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Podcasts Servant of Pod with Nick Quah
Roman Mars

Last month marked ten whole years of 99% Invisible, Roman Mars’ podcast about design, architecture, and things that quietly shape our world. That’s a long time to be making the same show, even if it’s one that’s recognized and beloved by millions. On this episode, Nick talks to Mars about the origins of 99% Invisible, the grind of making a weekly show for a decade, and how he thinks about the legacy of the podcast, and himself. They also talk about the 99% Invisible book, The 99% Invisible City, which Mars wrote with Kurt Kohlstedt, that’s coming out this month.

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Servant of Pod Roman Mars Episode 17

Mon, 11/9 2:08PM • 28:03

SUMMARY KEYWORDS

laughter, roman, people, podcasting, world, story, radio, mars, invisible, independent, totally, ghazi, book, regrets, love, part, person, abstaining, building, pr

SPEAKERS

Sandy Allen, Roman Mars, Delaney Hall, Nick Quah

Roman Mars 00:03

Here at the San Francisco main library, and that is Dennis Paoletti. If you walk into the library, there's a five story atrium. He's an acoustic designer. And it also is very hard and reflective with all of the plaster, concrete, reflective materials. Companies hire him to make their buildings, and boardrooms, and cathedrals, and public spaces sound better.

Nick Quah 00:30

If you're a longtime podcast listener, you probably know this voice. It belongs to Roman Mars--99% Invisible's Roman Mars. And this was the first episode:

Roman Mars 00:41

It's a hack, a jankity retractable movie-theater-style velvet rope partition, that helps create the proper traffic flow. And right there, 15 feet apart from one another, a minor triumph, and a minor failure, of design.

Nick Quah 00:59

That episode clocked in at just four minutes and 20 seconds. What was once a short experimental podcast is now one of the most popular shows in the history of the medium--but in many ways, still doing the same thing: inspiring listeners to take a closer look at the world around them. And Roman Mars is happy to be our guide. From LAist Studios, this is Servant of Pod. I'm Nick Quah. This week: Roman Mars. When Roman Mars moved out to California in the late 90s, he had no plans for fame. He just wanted a job.

Roman Mars 01:59

I applied to work at Pixar...

Nick Quah 02:02

Oh, no way!

Roman Mars 02:03

...and Google.

Nick Quah 02:04

Mm hmm.

Roman Mars 02:05

I mean, I was just looking for anything that was stable. Because there was no podcasting industry, there was no... and there was no work in public radio. I was pretty desperate. So I really was like, we're gonna need to exchange all of it for some degree of stability.

Nick Quah 02:18

And I don't think I know this about you, but before you became a radio producer, what did you want to do?

Roman Mars 02:24

I wanted to be a scientist. More than anything, I always loved science. And I went straight into grad school to study population genetics of plants. I didn't have a particular affinity for for plants, but I love genetics and evolutionary biology. So I thought I would be a researcher or a teacher.

Nick Quah 02:42

What about evolutionary biology was... spoke to you at the time?

Roman Mars 02:44

I just liked understanding the world. I like to understand where we are, and how we got here. It just delighted me, to read and learn. And I still do that. That type of discovery is really, really important to me. And so I wanted to be a part of it, or at least see it up close, of how it was done.

Nick Quah 03:01

Yeah, I'm sure there's a lot of lines to be drawn from that, to the stuff that you do on 99% Invisible, because you're looking at physical structures through that kind of lens.

Roman Mars 03:10

Yeah, it's really not all that different. It really... I mean, grad school really taught me a way to think. And when I first got into radio and journalism, I thought I would basically be a science reporter. But I fell into this other stuff that I loved: the storytelling, and the and the mixing, and the putting new music on stories, and stuff like that, and then that ended up sort of dominating for most of my career in the beginning.

Nick Quah 03:36

In 2010, Roman teamed up with public radio station KALW and the American Institute of Architects in San Francisco to create 99% Invisible, or 99PI. The show has gone from a side project made in Roman's bedroom to a fully-staffed office in the Bay Area, paid for in large part by loyal listeners and wildly successful crowdfunding campaigns. In 2014, Roman founded Radiotopia, a collective of independent podcasts in partnership with the nonprofit audio platform PRX. It's been a pretty busy decade. And Roman says sometimes it feels even longer than 10 years.

Roman Mars 04:13

It's one of those things--it didn't go by in the blink of an eye, because there's been so many changes and iterations, and so the continuity of it, and sort of the assigning of a date of its birth, is really kind of weird to me.

Nick Quah 04:27

Yeah. [Laughter]

Roman Mars 04:29

Because each thing was its own moment. The first Kickstarter was its own moment, in the way it was born, that... and then moving into the office, with a bunch of teammates, was a real difference. And you know, everything about it, it's just changed so much, that it barely feels like the same thing. But I am glad I've done it as long as I have, partly because I think it was easier to start a podcast then, you know, there were fewer of them, and easier to get people's attention. And also, it gave me some time to figure it all out, while this industry was forming around it.

Nick Quah 05:04

And I take it that you have the feeling that if you were to start this today, it just would not be the same; or at the very least, you wouldn't be able to do it this way.

Roman Mars 05:13

No, I mean, I know this a little bit because I do this other show called What Trump Can Teach Us About Con Law. But it's like, Trump Con Law has a fraction of 99PI's audience, but it also takes me like, three days to do. [Laughter] Every episode of 99PI taking, you know, six to eight weeks and a bunch of people. And so it's like, well, would I create seven Trump Con Laws or one 99PI? It makes much more sense to make seven Trump Con Laws, which explains the state of podcasting. [Laughter] Because economically, 99PI doesn't really make a lot of sense these days. I mean, it does well now, it makes money now, but...

Nick Quah 05:56

Yeah.

Roman Mars 05:57

And it's totally valuable, it's just, it is a much more "Shoot the Moon" plan, if you were to launch it today, than it was 10 years ago.

Nick Quah 06:06

So I know of you that you have this really strong punk and independent sensibility.

Roman Mars 06:11

Yeah.

Nick Quah 06:11

Does it feel like you're stuck in there as a big indie, like The National or something? [Laughter] How do you position the show, or how do you understand the show, in the larger context now? And then, did you think that it would end up this way?

Roman Mars 06:28

I kind of had no imagination for how it would end up, because this is not how I thought podcasting would necessarily go. All I know is, I knew that we were making something that people really, really liked. And whenever you're doing that, that's meaningful, either monetarily or just emotionally. And I knew for a long time, when I thought the show was undervalued, or podcasting was undervalued, or even public radio programs were undervalued, by the system, that if we went directly to the audience, that they would be corrected more to their proper value. I always knew I was going to be kind of independent because I just was... You know, I just wanted to solve the problem myself, and anytime I had to ask permission, I never got permission. And so I was just like, well, I just have to do this. I'm not someone who necessarily has this ethic that with the right partner, or with the right boss--and it's not that I'm totally against it, or I feel like people who do sell their shows are doing something wrong, it's not that way at all. It's just that every time I've had that situation, it's never worked out that well, you know? There's been approaches for acquisition before. It's never like, "No, are you kidding me? This is against my religion," or anything like that. It has nothing to do with that. It just has to do with the fact that I'm always trying to solve the problem the best way I can, for my show and my staff. All I really wanted was for my people to have good jobs, for us to make the thing we like, and whatever path that is, is the right path, in my opinion.

Nick Quah 08:04

How would you describe what you get out the most, right now, of working on the show in year 10? What is the thing that really draws you back to work? Because I can barely fathom a life where I'm working on the same thing for 10 years. [Laughter] Let alone like five years, even.

Roman Mars 08:21

Well, so in the beginning, what really got me going was telling the short little stories, and having fun with them, and developing a tone and a way to interact with the audience, which was really fun. And then what really took over was solving the problem of making a thing, when there was no industry to make a thing, like there is now. [Laughter] And I was really into the business of it. And for a while, I was totally fascinated by the Kickstarter campaigns, and the ad sales, and developing all that stuff. So to make sure the people who I admire, the people who work for me, can make the thing they want to make, and be secure, and feel good. And I was totally in love with that as an issue. I also loved my connection with the audience, and being a host, and all that sort of stuff. Now, I have to admit, the solving the problem of the money is less fun for me. It's just...

Nick Quah 09:19

Is it because you figured it out? [Laughter]

Roman Mars 09:21

It's a little bit that I've figured out part of it. And also it's that thing where like, I feel like I can't do it as well as other people can do it anymore. I love that people have figured it out. So now, I think the things that excite me the most are just like... I still love every episode. Like, I put it out and I'm proud of it. I still like a really good interview, where I read someone's book, and they're brilliant, and I have a really good time, and you get into a flow with someone. I love that. I love really affecting the conversation on things, like I love... It can be its own kind of pain, but Like, whenever there's a flag thing in the world, you know? [Laughter]

Nick Quah 10:04

Yes, you're still on that horse.

Roman Mars 10:06

The proposed design consisted of a white field--that's the background color--with a--oof--with a city seal--in gold--in the center, flanked by two red roses on either side, and then the words "World Port of the Pacific" on top, and then the words "City of Roses" below. Oh, boy. I think I might have to go lie down.

Nick Quah 10:38

[Laughter]

Roman Mars 10:39

I love that we've had a show, and I've created stories that have really changed the way people think about things, and moved a conversation forward. And, you know, that's sort of fun. So that stuff is pretty joyful. So most of it is the good interaction with the audience that keeps me going.

Nick Quah 10:58

You know, I struggle with boredom a lot. So I'm curious: how do you keep going back and falling in love with this project year after year?

Roman Mars 11:07

The great thing about journalism, which I didn't quite realize when I started, what that's what I was doing, is that you get to become a little bit of an expert of a thing for a few weeks, and then you get to tell the story of it. And then you get to do something new. And so a show like mine, and journalism is the perfect antidote to somebody who gets bored a lot, because I don't really spend a lot of time on any one subject. And for the most part, the things that I explore, you hear about as a listener, and so sometimes my opinion about something like, you know, "What is your favorite building in Cincinnati?" I actually have an answer for that, so that's a good example.

Nick Quah 11:46

Well, what's the answer? [Laughter]

Roman Mars 11:48

The first reinforced concrete skyscraper is the Ingalls Building in Cincinnati--I have to actually fact-check that before you put that on the air. [Laughter] But I think it's the Ingalls Building. You can leave all this hemming and hawing in, but it'll be something like that.

Nick Quah 12:03

He's right, by the way. We checked. So it's not the material that wears on Roman. Rather, what gets to him is the rhythm of producing a weekly show. It's relentless. And when that pace gets to be too much, Roman's had some of his staff fill in, like senior editor Delaney Hall.

Delaney Hall 12:21

This is 99% Invisible. I'm Delaney Hall, filling in for Roman Mars. Maybe you've heard a story like this: how, once upon a time, on the outskirts of the town where someone grew up, or where they went to school, on the edge of the woods, there was a scary old asylum.

Sandy Allen 12:42

Over the last few years, so many people have told me versions of this story.

Delaney Hall 12:47

That's writer Sandy Allen, they wrote a book called A Kind of Miraculous Paradise, about mental health care in America.

Sandy Allen 12:54

And often, when somebody learns that I write about mental health, they will launch into their old asylum story, how they used to break into one with their friends, or how someone they knew saw ghosts there--the details vary.

Roman Mars 13:08

It was a really great moment, because I was working on some stuff with the book, and I was like, I just don't have time for this episode at all. And I just want to not hear it, and I don't want to be in an edit, I don't want to host it, I don't want anything to do with it. And then I listened to it. And I was like, "Oh my god. My show is really good!" You know, like... [Laughter] I really enjoyed it. It made me feel so good.

Nick Quah 13:37

Yeah. Did it make you feel jealous, a little bit?

Roman Mars 13:39

No, it didn't at all, because I know my place in the world. I know. [Laughter] Like, it's okay, I still have those feelings of fraud like everyone does. But it made me realize, I was like, "Oh, I would be a fan of my show." And that was what I was trying to do when I made it, I was trying to make the show I wanted. And you lose a little bit of perspective on that when you're in it, because you just don't have as much fun with it. That moment was fantastic.

Nick Quah 14:12

Has the popularity of 99PI totally killed Roman's indie cred? More in a minute.

Roman Mars 14:31

This is 99% Invisible. I'm Roman Mars. Humans have been living in cities for a really long time. But like a lot of things about the past, getting around cities used to be just needlessly difficult, because we didn't have reliable maps, or street signs, or even addresses. An address is something we all take for granted...

Nick Quah 14:55

This may be a weird question, but how much of the show is actually you, and how much is being left off the mic?

Roman Mars 15:00

"How much of the show is me?" What do you mean?

Nick Quah 15:03

Yeah. Okay, so here's my relationship with the show: I understand you to be a very obsessive, interested, curious, nerdy, kind of chill person--patient--because of the nature of your dulcet tone--you know, comforting, soothing voice, all that ****. [Laughter] Yeah, like... But once in a while I just get this flash where I'm like, I think he might be a really sassy, sarcastic person, and I don't hear that. [Laughter] So I guess my question is how much you leave off the off the mic?

Roman Mars 15:27

Oh, for sure. Okay, so how much of Roman Mars is a character? Like, is...

Nick Quah 15:30

Yeah, yeah, that question. Yeah.

Roman Mars 15:32

So definitely a character. So all the things that are represented as the "host of the show," of 99% Invisible, are aspects of my character. It's sort of a heightened, aspirational version of me. And it is definitely a more generous, empathetic version of me. And the thing is, though, it's not just something I'm putting on for the show. I can put this on, when I'm out in the world, and I'm a better person. [Laughter] Like, I'm a kinder person. I definitely am a person who... You know, do I read every plaque as a person? No, probably not. I try, you know, but I get in a hurry, and I get... and I have strong opinions about things, I'm much more like... I definitely react to the world and believe in things. And that can be shocking to some people. But I do think that a listener of the show has a good idea of who I am as a person. But there's different aspects that are heightened at different moments, for sure.

Nick Quah 16:31

Yeah. What would you say is one aspect of you that most of your listeners would be surprised to know about?

Roman Mars 16:39

I mean, I think the sort of aggressive "punk rock-ness" of it all would be... is surprising to people, maybe. To me, it's like, I make sense as a person, because I'm the person that it's centering upon. [Laughter] So to me, there are no contradictions in these things. But I can imagine people having an image of like, tweed coat, listens to classical music, a kind of Niles Crane type of person. And I get that, but to me, it's totally like, the thoughtfulness is the thoughtfulness of a person who grew up in sort of indie/punk culture, and... Yeah. ...Loving of the world and holding the role to a high standard as part of that, too. Like, I was never part of the sort of nihilistic punk culture, I was much more in the American hardcore, like, "the reason why I'm angry is because I love the world so much, not because I think it should all burn."

Nick Quah 17:31

You identified as straight-edge, right?

Roman Mars 17:34

Yeah. So, I mean, I still don't drink, or do drugs, or anything. That stayed with me. And that was a little bit... it was something to do with this sense of control over my place in my environment. And the fact that I just had encountered a lot of alcohol and drugs kind of early in my life, and it was not for me, it was very bad for me, and it was bad for a lot of people in my family. And so, rather than abstaining, I discovered straight-edge, and realized that I could be a part of something, rather than be abstaining from something, and it gave me a lot of purpose, for lack of a better word, you know? So like... So a lot of those things are a huge part of who I am. And they're reflected in the show, like, I think only recently did I do, I allowed an announcer read for alcohol on the show, just because of COVID, and I have to, you know, balance the books, so...

Nick Quah 18:10

Yeah.

Roman Mars 18:25

I had to let that go. But there was like, for 10 years, I didn't do any alcohol of any kind, because I just... not because I felt that anyone should live the way I do, or I was really against it--I know and love people who enjoy alcohol quite a bit. But it was like... it didn't feel like it was genuinely from me, and that felt against my ethic more than anything. But when it's other people, you're like, well, maybe I need to, like, consider this. And so that's what ends up happening over time, is that you get all these responsibilities, and you have to think through them, and really get to the root of it. And as you get older, and you have more people depending on you, that becomes the ethic that matters the most. I think that's what changes.

Nick Quah 18:25

Yeah. The next frontier for Roman and 99PI? A book. It's called The 99% Invisible City. And it was co-written by Roman and the show's digital director, Kurt Kohlstedt.

Roman Mars 19:19

I love making a podcast, that's the thing. But there's a certain point where you have all this information, and all this worldview of how 99PI approaches the world, and realize that like, if you... "Oh, I remember they did a show about revolving doors at one point in like, Episode 112," or you do a search on it, and it's really just like... it doesn't serve the information anymore, to be locked up in this linear audio format over 10 years. I mean, it was just really like, the reason why is because there was a reason for it to exist, and before this point, the show did the job and now it was failing to do the job, when you want it to like really like access and enjoy the information and the stories. And so... So the book just made a ton of sense. And it was also just like, there's a certain point where you're like, as big as podcasting is, there's still like a huge percentage of the world you're not reaching. I just really wanted to have 99PI, as a concept, reach more people. And also, it was just like... Kurt, who worked on the book--so hard on the book--we just felt we could do it. He drove it forward. He was the project manager and co-author. It really was just one of those things, just like, when you have a small team, an independent team, when you have a person who's raising their hand and saying, "We can do this," you just go, "Okay," and now it's done, you know.

Nick Quah 20:44

After doing the show for so many years, any regrets? Anything that you would have done differently, maybe?

Roman Mars 20:51

Well, yeah, I mean, I don't live... I don't really go and get obsessed with my regrets. I mean, I do know that there's definitely things that I would... well, not that I would change... It's just like, when something grows sort of organically, with just the money you have, you move forward, you don't have a strategic plan in mind, you know? [Laughter] And so...

Nick Quah 21:14

Yeah.

Roman Mars 21:14

You know, especially as all this stuff is falling apart, and there's no office, for example, it's like, "Well, why did everyone have to be out here? Why didn't I just build the team from all over all the time?" Because clearly you can do it. And so it was kind of like... There was that, and then, you hit things where it's just like, well, there's a huge diversity problem within Radiotopia, and it's like we... because we're looking for people who can do everything, and own everything, we're building on the biases of the whole industry that came before it. And it's really hard to fight it--and it's not an excuse to not keep fighting it.

Nick Quah 21:48

What Roman is talking about here is something we've been seeing in the media industry: a reckoning for more diversity, equity, and inclusion in predominantly white spaces. In the podcast world, one of the places that's recently been called out has been PRX, which helped Roman build the independent podcast network Radiotopia.

Roman Mars 22:07

That's the thing, I don't really... I've never worked for PRX. But I had some influence, to try to make Radiotopia to be what it is. But you do just wonder like, "God, if I just could like, frickin' hire people." You know, like, if... this way, it would be totally different, and create shows, like how people create shows. And right now, the structure really doesn't serve the moment sometimes. It serves people like me. And so those are the things I have regrets about is like, is not anticipating it. But it was really hard to anticipate that stuff 10 years ago... Yeah. ...for sure. But that's the type of thing that I think about today.

Nick Quah 22:45

So I would be remiss not to ask you about what went down at PRX. Just a little background for everyone: not long ago, an employee at PRX, a Black woman, made the decision to leave her job during the pandemic, because she felt like there was no future for her at the company due to systemic racism. She wrote a really impassioned open letter to the organization, and I'd love to hear your thoughts about that situation.

Roman Mars 23:08

I read that. I was sort of shocked by it. I was surprised it wasn't handled well in the moment. I do think that when you have a history with somebody, when somebody says they're sorry and they're going to work on it, you either hear that and you think, "Well, I believe them," or you hear that and say, "This is just like everybody else, and I don't believe them." And I must admit that I land on the side of believing people working hard on things, than not. And so in this case, I've just been like, keep me apprised guys, because it's just like... it reflects on me. It reflects on the show, we felt the need to talk about it a little bit as a show.

Nick Quah 23:50

On the 99PI website, Roman put out a statement in support of the employee who left PRX. In his statement, Roman described how he and his staff have been discussing the inequities in their own show, and how they're hoping to improve it through initiatives like rethinking staff structure, increasing the diversity of voices in their stories, and better pay for freelancers.

Roman Mars 24:09

The whole point... I mean, this is what makes you question the idea of what... What does independence mean? Okay, so the show is independent, it does its own thing. But what other people do affects it. And so like, how independent is it really, you know? What does that mean? And I don't know. And that's... All this stuff is sort of swimming through my head right now, and I don't have a good answer for you. You know, to me, the part about independence that matters is, if I see that anybody who I work with is not behaving in a way I'm proud of, then me working with them is always on the table, you know? But I also... I have a long history with PRX existing in this world where they are really trying to fight for making public radio more accessible, and better, and so I come to them with a little bit more benefit of the doubt than I think maybe other people do, you know? Yeah.

Nick Quah 25:02

Do you... To what extent do you think about your legacy? And do you see 99% Invisible, at this point, as the sort of sum of your life's work?

Roman Mars 25:14

Do I think about my legacy? I don't really think about my legacy all that much. Um...

Nick Quah 25:19

So like, 50 years from now, when people think about Roman Mars, you don't have an opinion of how people would think about Roman Mars?

Roman Mars 25:25

Well, I have an opinion that I want them to think well of me, like that I was a fair person, and kind person, and that the show was good. So yeah, I think there's that. I think, over the time... You know, five years ago, I think the show really defined me, and now I feel like I could do something else and it would be okay. Or like, not work for once? That would be okay. [Laughter] Like, it's not as important in the broad sense of my life, even though I do truly still love it. It's just...

Nick Quah 26:00

Yeah.

Roman Mars 26:01

My best days are the days where we have an edit, and there's a new story, I haven't heard any part of it yet, we're doing the read to tape, and it's just like, "Oh, this is so good." That puts me in a good mood. And I just want as many days like that as possible. That's what I want the most.

Nick Quah 26:21

Roman, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me. I really appreciate it.

Roman Mars 26:24

It's my pleasure. Thank you so much, I appreciate it.

Nick Quah 26:41

Servant of Pod is written and hosted by me, Nick Quah. You can check out more episodes at laist.com/servantofpod. The show is produced by Andrea Asuaje, Jessica Alpert, and John Perotti at Rococo Punch. Web design by Andy Cheatwood and the digital and marketing teams at Southern California Public Radio. Logo and branding by Leo G. Thanks to the team at LAist Studios including Kristen Hayford, Taylor Coffman, Kristen Muller, and Leo G. Servant of Pod is a production of LAist Studios. Okay, favorite Dischord band.

Roman Mars 27:19

Jawbox and Shudder To Think, I loved that sort of like, the third generation of... that's when I came in. So like Jawbox, Shudder To Think, Circus Lupus... Early 90s. I needed to find something besides Fugazi, because everyone kind of owned Fugazi. Like, if you were to say, like when you're asking about my legacy, if somebody says, "99PI or Roman Mars is the Fugazi or the Dischord of podcasting," I would be like, "That's a fine legacy. I'm totally good with that." [Laughter] This all goes in, Nick.

Nick Quah 27:51

Alright, no, yeah, we'll put it right after the credits, if you don't... [Laughter]

Roman Mars 27:53

It all goes in. You have to put it in.

This program is made possible in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people.