Ratan Lines: 99% Invisible

Roman Mars’ voice is nothing short of spectacular. His words flow like a warm coffee. The voice of Mars is dark, even bitter, with the sensitivity and range to sound sarcastic one minute and sincerely optimistic the next. Even with the subtle speed settings I’ve been using, that voice still sounds so beautiful, so soothing. Did he drop out of a boy band, and “Roman Mars” is his musician name? Or maybe he’s a descendant of the gods of Rome, and fell from heaven? Sometimes I wish Roman Mars could gently, calmly whisper a bedtime story to me as I drift off to sleep. That is a dream which will never be, and would probably get very awkward very fast, so I guess podcasts are close enough.

But “99% Invisible”, sometimes called “99 P.I.” for short, is much more than a Roman Mars themed ASMR channel. In fact, Mars is usually not the focus of attention: he is the host, setting the stage for the experts to do the real talking. Experts on what? Well, that is where the name of the show comes in. The topic of discussion is different every week, and is usually something obscure, something old, or something that only a small number of people give much thought to. In their own words, 99% Invisible is about “all the thought that goes into the things we don’t think about”.

Obscurity is relative, of course. The episode on the Skid Row district is probably old news to everyone in Los Angeles, but would be eye-opening for anyone who has never been within spitting distance of California. Meanwhile, the episode on Atomic Gardens would probably not seem in depth for someone who actually attempted to mutate plants by blasting them with radiation. Most people familiar with one of those topics is probably not too familiar with the other… unless they learned about both through 99% Invisible.

In fact, the most “mainstream” episode was probably a recent one about metrification in the United States, and it went into an almost ludicrous level of detail. Not just technical detail, but detail about the experiences of people who have to deal with this stuff, like a schoolteacher who got death threats after suggesting an airport fix their display showing the temperature in Celsius (which worked in years past, and only recently broke). That’s the thing that really sets 99% Invisible apart from another great “smooth interviewer seeks unconventional knowledge show”, Freakonomics Radio. Where Freakonomics focuses on abstract theory with a bit of subjective experience tossed in, 99% Invisible is as experience-focused as their sources will allow. Theory is great but character, images and empathy command far more interest. There are some topics, such as people dwelling in the Great Dismal Swamp in North Carolina, where there is not much abstract theory to be had at all.

Another comparison to Freakonomics is the great use of background music. However 99% Invisible usually uses original tracks instead of licensing from bands I’ve never heard of. I’m here to write about podcasts, not music, so I’ll just say the background sounds a bit whimsical and leave it at that.

New episodes of 99% Invisible are released roughly every week. In yet another odd similarity to Freakonomics, each 99% Invisible episode has a detailed corresponding article on their blog. Episodes are rather short: anywhere between 13 to 33 minutes. Roman Mars has another, more focused podcast called “Trump Teaches Con Law”, about the ways the American Constitutional Law might be challenged by the current President. While I enjoy that podcast quite a bit, it doesn’t have that same adventurous charm that 99% Invisible has.

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