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99 Percent Invisible – Podcast Review

by Margaret Kay

I came across the podcast 99 Percent Invisible after it was featured on one of my favourite Sciencey/Tech podcasts, Radio Lab. The weekly podcast, produced by Roman Mars for the San Francisco public radio station KALW, investigates various examples of design and architecture that often go unnoticed by most of us.

Though some of the stories focus on more concrete creations, such as the ‘Darth Vader Family Courthouse‘ (episode 39), many of the episodes uncover the unseen design elements that go into various technologies.

For example, in episode 38, the podcast examines ‘The Sound of Sport‘, which may not be as organic as you might think. In fact, what you hear when you watch sports on TV is often finely orchestrated, artificially-created sound. Mars interviews Dennis Baxter and Bill Whiston, who are “sound designers” for televised sporting events. As Dennis Baxter, sound designer for the Olympics, puts it, “There are some sports that you just cannot capture the natural sound,” such as cross country skiing and biathlons – because of the size or the course. Rowing is another sport that’s posed problems. Though video footage is captured using chase boats and helicopters, the noise of the engines completely drown out any natural sound.

So, in order to make the sporting event more entertaining, sound designers like Baxter use samplers (a keyboard attached to a digital recorder) to recreate the swish-swish sound of skis sliding through snow, the pattering of feet pounding the pavement and the splashes of paddles gliding through water. Oh, and the clomp-clomp sound of hooves that you hear when watching a horse race? That’s actually the sound of charging buffaloes, slowed-down and digitally tweaked to make it seem believable.

In a similar episode, Mars looks at ‘The Sound of the Artificial World,’ such as the noise your iPad makes when it unlocks, the various beeps of your mobile keypad and the clicks and clacks of widgets. He asks: Who creates these sounds? And what makes a sound resonate with the public?

Another episode uncovers how the online-based organisation (or non-organisation, as some see it) Anonymous was able to form without any coherent structure or plan. Mars investigates how the group (or non-group, as some see it) created such an effective brand identity despite having no clear hierarchy or set of “rules.”

Aside from the truly captivating topics, Rowan Mars’ narration is excellent. During Episode 31, Mars interviews an information designer named Nicholas Felton, who measures his life in thousands of mundane, daily details. As an example, Felton explains that his report can tell you when you had your first ice cream of the year or “how many hours of your life you’ve spent listening to ‘Hotel California’ on the radio.” After this, Mars quickly adds – “I have to break in here to say that this is where a normal public radio show would play the song ‘Hotel California,’ but I am your friend and I would never do that do you.”

Finally, the podcast works because it isn’t too long. Most episodes are under 10 minutes, which is ideal for my short attention span.

What are your thoughts on these examples of behind-the-scenes design? Any opinions on artificially-created sounds in televised sports? Let us know what you think in the comments section below.

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