« 99% Invisible

Roman Mars on Bullseye with Jesse Thorn

2020-12-18 | 🔗

Roman Mars joins Jesse Thorne on Bullseye this week to talk about life before podcasting, and what decades in radio has taught him. Roman has worked in podcasts and radio for decades at this point, but his career didn't start out in audio. He was originally getting a PhD in genetics, pipetting stuff into tubes, recording data and the like. Roman and Jesse also spoke about how the pandemic has affected the design of cities, and which of those changes might be permanent.

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This is an unofficial transcript meant for reference. Accuracy is not guaranteed.
This isn't quite ninety nine percent visible. But I am woman Mars a couple months ago, as you probably know we released, first book, the ninety nine percent Well said he became an. Your time is best seller and it makes a great gift. I am contractually obligated to say that but one of the things that happens when you go out promoting book is that you get interviewed a lot and one of those people that interviewed me. He's probably my favorite interviewer Jesse Thorn the impartial bulls I and is also the head of the maximum funpunk gas network, this interview it's really fine- can actually got surprising personal and I thought to be interesting for victims of unemployment visible. So here it is. This is me on balls. I, what does either word
Its walls, I'm Jesse Thorn. My first guess this week is roman Mars. Roman hosts the pod cast ninety nine percent visible to show that the little known stories behind everyday design and architects thinks like prefab homes. Trash cans is on those little ramps, easy on sidewalk. How and why did stuff like this come to be now after shows been around for just over ten years. Roman is exploring those same themes in a book. The ninety, nine percent invisible city is a beautifully illustrated look at how cities work and why they work the way they do Roman is also the founder of the podcast network? Radio Tokyo he's worked in podcast and radio for decades. I've, no, him for nearly as long he actually came with the name for this show Bowles. I
senator me in an email list of ideas unsolicited by the way anyway, I'm really excited to talk with roaming about his new book. So let's get right into my conversation with great roman Mars Robin Mars work intervals. I it's nice attractive. Oh it's they'll be here. Thank you so much so congratulations, Roman on finally utilizing a visual medium for your desire, TAT well, you know he's going to come and big leap, but we finally did it. Yes, we You started ninety nine percent, invisible as radio show and podcast originally, it was kind of like made to order. It was in part driven by the desire of the a an architecture trade group to have an architecture shall,
I wonder whether you would have done a show on that subject. Had someone not suggested that it might be cool and why, you were worried about about trying to do audio about design. I mean, I think, I already had the interest in architecture, but I don't know if I would have necessarily jumped on it. As a subject had someone, you know not requested but I would always news I like the idea of doing it on the radio, because I knew that I and other people or had real, biased is when it came to the the image of buildings are white way. Buildings who looked. And I was really interested in the problem, solving and design aspect in buildings, and I thought that I actually, on the radio, it actually did you understand the story of a building before you had the visual image and that could make you love or appreciate a building in a different way.
and always thought that was our secret strength, actually show more talk about buildings for a second, they show covers much much much more then buildings what is an example of a build that is, if some looked at it they might and appreciated in the way that they might appreciated. If they knew it story. Will one of the first buildings. I ever really appreciated in this way was when I was in Chicago. I was working at the BBC and I took the architecture boat tour that the Chicago Architecture Foundation give. So you you go in this big. and a dose and tells you stories about buildings. As you go along the river, does one building in Montgomery Ward Complex. That's the headquarter. Building in it. It's a really basic rectangular. building, but as these big concrete corners on it and
I pass it all the time I never cared for this building. I thought it was boring, modernism, really ugly and then the dose until the story of the fact that the reason I have these big, concrete support. On the corners was because the Montgomery company at the time pride itself on this military hierarchy and they didn't want their vice presidents. Fighting over who got the corner office, and so they made a building that eliminate any possibility, her office at all and it is to make me love it and you before, I thought of it, is nothing home can a building, and then I noticed that others real genius. Even in the Could I that I don't appreciate its interesting architecture and design are fields that, like any others specialised field there prone to specialization,
and of knowledge and intense connoisseurship, manned professional knowledge and is stuff that debt Joe blow off the street, my not get even there, also at least theoretically specifically created to be accessible to be used. interesting tensions like I think, of all like buildings on college campuses, that the students all hate, mostly mostly, but not exclusively, made of giant blocks of concrete. It's true, I think that's what I love the most about it, and I think that the show takes into account the fact that this is the art and design that we live in, and excess feel a certain way and we actually preference that when we present architecture like we're, not just the academic list of Isms Modernism and brutal listen, you know I like to
pay attention to how these buildings make us feel, and that is part of the story and it the is accessible because you feel it heartless, whether or not you know anything but architecture. You you feel this sort of sense of like one There is a reason why, when you go to Washington DC, you can feel it we'll get from when you feel this sort of glory in this stuff and they were onto something when they did that in Ukraine. Feel the heaviness of rule ism and then maybe I can tell you a little bit of the story of it to me. you change your mind a little bit to get beyond your, and this role in this role reaction to it, but then in this This reaction is totally valid and is part of the design and is worth talking about. I love Lee unintended unintended consequences of someone's intent when they design something agenda that weirdness that you might feel for some crappy concrete.
building that you have on campus look the mud library at Oberlin is a brutal has like masterpiece, and everyone complain about it. like everyone thought it was oppressive and horrible in kind is, but also glorious. oh, and I just died in no not to appreciate how it was glorious. Everyone wants to keep their home and family safe and whether it's from break in a fire, flooding or medical emergency simply say home security delivers. Twenty four seven protection was simply say you don't just get an arsenal of cameras and sensors, you get professional monitors day and night and it in
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you telling me that one of your guiding principles for the show was no stories about people just stories about stuff. I have to say you know all these are all these. You know a decade or so in we have done it. Pretty good job of sticking to bad, I mean. Sometimes you have to tell the stories of people to tell the stories of stock, but it's never let can meet the man behind the Golden Gate Bridge. It's this person did this interesting thing that created the up near the Golden Gate Bridge Why did you lie Leave aside the like the number one easiest technique, major journalism, which is this is the life story of the thing of the person behind the thing that you know yeah. We do a occasionally- and I do like humans up in the story, and I do think that the story of the stuff is the story of humans and our values and the things we care about, but there
just something more fun about making a story about? bigger ideas than a person and their feelings and not boiling everything down to some personal story like thing when you watch him like a by OPEC and then that moment in the biotech, which is so on the nose as to why a person data that you know they did later and it's so I just I is painful like it's. It's clean Day it's hard to watch, and I just wanted to always make it about the aid here and there is great characters in their like you, the curb what's episode in wouldn't happen without Ed Roberts and a tinted Roberts is a real character, but it's it's about things that are not just him, but about all the things around him, and I just think that's
more funds story. To tell tell it tell me a little better. We haven't even given an example of ninety nine percent, invisible story. So let's take that curb cuts episode. What was their design that that episode was about it was really about those little tiny foreign Ramps that make it so a sidewalk doesn't come to a clear fino when it reaches the street and makes it so that its accessible to people, when in wheelchairs, but also makes it more pleasant for all kinds. Because I don't like you have a hard time. Stepping up for people pushing the stroller or any type of of mobility. That's that's different from a completely healthy young person and and it's about those in and about the fact that they really do symbolise this movement that and Robert was a huge part of. He was the first quadriplegic to be accepted. You see Berkeley and the easy Berkeley. Grudgingly sort of Meda.
Limitations for him and he always pushed forward and push further people and these curbed that's became the symbol of armed make him accessible world which lead to the aviation and all kinds of progression. Now, ok- progress of advancement in terms of people with different abilities. I dont. ever would have occurred to me that sidewalks existed without curb cotton and it feels like a big part of the show and a big part of the book is revealing the iceberg. under the surface of the water, behind things that you might not have considered like curb catch. You know you might just walked up them, your whole life and they had never occurred to you- that they made sidewalks without them is probably wouldn't have to me and there's this whole story underneath their yummy nets. The name is. Ninety. Nine percent of exports at the the physical objects
one per cent of the story and history behind that thing, and What I love about it is in the tent. This was done. The show and and with the book and as its being introduced new people is that their are these stories everywhere and there really gratifying when you find them in the most mundane thanks like you'd notice them for the first time, even though you passed all the time- and you noticed this richness- and then you begin to have a little bit more fanciful interesting day, because you know what must be more stories about those other stuff and maybe I'll look ran up or maybe there's something like about that in the book and that the part I love about, it's really fun to give people, s permission and a little bit other that prompt and the guide to help. I'm fine stories and delight right outside their door.
You always were a guy. In my experience, who really loves learning about something, and I think all the time of this origin story, you told me about how you became a public radio per which you know I mean, I guess, nine. Nine percent, invisible is, is no longer technically a public radio programme, but certainly remains deeply rooted in popularity and spirit pressure and hypocrites. Basically, he You are getting a phd in genetic studying, corn and your listening to talk of a nation when the great Re Suarez Way, the hosting that show. In fact, why don't think I could do so that I can probably be the guy that looks it up and puts it on a piece of paper. I fancy that's exactly what I thought. I didn't know what that John Black brows like Somebody reads the books and helps him be so good on the air and I will be really good at that shot out. That's what I felt like I could do
that's what I went to pursue, and so what was the thing it made. You feel like you could be good at that job, but that you didn't want to be a professional scientists are that you weren't, you know you almost. You were very close to getting your Pierre to mean your twenty one, or some duty has arrived age, but you were very close to getting your phd at the time. So white lead you to think. I would be better at that. Then at being a scientist, a job that also involves looking stuff up. A will I think, to be assigned to us, and they didn't know this, because I was very good at studying science, but I didn't have the experience of being an actual scientists and theirs, real difference in their time of our. If I thank you open. I don't mean that in any pejorative sense that you're drunk and by the thing you want to discover so much like you wanted personal. Does it you wanted to vote all this time and- and I just like what I just wanna, know things in it
it's a whole lot easier just to read about things. Other people discover if you just want to know things and because I kind of you I was why that way, and I was a very poor bent scientists like in terms of like pipes In things into tubes, I was extremely lazy back in All those things together realise that I just really like the pursuit of knowledge, and I thought the graduate school was just can be a continuation of being which is what I really wanted to do, and so I just thought that. this job of being a radio Bruce her was cleaning. like me, I'm in college forever, and it turned out it's kind, right papers every week I study things you know it's just kind of undergrad- I just never left Oberlin, I'm very grateful for the help that I have making. This show Kevin's on the line right now, so I wanted to my producer. So I wanted to make sure I said that out
pilot. I owe you and I share the experience of having in it an unusual experience of having made a public radio show by ourselves they show by myself for many years and who made invisible linked by yourself in for a long time. You made ninety nine percent invisible by yourself as well. Although you know you, you had you had people contributing there in the Euro Why did you learn from having to go on the air once a week by yourself without for without anyone to check. If what you were doing was good and without any one too to see how they were reacting to it. I mean us when the specific radio things is in such a vacuum. Where did you learn from? from generating that much stuff? That regularly I mean
I think you learn a couple of things and there are kind of almost the opposite things which is like you to have a certain amount of self discipline and to to listen to yourself and listen to your work to do we are so done, that you're sure it's good enough and then you also learn. If it isn't great, more isn't perfect, it's it's! Ok! Can you remember you deal is a new thing out there to put them out next week and I'll be fine and those two things help me as upon cast her, because I think one of the issues- passing in general. Is people get into it and they love it and they love to be producing stuff and love to be talking can. I do with people in all kinds of other things, but they didn't at a time where they had her upon themselves and in terms of the the rate, o clock and outfit stuff into time and had it not waste, your audience is time end
I think that the work and of suffers because of that and so I'm I'm glad. I had appeared time where I was like a meticulous self editor, because they mean better today but I'm pretty loose when it comes to us. Like my team of thirteen People work on the show now, including me in work in different capacities. But you know they'll pick up little things due to pull out, or change order like have me We take something I'm just like. That's fine acquire complaints. and I think that is from doing it for twenty years and their stone that state, where you have to do it perfectly that buddy don't get to where I am from, and I think that is such an essential and underrated lesson bow, and it's like such a classic drama of the gifted child lesson to happen to learning like ice. I see it with with my kids, right now, and I certainly it something
I can relate to which, as you know, from much of my life, certainly my childhood and adolescence My only solution to my perfectionism was just not to try and do anything happened. And I think that one of the reasons that you know stage performance and going on the radio once a week with Japan to me was that you have to do it and when it's done it's done, you can't they worry about whether it was near you could go to work on the next one totally. I think it's The thing is important lesson. I think it's really good. I remember I was you know I know I know a lot of people and public radio cause of how I came up- and I was once you know like each. Why? Why, in Philadelphia and watching Terry Gross do her show live and she gonna puts it together. Live you another, some stuff it's been accorded and I'm in the back with them Acta. Roberta Iraq, as she's training, the new director and what does a church
since the happen- and am I do after pay attention here and she's like he's got it you do a good job. Besides, it's not brain surgery, its radio, myself, he'll, be fine. I don't remember that at a somewhat heart in that cause, it's totally true like we're like I want it to be good. I have my audience to make something valuable to end and not waste our time and then Beyond you know like the story If the show is something that is a ten year story, it's it's never encapsulate into one episode, and so you just happened I let some of that go still maintaining like a quality that your proud of, and I think we do that each week, but it's good to let some time, You go to a new city in times when travelling to new cities is possible or advice about what is the first place? Be you go on. Firstly, look for her first thing you ask about: I mean what I think
is fun. Now is a fine, If I'm feeling in the mood for it- and it takes up specific mood- is I kind of let people know if I'm gonna go someplace if I'm with? If I'm doing this that way people know, I'm coming to Pittsburgh are coming to the sea and then EL like say, oh, I can let you in the top of this building or something like that and that sort of, like that's the privilege of having like a show about designing architecture as people like Guinea secret wars. Two thanks. You know I I liked walk alone, and so I looked for places where I can walk. Inexperienced stir a city that way but said, he's really know really different, and so it's can hard to generalise, but I I do museum d like it. I like a good tiny museum like a weird specific tiny museum is like always into a museum called MOTO in Mexico City at last summer, witches Museum of Everyday objects, sale. My spanish
Let's my memories of old, total del okay and something on fine and met her so correct the Postal Museum in DC, like you, can go to all its shadow to only the postal Service, God yeah there's not unlike taxidermy dog totally. What would that, whereas a vast covered in postal metal bends, Disposal museum heavy with postal metals like poor dog, fair to give him a new vast, because he had too many metals on first text here postal trains and end postal inspectors and postal employees would give him metals at each post office. He went to its great it's great story like I like a good the chance for taxidermy enemies like all they have Certainly we are taxidermy.
I also think that there are places that reveal themselves more easily than others like you know. You lived Chicago I visited Chicago a number of times. I've taken that architectural tour that you describe, but I think you would be hard pressed to walk around. Town Chicago and not appreciated its total. It is beautiful. spectacular in beautiful, whereas I live here unless angel ass, an LOS Angeles is every bit the great city. Chicago is, quite you know, there's I am not going to lie. There's a lot of glee and allay and allow the best F and lay somebody's gonna. Tell you about cause. It's in Poland, it's a whole hassle to keep the area and an that's. Why like either either talk to someone who is a friend or or I let people now hoo hoo, hoo dont know me better me too show and the EU. A guy from our cities like you, you totally right like Chicago, lays itself out for you like it is there to be appreciated. Like they may focus on that, but, alas,
It is a place where you are told about a place it takes forty five minutes to drive their in its like a great hot dogs to hinder whatever and dumb and in full It is a good way to sort it get you in a lot different directions, which is another way Lecter to navigate the city is through food and that's a great way to experience- and I do I do like Cities were somebody has to be. your guide, their just gonna harder for sure, but they're worth it What are some things when you are walking around in California, where you live, and You see that you might your eye might not have landed on and appreciated before you did. This show oh yeah, would the show really open my eyes lot away. So I love sidewalk stamps. Often, the construction company who lay the sidewalk if they did a building and then they tore up whatever sidewalk. There was
I welcome the they lay, but no one down and they often put an imprint of the company on the sidewalk and those are all over the Bay area, you can even see like the evolution of a company, there's one they got snore pavement and then there is a shore and sands and then shorn brothers, and you can see the evolution of like of like ok, bringing the kid into the business and then retires like, and if you walk around Berkeley Streets you can see the stamps and that they have so much history in them, but I think is really amazing. Am I love the different like easement mark there's that are like the little tiny embedded plaques that are like The space is not dedicated or something like that. Which are basically martyrs, because that part of the sidewalk is often owned by the. No, it's a building not met by the city, giving permission for the sidewalk to be there and in order to survive, Lloyd, adverse possession, meaning that the city just takes over because they ve had it for so long. They have to put these martyrs.
round, to say what no ion this property, I'm going. Let you use it for now, but I own it and I love the kind of weird like legal, strangely bureaucratic information, on the on the city, and I that those things because our so mundane and because they have this legally, is language. I think there are easy to not jade or not moving about, but I I think about all the stuff. It came before it the core kind of story there and I kind of like its awkward bureaucratic, listen. I don't think I ever what a found beauty and that before the shell there's one of them sidewalk stamps outside my house that relatively old for LOS Angeles, eleven, a relative the old neighborhood for LA, and it's dated one thousand nine hundred and twenty three, and maybe fifty a hundred feet past that sidewalk stamp the road ends. There is, in fact not a sidewalk. It's just too narrow, conch proud and turns into dirt, and whenever I see that one thousand nine hundred and twenty three, I think that is almost a hundred years, that they have not finna
this round, ninety seven years ago, there were like yeah worries about three quarters done get back and they just bailed. there's a story there, I don't know what it is, but there's a new story there we'll say chap with roman Mars and just a bit after the break we'll talk about how the covert ninety in pandemic has affected the design of cities in which of those changes might become permanent, welcome back to balls. I am Jesse Foreign. My guess is roman Mars he's the hosting creator of the design podcast. Ninety nine percent- invisible he just LISA New book. Based on that podcast, it's called the ninety nine percent invisible city it's available. Now, let's get back into our conversation.
So one of the stories about design it often investigated on ninety percent invincible is the ten in between the world as it is designed by designers in the world as it is used by users. You know the classic example being a park with paths concrete pay. rivers or whatever, and then all the corners have diagonal dirt paths through the grass, because people don't want to ninety to return sitting right Timothy to take agonal routes, and I feel living in a pandemic. We are seeing, design as it is practised flourishing around us simply because the it was something that was not planned
yeah yeah and something that we don't have enough understanding of necessarily to make perfect plans about yeah. What do you see around you in terms of design? That is a response to the pandemic? Well, I mean that's why I love most about cities, as I think that my city, is this ongoing conversation between top down design and bottom up intervention, and that's what all the stories come from in black Africa boil down the show. That's kind of what the show is about in the end and so desire path is a perfect example that in what I noticed you know like in response the pandemic, What were the first news was how quickly everything happened like that: the tape on the floor and the plexiglas and all that stuff, like wind up so fast, and I was sort of bold, over by the ingenuity of everyone affixing
it has to do like counters in ways and like you're, having like a two way for them, and I hope in them and then Pugsy glass hanging them eighteen bolted. The edges was swerve amazed by quickly all itself came up and you're some others. You preclude g and some of its you're, not very fun tonight. To navigate, but one of the things that I notice about the pending it was how it frustrating how ad hoc and haphazard The evolution is city is and has always been as wages. They were seen it and in real time, has we're dealing with the pandemic, and that is super fastening, the parts that they can take on their own and then than there was a horse monster in the summer, with all the protests and yeah like would coming up and then how people can respond to like in Oakland Dynamics, are trying to like Express holiday,
ready and their liking. Please don't smash this, because I have this Oscar Grant poster up mean or something like that and or George Floyd mural in theirs. That response were people, trying to express themselves in Reno, say they were part of this too and were expressing our support in conversation as it makes a city interesting and better a I like to look at, and but it be interesting to see what stays you know like. I've noticed that the tape on the floor has, then to design decals where they have will footprints have all statement on a better social distancing, succeed or something like that, whereas easterners Bee flew painters, tape or something and yeah. Maybe that's awful stack, maybe won't. Maybe the sidewalk cafes will look in the park. Let's all that stuff, if you were experimenting with, will stay in its hard to turn to say this is very poor. Not to you, because you lost your father to covet very recently had any in,
I saw that one of your first reactions to it publicly was upset over the system here and not you know not necessarily the system in there. You know rage against the machine sense, but that is If some one had been at the wheel doing some designing and thinking systemically that maybe your father would still be alive yeah I was. It was one of the big like, Could almost overriding emotions like when it came to M M, his sickness and death and one of things I felt a ton of just how unnecessary his illness was, because it was a thing that the federal government you didn't take on in its became a political thing, and you know he he die
are necessarily for dumb politics, because somebody couldn't get out of their way and after just like, took care about the citizenry and this is what governments are for this is and I'm a believer income, so I'm I live on. The other, spectrum of so many things when it comes to Donald Trump, but one of them, and a lot of his republican compatriots is that I believe and government. I believe that government is representation of the things we do that can't do alone and that we work together to create a better one, together, and we do that, and we call our government and that's not something to be ashamed of or to be dismissed or something needs to be made so small as to be non existent and since the time when we need it because in jewels response like there's nothing that my father could do like he caught covered in the hospital like he was under. the procedure for em he hasn't
ass killer. Disease like he was not a healthy man, and so that made him susceptible to over, but you know he he did the things that you are supposed to do at least, I hope in terms of keeping him safe from the virus, but he caught it anyway, because there's a health system in a highly overwhelmed with I'm Kovac cases and that being Obama cover cases, as is something that We could have stopped and makes me mad that we can stop it. It makes me sick, they were then stop. It is a tragedy that we can stop and were still not stopping so like having fight about the past, ex masks and staying home when none is real things at stake here and they seem abstract to people but they're, not obstructing others, a quarter of a million people have died and this requires system thinking it requires a thinking. the whole, because the
parts of these provisos no little parts. The things we have to do you you know like is I'd understand that they don't seem that important, because you live for certain way in your health in a certain way, but the totality these choices, ain't they have to be thought of as design system and an if they're, not The responses that the result is people, like my father die you I'm I was really uncontrolled with it does the single day that I put that on twitter and, like so many thousand people like, shared at her like that or something like that, I was really overwhelmed by being the centre of people's emotions. For that day, that's not a place, I love to be, but I do think it important for people to share their experiences. Well, thank you for taking this time and thanks for your great work,
I've loved your show for so long and I've been, I love the book and I'm very grateful to consider your friends. they showman. Thank you so much. I am so grateful. I'm Emmy, I shouldn't. Let people know that, like you and people to listen to the show- and I am so visible- was one of the first, as we got an audience, so I'm grateful free. but you haven't invent Vista we all know that I named balls. I named it Rowan. ass. It was great to talk to you about your great book in your Rachel. Thanks for coming on both always my pleasure thanks ram Roman Mars, the ninety nine percent, invisible city is available to buy. Now you can get it from your local bookshop or on the ninety nine percent, invisible, that's the end of it We're episode of bulls eyeballs. I is created from the homes of me and the staff of maximum fun in and around
greater LOS Angeles. California, where you know they say, red tape prevents you from building homes. in LOS Angeles, but they sure our building one right across from my limit. So you know sorry, if you ve heard it there. how produced by speaking DE microphones are producer is Kevin Ferguson. He Suzanne Proceedings and Jordan calling are our associate producers. We also get some help from Casey, O Brien and Kristen Bennet Our interstitial music is by Jan Wally, also known as DJ. W are themes It is by the goatee thanks very much to them into their level Memphis industries for letting us use it if you I hear the latest about what we are up to. You can keep up with the show on Twitter, at both on Facebook, at Facebook outcomes suppose, I would Jesse Thorp Plant,
You too just search for bulls. I would Jesse Thorn closed all of our interviews there and I think that's about it. Just remember all great radio hosts have a signature sign. Balls I, with Jesse Thorn, is the protection of maximum fund dot org and is distributed by end. He are that was me talking with my friend. Does he thorn you should really listen to both his interview with due undermine this year is like. my top five favorite podcast episodes of the year. We will be back with me hosting our annual many stories next week, taker radio do.
Transcript generated on 2020-12-19.