Wednesday, April 9, 2014

99% Invisible

Have you ever thought about how your toothbrush got its shape? Ever wonder why the teddy bear became a household toy while the billy possum is pretty unheard of?    What about having trouble appreciating Superman? Roman Mars has. 

Roman Mars is the creator and host of a brilliant podcast, 99% Invisible. He started his show in 2010 and is now in its fourth season, and has produced over 100 episodes anywhere from 2:30 - 30 minutes long, all about a variety of design, architecture and otherwise "invisible" activity going on in our world. What is "invisible" activity? Well, the title of the show comes from a quote by architect Buckminster Fuller, "99% of who you are is invisible". Mars has embraced that idea to see the world as always hiding an interesting story, whether it be something mundane, like barcodes, or magnificent, like the Chrysler Building, there is always a more interesting story under the surface. He tries to focus on the little things that are nearly invisible, the things that people kinda notice as they go about their day, but never actually give any thought to. He has an amazing talent to dig out the stories in these little  and get people to tell them in an enticing way, then put it all together in a way that has gotten it to be one of the most popular podcasts in the world. It is also a show that has changed the future for funding public radio, more on that below. But first, who is this guy called Roman Mars?

He is a man who has a PhD in genetics. However, after two years of working in that field, he decided that it wasn't for him, instead he wanted to go into public radio. He spent some time in a tech job and after that company was bought out, he took the opportunity to intern at KALW, a public radio station in San Francisco, and climbed the ladder from there. He was not particularly interested in architecture until he took a boat tour of Chicago during which the tour guide told the story of how one building  didn't have any corner offices so that company vice-presidents couldn't fight over who got one. This led Mars to realize that he "wasn't invested in the aesthetics of buildings, but [he] loved the stories of buildings a whole lot" (Ahner). It is this love for stories that got him involved in the "bite-size design segment" that KALW wanted to add to the station (Ahner). However, the short segments were so well received that Mars started expanding them and putting them out as podcasts.

So, why is this guy creative? Well, there are a few different areas where his creativity really shines through. The first is in his actual composition and work on the podcasts. The fact that Mars is able to put together a 4 and a half minute podcast on how the modern toothbrush got its shape, and have millions of people listen to it and ENJOY it! There is something special going on there. He has expressed that what he is really interested in is telling the story of humanity throughout the lens of design, and by doing that, "making the mundane world seem more wonderful somehow" (Popovich). I would claim that he has a combination of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation pushing him forward in this endeavor. On the one hand, he truly loves these stories that he is uncovering, but part of the thing that he enjoys is sharing it with others, and making them be full of wonder over something small. 

He is also really creative in the way he has approached fundraising. As he was entering his third season he set up a set of goals for fundraising, that based on how much was raised, he would be able to add certain things to the show, such as a part-time collaborator or a smartphone app. However, those goals were reached really quickly, so the 5000 Backers Challenge was set up. An institution pledged to give $10,000 if Mars go 5,000 backers, which was exceeded! Overall, Mars raised over $170,000, breaking Kickstarter's record for fundraising for a journalistic venture. Further, this got people talking about new ways to fund radio. And it got Mars excited about how much people were willing to support him. He hopes that his experience can show other public radio programs how they can be successful in the game, because honestly the public radio format is hard to break into, generally requiring longer, more general-interest shows. But, by gaining support, especially financial support, online, hopefully more independent, niche shows can gain popularity.

Each one of Mars' podcasts is an absolute delight to listen to, and introduces an approach to the everyday world that the audience most likely hasn't had before. His form of creativity, then, is important, in that it's helping broaden peoples minds and teaching them a little bit. However, mostly, they are just enjoyable! Hopefully he is able to keep coming up with new designs and stories that he is willing to share, and hopefully the public continues to support this expression of his creativity. 

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