Roman Mars on His New “99 Percent Invisible” Book and Running Radiotopia Like A Record Label | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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Roman Mars on His New “99 Percent Invisible” Book and Running Radiotopia Like a Record Label

100 Percent Independent

Nov 23, 2020 Web Exclusive
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Music has always been essential to 99 Percent Invisible says Roman Mars, the host and creator of the wildly popular podcast—that recently marked 10 years with a design book, titled The 99 Percent Invisible City: A Field Guide to the Hidden World of Everyday Design. Tackling often dry and mundane subjects such as manholes, markers, and municipal flags, Mars understood early on that he had to seduce listeners, and music is used effectively to that end.

“I think, the thing I fell in love with the most, when it came to radio storytelling was talking over music—it feels so good,” said Mars whose deep, soothing voice is one of the most recognizable and considered the gold standard in podcasting today. “It calms you down. It gets your meter right. It trained me to talk…. When you have that bed of something, you don’t have that nervousness…. like I desperately need to chatter to fill this space. The music does it for you and then you’re allowed to have a deliberate pace and bring people in.” Speaking ever so calmly over Zoom, from his home in Berkeley, he breaks out with a laugh, adding: “I know the show is about boring things! That’s the whole point of the show; it’s about everyday things. And finding wonder in them.”

Mars who cut his teeth in public radio with Bay Area station KALW reveals that in the beginning the reason he even got started with the show was because he would find a piece of music and wanted to just talk over it. “I just thought it would work,” he laughs. Initially, there were whole episodes of 99 Percent Invisible (sometimes shortened to 99pi) that began that way. Then he would occasionally engage composer, Sean Real. Around “Episode 200,” Real, an indie musician, came on as a staff member. At that time, not many podcasts had dedicated composers, a testament to Mars’ commitment to music and sound design.

He explains: “It’s a whole other voice of the show—we just couldn’t do it without it. A, it would be no fun. But B, the emotional weight that carries, in the way it allows you to have chapter breaks—and all the stuff we’re thinking about when we think about sound design it really revolves around music—especially if we’re doing a show based on ideas…you need music to create a unifying theme.”

The music of 99 Percent Invisible was just released as a 7-inch record last week and Mars is in his words “stoked.” He says: “You know Radiotopia is like my little punk rock indie label, I’ve always wanted to put out our own music but I’ve never got myself together to make… Finally putting out a 7-inch of Sean’s music is such a delight to me.”

Radiotopia, Mars’ independent radio network, was notably one of Kickstarter’s highest journalism-funded project. He had initially used the crowd source platform to raise funds for the third season of 99 Percent Invisible in 2013. The overwhelming response from fans and supporters convinced him to build a network, in the image of his favorite independent record label—the storied and much revered Washington D.C. punk label Dischord Records. The following year, in partnership with PRX, Radiotopia was launched with seven shows including Criminal and Radio Diaries.

A big fan of punk rock, Mars discovered Dischord Records when he was 15. “I was not like a lover of nihilistic punk rock,” he explains. “I was really in love with the sort of emotional core of caring about the world so much that you’re going to scream about it. Not, hating the world so much that you scream about it.”

He continues: “And there was something about the nature of record labels, being their own entity, it’s like a curatorial body that you just trusted.” Whatever the label released he would buy. He didn’t need to read a review to find out. He certainly preferred some bands to others but there was an implicit trust in what the label stood for.

Dischord challenged him. “Every new Fugazi record was one I hated… and then I would listen to it and say ‘never mind this is the greatest one, my favorite of all time,” he laughs. He recognized early that bands like Fugazi and the ethic of the scene was one that kept moving forward. The music wasn’t there to soothe but to push its listener. “There is some amount of comfort—but it’s always a balance, art is always a balance between comfort and challenge,” he says. “In fact, I think it was Chad Clark from Small Went Crazy and Beauty Pill who told me that good art is a balance between comfort and challenge—see everything I think and everything I say is often related to how much this music impacted me.”

He goes on to discuss “the epic of presenting and cataloguing work,” which comes into play when one considers the various Radiotopia podcasts and the different creative side-projects that the different hosts might have. Mars himself started What Trump Can Teach Us About Con Law in 2016 to help him understand Constitutional Law with law professor Elizabeth Joh.

Hrishikesh Hirway, the creator and host of music podcast Song Exploder has been one of the most prolific creators under the Radiotopia umbrella. His other podcasts include West Wing Weekly, Partners, and Home Cooking. Recently, Hirway’s Song Exploder podcast made the significant leap from audio to a Netflix TV show.

According to Mars, the guiding principal of his network is that he is not the boss. Executive Director Julie Shapiro runs it with the shared resources, and while each individual podcast concentrates on putting out their own shows, she makes sure that things happen for everyone.

“The thing that makes Song Exploder work is Hrishi’s preternatural talent for making compelling work about music and I have nothing to do with it,” Mars says. “All I did, was I once told him that you should join my network, Radiotopia…I said, ‘This is the Dischord of podcasts.’ And he was an indie music person and was like, ‘Oh yeah, I get it.’ And so he did. I can take no credit for its existence and its greatness, other than the fact that I know how to stay out of its way… I have fuck all to do with it.” Mars does believe that what he has done is created an equitable system so that producers can keep being creative without being stymied by someone who’s going to ask “how much time are you going to spend on this?” or “how much money will the network make from the deal.”

Mars admitted that, contrary to all the advice he was given, he decided against setting up a company and buying shows outright. Similarly, at Dischord, co-founder’s Ian Mackaye and Jeff Nelson’s non-contractual agreements were legendary. It proved crucial in spearheading DIY movements of underground punk, hardcore, and post-hardcore in D.C., including the riot grrrl scene, and presaged the grunge movement in the rest of the country, and ultimately around the world. Their ethos endures today with Dischord recently putting up its 40-year catalogue of music on Bandcamp for free, in an attempt to encourage fans to support their favorite bands.

This anti-capitalist stance however, can have its financial drawbacks. “Sometimes when people get bought for $200 million, I think, ‘Why didn’t I do that?’” questions Mars, in light of the recent spate of big companies buying up independent podcasts companies. “Probably would have made some sense. And it’s possible there’s some good I could have done that way.”

But he has no regrets. “It just wasn’t my thing,” he confirms. “I wanted to put on a show where Fugazi headlined, Jawbox and Smart Went Crazy played, and then there was a reunion of Grey Matter… that’s what I wanted. I wanted to create that show and that’s what Radiotopia is.” Meaning it’s a collective of some of the best independent producers—with a nod to women-led creators of shows such as The Kitchen Sisters Presents, Criminal, The Heart, and young adult podcast Adultish—as well as the award-winning prison-based, social justice podcast Ear Hustle.

After a decade of making audio shows and building his network, Mars decided to put out the book, with digital director and 99 Percent Invisible producer Kurt Kohlstedt. It might appear counter-intuitive. A large part of podcast’s popularity and strength as Mars himself has pointed out is the ability to allow listeners to multi-task. And a book is not that.

“The reason for a book is because I love design so much,” he says. “A podcast is great for all those things—it’s the perfect multi-tasking medium, it’s sort of future-proof this way, because the one thing I can guarantee about the future is that people consuming content will be distracted and doing multiple things at once. I make a thing where you do not have to look, you do not have to stop what you’re doing and that’s a nice place to be. The problem is that the audio presentation is locked in a rigid format.”

Podcasts are locked up in a linear format and 99 Percent Invisible, at more than 400 episodes, can be unwieldy and hard to reference. Hence, the book is presented as a field guide, enabling readers to follow essays chronologically; by themes or random flips back and forth—and on each page they will find something intriguing. “It’s a path for you to come to these stories on your own,” Mars says, “ideas that resonate with you, by the pictures or by the stories.”

As much as Mars reckons that audio is the most superior form of communication, it made sense to offer the book now. And it’s not just another merchandising product. Speaking to all the work it takes to write a book, he adds: “It’s too much time for it to be this cash-grabbing exercise. It’s about serving the material.”

And there is a lot material to marvel in the book, from the story of a canoeing enthusiast and fan of “intricate high-speed rapping’ whose informal naming of an island in Massachusetts as Busta Rhymes Island has stuck on the Internet even if local authorities have not vetoed the moniker. To a site in Oakland where drugs, crime, and dumping had given way to a serene, informal Buddhist gathering site, thanks to a local resident’s inclination to not call the police but instead clean the space, then place a Buddha there as an offering of peace and beauty for his neighbors.

The book also circles around two key modes of design in our built world—that of top down designers and bottom-up interventionists, both of which encourage us to take a closer look at our surroundings. And things that might seem off-putting like those flying balloon men at car dealerships or unsightly placards signposted around Los Angeles that were featured in indie band Yacht’s music video “L.A. Plays Itself—can take you down a rabbit hole and reveal the most surprising stories.

Indeed Mars admits that working on 99 Percent Invisible has managed to make him more of an optimist. He often cites the story of curb cuts—the little ramps that make it so a person with a wheelchair can go from street to curb level. In the ’60s a group called the Rolling Quad would sledgehammer curbs then pour cement to make a ramp. Mars elaborates: “It wasn’t about accessibility it was about making a statement. That statement was so powerful. And two decades later, it’s directly related to the Americans with Disability Act of 1990.”

The passage of the ADA made spaces more accessible in cities. This made life easier not just for people with disabilities but everyone, including parents with strollers. “Every one is on track to different mobility,” Mars adds. “I think of the change, the statement of hope and receptivity of then [President] George Herbert Walker Bush, and I’m like ‘Wow, I forgot that Republicans could not be ghouls.’” And in a time of divisive politics and a fractured country, Mars finds much comfort in that. “Something about that helps me out—that progress can be made.”

Buy The 99 Percent Invisible City: A Field Guide to the Hidden World of Everyday Design here.

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