Radio Host Roman Mars Uncovers Hidden Side of Design World


As an elevator pitch, it seems like a fail: A short public radio program celebrates the extreme esoteric in design. A lone man produces the show in a tiny shed behind his Kensington home. It sounds like audio Ambien, but make no mistake: The program 99% Invisible is addictive.

Roman Mars is the man behind the microphone. He was working at a Chicago radio station when he took an architectural boat tour that turned him on to design. On the tour, a guide pointed out the old Montgomery Ward building and explained how it had been created with no corner offices, eliminating arguments over choice workspace assignments. “That fact made the building my favorite,” says Mars. “I was struck by how design could be made interesting through stories. I thought, ‘I can do that.’”

Mars in the studio. Photo: Raymond Ahner

Back on the West Coast, Mars started a show at KALW 91.7 FM in San Francisco about architecture and design—but not the conventional kind covered in, say, this magazine. His idea was to look at the unseen elements of design that get his geek flag fluttering. Topics on the two-year-old show have ranged from the music created by faulty escalators to the graphics on American money.

When Public Radio Exchange began distributing free podcasts of the program, they shot to the top of the iTunes charts. A columnist for The New York Times hailed Mars as the “Ira Glass of design.” After 99% Invisible began airing on public radio in more cities, listeners started asking how they could donate.

All public radio programs need support, so Mars launched a Kickstarter campaign, not really expecting to raise the $42,000 he needed to fund 30 episodes. But in the first 24 hours, Mars’ dedicated fans pitched in to cover the costs. A month later, he had more than $170,000—enough to cover a third season of programs, hire a part-time producer and become the highest-funded journalism project in Kickstarter history. Listeners can’t see everything that goes into design, but they can hear it loud and clear.

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