The crew of the radio show and podcast 99% Invisible doesn’t compare to that of Morning Edition, This American Life, or most popular public radio strongholds. It’s only two people (and even that’s a recent addition.) But with the support of its distributor Public Radio Exchange, and numerous design-curious fans, it may be paving a new model for audio content that fits the purpose of public radio.
With four days to go in its fundraising campaign, the “tiny radio show about design, architecture and the 99 percent invisible activity that shapes our world” has raised over $147,000 through close to 5,000 supporters on Kickstarter, shattering its original goal of only $42,000.
(Notably, the number also already marks it as 1 of only 208 successfully funded projects on Kickstarter to raise over $100,000.)
If funds continue to flow in, the show’s host and producer Roman Mars will be able to do much, including bringing on former intern Sam Greenspan to help produce a strong third season.
This should catch the attention of both content creators and fundraisers. What began as a short one-minute segment on a KALW show is organically growing into a stellar success story of digital storytelling worth examining. So how’d it happen?
The “99% Invisible” in the show’s title refers to all the thought that goes into our often overlooked surroundings and the objects that inhabit them. One episode speaks about the design of walking spaces, another speaks about queue theory (going beyond the magical lines at Disney). All have catchy titles—who wouldn’t want to listen to an episode titled “The Best Beer in the World”?
The thing-centered focus, however, is just the surface. The show’s hook may be tangible objects, according to Mars, but the stories are really about people who interact with them.
“Design awareness is at an all-time high,” said Mars, who saw an appetite about how things work but didn’t want to produce a show bolstering consumerism. “[And it’s the] hook of objects to tell story about people and genius.”
The show about walking spaces, for instance, is a compelling look at what it’s like to walk-and-talk with someone while blind. The show about queue theory is about how to keep people entertained in all forms of lines and enjoy an experience. The Best Beer in the World? It’s really about the lives of Trappist monks.
The lesson here is content is king.
Mars was in love with the idea, and the interaction with fans was positive, too. In short, he was not going to give 99% Invisible up even when “99 Percent” meant something different a year later.
“No matter what I did, it wasn’t staying a hobby,” Mars told me.
Some of that may just be credit to Mars’ personality, which comes through in other jobs, too.
“We realized early on that Roman shares our subversive sensibility and that’s why we initially brought him on board to curate our Public Radio Remix channel,” said Jake Shapiro, CEO, Public Radio Exchange. “Roman’s 99% Invisible takes our collaboration even further, fusing together a distinctive pace, tone, curiosity, and craft into something totally new.”
Mars was decisively behind the content. With building 99% Invisible really as a side project (admittedly with support by PRX), there was nothing holding him to putting out a new episode every week or two except commitment to those already in the audience.
The lesson here is passion.
Mars has drive, helping him call this gig “the best job in the world,” but there still needs to be money in order to not struggle—and in order to continue producing strong content. Where the players in 99% Invisible’s model benefit is firstly how content is distributed.
PRX, the show’s distributor, is a self-called “online marketplace for distribution, review, and licensing of public radio programming.” Mars has a good relationship with the organization, and he also curates their Public Radio Remix, “the best of public radio on shuffle,” which Boston’s WBUR just picked up.
That base support is most certainly helpful. It’s something not all side project content creators have.
The second propellant is now how the show is seeking extra funding.
“It’s hard to figure out how you’re going to raise money for a thing that you are inclined to give away for free anyway,” said Mars. Corporate sponsors got them going, he says, but comfortable asking for money from his years in pledge drive-filled public radio, Mars took to Kickstarter as a way to fund extra help for the show.
Press around Kickstarter is a mix of success and a lack thereof. But with the support the show already had from both fans and PRX, Kickstarter was a “referendum” for Mars—if he couldn’t get the funding, 99% Invisible may not have “truly” been worth it to his fans.
The format’s also not wholly different than public radio’s model—get support not all through ads, but instead right from your audience.
“There’s something about taking pledges that makes you more tied to people and want to serve them,” Mars said.
A father, Mars says much of the extra money will go to paying for help: a former intern to become paid (and look for other opportunities to fund the show), and then paying for freelancers, a cost Mars previously took himself in between paychecks. The campaign thus wasn’t entirely for growth per se—it was for sustainability that doesn’t involve breaking the bank, or oneself.
“We’re going to treat this beyond a glorified hobby as a professional concern and we’re going to take the investment from the people and turn it into other support through underwriting and grants,” said Mars of the message of the Kickstarter campaign.
It’s an uncommon model. But the numbers show it’s working.
“This is the idea that a show doesn’t have to be this massive thing that you staff up for and get a massive grant,” said Mars. “There’s a smaller way to do it, and better way to do it.”
The lesson here is strategic thinking.
“It’s a different media world– having your own project and doing your own things is easier now and more meaningful, and if there’s some justice in the world you can actually make a living out of it,” Mars said.