While I’ve long been an avid podcast consumer (I don’t think I’ve managed to write a bio yet that doesn’t profess my love for them), I haven’t spent much time critically analyzing how they work. What makes them so compelling that there is an estimated 50 million listeners in the US? What makes an effective storytelling podcast?
So as I start to dip a tentative toe into audio production, I turn to one of my most adored podcasts: 99% Invisible, hosted by the velvety-voiced Roman Mars. The show explores human relationships to the built environment, the “thought that goes into the things we don’t think about — the unnoticed architecture and design that shape our world.” In 16-30 minute episodes, they manage to relate passionately little snippets of the world otherwise too mundane to notice.
The episode I’ll be analyzing is “Making Up Ground”
The story explores how humans have for centuries, and still currently, literally made the ground we stand on, in what I felt was an overall captivating manner. The main elements that felt particularly effective here were: narrative structure, flow & pacing, tone of awe, and blend of visuals and voices.
The episode starts, as Ira Glass recommends with an anecdote. A short series of events initially builds curiosity, suspense. This anecdote is not the entire story: instead, it launches us into a larger phenomenon, and ultimately tells us something about humanity’s relationship with our environment.
They start with the construction of a new building in San Francisco’s financial district—when they run into the unexpected, a ship. Roman’s narration is backed by the signature sounds of a construction crew to establish the scene. The story then continues to expand: First, explanation, context: why are all these old ships under San Francisco? From there to other cities, exploring the trend of land reclamation; then to the socioeconomic implications and complications of the practice; then finally reflection on our human relationship to the ground beneath our feet. The show satisfies in two regards: you come out both with small tidbits of trivia, as well as the larger reflection.
What also works, both for this structure, and in their types of content, is the relatively quick pace they keep up. No one voice segment goes for much more than 15 seconds at a time, switching between Roman, Emmet (the reporter), and their couple of sources. This keeps the story from dragging, as well as showing some savvy, polished editing. The quick cuts also make the reflective moments, where Roman speaks slower, with pauses, stand out all the more powerfully to the audience.
Tone of Awe
What also sets 99% Invisible from other shows that follow this narrative structure, is the way that espouses interest and awe at the world around us. Roman, while not the primary reporter/storyteller in this episode, nevertheless guides us through it with his overall reflective tone, expressing a quiet kind of awe and surprise—very different than the in-the-moment surprise from shows like Radiolab.
Also crucially evocative is the music background: quieter piano and acoustics, slightly bouncy and up tempo enhance the sense of marvel & excitement, in addition to setting the tone when new guests are introduced.
Building a community
While not really conversational between hosts, there is a sense of intimacy—we get the feeling that Roman is talking just to each of us, the listener, almost achieving the tone of a father weaving a bedtime story—which I find oddly comforting (try not to psychoanalyze). The topics are accessible, and they often sprinkle in humor. In addition, he forms and caters to a named community around the show, starting each episode with “Hello, beautiful nerds”. Talk about a way to create loyalty/fan base.
So, wrapping up, what makes this story appropriate to this form of telling it? After all, much of the podcast’s topic areas are parts of our visual world. Could this particular story have been told as well with aerial images of Dubai’s islands or videos of construction crews? I don’t think so—they complement it well, sure, but these visuals don’t match the audible aesthetic the show creates, that makes them so much more appealing. In addition, while the heavy emphasis on history and context could be rendered effectively into an animation, the audio approach, as set by the tone and structure of the show, are indispensable. After all, the show’s topic could easily become another dry documentary special with stock footage, but it is the tone of awe, the storytelling structure, and the use of details that makes it interesting and effective.