99% Invisible is the brainchild of producer Sam Greenspan and public radio veteran Roman Mars, and its perfect for those of us who like our soundbites short, insightful and poetic. Each episode is rarely over 25 minutes (usually under 15), and focused on design, architecture and “the 99% invisible activity that shapes our world”. Stuff you walk past every day, but never really notice.
The last few episodes have covered myriad topics: the history and surprising art behind handpainted signage (an old-timer can make an ‘O’ in four-strokes; a layman can take up to 50); the illusions inherent in the landscape of highways, which are designed to be experienced only at high speed (I was pretty wowed by how long the white lines dividing traffic lanes actually are); and the controversial demise of Los Angeles’ public transport system: legend has it, the Red Car was bought by a car company to be dismantled, forcing a dependency on freeways – but as Mars tells us, the story isn’t so simple.
Each episode has at least one surprising nugget of conversational gold, wrapped in beautiful soundscapes, poetic scripting, and Mars’ smart, funny and mesmerising narrative pace (Jad Abumrad from the brilliant Radiolab has described it as “a kind of rhythm and musicality that you don’t normally find in radio or podcast storytelling”). Mars, who spent over three years at WBEZ’s Third Coast International Audio Festival as senior producer and sound designer, is able to make the most complex ideas seem totally within our reach, and the built world around us seem fascinating.
If you want to get started, the staff of the show have compiled their favourite 15 episodes. Happy Sunday!