Roman Mars here of 99% Invisible, a tiny radio show about design, architecture and the 99% invisible phenomena that shape our world. The show is syndicated on public radio stations around the country, has over 60,000,000 downloads to date and my recent TED talk on flag design (yes, seriously) has been viewed 1.7 million times. I really like flags. I recorded a short audio introduction just for you redditors and if you are still skeptical you can check Twitter for proof this is me.

99% invisible is made possible by an amazing team of producers including Sam Greenspan, Katie Mingle and Avery Trufelman, a few of whom may stop by to say ‘hello’ this afternoon too. Kurt Kohlstedt, our Digital Director, is here today as well to help me answer your questions. I would also like to thank those dedicated fans who created and maintain /r/99percentinvisible – thanks, you beautiful nerds!

In partnership with The Knight Foundation and Public Radio Exchange (PRX), we created Radiotopia, a collection of the most amazing storytelling radio shows and podcasts in the world. We have broken multiple crowdfunding records on Kickstarter under the journalism category. Now we are looking for sustaining members to support Radiotopia and giving out all kinds of awesome prizes, including a unique new challenge coin only available during this membership drive.

I look forward to answering your questions about 99% Invisible, Radiotopia, podcasting, crowdfunding and of course: duck-sized horses. I will be around starting at noon (PT) for initial questions, then back a few hours later to address more. If all goes well, I may even return in a few weeks alongside other hosts and producers from the Radiotopia collective, so stay tuned and please become a member today!

You can also follow 99pi on Facebook and Twitter, subscribe on SoundCloud or to our podcast feed.

Remember: watch RAMPART and Always Read the Plaque!

Comments: 336 • Responses: 57  • Date: 

thefearofmissingout57 karma

Will you be voting in the Hello Internet Flag Referendum? If so, are you willing to reveal your top choice?

romanmars27 karma

Just learned of it - I'll have to take a closer look!

throwaway_the_fourth7 karma

HI is a 'two dudes talking' podcast by CGP Grey and Brady Haran (educational youtubers). Grey says you scooped him on flags, as he was planning a video about it.

Link to the podcast: Also available on iTunes and other podcast platforms.

Bspammer8 karma

He knows, he just hasn't seen the referendum

romanmars15 karma

Correct: CGP Grey is awesome I just didn't know about this referendum.

larrrk30 karma

Hi Roman! One of the most distinctive things about 99pi is your amazing radio voice. I guess my question is: what dark pact did you have to make in order to secure it? I assume it was some sort of reverse-Little Mermaid bargain?

romanmars23 karma

I traded my fish tail (and all of my free time).

Nemo22217 karma

Roman's dulcet tones tonguing my ear holes is the highlight of the work week. That is also how I usually describe the podcast to others.

romanmars10 karma

Why thank you!

wcalvert27 karma

I just wanted to say thank you. I have a 30ish minute commute each day, and I pounded through about 100 of your episodes and have loved them.
My girlfriend and I each listen to the same one on our commutes and then talk about them when we get home at night.
Rajneeshpuram was epic, and being in Texas, I was completely amazed by 133: Port of Dallas.
Thank you to not only Roman, but Sam, Katie, Avery and Kurt. You beautiful nerds!
Question: with such huge success in your sustaining member drive, what is a big project that you can't wait to tackle with the new funding?

romanmars17 karma

We're working to hire a new producer, rebuilding the website from the ground up and are hoping to send more reporters to more places they want to go to cover stories. We might get into video projects as well if we have the time and ability to make it work.

abrews24 karma

Hi Roman! Long time fan of the show. Your podcast is the only one in my feed that sends me down the Google rabbit hole after every episode and sometimes out into the real world to explore! Thanks for doing what you do and exposing the richness all around us.

Anyway a question: If you could design your own ideal city with unlimited funds, what would be 3 critical design elements you would incorporate? Also, what Easter eggs would you hide for future "plaque readers" to discover.

romanmars51 karma

  • Mass-transit, tied to an airport - something that is surprisingly weak in a lot of cities
  • Bike-friendly, walk-friendly
  • A really good flag.

Make sure every plaque has a real story - I would make plaques have narratives if I could.

Chandru123 karma

I just wanted to say that I read this comment in your voice. You sound just the same on Reddit as in the podcast!

patjackman14 karma

Just starting each paragraph with the phrase "This is Roman Mars" works for me... :)

LasseU10 karma

Copenhagen checks all your boxes. Come read the plaque.

romanmars9 karma


LinuxLinus1 karma

Is this why you guys do many stories on Portland stuff?

romanmars4 karma

Maybe. It just ... comes up! There are a lot of thoughtful people there, exploring good design questions.

Bchavez_gd22 karma

Is there any plans on doing a few culinary episodes?

Great food, after all, is a practice in design.

romanmars27 karma

Stay tuned for tomorrow's episode! ;)

constructdistraction19 karma

In your opinion, what is the most well-designed object/building/city ever?

romanmars33 karma

Golden Gate Bridge. I love it every time I see it. It never gets old. It's good to go over, to look at, to view from below. Few things work as well as that.

throwaway_the_fourth18 karma

What podcasts do you listen to?

What is the most unique or recognizable feature of 99pi in your opinion?

romanmars37 karma

First and foremost: all of Radiotopia. This American Life, RadioLab, Fresh Air, Planet Money, Judge John Hodgeman, Pop Culture Happy Hour, Bullseye, Slate Political Gabfest, Slate Culture Gabfest, Filmspotting, Answer Me This, Mark Kermode Wittertainment, My Brother My Brother and Me, WTF, The Flop House, Reply All, Stuff You Should Know, Whistlestop, Another Round (my new favorite!), Pop Rocket and a bunch more.

The shortness used to be unique, but it seems like more are gravitating toward that length.

allbeefpatties8 karma

I have a 45 min commute each way and still couldn't consume this much audio goodness.

romanmars14 karma

Always have your earbuds in when you're not talking to another human being. Just press play! That's how I do it. I also listen to a lot of them at double speed (the ones without a lot of sound design).

zchill7 karma

Would you recommend double speed for 99% invisible?

romanmars40 karma

No. Never!

austinmiles14 karma

Coin check?

romanmars11 karma

samuelplimsoll12 karma

Hi Roman, and everyone else at Radiotopia (aka Radioo..tooopiaaa)! Have any of you ever been recognized out and about in the world either by your names, faces, or, most interestingly, voices? Since Roman especially is very well known amongst podcast fans, I'm curious to know if the success of the show has led to any real life encounters along those lines!

Gotta say while you're here - 99pi is the first podcast I really loved, and listening every week never ceases to make me happy, so thank you for all that you've done and created. I'm so excited to be able to support you guys, and beyond excited for my challenge coin now too!

romanmars12 karma

I now get recognized quite a bit, a surprising amount in fact. It started on planes, now on the streets of Oakland every few days. Now I get stopped by parents at school events who I've seen for years who never put together who I was - just a father at school up to that point.

cle111012 karma

Hi Roman!

I'm a producer for a weekly podcast called Loa, we're a global team of about 20 voluntary staff. How can I train myself and others to become better audio producers/reporters/editors?

romanmars16 karma

First of all, putting out a weekly podcast is the best training to become a better podcaster. Use your team to listen to your work before you put it out - you will hear each other's weaknesses better than you will hear your own.

Hasselbuddy12 karma

What is your favorite "My Boy(s)" audio clip? Has there ever been a time when the first answer they gave was no good so you had to do it again?

Also, as a native Portlander thank you for providing so much insight into my city, from flags, to the plaque at PSU, I always get a little giddy when an episode comes to town.

romanmars19 karma

Where Carver says "I like statues in the woods as long as they don't move when they blink" (Doctor Who reference, from Monumental Dilemma). Second question: oh yes, it's usually 15 minutes of recording, then I cut it down.

BenNMccabe12 karma

I love your work and all you've done with Radiotopia. In the episode of the Allusionist, "Going Viral," Helen mentions that you had been working on a PhD in Genetics. Was this a joke for the episode or were you really pursuing that degree? If so, why the career path change? What led you to that decision and what factors/events came together at that time to really convince you that you were making the right choice. Thanks for everything you do!

romanmars14 karma

No joke! I quit genetics before really settling into radio, but I left genetics primarily because I was just interested in a lot of things. And when I got into the PhD (studying the MRRM transposable element in corn) and all of my classes and teaching ended, I realized that (a) I was a bad scientist and (b) this couldn't be my life - I just liked too many other things.

ablitsm4 karma

(a) I was a bad scientist

What do you mean by this?

romanmars11 karma

I loved science and learning things, but I was bad at benchwork and was really just as happy reading about someone else's cool discovery as making my own. These qualities don't make for a good scientist, they make for a good science student.

allbeefpatties12 karma

Beautiful nerd here....

Podcast statistics are all over the map in terms of popularity, but they don't seem.....'mainstream'. Most people I know don't consume podcasts. What's the future of discoverability and content sharing for podcasts (aside from creating killer content)?

romanmars18 karma

That elusiveness of the mainstream ... Serial might have changed the calculus on that - it could be becoming mainstream. I wish I had a better answer for this. I do think the cornerstone of it is killer content and that isn't a solved problem yet. There could be more good stuff out there to come. The process of subscribing to a podcast is still too onerous, but as people become more used to curating their lives (TV through Netflix, Hulu, DVR), that brainspace can be transferred pretty easily to audio content as well. That said, there is certainly already enough listener support out there for what exists now.

le-click11 karma

Hey Roman! What is your process of producing an episode of 99PI?

I also would like to get into podcasting, where would you advise an up and comer to host their first podcasts?


romanmars18 karma

It takes 4 to 8 weeks for every story - they get pitched, reported, then edited numerous times. The key part is editing more than anything else.

We use a CDN that PRX set up. I hear good things about Libsyn.

boolean_lemonade11 karma

That would make a great meta episode. How a 99PI episode is "designed".

romanmars11 karma

Actually, part of the bonus content for our fund drive will be behind-the-scenes looks. A producer at PRX (Josh Swartz) is doing interviews with the Radiotopia producers so I'm sure we'd talk about. I would not survive doing a podcast about myself.

le-click3 karma

Thanks for answering! Libsyn looks like a pretty solid way to get started. Is there anything immediate you can tell me as far as major differences between the Libsyn and PRX?

romanmars7 karma

Libsyn is consumer-facing, PRX is the distribution company I work with (on 99pi and my partner in Radiotopia).

Metcarfre10 karma

Hi Roman, thanks for doing this.

How long does it take to fully produce an episode of 99%I?

What's your personal favorite episode, and what would be the best to introduce someone to the show with?

Podcasting is dominated by simple, "two white guys and some microphones chatting" programs. How do you see highly-produced content like that at Radiotopia fitting in?

Would the challenge coins ship to Canada?

romanmars7 karma

  • 6-8 weeks
  • Structural Integrity just won a big award!
  • Radiotopia-style content will find its audience - more-produced stuff tends to do a bit better, but I still love a lot of two-people-talking, but I'm putting my effort toward highly-produced stuff.
  • Yes!

indieisfun1239 karma

What should I yell at Sam Greenspan the next time I bike by him on our #2milesoftelegraph stretch?

romanmars10 karma

Absolutely (edit: sorry, I meant you should absolutely yell at him!).

[Edit from Sam]: not coin check because I don't have my coin yet. Pick the portmanteau of your choice.

SelectAnAccountName9 karma

Your podcast has spawned many, many flag redesign campaigns, to the consternation of many a small town/city official probably. Which of these, off the top of your head, do you see as most well executed and likely to get adopted?

Are you planning to do a followup "after Shark Tank"-type episode?

romanmars7 karma

I hope it's not actually causing trouble in small towns, and that it's getting people more involved in their city. It's really hard to tell what might get adopted because every city is different, sometimes it's written into the charter, sometimes people don't even know they have a flag.

We might do a follow-up on flags - we are trying to keep track of all these redesigns, then might turn that into an episode or web story.


Like many I was inspired by your TED talk, and I found a new love for the flag of my home, Madison, Wisconsin for its beauty and symbolism. (ranked 11 our of 150 in North America!)

I actually got a local company to embroider patches of it so I can wear it around! And I'm going to look into bumper stickers and full size ones next!

romanmars5 karma

I love it, it's great, get it out there!

zachinpublic9 karma

What was the process for getting the 99pi challenge coin made? (cannot wait to get mine!)

romanmars12 karma

Designer Helen Tseng designed it for us with a lot of back-and-forth with the 99pi staff. It is being manufactured by Jordan (Sarge) Haines (from the challenge coin episode). Call him up - he'll take care of ya!

notabenenotabene2 karma

I kind of think the challenge coin design ended up sort of design-by-committe-ish and weirdly reminscent of a lot of bad flag designs... (too many "meaningful" symbols, excessive motto, etc.) It's neither here nor there as far as "traditional" vs. forward-thinking design. Are you really happy with it?

romanmars4 karma

We love it so much. Very different design principles for challenge coins than, say, flags - I think the Coin Check episode will help clarify or just search more for the tropes of military coin design and you'll see the tradition we're working within.

Delayed_Rug9 karma

After an episode airs, I'm sure you guys sometimes hear from people throwing in their stories or experiences. Have you heard anything like that really stand out or make you think 'man that could have been a good addition to the episode'? If so, best example.

romanmars11 karma

Lots of little examples, but: there was a follow-up from a listener whose grandfather was the engineer behind the Bathysphere. We also talked to an engineer who knew why they chose Magenta after Children of Magenta.

AmosParnell5 karma

So why did they choose magenta?

romanmars8 karma

Sort of a long story but the short version: he was running out of time, and had few options because so many colors were taken for other things or otherwise confusing. He actually hated that he picked magenta.

okaystorybro9 karma

Hi Roman, great show.

What are your favorite restaurants in beautiful Downtown Oakland?

romanmars12 karma

Marhaba - Pakistani buffet!

spectrem8 karma

Any advice for new and/or small time podcasters?

BatteryHorseMan8 karma

What is the country that you would most like to visit, but have never been to as of yet?

romanmars11 karma

Turkey. It's this great blending of all these cultures in this one place, and I find the resulting architecture, food, culture really fascinating for that reason.

SherudoGaro6 karma

Hi Roman! Thanks for doing this AMA. And for creating my favourite podcast! I'm travelling through Turkey at the moment - a 99pi podcast on design in Istanbul would have tonnes of material to work from!

My question - I seem to remember the earlier podcasts being a lot shorter. Now they seem to hover around the 25-30min mark. Conscious decision or it happened organically?

romanmars9 karma

It's partly having more time to explore topics because we have more talented producers - they used to be often just me talking to one person. The first twelve were 4.5 minutes due to NPR constraints.

Chandru18 karma

Thank you for doing this AMA! 99PI is one of my favorite podcasts; I remember where I was when I heard my first episode (Santa Cruz, the numbers station one).

How did you decide to start 99PI?

I noticed that you seem to have rebranded your show to be about design, but feature stories like Rajaneeshpuram that aren’t overtly about design. What is your thought process for selecting a podcast topic?

Thanks in advance!

romanmars9 karma

The show was always about design, but we always treat it pretty broadly. Rajneeshpuram was a city built from scratch, built quickly, a pretty compelling design story.

Legomaniac9138 karma

Hi Roman! I love your podcast! Any chance you'll cover design stories outside of the U.S.? I think it'd be really interesting to see the design philosophies around the world.

romanmars8 karma

Sure! Would love to. We just have to know about it - so if you have any ideas, send 'em our way

ThinkingSideways8 karma

Hi Roman,

We are a podcasting trio in Portland. We cover unsolved mysteries and currently have over 3,000,000 downloads to date, which is growing exponentially (we see about 120k downloads a week currently). We love what we do, and though we don't want to make a living off of the podcast, we are having a hard time monetizing it to help pay for the growing costs. Do you have any tips for a situation like ours?

Thanks for doing this ama!

romanmars7 karma

I would first try to find strategic partners, businesses who would align with you because of the topics you cover and who want to be involved. They aren't looking for big numbers or reach, they just want to be associated with the work you do as it suits their interest.

For me, that was Facebook Design and MailChimp. FB just liked being associated with a design show, and MailChimp was looking at various podcasts. FB didn't really need 'advertising' as such. As you built an audience you can start to approach the bigger players.

And then look for community partners - any type of connection to get an early backer connection. 99pi's association with the local chapter of the AIA helped it get started.

mancoyankee7 karma

What's the designed object or designed social pattern whose design is most frequently ignored and needs to be redesigned?


How long did you practice that radio voice?

romanmars14 karma

I'm still amazed at how bad stovetops are in terms of burner-and-dial configuration.

15 years. Ever since I started I've continued to develop it.

charlyblack7 karma

do you find yourself thinking explicitly to reach also foreign listeners when creating the podcast or it's primarily intended to an American audience?

romanmars12 karma

It's meant for everyone. I hope there are people listening in different places. We definitely use some cultural shorthands that might be missed, but hopefully that isn't a hindrance to people who don't 'get it' in each case.

ericthebookguy7 karma

You should write a book! Or, to make it a question: How soon will you write a book, and what will it be about?

romanmars11 karma

There is probably room for another good general-interest design book out there, but the hard part is finding the time to do it while making a new show each week, and the latter is my first joy.

RedditFact-Checker8 karma

Have you considered going the curatorial route?

As in, others write chapter-sized essays about their particular expertize/interest and you act as editor/curator, bringing it together or providing a theme?

romanmars9 karma

I think I'd want to write it. I feel like if I am going to do it I would really want to do it. Maybe the second or third book could be more what you're describing.

2theblackhole6 karma

I'm a professional photo editor and have been binge listening to 99% over the summer. I started at 180 and am currently on 54, thankfully there are plenty of episodes left.

I was wondering if you've ever encountered a story that you wanted to share but couldn't design the episode in a way that would have been compelling or engaging to your audience?

romanmars8 karma

I once spent a long time researching a certain traffic sign and it ended up being too visual, hard to describe and confusing. It just couldn't work on the radio. It was one of the first things I spent a lot of time on and then killed.

freeradical736 karma

What does every story need in order to be compelling for a podcast?

romanmars9 karma

I'm not sure there is any one essential thing. A lot of things that people quote as 'essential things' (like a narrative arc or personal struggle) are things we 'break' in our show. There isn't always a hero's journey.

The key element for us is that if we can properly convey the joy we have about the thing we're talking about, that's what works the best for us.

cle11106 karma

Roman, I'm eagerly awaiting my 99pi challenge coin! Can you give us a quick rundown of what all the symbols represent?

cle11104 karma

Shame on me for missing that.

romanmars9 karma

To be fair, it was added as an edit after initial publication!

dmleach6 karma

Thanks for stopping by, Roman! I've often wondered: what is the office space in beautiful downtown Oakland, California, like? Is it the sort of spot that visitors to Arcsign generally see? How do the architects like having a podcast studio in their space?

romanmars4 karma

Renovated brick building right downtown - exposed bricks, white, glass, steel inside. They love having us, and we love being here! It's a big open floor plan so we see a lot of the architects, too. A lot of the clients don't know who we are, but when the architects go to conferences they always get lots of questions about us.

scottford26 karma

Hey Roman, just wanted to say that I love your segments with your sons! I am super depressed Tiny Letter's copy has to change. I'm going to be a father in a few months and you've inspired me to interview my own children as they grow up.

As for a question, how many shows are you working on at any given time, and where does the inspiration come from? I've always wanted to get into podcasting, but always have a hard time finding people to talk to. Any advice for where to look?

Thank you! Been a supporter since before Radiotopia was a thing, and I'll continue to be thanks to all of those moments I sit in my car an extra 10-15 minutes because I'm too engrossed in a Radiotopia story.

romanmars6 karma

People to talk to: I was just at a party and someone kept asking 'who would be my dream interview?' I don't really have those. The show is more about ideas. It also means I don't have to score a big interview to make my show.

If starting to podcast, you should build your show the same way if you can - it's about your work, your view, the story you're telling - don't need someone with name recognition, just expertise relevant to the story. Make your show the draw, not a particular famous guest.

jontomato6 karma

It seems like both Radiotopia and Gimlet Media are trying to come up with what the future revenue model of podcasts should be. You both try to be as inventive as possible in the ad space but don't want to strictly rely on it. What are your thoughts on a paid streaming model for podcasts similar to Spotify? Do you think ad money for podcasts is at its peak right now?

eanders12 karma

On a similar note: How do you view the risks and benefits of native advertising on podcasts? Do you think there is a danger in not having a clearer separation between “editorial” and “advertising”, as in more traditional forms of media? Should I buy a Casper mattress? ;)

romanmars8 karma

Casper mattress wasn't native, but ... with all honesty I really do love my Casper mattress. I do think one of the secrets of Radiotopia is that the funding is a three-legged stool - donors, advertisers and grants, allowing us to be free and unencumbered to do our best work. I think we do have a clear separation - the story ends, production credits come and then the sponsored messages start.

eanders6 karma

Indeed: it's always absolutely clear when you're switching from story to sponsored messages! I just wonder: there's been a lot of media discussion about how podcast ads are so effective b/c (among other reasons) they are (often) read in the host's voice. Do you see any downside to this trend? Or do you see it as no different from any other form of sponsorship/advertising? Simply curious, thanks!

romanmars7 karma

In using the host's voice it is implicit that it is both an ad and a sort of personal recommendation - if these align, it's great. If they don't align, listeners can probably sense the change in tone and language choice. It does mean that the choosing of advertisers is extremely personal and we select every one individually.

romanmars6 karma

As long as we all come together on one idea or concept, it could work, but if lawyers get involved too fast, the audience gets divided, they'll ruin it. Historically CPMs just go down over time so we definitely need to figure out a future not totally dependant on ads (hence the fundraiser). But hopefully the volume goes up to counteract lower CPMs too.

slowmotionsuicides5 karma

Blue Bottle or Philz?

romanmars6 karma

Sorry, I don't drink coffee. Is Coke Zero an option?

readtheplaque4 karma

Hi Roman! Could you recommend a website or twitter feed for learning about interesting plaques? :)

pietya3 karma

If you were able to do a show on anything without having to worry about costs, time, and even whether the people you were interviewing were alive or not: what would you talk about and what would your son Mazlow(?) would say at the end of it?

romanmars8 karma

Robert Moses came to mind first, but I'm not sure his would be a good interview. I just loved Robert Caro's book about him. A great documentary could involve him and Jane Jacobs.

IceColdMetal3 karma

Hi Roman. I believe you've seen the shortlist for the new NZ flag. Which one do you think is the best designed?

romanmars2 karma

Both Red Peak and Koru work for me, personally. Not being from NZ, it's hard to put myself in the mindset of how those symbols might make a resident feel. I'm so anti-imperial, anti-colonial, I think it's absolutely worth getting rid of the Union Jack. The Union Jack is a brilliant flag, but only for the United Kingdom.

donald20002 karma

Hi, Roman! I was wondering if you might like to make me another punk mix tape? (Since it's roughly 20 years since that tape, maybe you could just list some songs I should check out instead? - I wouldn't have a way to play a tape, actually.) Also, what's your favorite Aviso song?

romanmars3 karma

Hi Don! You bet - probably a list not a tape this time, though.

Favorite: Probably 'Skin', or a bunch of the songs that never got recorded!