, tree climbing, North Westerner. He can be found living by a Troll in Seattle, often exploring a vast array of breweries, and music happenings. He works as an audio/video technician in Redmond giving him a perfect drive for listening to podcasts. He is also a professionally certified dance instructor, and produces his own local concerts in his spare time.

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