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Podcasts You Need To Listen To: 99 Percent Invisible

November 15, 2015

Every now and then I see reviews of podcasts. Actually they are more like lists of favorites. Lists of podcasts the author enjoys. I have almost written many such lists myself. But I am not sure I see the value. A list of dozens of resources, each with two sentences on what they mean to the listener doesn’t really tell me all that much about why I should listen. Surely there is more to a collection of 90 minute episodes than two sentences…a dozen or so words.


The Hand of Roman Mars Showing His Challenge Coin

So the list I am going to collate is more…or less. It’s not a list but a series of posts on “why” I listen to what I listen to. Let’s start with one of the best: 99% Invisible.

I think that most of the credit for the greatness of 99pi goes to its producer and the narrator of many of the stories: Roman Mars. I have no idea if this is in fact his real name. Roman Mars? Really? Sounds like a name dreamed up in a grade school writing class assignment…an assignment with low marks for not being believable. But thats the name he goes by.

Roman has this gift for finding the stories about the buildings, the events, and the times we all know and telling them in a way that is totally fascinating. Many of the stories have an architectural slant, but I have loved the show since well before marrying an architect…though now that I think about it, maybe I appreciate her more from what Roman has taught me.

Over the course of 5 or so years, Roman has made 188 episodes of this amazing show. 188 gems. You might wonder if he remembers every one of these shows. Well recently I got the chance to meet him at an event for show supporters held near the campus of Harvard University. There was a crowd surrounding him and somehow I wedged my way in. They asked about some of his more popular shows including one on flags (sure, it was a great episode, but definitely not in my top 10). He rattled off facts and trivia to help further fill out the stories.

And so I asked him if he remembered every show. Apparently the flag one is a bit of an edge case. After the first episode, he did it on the TED stage. It’s been watched 1.5 million times. That’s kind of a big deal. Yeah, if over a million people watched me say something, I would probably keep that top of mind too. But thankfully he revealed that he is human and there are shows that get forgotten quickly. Despite spending hours editing each show, hearing himself repeated over and over as he gets the audio just right, he can forget. Once someone asked him about a episode only a few hours old and he had no idea what the guy was talking about. Whew, good to know.

Anyway, the show. Being a podcast, listening to them out of order is very easy. Lets take the last episode I listened to: about the problem with New York’s Citibank building. This was actually a repeat of episode 110 but one of the best. I heard about the kerfuffle originally while living in New York in the late 90’s. And if the show covered only what was told in the original New Yorker article, that might be good enough. Hearing the voices of the parties involved put more life in the potentially disastrous scenario. But they didn’t stop there. They also solved the one mystery left in the story. They found the who in the whodunnit and made the story magical.

Every episode is like this. Finding something magical in what would already be a great story. The episodes tend to be 20-30 minutes and are all well worth the listen. There are some podcasts where it makes sense to make the previous episode your first and just go from there. You can do that here too, but you will probably want to listen to every episode from the beginning as well. Go through the back catalog…every one is a gem. Here are some of my favorites. Rather than linking to each one, just add it to your podcast app of choice through it’s directory and pick the episodes that resonate (I prefer using Overcast).

43 – Accidental Music of Imperfect Escalators

83 – Heyoon

166 – Viva La Arquitectura

156 – Coin Check

118 – Song Exploder

65 – Razzle Dazzle

188 – Fountain Drinks

182 – A Sweet Surprise Awaits You

181 – Milk Carton Kids

172 – On Location

162 – Mystery House

161 – Show of Force

159 – The Calendar

149 – Of Mice and Men

147 – Penn Station Sucks

144 – There is a Light That Never Goes Out

137 – Good Bread

130 – Holdout

117 – Clean Trains

108 – Barcodes

105 – One Man Is An Island

97 – Numbers Stations

87 – I Heart NY, TM

66 – Kowloon Walled City

52 – Galloping Gertie

40 – Billy Possum

Listen to those and you should have a good feel of what 99 Percent Invisible has to offer. I think it is the best podcast out there and I can’t wait to hear how Roman is going to inspire me next.

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