99% Invisible: Roman Mars

Curator: Tim Belonax
date: January 8, 2013
Categories: Experience Design
Tags: architecture, Design, radio, storytelling
Pocket notebook, designed by Andy Mangold

“Ninety-nine percent of who you are is invisible and untouchable.” —R. Buckminster Fuller

There’s something magical about a good story—something visceral. We’ve told stories to each other for hundreds of years. It’s a part of being human. But telling a good story, one that you really connect with and remember is an art form. With a wealth of new technology at our fingertips to scatter our attention in myriad directions, it’s reassuring to hear that the medium of radio is still thriving. Right now, there is no better person perfecting the craft of audio storytelling than KALW’s Roman Mars.  

Named after a quote from Buckminster Fuller (above), 99% Invisible exposes the invisible and untouchable stories of design, architecture and the built world. The radio show is a fantastic example of how research and storytelling can enhance subject matter. What often begins as a simple observation unfolds into a tale of delight. It does not accept the world in front of it “as-is.” The show looks closer (like we all should) at the world, dissecting its bits and pieces and drawing listeners in. It proves James Joyce’s famous line, “In the particular lies the universal.”

The love that Roman has for public radio is evident in every episode. When he attempted to expand the capabilities of the show through a Kickstarter campaign, that love was returned to him en masse. His original goal of $42,000 was obliterated by more than 5,000 backers giving over $170,000. The move was unheard of in public radio and has since garnered great attention for Roman and the show. Ira Glass, host of “This American Life,” recently mentioned Roman at a commencement speech, calling out 99% Invisible and its Kickstarter program for circumventing the old ways of working in public radio.

99% Invisible kickstarter video from 01 Productions

99% Invisible logo, designed by Stefan Lawrence

US Naval Historical and Heritage Command, NH 1733
Anonymous photograph of the USS West Mahomet in dazzle camouflage, 1918

Erik Gould, courtesy of the Fleet Library at RISD, Providence, RI
Dazzle ship design

Anon, government news photograph of members of the US Women’s Reserve Camouflage Corps camouflaging the USSRecruit in Union Square, NYC, 1917

A particular triumph that I ascribe the show was its episode on dazzle ships. These amazing vessels were used in World War I and they are nothing if not visually stunning. How could a radio show tackle a subject so far out of its range? It would be the equivalent of asking someone what the sound of a guitar tasted like. Yet episode 65, “Razzle Dazzle,” presented a compelling story about camouflage, a subject so visually complex and beautiful that its attempted storytelling on the radio was akin to an Evel Knievel jump across the Rio Grande. But Roman nailed it.  

In his Kickstarter video, Roman says, “I like telling stories of who we are through the lens of the things we build.” For me, that’s the big lesson from the show. Every action we take is a significant reflection of our time and who were are. It’s an interesting question and point of reflection. What story does your work tell?

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