Formats Unpacked: 99% Invisible
How a podcast format makes the things we don't think about so unforgettable.
It feels like I’ve unintentionally dropped into a fortnightly publishing pattern. Partly due to being too busy to write, and partly because I’ve not done the work in finding new writers. I’ll try to fix that and get this back on a weekly schedule soon.
This week it’s me unpacking one of my favourite podcasts - 99% Invisible. Writing about the unnoticed, almost invisible design that shapes a podcast - which is about the unnoticed and invisible design that shapes our world - is about as meta as Formats Unpacked can get. Or maybe not, depending on what surfaces in the future.
OK. Here we go…
What’s It Called?
99% Invisible (Podcast)
What’s the format?
In each episode, host Roman Mars and his team tell stories about the unseen and overlooked aspects of design, architecture, and infrastructure all around us. Each episode focuses on a single topic, such as skateboarding in empty swimming pools, or a specific example of design, such as flags. The name of the show was derived from a quote by Buckminster Fuller that, "Ninety-nine percent of who you are is invisible and untouchable."
What’s the magic that makes it special?
There are three things that make this podcast such a pleasing listen. It all begins with Roman Mars’ soothing voice, which is a delight to the ears. It’s the perfect headphone voice, audio engineered to sound like it comes from the inside of your head. Of course, nature gave him that voice, but as he’s pointed out several times, good mic positioning can really help create a godlike deep rumble.
Then there are the subjects the show covers. The team at 99% Invisible know their audience well. Affectionately referred to as Beautiful Nerds, they will happily spend hours listening to stories about licence plates, cul-de-sacs, toilet pipes, curb cuts, and more. These stories are niche - ‘400 million downloads’ niche. The show is proof, if needed, that there are fascinating stories hidden in the most mundane objects around us, and if told well, those stories will find a sizeable audience that is really passionate about those objects.
The third thing that makes this show so special - the magic in the format - is so well hidden you could say it’s 99% Invisible. The magic is the ‘e-shaped’ story structure frequently used. That’s right! ‘e-shaped’. If you draw the story structure on a piece of paper it forms the shape of a cursive ‘e’.
My obsession with the shape of stories began with this classic clip of Kurt Vonnegut. If you’re not familiar, it features the great writer demystifying the art of storytelling by sketching out the blueprints for many classic stories, using a marker pen and flip pad, condensing each story down to just a couple of straight lines and squiggles. Ever since I’ve been using a sharpie and cards to help me map out the shape of stories at the start of projects.
As a podcast fan and maker, I was delighted when I came across Bradley Cambell’s story structures drawn on napkins. It was Bradley talking to Rob Rosenthal on the excellent Transom podcast that I came across the idea of ‘e-shaped’ stories.
Non-fiction radio shows like 99% Invisible are frequently broken down into a series of plot points dotted along a timeline. The story starts at the beginning of the timeline, and chronologically works its way to the end, plot point by plot point.
With an ‘e-shaped’ structure your story you can start anywhere on the timeline. It’s a simple, but very effective way of dropping the listener into the heart of the action, capturing their attention, then using the historic plot points to provide context to that moment.
In one of my favourite episodes on the US Postal Service, the show begins with the story of 10 mules making a 2 and a half-hour daily trip, carrying mail to the most remote post office in the US today, which sits at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. It’s a fascinating image that grabs you instantly. The post office is there to serve the people on the Havasupai reservation, and it’s been doing so since the late 1700s.
The story then goes all the way back to the beginnings of the US Postal Service. We hear about how in 1754 revolutionaries sought an alternative to the Crown’s post, which was only really interested in communications between the colonies and England. Literacy could play a vital role in a future democratic America, so the distribution of letters and newspapers became an important democratic tool. As a result, the “Constitutional Post” was created, followed by an infrastructure to support mail carried by stagecoaches, trains, trucks and planes.
Within a few minutes the role of the Post Office connecting the colonies, and forming the United States as a result, is brought into sharp focus via these mules. As the story loops back to the present day, passing back through the story of the mules, the audience are left with uneasy questions about the future of democracy at a time when Congress continued cuts to this essential service.
This looping format was not invented by Roman or the team, but as an avid listener to the show, it feels like they’ve made it their own. Or a solid version of it, at least. After a decade of listening, I’m yet to hear a story about a mundane object, building or infrastructure, that doesn’t have me gripped from the start, or leave me with unshakeable feelings about the design we don’t think about.
The Revolutionary Post - as mentioned above is a must-listen, particularly as it was aired prior to the last US election. Structural Integrity looks at a design flaw in one of Manhattan’s most famous buildings. The Pool and the Stream tells the story of how a water drought in California in the 70s saw empty swimming pools become early skate parks.
When he started the show Mars said “I wanted a little bit of ‘Radiolab,’ a little bit of ‘Memory Palace,’ a little bit of Benjamin Walker’s ‘Theory of Everything,’ a little bit of James Burke’s ‘Connections.’ Having stumbled across this quote it’s clear to see how these influences have shaped this loopy, story-connecting, all-encompassing format.
Thanks for reading.
If you’re a fan of 99% Invisible let me know what episode has stuck with you. I’m always looking for suggestions of episodes I may have missed or are just so good need a second listen. And do let me know if you’d like to unpack a format yourself.
Until next time,