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PODCAST EPISODE #6: Roman Mars, 99% Invisible Podcast

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The great thing about the 99% Invisible podcast is that feels like a well-kept secret — even as it has risen the ranks to become one of the most downloaded podcasts on iTunes.

Seemingly improbably, Roman Mars has created and built a beautiful podcast that discusses the virtues of design and architecture — visual subjects that are tackled in audio form. It is a tricky challenge, but Mars and his team regularly prove worthy of it, captivating their audience with vignettes about subjects like city streets, slot machines, and — most perplexingly, from my vantage point — rebar.

In the process, Mars has developed a reputation as “the Ira Glass of design”, and that reputation is warranted — to a point. As a listener of both, I feel like Mars has developed his own persona, with more asides and unbridled enthusiasm. Both are terrific, and Mars is quickly becoming just as popular as Glass, recently launching the highest-funded journalism project in Kickstarter history.

I was honored to interview Mars for the sixth episode of the “Telling The Story” podcast. We tackle numerous subjects, including:

  • The future of podcasts: “I don’t think we have saturated the podcast market in the slightest. My most popular web page is the web page where I recommend other podcasts.”
  • The difference (if any) between journalism and storytelling: “I like to think of it as, ‘I have a column about design.’ So I have a fact-based opinion column. To me, it’s honest in that way.”
  • How to convey the beauty of design and architecture: “You kind of have to seduce the audience to care about this thing that they have been trained to not notice. Most of the good design in the world is good because you don’t think about it.”

I highly recommend this episode, especially for younger journalists looking for storytelling tips; Mars provides several important ones. I was honored to have him as a guest.

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3 GREAT STORIES OF THE WEEK: Starring Jason Collins, an inspiring child, and slot machines

Every week, I will shine the spotlight on some of the best storytelling in the business and offer my comments. “3 Great Stories of the Week” will post every Monday at 8 AM.

It’s an all-A/V edition of “3 Great Stories”.

After paying homage to three great print pieces last week, we turn this week to some outstanding storytelling in podcasts and television. Each case benefits from time — the time to allow an interview to breathe, the time to develop a full story of an individual, or the time to give an in-depth look at a subject you never thought deserved one.

Jason Collins interview (4/30/13, The B.S. Report): Jason Collins was all over the news last week, starting with his coming-out announcement on Sports Illustrated’s web site — a wonderfully written and powerful piece in its own right. After it, he did several interviews and was the subject of a slew of articles.

In the process, Collins became an elevated figure. Many of the pieces about him last week talked more about what he represents than who he is.

For me, one interview stood out for going in the opposite direction.

Bill Simmons is, of course, the most popular writer at ESPN and Grantland.com, but he has proven to be a deft and skilled interviewer on his B.S. Report podcast, during which he regularly gets notable subjects to reveal unique insights into themselves. Simmons did a one-hour podcast with Collins Tuesday, and it is a seminar on how to conduct an interview. He keeps things light in many spots, chats basketball — including Collins’ ability to bend the rules and frustrate big-name opponents in the process — and does the seemingly impossible in the process: finds out details about Collins’ experience that had not yet been revealed in the tons of articles and columns written the previous day.

A detail that stunned me? Collins got a congratulatory phone call from Tim Hardaway, the former NBA player who once famously said, “I hate gay people.”

Simmons is a polarizing figure in sports media, but he has always been a terrific storyteller. His best attribute? He knows how to connect with people, whether his massive audience or his interview subjects. Here, while everyone else treated Collins as a hero, Simmons treated him as a human … and obtained the most human coverage of Collins as a result.

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