Visualizing Sound With 99% Invisible's Roman Mars [VIDEO]

Feb 12, 2013

Roman Mars, host of 99% Invisible.
Credit Raymond Ahner

 99% Invisible, the radio program about design and architecture, has not only developed a growing listener base for the audio, but has a considerable following online for the program's visual experience.

We interviewed 99% Invisible host and producer Roman Mars about the challenge of visualizing sound in a webinar on February 14.

Mars discussed the process of funding a new program and the opportunities that exist for member stations and content producers. Mars used crowdfunding site KickStarter to help fund the third season of 99% Invisible, and broke records with over $170,000 raised by 5,661 backers. Mars also talked about podcasting and its role in providing stations with a platform for innovation. 

Watch the webinar here:

Highlights Timestamped to Video
0:00 - 3:34 Introduction 

3:34 – 5:11 Mars talks about how 99% Invisible got funded via Kickstarter. He attributes much of the success to having built his audience ahead of the initial ask.

5:12 – 10:05 Mars talks about the visual presence of his show; if he can't tell the story through audio, then he won't do the story. But once he decides, then the pictures really can help, (like these great photos of the Chrysler Building and 40 Wall Street in New York.

10:06 – 14:06 Mars address how he finds source material. The first thing he does it to go to Flickr and search for creative common images, then he pursues people (he always asks for permission for photos.) When he can't find a photo he likes, this might happen

14:07 – 16:24 Mars discusses his process of writing for the web. He makes sure to not just posting his radio script, but build out each segment with the help of producer, Sam Greenspan

16:25 – 19:54 Mars talks about how he finds stories on architecture and design, a topic, that at first, did not make sense to many as fitting for radio. He says that finding the story has never been a problem for him, it's the picking what parts of the story are compelling that take some effort (for example, this story on the Plimsoll line did well because the image is easy to identify, even without the visual.) The reason he likes design as a subject is because it has a process - and where there is a process there is a story. 

19:55 – 23:52 In terms of marketing, Mars has relied exclusively on word of mouth and the network of public radio colleagues to promote his show. He also mentioned the importance of reviews on iTunes as a way of keeping your ranking high.   

23:53 – 22:54 When asked about his digital audience, Mars says that while he doesn't have a lot of research on who they are, if he had to guess he would say the average listener is a graphic designer in Toronto. 

25:55 – 27:44 When asked if he had any recommendations for improving the visual experience for call-in shows rather than scripted, he suggests putting up as much material ahead of time and give people a reason to go and engage with it. You have to make a thing people want.

27:45 - 33:23 When it comes to recommending how other public radio shows should experiment and be innovative with their work, Mars says the key is to do stuff without waiting for permission. Make things. The right station can be an incubator for the right projects, there may not always be money but there is air time.

33:24 –34:43 Experimentation should happen online and on air. Everything doesn't have to fit the one long show format. Mars says he couldn't do an hour long quality program, so he created something he could do. He suggests playing with your thing and letting go of the structures and formats that you may be used in radio. Create a different vision of what success can be. 

34:54 – 37:11 Mars says the key to making anything great, is to make it exactly what it is meant to be. Don't think of making audio to support photography but make audio that is great in and of itself as inspired by the photography. If it can't stand alone, then its not good enough. Don't make it unless there is a compelling reason to do it.

37:12- 41:10 In talking about platforms, Mars says Tumblr was a great place for him to start (it's free!) He also uses SoundCloud and likes how the two platforms work well with each other. He also appreciates how SoundCloud allows uploaded clips to be easily embedded in other places. 

41:11 – 49:03 When talking about common traits among excellent hosts and podcast shows Mars says that really good public radio is intimate and that's even more the case with podcasts. Play to that strength – the intimacy and connection you have with the audience. 

49:04 - end There is a lot of time to fill, every moment of public radio doesn't have to please everyone all the time. Make great things. 

Listen to some of 99% Invisible via Soundcloud:

If you missed last week's webinar on audio innovations, The Podcast is Dead. Long Live the Podcast! with Slate's Andy Bowers, you can watch it on our blog.