99% Invisible‘s atmospheric presentation is both melodically gossamer, presented in a playful lilt, and yet comforting in its warmth and sincerity. The architecture themed podcast, created by the inimitable Roman Mars, pairs hiccups of conversational levity with well-researched stories. Venerable themes, forgotten topography, and little known traditions are mainstays on the podcast. After parties and long nights out, the show always finds its way into my headphones, humming with excitement and curiosity. Avery Trufelman, one of the amazing producers of 99pi, curates, organizes, and presents many of the show’s terrific stories (her episodes will change your life, I’m not even kidding). I was thrilled (she’s one of my heroes) to interview Avery about her process of accumulating information, her use of language and tone in relation to podcasting, and the exciting future of the medium itself.
Rob Patrick: Your use of language is articulate and thoughtful, and yet full of accessibility and levity. What goes into the process of knowing how to shape a story through the right words and sentences?
Avery Trufelman: [laughs] That’s the question, right? There are a few prongs to that. A lot of it is editing. I have the most amazing editor in the world, Katie Mingle – she has worked on most of my stories with me. From the process standpoint, that’s a huge part of it. But from my experience, I think a lot of it comes from not knowing a lot about architecture. I love it, and I’m very passionate about it, but my lack of knowledge makes me ask things in a simpler style and I’m not afraid to look really stupid. But at the same time I don’t want to come in, like in a Vice documentary, and say, “oh shit; I didn’t do any research. Let me come in and ask some dumb questions.” Before I do an interview, I get every book and every article I can get my hands on, and research the hell out of the topic. There’s a lot of writers and people that make things and they don’t want to talk about the process. They say, “oh no, it makes me nervous, and I don’t want to think about it or dwell on it too much.” But I like to talk about my process in every stage because radio is a colloquial medium, right? If you see me at a party, I’m going to pull you aside and be like “hey, can I tell you what I’m working on right now?” It’s a good way to practice telling the story. Because with radio – or podcasting, at least – you don’t see people’s reactions, so I have to practice on friends and see which parts they say “huh, that’s interesting” or say “wait, I don’t get it – what?” to. And then, in the process of telling the story, over and over again, maybe at least five times with different people, I see which parts I highlight and which parts I gravitate to naturally as a storyteller. This helps, especially if you’re writing about something technical or wonky, as our show sometimes tends to do. Practicing telling the story to people that give you honest feedback is nice. At this point, my friends know the drill: they’re like, “alright, I will listen.”
I love how the show feels academic and yet conversational, and because of that it never feels pretentious – the podcast is accessible to so many people without compromising its content. It’s a finely tuned art in that way and respect.
Thank you so much. It takes many, many iterations and the tinkering of words and sentences. Every sentence has a lot of thought [laughs].
You touched on interviews a little bit. As far as techniques go, what have you found to be the most important way to sit down with someone and get them to open up?
It depends if you’re doing the interview in person or over the phone. With my interviews, it’s usually half-and-half. Studs Turkel had this technique where he would scratch his head with his microphone or wave it around. Or sometimes he would pretend to not know how to use his recorder so people would feel more comfortable with him. It’s interesting because I want people to feel comfortable, but also I am a young woman, and I think that maybe I’m younger than I sound on the phone. And often times people are surprised when they see me. I’m not sure what they were expecting. It’s interesting to strike a balance between something that makes a person comfortable and something where you seem really professional and really in command. You don’t want to be intimidating, but you also want to say to yourself “I got this.” I find that whether you are talking to someone in real life or over the phone, the most powerful thing you can possibly do is your research – it just comes through. People can tell. Even if you’re asking basic questions, such as “what is the most important aspect of designing a chair?” It will just shine through that you know what you’re talking about, and people really appreciate it – that’s what makes a good interview.
Now I’m nervous. Thanks [laughs]
Noooo [laughs]. There are people that I admire that just go right in with fresh ears. There are people that are really intuitive, and can just ask all of the right questions. Again, I don’t have training in architecture at all. And part of it is kind of navigating the divide of layperson and expert, and the divide of comfortable confidant and professional reporter. I think the way to straddle both of those divides, for me, is to do your homework. No one can take that from you. I do more than I have to, and it’s hard to let go, so it’s something I should work on. It would be better for me to not sweat bullets and be overwhelmed.
Conversely, say you have all of the information that you need in your bookbag, and your subject is deliberately inaccessible and unwilling to give you a good interview. How do you salvage something like that?
I commend you right now for doing a piece that is just an interview. I mean that is really an art to make sure that you have a long and good conversation. Luckily, for the show I work for, everything is super chopped up. I always have to breathe and say “well, if I get two good quotes out of this – it was worth it.” Even if someone is being cagey and not giving good answers, it’s not one complete interview; I can reword the same question again and again. It’s funny because I have done interviews in the past, and interviews are so hard. The way I see what I do for 99% Invisible is like squeezing a lemon. It’s just like, “you have information in you; I’m going to get out as much information as I possibly can.” I know the information I want. I’m going to dig in there. And I’m going to get it. A lot of interviewing – especially if it’s a personal interview about someone or their past or their history – is very much about a treasure hunt of finding out who they are, of building a rapport. The interesting thing about the interviews for 99% Invisible is that it’s all about a third party: you and me are talking about something else. It’s me trying to get you to tell me everything you know about this other thing. And hopefully put you in a place where we can talk about it in a fun and colorful way.
I really want to talk about the show’s sound. 99% Invisible’s music is so quietly immersive, important, and as full of mystery and exploration as the show itself. How does the team go about choosing the backing tracks to each podcast episode?
It really is a unified aesthetic that Roman set up. There are a few bands that we use really consistently. Roman used to work at Third Coast Festival, they’re like the Academy Awards of audio documentaries, they’re an extraordinary organization. They have a podcast called Re:sound, which presents highlights from all of the best radio documentaries around. It’s a great show, and it airs on WBEZ Chicago. Roman used to work there, Katie used to work there, [producer] Delaney [Hall] used to work there, and so they have this similar sensibility. It’s a great question, and I’m still learning about the music. I’ve worked at 99% Invisible for three years now, and I’m just now navigating the musical territory. That’s really an amazing art to me. We have a few go-to bands like Melodium and OK Ikumi, songs that you can hear over and over again. Lately, Roman has been letting me collaborate with a friend of mine, Sean Real. He’s been scoring a lot of our soundtracks. That has been really exciting to have a custom score. The episode I’m working on now has some custom soundtracking, and episode 200, “Miss Manhattan“, is all custom soundtrack.
I feel like if I were tasked to pick music, I would accidentally select something that would trample all of the dialog and the story. Here, you realize, subconsciously, that the music is there, but it’s not overwhelming. Instead, it brings the words of everyone forward. That is absolutely an art.
You don’t want it to be song, song, song, song, song. There’s usually thirty-seconds of music, and thirty-seconds of silence. The interplay of silence and music is important. I’m still figuring it out [laughs].
This is sort of a simple question, but what sort of sundial do you use for selecting stories for the show?
Most people ask “where do you guys get your ideas?”, which is a great question but it’s hard to answer. It’s not like we have a magical depository of places where we can say, “I need an idea for a story; let me look in here.” It’s all about reading, observing a lot, and keeping an open mind. The interesting thing about 99% Invisible is that we don’t do arts coverage. We’re not here to chronicle a story about one guy changing the world. And we don’t cover things that are super current. If we cover modern things, it has to be a story from the past and how it affects us today. It’s not the news; it’s stuff from the past that went ignored. It’s not arts coverage, it’s not dude with a project, it’s not super current. When I first started working here I would kind of look around the room and say “Lamp! Desk! Chair! Door! These all have stories! They’re all stories!” You really have to dig. Everything was invented, everything has passion behind it. It’s crazy to realize. But some stories are more compelling than others. The story has to be “this thing gets invented” and then the next part has to be “and then it affects the way we blank”. It has to be relevant. There’s a delicate balance of stuff, and it’s hard to find every time. I turned to Roman one time and said “can I do a story about high heels?” and he said “what’s there?” and I said “I don’t know; I’ll figure it out.”
Since you bring up Roman, I love how sincere and enthusiastic he is about his listeners, about the show’s music, and the podcast itself. How does that sort of attitude change a working environment?
Roman works from home most of the time, so I still get really excited to see him. When he texts me I’m like “oh my God, it’s Roman Mars!” [laughs] He does a lot of traveling, so it’s really a treat when he’s in the office. In terms of the audience, it’s so wild now. It has changed so much in the past three years I have been here. When I reach out to someone I want to interview, and have them respond with “oh yeah I know 99% Invisible” it’s so weird. I remember when I was such a snob and I was listening to the show before I worked here, and I was like “hey, do you guys know about this tiny podcast?” I was the worst hipster podcast snob. In a way it’s like my favorite musician went mainstream, but now I’m in the band [laughs]
I love the way that podcasts enable audiences to access information and stories through an interactive and warm medium. What was it, initially, about podcasts that made you feel excited about them?
I think that they were more daring, sonically. I think it goes back to your question about sound. The first podcast I was really into was Love + Radio. They’re beautiful. I grew up on a steady diet of Lauri Anderson and Meredith Monk and experimental music, so when I heard Love + Radio I loved that it was at the intersection of music and journalism. I had never heard anything like that before. It felt like a place where you could take a lot more risks. My goal in podcasting is to make something like a song: something that you can come to, over and over again, and say “this is my favorite thing.” I want people to feel differently about it every time they hear it, you know?
I feel like I’ve revealed myself to be such a podcast rookie. 99% Invisible is one of the few shows I listen to, and I feel like I should open up to other programming. That being said, true crime and comedy podcasts seem to be really popular right now, what sort of show or genre would you like to hear that hasn’t necessary had a platform yet?
Oh man, first of all, don’t beat yourself up for not listening to a lot of shows. There’s so much out there, and I used to try to listen to it all, and recently I have let myself not. But that’s the important part of defining your tastes. You only have so many hours in the day. Recently, I started to listen to more music, because for awhile I only listened to podcasts. I was shoving them into my ear holes, trying to get as much information into my brain as possible. And I feel like being discerning with your podcast taste can give the shows you like the room to breathe. So if someone says “I don’t listen to your show, I’m sorry” I’ll respond with “no, no it’s okay.” We honestly produce so much that I don’t expect anyone to stay on top of it. And that’s the beautiful thing about podcasts, right? You can binge them if you want, ignore them if you want. That’s the part of the beautiful thing about it. I used to hate turning on the radio and getting Prairie Home Companion shoved into my brain, and being like “ugh, there’s nowhere to turn to; this is the only thing on on a Sunday.” So I love having that choice. I think that’s really important. This isn’t quite what you asked, but podcasting is exciting for me in the way it tastes risks, layers sound, and can be creative in its venue, but there are a lot of elements about live radio that I really, really miss. I used to say “radio is the perfect democratic medium, once you call in everyone has a voice, it’s a two way medium and I love it – radio is devoid of ego, and you can call in and debate the host on-air.” I used to work for an amazing music show called Soundcheck, and part of my job was screening people who called in. But with the rise of podcasts, Talk of the Nation was canceled and Soundcheck is no longer on the air anymore. I think more shows are incorporating listener feedback and listener comments, but I really hope we can find a way to seamlessly integrate them. Maybe someday there will be a way to integrate listener responses in real time. But to answer your question, I hope to see more of a dialog with listeners in the future. I love that there is a podcast for almost anything; there’s no giant, gaping hole in the medium. I hope you can hear as many voices as possible talking about as many things as possible.
[laughs] I didn’t even think of that. That’s a great idea. I never get coin checked. I think Roman gets coin checked all of the time. I’ve never had to buy anyone a beer.
How did you get involved with the museum?
I voiced their audio tour. SFMOMA has this new audio tour system, where they got all of these voices to narrate their audio tour. There’s even one in the works for Errol Morris. It’s really cool. All of the tours are aimed at making SFMOMA a friendly and inviting place for you, because, you know, art museums can be intimidating. And so I’m the voice of the architecture tour. I did not write it, but I am so pleased at the way it turned out. And then SFMOMA is doing a series called “50 Artists” where 50 local artists talk about 50 artists in the collection, and they assigned me Snøhetta, the architects of the new extension. And I was like “you know I didn’t write that tour, right?” and they said “yeah, you’ll figure it out” and so I figured it out [laughs]. But the architects that did the extension, Snøhetta, I think they’re really important for the trajectory of modern architecture.
I like how I keep saying San Francisco Museum of Modern Art instead of SFMOMA because of the 99% Invisible episode on acronyms in neighborhoods [laughs]
[laughs] Oh my God. That’s so cool. First of all, that’s kind of you to say, and thanks for listening. But, secondly, it’s just so funny because 99% Invisible, to me, feels like school – not in terms that it feels onerous or anything, but you know when you prepare for a test and you know it backwards and forwards and you get it all right and then you have to dump it all out of your head for the next test? That’s how it feels after each episode. You say, “I’m the expert! I got this all!” and then it’s on to the next thing, the next topic. And so it’s funny when people are like “oh, acronyms, I get affected by that.” And I’m like “oh, right, right; I did that episode.” Like the one with chairs, people say, “I don’t sit anymore.” And the same with the coin check, I have to remind myself that I did that one. It’s kind of like being a shark, finding new things and moving forward. It makes it exciting and all the more flattering when people bring up old episodes. It means the world to me. So thank you very much.
That chair episode was so stressful – I mean in a good way. But that’s funny because I read an interview with you in The Timbre, recently, where the interviewer brought up how sitting affected them.
I don’t know why you said I would make you feel bad about not being researched. See, this is why you’re a good interviewer. You did your research. I’m so flattered. That’s so amazing to me. I cant believe it. I don’t know; it’s just so cool to be on the other side of things, and see all of the care you went through to do this.
It’s the first time I’ve heard that [laughs]. But seriously I was stoked for this interview, so thank you. Okay, one last question: which episode of yours are you most proud of; which makes you think “this is most indicative of my personality and how I want to be presented in an audio medium”?
It’s funny. It comes in waves, right? Because as soon as I put up an episode I hate it. I spend the whole day crying and I get really affected by it. I’m like, “it was terrible; I messed up; I cant believe it; it’s the worst thing ever.” And then I hear back from the people I interviewed and they are okay with it, and I feel immediately relieved. I’m like “okay, it wasn’t so bad.” And then in a few months I can listen to it and say “okay, that’s fine; that’s pretty good.” It’s always in a different state of flux. Until recently I have to say that my favorite one was the episode about fire escapes because that’s very much what 99% Invisible is all about. It’s not too remarkable, but for some reason I always liked that one. And then there’s episode 200, Miss Manhattan.
That’s such a great episode.
Oh, thank you. Well that one – Oh my God, Rob, like, that one was so much work. I actually worked on that one for half of a year. I wont bore you with the details, but there was an incredibly complicated backstory. And then my friend did the music. There was so much involved in that. The fact that it came together so miraculously, and the fact that I rarely get that much time to work on a story. I feel like I see her everywhere now, Audrey Munson. That one is my favorite.