A Favorite Episode of Roman’s: 99% Symbolic
Although I have a hard time pulling out one episode to represent all of 99% Invisible, I chose this one about the design of city flags because I had the most fun making it. During production, I found I couldn’t say “vexillology” very well (that’s the proper name for the study of flags), and rather than practice it until I got it right, I incorporated that into the show. I even set up my wife (who provides the voice of the NAVA guidebook) to say it for the first time on tape, knowing she’d screw up, too. It was all a devious plan. This show also explored a topic that I had been wondering about for years and I think you can detect the excitement in my voice.
About 99% Invisible
I’m terrible at pitching stories and I’ve never felt particularly skilled at producing radio pieces for other people. I like making my own shows. Shows, not pieces. There’s something about the way a collection of stories in a show answers “the question” over time (usually over an hour), which makes it a more satisfying product than a single radio piece. However, I can’t produce a standard length, weekly radio show all by myself anymore. That’s why I love producing a thematic, ongoing series like 99% Invisible.
It’s a tiny radio show (averaging 5 minutes) about all the thought that goes into things most people don’t even bother thinking about. I lucked into the job when KALW and the San Francisco Chapter of the American Institute of Architects decided to collaborate on an “architecture minute” series of modules to run during their local presentation of Morning Edition. I signed on to produce the pilot and found that this world of design and architecture was the perfect lens to view all kinds of stories that I loved.
Because the show is short, it’s relatively cheap and manageable. With the help of AIA-SF and KALW, 99% Invisible got connected with a local design company called LUNAR that generously underwrites half of this year’s budget (we’re still figuring out how to get the rest). Because it’s ongoing, I get to produce stories about all kinds of things, creating a scatter diagram of sorts, and the resulting regression line is the thesis of the program. Week to week, I add one data point and the central idea of the show adjusts slightly. In this way, I get to actually finish and lock a story, but the narrative continues on as the program explores all aspects of design:
The stories come to me in a variety of ways. The AIA-SF has assembled a couple of meetings with local architects, engineers and designers who serve as the show’s brain trust. Picking the right story is a lot about picking something I know I can address adequately in four minutes. The subject has to be a little surprising and open your eyes to something you may not have noticed before.
The big pitfall of other design related journalism is that it tends to focus on glorifying objects. That doesn’t interest me. I’m only interested in the story of objects. Occasionally, I’ll violate this mandate and gush about the greatness of maps, but I try to keep that at a minimum. It’s story over glory. I usually only start a piece when I have some kind of hook that makes it fun to produce. This could be an audio sample I want to use, or a joke I think will be funny, or some clever use of music I envision. The need to scratch that itch moves that idea to the ...
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