Roman Mars, Host of the 99% Invisible Podcast | Talks at Google


LOGAN URY: Thank
you all for coming. My name is Logan Ury, and I
run a behavioral economics team at Google called Irrational Lab. It is my pleasure to introduce
our very special guest Roman Mars. So as you probably know,
Roman is the host and creator of “99% Invisible,”
a short radio show about design
and architecture. With over 40 million downloads,
the “99% Invisible” podcast is one of those popular
podcasts in the world. Fast Company named him one of
the 100 most creative people in 2013. He was a TED main stage
speaker this year, and his crowd funding campaigns
have raised over $1.16 million, making him the highest-funded
journalist in Kickstarter history. He is also a co-founder
of Radiotopia, a collective of groundbreaking
story-driven podcasts. And I’d like to add he also
has twin boys with possibly the coolest names ever, Mazlo
Rocket Mars and Carver Atomic Mars. Congratulations. ROMAN MARS: It’s true. LOGAN URY: So, Roman, thank
you so much for joining us. ROMAN MARS: Thank
you for having me. LOGAN URY: I want to start
with some basic questions about the show. So at one point you were
getting your PhD in genetics, setting a gene cluster in corn. How did you wind up
creating “99% Invisible,” and what’s your mission? ROMAN MARS: Well, there’s a lot
of distance between those two things. So I studied genetics. I loved going to school,
and when college ended, I just wanted to
go to more school. And so I did that. But then I realized after
I’d finished my classes and finished my
teaching that I was not meant to be a scientist. It just was not in me. And so one of the things
I loved was public radio. I listen to public
radio all the time. I didn’t have a TV. And at a certain point
when I moved out here, and I was listening to
a lot of public radio. And I love the way they talked. I love the way they did things. And it reminded me
of teaching, which is my favorite part of
being a graduate student. And so I’ve just made
it my mission in life to just rearrange everything to
become a public radio producer. Because I didn’t know
what the job was, but I knew there
was someone who told Ray Suarez on Talk of the
Nation what questions to ask who read the books. And I was always good at that. And when I was a
graduate student, my favorite thing was leading
seminars, and reading papers, and stuff like that. And I knew there was
someone who did that job. And so I rearranged my life
to kind of make that happen. And then “99%
Invisible” came about because I’d been working
radio at that point for about a decade, actually. And I’d been to Chicago and I
moved back when I had the boys. And there was the AIA of
San Francisco and KALW. They had this idea of putting
together a little architecture minute, a little drop-in
story about a local building. And they asked me what
I’d thought about that, and would I be interested
in doing something about it. And I’d began to plan it
and sort of sound design the idea of it. And I met with all these
people and I was like, I would totally love
to do this show. At the time I was working on
a show called “Snap Judgment.” I was their first senior
producer, and sort of getting them going in radio. And I loved “Snap
Judgment,” but the style is extremely emotional
storytelling. There’s very few facts. And I’m very fact. I just am didactic by nature. And I wanted something that
used my teaching voice. And so that’s what
“99% Invisible” became my outlet for that. And I hadn’t hosted
in a long time, and so it was fun to
conceive of a project where I would host again. And so that was what it was for. LOGAN URY: That’s great. So at lunch we talked about
some of the worst pitches that you get. Where do you actually
get some of the best inspiration for the show? ROMAN MARS: I mean, the
best thing about the show, the best thing about
covering design, is that it’s a way of covering
everything and nothing at the same time. You can kind of find
inspiration anywhere. And so I take pictures
of things constantly. And so the best
things come from me trying to scratch
an itch of something that I’m interested in. And then it usually takes
some kind of second fact to turn it into an actual story. So we’ll find some weird
plaque or some weird thing and I’ll have no idea
what that’s about. And then it’ll stick in my head,
and then another instance of it will come up and then all of
a sudden it becomes a thing. So the flag thing, which is
one of my weird obsessions, is flags. And that story, because I was
in Chicago, and I move there. And I was like, what the fuck
is that thing I see everywhere, and do other cities have flags? I didn’t understand it. And that was something
that stuck in my head for a long time, turning
that into a story. But it wasn’t until I came
back to San Francisco, and realized I’d never
seen the flag there, and then why I’d
never seen the flag. Because it’s terrible. LOGAN URY: For those who
haven’t seen [INAUDIBLE], you should see the
San Francisco flag. ROMAN MARS: It’s not pretty. And then that became a story. And that was like the sixth
episode of “99% Invisible.” And it’s something that was
just kind of stuck in my craw for like a long time
until it had an outlet. LOGAN URY: So now we understand
where you get inspiration from. Can you walk us through the
process of making an episode, from getting an idea to
eventually publishing it? ROMAN MARS: Well,
in the old days it was basically like that. I would have some
idea in my head. I would start working on it. One of the great things about
it– because in the beginning the shows were just
four minutes long– so you can make anything. It barely has to have a story
to be four minutes long. You just have to
have a couple facts. Nowadays I have a team
of people, Sam Greenspan, and Katie Mingle,
and Avery Trufelman. They work for me and
we all sit in a room. And we get pitches
in from the outside and they pitch
things internally. And then we assign someone
to be the primary reporter, and that comes back to
me, and then we edit it. Katie edits at first. She’s our main editor. Then it’s a long process. Somebody presents a script. Basically, they come
up with an idea, we talk about what’s interesting
to us about it, what’s the angle of the show. And then they go and
do the interviews and start to put it together. And we discuss it again and
then they put together a script. And then that script goes
through all these iterations, and then we perform it
a couple times together. And then we perform it to tape. It’s just a long process. LOGAN URY: So how
long will that take? ROMAN MARS: I would say on
average a comfortable show takes about four to five weeks. LOGAN URY: Wow. And does most of what you
record get put into an episode? ROMAN MARS: Oh no not even– LOGAN URY: What percentage
do you think makes it in? ROMAN MARS: Like an interview? I would say every single
interview is usually an hour, and we probably use four
or five minutes of it. LOGAN URY: Or none of it. ROMAN MARS: Or none of it. Yeah, pretty often. And then we kill certain
stories we pursued. They’re just not working,
and they just get killed. That’s a luxury that happens
when you have a staff. Back in the old days, I
would squeeze a story. If I had pursued it at all,
it was going to go on the air. Because it was my nighttime job. I had to make it count. LOGAN URY: Can you
tell us about some of your favorite episodes
or favorite things that you’ve learned? ROMAN MARS: I’m terrible
with this question. I can tell you my
least favorite. My least favorite
episode is always the one I’m currently working on. And I’m just like,
God, this sucks. LOGAN URY: What about
some really weird people who you’ve met along the way? ROMAN MARS: One of
the things that’s great about designers
and architects is they’re extremely
passionate people. And so I like tapping into
other people’s obsessions. And I catch it very
quickly or easily so if someone’s really
into sidewalk stamps, then I become
infected immediately. And then I began taking
photographs of sidewalk stamps or flags or whatever. LOGAN URY: I think of you
as the manhole cover guy. ROMAN MARS: Yeah, exactly. So what I love is
when people ask me what’s the quintessential
“99% Invisible” episode, I always say it’s
like we cover manhole covers, even though we’ve
never covered manhole covers. And it’s my internal
joke, for me and Sam. Yeah, that’s our one we’ve never
done, but that’s our thing. The weirdest thing that happened
in general with the show is when you start to notice
all the effort that people go into designing the world
and making it a better place. It makes you kind of
optimistic about the world, and I’m not naturally
wired that way. And I think that’s
the biggest change that I’ve seen in my life. I don’t think that a lot of
the people that I grew up with when I was an angry
punk straightedge kid would say, “God, that Roman,
he just loves the world.” You know what I mean? But it kind of rewired
me a little bit. LOGAN URY: It’s sort of like
a pitch for mindfulness. If you’re paying attention
things around you, you’re happier, because
you notice more. ROMAN MARS: I think so. That’s what I like. And that’s what I’ve heard from
people who listen to the show. They began to tell me
the thesis of the show without me being very explicit
about the thesis of the show. About that mindfulness and
the joy of these things. LOGAN URY: Do you have a
dream episode, or dream guest you’d like to
feature on the show but haven’t been able to yet? ROMAN MARS: Huh. I don’t have a dream guest. I don’t tend to pursue
anything around a personality. I just don’t have that in me. I don’t know what that is. I’m often asked to interview
famous architects on stage or something like that, and
I’m like, I don’t want to. It’s just not my thing. LOGAN URY: I totally relate. ROMAN MARS: But I don’t have
anything to add to that. Especially if
they’re famous enough to be interviewed on
a big stage somewhere, then I have nothing
to contribute to that. My favorite person
to interview is the person who wrote some
blog post five years ago that I found. And they’re just
stoked I’m there. LOGAN URY: Are you thinking
about somebody right now? ROMAN MARS: Like the
sidewalk stamper. We had never done
that as a story yet. We were going to
do it as a video. But he was hard to find because
his blog was really old. That type of thing. I like connecting with
those people the best. That’s what makes me happy. LOGAN URY: So we just watched
your TED talk last night on state flags. Can you talk to us a little bit
about your experience at TED, and about how you
chose this topic, and maybe what else
you considered? ROMAN MARS: TED
was a real treat. I really loved it. It’s kind of like being here,
where you just walk around and pick shit up and drink it. You go out and grab
whatever you want to, and it’s all free and
available, and everything’s nice and clean. So I loved it. Rock on. What I loved about
TED is I think you see a lot of TED talks. I think everyone has their
own impression of what TED is about, and when
you’re asked to speak at TED. I’ve done hundreds
of radio stories and I’ve told kinds
of stories on stage and various other formats,
but there’s something about doing a TED talk
which, you’re thinking, well, do I have to do it
like a TED TED talk, or do I do it like
a normal talk, or–? It throws you off. And so I wrote a very
TED TED talk once which was kind of the big
grand unifying theory of the show and my existence. And I had little bits of
the show, the episodes, and I performed it a few times. Or in live settings I
would do pieces of it and see how it would fly. It was terrible, and I hated it. Hated it a lot. And so I called them and
I said, “I hate my talk. I think I want to
do one on flags.” And they’re like, OK. I said, “I have
this one that’s kind of about design in everyday
things, and the love letters that designers leave
for you in the world. And I think it’s OK, but I also
have this talk about flags. And they were like, “I
can tell in your voice. You should do the flag one.” LOGAN URY: Good for TED. ROMAN MARS: Yeah. And then I stripped
out all the clips. I tried to do it. I was envisioning it of the
way you stand on the red dot and you have the
little microphone. And I had stripped
away all that stuff. And I said, “And
also when I perform I do this little thing
where I press the buttons and I talk over a lot
of music and stuff.” And they were like, “Go for it. We’d love to see that happen.” And so I had in my head what TED
was about, and TED is not that. If you are a neuroscientist
and you’ve never done a talk before, they know
how to make your talk good, and they will make
it fit that, and they know how to do that talk. But if you have some idea
as to what you want to do, they will totally let you go. It was free rein. It was really remarkable. And so I loved my
experience with them. I was totally into it. I met weird, crazy people,
and had just a great time. LOGAN URY: What was your
favorite talk that you saw? ROMAN MARS: Favorite. Well, my favorite set
was a lot of my friends do a thing called “Pop Up
Magazine” up in the city. It was a set of– I
loved all those mentally. The most striking one
was earlier in the day, when my talk was. Monica Lewinsky gave a
talk, and it was the buzz. It was the talk of
the whole conference. Of whether or not it was
going to be exploitative, or going to be
weird, or whatever. And she just went in and she
knocked it out of the park. And it was a joyous thing. She said, “I’m
now 41 years old.” And my head exploded,
because in my mind, she’s 24. So that was the biggest
experience of the talk. And then the first
day I show up, and then there’s the
former Prime Minister of Australia, who normalized
trade relationships with China. I was like, why
the fuck am I here? My little flag talk. And that was intimidating,
but over the course, you start to see where
your place is in it. And you’re like, oh yeah,
I’m meant to be comic relief. I got it. Cool, I can just– LOGAN URY: Well, you
got a standing ovation. ROMAN MARS: I know. I loved it. So that’s the thing about TED. One of the things is there’s all
these really important people. The next day the Nobel
Peace Prize winner, who freed 80,000 child
slaves, presented. And when he comes out,
you’re like, well, that dude’s getting
a standing ovation. I mean, seriously. He earned it. But when you make them stand
up for your little flag talk, I felt great after that. It was pretty fun. LOGAN URY: So one
thing I was wondering, since you’re such a
big fan of design, is there a product
that you wished you’d designed because
you like it so much? ROMAN MARS: Oh no. The thing is I’m a fan
of design but I’d never want to– I don’t
want to be a designer. I’m a professional appreciater. LOGAN URY: Those who
can’t do, do radio. ROMAN MARS: Maybe. That was the same way with me. I was a huge punk and
hardcore music fan, but I was never in a band. I just was like,
I’ll be there early. I’ll buy the seven inch. That’s my deal. LOGAN URY: You’re a
professional enthusiast. ROMAN MARS: I’m totally a
professional enthusiast. LOGAN URY: Anything that you
would like to redesign, maybe not as a designer but
like, grocery store cards drive me crazy? ROMAN MARS: Well, the one in
my lifetime, which I think is coming. The fax machine has to die. Every time I get a
thing that’s like, sign this and fax it
back, it’s like, OK well you’re going to get that
back in about 11 weeks when I get around to it. I can’t stand it. There’s plenty of
things I hate, like I’ve done shows about US currency. I don’t like US currency. I would redesign US currency. I think our passports
are really fucking ugly. Which is all that eagle
and wavy, I don’t know. Just like, give it up, guys. It’s too much. You know? I am proud, too. I love America. I really, really do. But let’s just try other things. LOGAN URY: You’re now on some
sort of list for saying that. ROMAN MARS: I know
I’m on the list. On the list. LOGAN URY: So now I want
to ask you some questions just about podcasts in general. I read that you listen
to over 50 podcasts. What’s the best podcast
that we’re not currently listening to? ROMAN MARS: Ooh. Well, I don’t know. So I have this little
collective that I’m part of called Radiotopia. And so you have to
listen to all those. LOGAN URY: You can pitch
us onto Radiotopia ones. ROMAN MARS: Well, the
newest one in Radiotopia is one called “The
Illusionist” by Helen Zaltzman. LOGAN URY: Some fans here. ROMAN MARS: And Helen has done
this podcast called “Answer Me This” with Olly Mann for eight
years, and it’s so funny. It makes me really,
really happy. And I was originally trying
to get “Answer Me This” in Radiotopia before we had
an idea that we were sticking to narrative story style shows. And so she started
this one on word usage and etymology called
“The Illusionist,” and I love that one. And so every other
week, it’s “Answer Me This” or “The
Illusionist” and I always get to hear from Helen. And she’s just a gem of
a human being and just really, really funny. Naturally great at everything. It’s almost infuriating how
good she is at this stuff. But everyone should listen to
“The Illusionist” and “Answer Me This.” Those are a couple favorites. LOGAN URY: So I’ve heard
you say that podcasts are more intimate than
listening to the radio. Can you talk more about that? ROMAN MARS: Well when
I started the show, one of things I liked
about it– I’ve sound designed a
lot of radio shows, and there was something about
the format of the podcasting, and the subjects and
my low-key style. I loved the miking. You might say, oh, you sound
different than you normally do on the show. It’s like, well, I mike the
show really close to my face, so it’d be like, “This is 99%.” I talk lower. My point is I’m
trying to be– I want to have the voice that you hear
of yourself inside your head. Because I’m doing
this thing where I’m trying to be your guide
through the world, and I think that that requires
that intimate connection. And so I was very
conscious of that when I was creating the show. And you put these things in
your head and I’m right there. And I know I feel that
connection to the people that I listen to, so
I wanted to create that intimate space with
the people who listen to me. LOGAN URY: Yeah. I thought it was really
interesting, because I’ve noticed when I watch TV
shows on my laptop in my bed, I feel really close
to Don Draper. And then on TV I’m like,
oh, they’re so far away. It’s just a different experience
of experiencing media. So what’s your dream for
the future of podcasts? ROMAN MARS: Probably that
they won’t be called podcasts. LOGAN URY: Should we
rename them right now? ROMAN MARS: Oh, no, I’ve
tried for years at this point. I’ve kind of given up. At this point, I’ve accepted
that I’m a podcaster. But sometimes when
I say it, I’ll say, “I’m a podcaster,” like that. Just because that
somehow is how I feel. But recently I’ve
just come to accept that’s the name
it’s going to be. It’s not a lesser form. In fact I think it’s a
superior form at this point. And I don’t know if
we can ever rename it. But my hope is that some
mechanism just makes it so there are these shows,
and you press a button, and the shows happen,
and that’s it. LOGAN URY: I heard
you say you want a podcast button in the car. ROMAN MARS: Totally. My listening changed a lot when
I finally got a new enough car that the Bluetooth
syncs to the car. It just flips on, and
whatever’s on your phone starts. And I haven’t turned on
my radio in a long time. And I devote my life
to public radio. So that really changed. I think that was one
of those things that made podcasting pushed ahead. I think that the
critical mass of people with those types
of cars made it so that listening to whatever
was on your phone at the time became the thing that
you did all the time. My hope is that they just
feel like radio shows. So they feel like
pieces of entertainment. And nobody cares
about the provenance of how it was distributed,
or whether you signed up for an RSS feed, or whatever. LOGAN URY: So since
we’re at Google, I wanted to ask you a few
questions about technology. So with today’s
technology, and people walking around with headphones,
and staring at their screens, do you think people
are interacting less with the buildings around
them and their environment? ROMAN MARS: I mean, maybe. I’m pretty guilty of that. I have my earphones
in most of the time, so I don’t listen as
much as I used to. But I feel like people
are more engaged and more design-aware than ever. My conceit always is that
the story of a design is more important than the
aesthetics of the design. And because you
have the back story of everything at
your fingertips, the world gets more into you. Like you get when you get a
good story about something. You begin to fall in
love with these things and these structures. And I think that’s often
what the phone provides. I mean maybe if you’re on
Twitter, you don’t get that, but if you’re engaged
and looking stuff up. That’s the way I operate in
my screen world is looking up little things all the time. And that does make
me more engaged. And then the other thing is
I take pictures of things all the time, which reminds
me of my thoughts, which is important. And you could say, why
don’t you just use your eyes instead of always using a lens? But to me I feel like I get the
right balance of that stuff. LOGAN URY: Well, it’s
an interesting point. It’s almost like because
we’ve had Google for a while, we know we can ask
those questions. So if we see something
that sparks our interest, there’s an immediate way
to get the answer to that. So it changes,
maybe, how we think. ROMAN MARS: It does. But I think that there’s
an expectation that there’s a story for everything, and that
you can find it pretty easily. And I think that when you
think about the stories behind things, they’re
more meaningful. LOGAN URY: What scares you about
technology or Google right now? ROMAN MARS: Ooh. Let’s do something
about technology. I don’t know. I think that when it
runs into a friction with me, personally, is when
somebody who we work with, they want to introduce some
kind of metric which I want to be my own creative thought. I don’t want to be told I have
to put something in my show within nine seconds or
someone’s going to skip it. LOGAN URY: Oh, like analytics. ROMAN MARS: Yeah, I’ll rub up
against that technologically a little bit. But it’s not that I think
that those things are bad. I think those things are
good, but I don’t always want to be subject to them
when I’m making things. I get this a lot with– so we
started having ads on the show, to support the show. And I always put them all
at the end of the show. And these days as podcast
things exploded and stuff, it’s really common to have
pre-rolls and mid-rolls, which are ads in the middle or
at the very beginning. And just aesthetically,
this is not my bag. I just don’t want to do it. I listen to plenty of them
with it, and I don’t mind, but it’s just not my thing. But the whenever we
talk to an advertiser I get hit with this like,
well, in-the-show ads do this well, and the
[INAUDIBLE] and this well. And I was like, you
don’t understand. My people stay for
my ads, usually. It’s different. LOGAN URY: Well, you make
them really personal. ROMAN MARS: That’s the idea. I do them different. But it’s hard to
argue the analytics, because they’re right. But I’m right, too. So those are the
things that I run against in
technology, where they have good facts on their side. It’s not that they’re wrong. I feel like I’m the exception. Which I guess everybody feels
like they’re the exception. LOGAN URY: So you
have that experience where you see later
how popular a show was, and you’re like, but
that show was so great. It should have been
more popular than that. Why did this one
perform this way? ROMAN MARS: Yeah,
and every once in a while I get a feeling about one
of them, but you never know. LOGAN URY: What’s the most
popular when you’ve ever run? ROMAN MARS: It’s
kind of anecdotal but I would say this
one called “Heyoon” was one of the more popular ones. It’s about Alex Goldman,
who works on a show called “Reply All” now. It’s about this
sort of secret place that he went to as a
teenager in Ann Arbor. And it was extremely personal. There wasn’t a
lot of fact in it. I mean, all of it
was true, but it wasn’t me trying to teach
you something about whatever. And I was a little nervous
about it, actually. I wasn’t sure it
was going to work. But I think because it
was different, because it was personal, it stood out. It was the tall
flower in that case. And then people really
gravitated towards it. I think if I did
that type of show every week, people
would not like it, but that one does well. The one about Citicorp
tower nearly blowing over, that does well. But there will be ones
that are like– we did this one for a long time. Julia Barton brought me this
one about the port of Dallas, the idea of turning Dallas
into a port city which is 300 miles inland. And I was deeply concerned
that was way too wonky. Way too weird and wonky a
process, and bureaucracy, and hydrology. And I just was
like, listen, guys. I don’t know about this. And then people kind
of love that one. You get in the right space and
people will nerd out with you for the most part. We make them for us,
and I think we’ve built enough of a
relationship with people that they’ll come along with us
for the ride most of the time. LOGAN URY: That’s how I felt
about the billiards episode. I was like, I trust you. Let’s see where this goes. ROMAN MARS: Exactly. And for a long time
we were debating where to put the reveal
about plastics in it, because we had first scrubbed
it from the beginning, and we put it really late. And then we decided
to put it back. And that was Katie and Dan. We went back and
forth on that one. Because it’s hard
to figure out what’s going to make it
relevant to people. LOGAN URY: I think it worked. So what are some
stories about technology that you’re
interested in telling? ROMAN MARS: Well, Sam’s working
on this piece about automation in general, and what it means. The first automatic doors
and what kind of anxiety they caused. And I was trying to
talk to your car people, but they wouldn’t talk to me. So if you’re
listening, I remember. So it started out with
we got a pitch– I don’t know if I should tell you. When is that piece coming out? I don’t I’m going to ruin it. But we had a pitch about these
old trains in Buenos Aires. And you had to
manually open them. And this woman
from the states, it caused her great
anxiety anticipating being the person up front
who had to open the door. And we theorized,
which is backed up by a lot of newspaper
reports, that the opposite happened when automatic doors
were actually introduced. That you’ve got a
lot of anxiety when you’re walking up to a door,
waiting for it to do its thing. But she felt great
performance anxiety when she had to open the door. I feel the same way. If I’m in line for a fast food
place or something like that, practice my order, because
I’m like, can’t mess up! I’ve got to get this right. LOGAN URY: Are you the guy who
opts out of sitting in the exit row? ROMAN MARS: No,
no, I’ll do that. That’ll be fine. But if it involves
people waiting then I get really nervous
and anxious about that. But I was really
interested in that idea. And especially the
weird brackish water in automation, where
the sink is automated, but they have to pump the soap. And things like that
where it’s like, when did we decide which
ones, and what works, and what doesn’t work? And so that was what was
swimming around in our heads. LOGAN URY: How did you feel
about the Google bathrooms? ROMAN MARS: It seemed
to work just fine. Everything was automated. LOGAN URY: So I have
two more questions and then I’ll open it
up to the audience. So this is kind of random,
but if you could recommend one class that all American
high schoolers would have to take, what would it be? ROMAN MARS: Some kind
of history class. I knew I wanted to be
a scientist so young that I opted out of every
elective until my junior year. I took modern European history. And I was like, oh,
man, I should have been doing this the whole time. And that’s why some
kind of history class with a good professor, who
can really tell great stories. Because that’s really
what it’s about. But history is my big one. LOGAN URY: Oh, I just
remembered the other one. If you could put a line
under the Google homepage for one day– we have the Google
Doodles and those things– what would you want to say? ROMAN MARS: I have no idea. LOGAN URY: It’s a
lot of pressure. ROMAN MARS: It’s
a lot of pressure! LOGAN URY: OK, you
can get back to me. ROMAN MARS: Please. LOGAN URY: And finally,
as a podcast insider, tell us the truth. Did Adnan do it? ROMAN MARS: Should
I really say this? LOGAN URY: What do you think? ROMAN MARS: Yeah. LOGAN URY: You think he did it? ROMAN MARS: Well, yeah, I do. OK, so I listen to that show. LOGAN URY: Can we
just have the audience who thinks he did
it raise your hand? AUDIENCE: Can you
repeat the question? LOGAN URY: From the
podcast “Serial.” ROMAN MARS: Did Adnan do it? Here’s the deal. I got no impression from
the show either way. Women are killed by their
boyfriends or husbands. That is almost a
certain a fact as there is any fact in this world
when it comes to murder. And so I’m resting on that, when
I have no other information. LOGAN URY: Cool. I’ll take your word for it. So now we’ll open up to
questions from the audience, and we have a lovely
volunteer and his dog. We’re going to come to you
so if you have a question, raise your hand, and we’ll
bring the mic to you. AUDIENCE: I do a little
bit of podcasting. So my name is Salim, and I work
here at Google doing training for our partner network, and
we’re looking at different ways to deliver the training. And the thing I like
about the podcast format is all the tools anybody
can use, I mean, the podcast and it goes to their device. It’s [INAUDIBLE] on a phone. Whereas our other training, you
have to actually be connected. So we’re trying this new format. And my idea was just, well, the
content is so important to me, but my colleague who
helped build this– I don’t know if he
can hear me– I said, well, we should
have a show page. And I love the show
page that he designed. It’s great to use
as a marketing tool. I said, this is
what I’m working on. But I feel bad
about the show page, because it’s not the content. It’s the podcast that
I want them to go to. And I want them to go
in the device, which means the show page
is kind of secondary, because I want them–
and I’m OK with that. Just, why do we spend so
much time on the show page? Can you tell me some design
tips on the show page? ROMAN MARS: I’m with
you on this one, in the sense that for the
longest time– until Sam came– the show page for a
certain episode was like, we did a show about this. Listen to it. It was nothing. It was some random picture. I didn’t care all that
much, because the idea was that we were making–
the radio show was the show. Quickly I learned
that a lot of people rely on the website to
fill in the visual images that they were
conjuring in their head when they were
listening to the show. And so find that useful. And more and more
I’ve been thinking that there are
stories to be told which might not be podcasts. But recently, like in
the past couple years, I get tweets from
people that say, this seems like a “99%
Invisible” story more and more. Like we were owning
an idea of how to view the world through design. And so I’ve been thinking more
and more that we would actually build out the website to include
some of those things that might not be radio shows. So I’m starting to
convert to the idea that the web page
is more important, but in the beginning,
the worst thing– AUDIENCE: But your
podcast can be video. That’s what I love
about the podcast. It could be video or audio. And with the end
user’s tool, they can tell us, no, I only
want to see the video. ROMAN MARS: Yeah. I don’t know how to make video,
which is why we do audio. AUDIENCE: So just to
further on your question, you said the visual image. So what do you recommend? Because I always try to think
of what is the listener? So I interview a
lot of people, and I try to channel what
kind of questions I’d ask, just like
yourself today, so that people don’t get
a chance to ask questions. Because that’s the format. How do you come
up with the visual that I could take back with me? ROMAN MARS: The visual,
like in my scripts? AUDIENCE: Yeah, like
the visual that you will have on the show page, yeah. You just said to put a
visual on your show page. ROMAN MARS: The visual
on the show page. Because we cover
physical objects, you just have a picture
of the physical object. I mean that’s our
thing, so that’s easier. When you’re describing
visual things on the radio, you either have to
be exactly right, or you have to tell a
story in which it doesn’t matter if you’re exactly right. And we usually
lean on the latter, that you don’t have to
picture it perfectly to tell the right story. And my thing with the website
is I hope it’s a tool. I’m glad people go to it. When we redesigned it,
a lot more people did. But if you ever tell me
you came to the website and didn’t listen to the radio
show, I will be upset with you. AUDIENCE: That was a good segue. One of the things
I like about design is that it’s often determined by
the constraints that you have. And I’m interested in– I
was listening to the startup podcast, and one of the
things they talked about was adding technology. Like you can push a
picture to your phone. And I’m interested in how much
you appreciate the constraint of only being able
to talk, and how much you’re interested
in other multimedia ways of describing things. ROMAN MARS: Yeah, I love
the constraint of it. I think, in the
beginning especially, the joy of doing an
audio-only show about design, like the perversity of that
just gave me so much joy. Because it allowed
me to pick up stories that– a lot of the
design press, especially. It’s been different recently,
but especially five years ago when the show started,
was everything new and shiny on a nice
white background and how beautiful a thing was. And when you don’t have
to worry about that, it opens up the things
you can talk about. And so I really love that. And I love the idea that
I could talk about flags, or the design of language,
or the design of queues, and have it all fit under the
umbrella of “99% Invisible.” And I think a function of
that is because we’re telling the stories only through audio. They’re just as real in front of
you as these physical objects. So I love that stuff. When I’m free to have visuals,
it really throws me off. We’ve been working
on a video forever. I don’t know if
we’ll ever finish it. I hope we will someday, but
it’s just really hard for me to have no constraints
in that way. The other thing I like
about telling design stories with audio is a lot of people
have a real distinct opinion, especially when they see
a building or something. A lot of people hate modernism. A lot of people have
a real reaction to it. But if I can tell you
the story of a building before you see it, I
can make you love it, even if your general perception
of that is that it’s ugly. I love having that power. So in a way it’s a
constraint, but I think that it’s a real powerful mode. If you’re the only
stimulus, it’s only your words that are
painting the picture of it, you can make it
whatever you want. You can make people
feel whatever they want. I love that part. AUDIENCE: Hi, Roman. Thanks for coming in. I’m a big fan. So I wanted to ask a little bit
about the tools that you use. So you mentioned you
use a condenser mic, and you make good use
of the proximity effect. So if you could describe
a little bit the signal flow, whether you use
compression or not. [INAUDIBLE]. And also where the writing
actually takes place. Do you use Google Docs? Do you go use [INAUDIBLE]
for stuff like this? I would love to learn
a little bit more. ROMAN MARS: Yeah. So I mostly use a shotgun
mic and AT897 to track. It’s not the prescribed
use, to do vocal voiceovers. It’s the one I had. It was the one I had. It’s one of the
reasons why it sounds so close is because I
mike it really close, off my face a little bit. And it’s a shotgun mic
and a normal vocal. We write in Google Docs. We share in group. Once a person gets a certain
amount, they open it up. Especially Katie who– she
only shares at a certain point because she has grading. If somebody can see
her typing poorly, she gets really
anxious about that. So she only shares it
after a certain point and then we work together
on the Google Doc. Even in a room, we’ll
play the thing out loud and we’re all making comments
in the comment stream. In the beginning, I
didn’t use scripts. I mainly wrote on the fly. So in the beginning
when it was just me, I would have bullet points and
I would just play the clip, say what I was thinking, cut
it together in Pro Tools, and then write it in Pro Tools. In a way I could
write it in Pro Tools. And then if it didn’t
work, or the breath was wrong or something, then
I’d re-perform the thing I cut together. And I used to call
that retroscripting. It was a way for it to sound
extemporaneous because it was. It was really me
reacting to the take. But it was tighter, and
I cut it and edited it, and I would just try it again
and again until I got it right. And so there were no
scripts in the beginning. But now when you have to
work with other people, you have to write
stuff down on paper. Or “paper.” Yeah, is there anything else? And we’d work in Pro Tools. AUDIENCE: Just so you don’t
have to use compression, EQ. ROMAN MARS: Yeah. So I use basic compression
inside of Pro Tools for me. I have a booming
middle, so I drop down the mid-range of my
voice so you can hear me over music or stuff. Sometimes I forget. So sometimes if you notice
it, and you’re like, you sound really muddy and
when you’re driving in a car I can’t hear your voice at
all because it’s all rumbly. But that’s because I
didn’t cut down the middle. Yeah, that’s about it. We don’t do a lot. A little bit of max and a
little bit of compression. LOGAN URY: Let’s
pass it this way. AUDIENCE: I think
it’s interesting how many of these questions were
about the mechanics of creating podcasts. Would you ever consider
creating something like Radiotopia University? It could even be as simple as
the list you just gave here. ROMAN MARS: Yeah, I mean,
other people are doing it well. So right when I
started in radio, a website started
called transom.org. It’s still going strong and
they had put a lot of stuff out about podcasting. I just feel like
other people are doing a pretty good job of it. I get asked it a lot. I haven’t done them
in a few months, but I used to do these
things called office hours. I had a hard time fielding all
the emails from people starting podcasts and various
other things, and so I just was like,
well, I’ll be at this cafe from 2:00 to 4:00. Show up with your questions. And so I know there’s a lot
of people really interested, and there’d be
some way to do it. But I’ve just never had the
time to commit all that stuff. It’s totally true. It’s people ask
that all the time. What mic do you use and all that
stuff is really, really common, so I’m always happy when
other people handle it for me. AUDIENCE: I just
think of the page that you used to have of these
are the podcasts I listen to. And I found some of the best
experiences I’ve had that way. So even a little one pager. ROMAN MARS: I probably could. I do have one. It’s in the FAQ. It’s like, what
is your equipment? And it mentions the
AT897 and the PCM-D50, the recorder I track
into, and Pro Tools. The thing is for the most
part, none of this stuff– it isn’t complicated. And it isn’t exactly hard. You just have to do it a
lot until it feels good. And you’ll know when your
podcast or your radio story is good. You feel different about it. You just play it out loud
for people, and you’ll know. When I hear a piece, and
when I know the bad parts is, I get really hot around my
head, and my ears get red. I’ll be like, oh, God,
I’ve got to cut that part. That was terrible. So play your work
for other people. That’s usually the secret to it. The equipment’s irrelevant. You can talk into a
micro set recorder. It’ll be fine. AUDIENCE: You mentioned early
on walking around campus here. And I would be curious to
hear your take, from a design architecture perspective, on
the Google campus as it is, or if you’re at all
familiar with some of the plans Google has released
about the next generation. ROMAN MARS: I’m not
especially familiar. I’ve read very basic articles. I don’t have them
committed to memory, I can tell you that much. The main thing, I’m not
an architecture critic, so I don’t tend to have
this initial strong reaction to places. What I react to is, how do
people feel in the environment? So that’s what I
interview people about. So it’s less of a question for
me as it is a question for you. It’s how you feel
when you’re here. When I’m here, I guess
I feel a little lost, but I can get used
to it probably. LOGAN URY: Can you talk a
little bit about the plaque that you took a picture of? That was interesting. ROMAN MARS: Yeah. So this is another story
that we were thinking of. I’d have to look it up. But right through the
main Googleplex area, it must have some kind of
a requirement to be open. Because there’s a
little Title 1080 plaque the very
start of the stairs which is a statement
that basically says, this is supposed to
be a passthrough, and you can pass through
it if you want to. But if you’re sleeping
on the sidewalk, we get to kick you out,
that kind of thing. That’s what that Title 1008 is. And so I took a picture
of that, because I was kind of surprised to see it. You see it a lot
if you’re downtown. There’s a building
with a passthrough, and you’re allowed to
walk through there. It’s not private. It’s slightly public space. So yeah, you have that here. I was really
intrigued to see that. I don’t know why that
just came up, but anyway. I don’t know. What is your
impression of Google? AUDIENCE: I think
the move to– I live in San Francisco,
an like many employees. And I think one of the things I
noticed most coming down here, as you move from an
urban environment, where it’s many people
with different agendas and interests mixing, to a very
nice, but somewhat set apart. ROMAN MARS: Well if you’re
talking about the big scale stuff about creating a
hermetically sealed campus. I think there’s dangers to that
not having outside influence and not being integrated
into the community. And I think you
feel that over time. I think there’s
dangers of what that can do to you, like the
employee-employer relationship. I don’t know what they do to
you, or what they make you do. But there’s dangers
of that because when you get sequestered, like
when you’re in college, you feel everything more. Because you’re on this campus,
you feel the rage more. You feel the injustice more. You feel weird
slights about things. You feel it more. Maybe if you were
integrated into a city, it would have less
of that effect. And I always warn
people, when you take a job where they have
laundry facilities, that means they want you to be
there instead of at home doing your laundry. And so that’s a choice. Sometimes that seems like
an awesome choice to me. But sometimes probably
it’s not a good choice. So the environment
reflects those values. So it’s just part of it. AUDIENCE: First
of all, thank you. We’re on a shuttle for three
or four or five hours a day, and it’s entertaining to listen
to you uncover these stories. But I was just
curious how much do you hold the concept of “99%
Invisible” to the stories that you guys create? Do you sometimes find yourself
saying, well, that’s 20%? ROMAN MARS: Is 99
invisible enough? Yeah, I don’t. We don’t measure against
that sort of thing. AUDIENCE: Well,
because it very often seems like you’re the guy
that reads the plaques and finds the stories
in the plaques. Do you ever find yourself
vetting the concept against some of the stories
that you’re coming up with? ROMAN MARS: Yeah, a little bit. They’re design stories
that are stories. We call them “dude
with a project” stories, which are cool
things that someone does that solves a problem. But it really
doesn’t help you view the world in any different way. It just is interesting. And that to me is the equivalent
of arts reporting, of like, here’s a good band. I want to tell you
about that band. I like the ones where
when you’re done with it, you decode the world
in a different way. And that’s usually what the
secret sauce that puts it over the edge for a
“99% Invisible” story. It doesn’t have to be
the most invisible thing. In fact, for the most part, what
I love is the really obvious and ubiquitous things, and
going, no, wait a minute. Pay attention. There’s an interesting
parts to this thing. Those are actually my
favorite types of stories. AUDIENCE: OK, so you’ve gone
from podcasting at night to making a full time job to now
creating business with a team. I think that’s mainly through
the power of Kickstarter. ROMAN MARS: It’s
one of them, yeah. AUDIENCE: I’ve been a supporter. ROMAN MARS: Yeah, no,
I appreciate that. AUDIENCE: And through
Radiotopia you’re now giving that chance
to other people. Do you see the Kickstarter
and Patreon patronage model letting more people pursue their
artistic passion that same way and turning into
a job or something that they can support them, or
how do you see that developing? ROMAN MARS: Yeah,
well, Kickstarter was hugely important to me. I mean to me at the beginning
it was a means to an end. I needed money to survive or
it wasn’t going to happen. The show wasn’t going to exist. But what I didn’t know,
because the first Kickstart took off in such a way and it
became the biggest journalism Kickstart at the time. And then we did again,
and became bigger. It became a story
in and of itself. And a lot of it was the vanguard
of a lot of this podcast, like resurgence at the time. I mean Alex Blumberg,
who does Gimlet, has very generously cited
me as some kind of influence in making his thing. It’s not entirely true, but
he’s sweet about that stuff. But realizing that you could
form a tight connection with your audience, and
they would value you more than the radio stations
we used to make things for was a huge deal to
us as producers. And for the first time,
because of that connection, because of that ability
to fund directly, radio producers like
myself are able to get by. And it was really touch-and-go
there for a while. I was really trying to leave
radio about seven years ago, right after the kids were born. I did everything in my
power to leave radio, because it just seemed like a
selfish choice for my family. And so Kickstarter was just
a huge game changer for me. I owe them everything. I think it’s one of the
most interesting disruptive technologies, to overuse
an overused term, that’s available. And it was super important
to creative people like me. LOGAN URY: I think it’s nice
to end on a point of gratitude. Thank you so much for coming. ROMAN MARS: Thank you so much.

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