The Host Of "99% Invisible" On Reinventing Radio

As the popular design podcast gears up to go weekly, host Roman Mars discusses how he's laying the groundwork for a new golden age of creative storytelling.

People often mistake Roman Mars's cult podcast 99% Invisible for an NPR show. In fact, the program has no affiliation with the organization that's often conflated as the face of public radio, and it probably never will.

Mars is more than Okay with that. "The goal of my show isn't to grow it into a national hourlong weekly show," says Mars, who just launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund his fourth season, during which the podcast will go weekly. "The goal of my show is to be what it is: this irregular-length, short radio show about architecture that comes out weekly."

Roman Mars

That vision doesn't fit into traditional public radio, at least not in a sustainable, solvent way. National, hourlong, weekly shows--the gold standard for successful programs--are expensive and hard to make. To create 60 minutes of programming every week takes a staff of "at least seven people," says Mars, which costs a lot of money, never mind that Mars doesn't want to commit his show to any length. "Filling an hour a week is a lot of time." In addition, landing an hour slot is no easy task; there are plenty of programs already duking it out for Car Talk's former spot.

In order to do it his way, Mars has decided to reinvent the financial model. In addition to the full podcast, he licenses out four-and-a-half-minute versions of his show to public radio stations interested in a niche program like his. That's not enough, though, to cover the bills, he says.

Rather than lean on institutions that are strapped for funds, Mars has turned to Kickstarter. For the second year in a row he has asked his fans to donate and is, again, on track to surpass his goal. Last year, he asked for $42,000 and raised $170,000. After just a day of fundraising this year, he had already received more than $100,000 of his $150,000 goal.

Those funds will go mostly to staffing up--but not so Mars can become the next institution on the dial a la This American Life or Radiolab. Rather, he will improve his podcast, a medium that gives him control over how much, when, and what he produces. Still, he says, a radio version will always exist. "I like being in the world of public radio," he says. He speaks affectionately about KALW, the Bay Area-based station that fostered his growth.

Mars isn't alone in forgoing the constraints of broadcast for a crowdfunded podcast. BoingBoing has a rundown of successful versions of the experiment, including DecodeDC, a program about politics by a former NPR reporter. "This is as public as public radio gets," Mars writes on his Kickstarter.

Crowdsourcing works well for public radio-type shows because fans are used to donating. But, instead of dreaded fundraising pleas at the beginning, middle, and end of programming to guilt listeners into supporting, Kickstarter acts as a separate entity. People donate on their own time, because they want to. "For the most part, my Kickstarter supporters feel like they’re joining the club."

Yet, Kickstarter doesn't fit into Mars's ideal vision for the future of public radio. To attract the attention of the crowdfunding economy takes already having a product with a fan base, he admits. "You can't crowdfund with an idea." Programs first have to prove they're worth the investment, and a lot of great ideas never get to that point.

"My real dream is that a producer who isn't super mainstream with a more nichey idea can go to a station and say, 'If you back me, I'll produce a pilot for $5k,'" he explained. Right now most stations won't do that. They don't want to take the risk. "They often can’t see what the end game is. If you can't make an hourlong show, why bother?"

However, if more shows like 99% Invisible prove they have fans who will pay money to sustain their programming, maybe stations will start taking chances.

If you're new to 99% Invisible, here's a recent podcast about the history of the "I Love NY" logo:

[Image: Flickr user Katie Chao and Ben Muessig]

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