Issue 303,  published April 27, 2021

99% Invisible Sells

Roman Mars’ beloved show about the hidden design of the world — and one of the true exemplars for open indie podcasting — is no longer independent.

Yesterday, SiriusXM announced that it has acquired Mars’ production company, 99% Invisible Inc., which publishes 99% Invisible and What Trump Can Teach Us About Con Law, the project Mars started with the law professor Elizabeth Joh in 2017. The company will be sorted into the Stitcher brand, which the satellite radio giant acquired from E.W. Scripps last year for around $300 million. Stitcher, of course, is the major podcast publisher that operates a broad portfolio of podcasts like Freakonomics, The Sporkful, and Office Ladies, along with a few genre-specific content divisions, including Earwolf, the long-running comedy umbrella, and Witness Docs, its recently established documentary unit.

This effectively ends Mars’ relationship with Radiotopia, the non-profit podcast collective he co-founded with PRX in 2014 that publishes 99% Invisible and Trump Con Law. Tiny bit of trivia here: There will be at least one connective tissue that can be traced between PRX and Stitcher at this time in the form of Sarah van Mosel, Stitcher’s Chief Revenue Officer, who once led sales for Radiotopia as the Chief Podcast Sales and Strategy Officer at Market Enginuity, which works with PRX on the business front.

According to the press release, the acquisition brings Mars and the entire 99PI team into Stitcher, where they will continue to produce 99% Invisible and Trump Con Law and develop new podcast projects. It also notes that their podcasts will continue to be available across all platforms in addition to SiriusXM-owned and -operated services, which includes the Stitcher, SiriusXM, and Pandora apps. (For now, I should say. This free flow could very well change in the future, should strategic imperatives shift.)

The terms of the acquisition were not publicly disclosed, though in a blog post published yesterday, PRX CEO Kerri Hoffman noted that Mars will be personally donating $1 million from the sale to Radiotopia over the next four years, so I suppose you can speculate from there.

99% Invisible Inc. is just one company, but its sale to SiriusXM has enormous symbolic ramifications for the podcast community. Since its creation just over a decade ago, 99% Invisible has been a prominent point of inspiration for those who believe in the promise of open, independent podcasting, with Mars setting a strong example in building out a successful and distinctly independent middle-class media operation that exists in a fluid space between for-profit and non-profit media. Mars’ approach has been a huge part of modern podcast lore, one flavored by his own origin story: a straight-edge punk turned public radio and indie podcast icon. With this sale, independent podcasting is losing one of its strongest practitioners and advocates, and those worried about the viability of mid-sized independents — particularly during a moment of intense structural shifts — probably have good reason to get even more worried. (RIP, my inbox.)

Is the podcast space losing something with this? Yes, certainly. While some might uncharitably joke that 99% Invisible has been a little stale of late, I happen to feel like the production had entered a really interesting space over the past three years, particularly as it began experimenting with elevating key talent and building new projects around them. There was, of course, the fashion-focused Articles of Interest led by Avery Trufelman, which produced two seasons before Trufelman decamped for Vox Media. And more recently, the podcast released According to Need, a miniseries led by Katie Mingle that dug deep into the systems and services (or lack thereof) set up in Oakland to support the area’s rising unhoused population.

Those seemed, to me at least, like foundational pillars of a whole new identity for 99% Invisible, one that might truly speak to Mars’ indie record label sensibilities. And while its sale to SiriusXM doesn’t automatically negate this future, it does radically reshape the show’s possibilities even in the best possible outcome, given the general incentives of a corporate overlord. One imagines that SiriusXM is probably tighter around things like episode orders and intellectual property ownership — this is a good point to note that Trufelman now holds the IP for Articles of Interest, a transfer that happened prior to the sale — which in turn may well affect the way in which 99PI staffers relate to the show over the long term.

Mars’ reasons for selling to Stitcher were spelled out pretty clearly in The New York Times’ write-up from yesterday. He told the Times’s Reggie Ugwu:

What does it mean that Facebook is getting into audio? Or that Apple is changing the ‘subscribe’ button to a ‘follow’ button? I don’t know and I don’t want to figure it out. I feel at sea in this business in a way that I haven’t up to this point. Everyone is trying to crack this question of how to get people to pay for premium audio…

… I’ve been devoted to independent podcasting for a really long time, and I still believe that there’s a role for that in the world… But my role right now is something different, which is to spend more time on the show and on making things that I love.

Ten years is a long time to run anything, and no matter how successful you get, it’s a completely human and expected thing to get tired shouldering all that weight, especially as an independent operator and triply so as some sort of symbolic figure. (I deeply empathize, having cycled in and out of tiredness with this newsletter over the past seven years, and I tend to think about this whenever I read about the current boom in newsletter solopreneurs. I happen to be in one such tiredness cycle right now, though maybe that’s just because it rained all weekend.) All of which is to say, to me, this move makes complete and utter sense for Mars specifically. If the bag presents itself, and you feel this way, take the damn bag.

But the decision to sell to SiriusXM in particular is surprising to many, given Mars’ past indie ethos. The satellite radio giant has spent great sums over the past year repositioning itself as part of modern digital audio conversation, but it’s still widely thought to be a distinctly old-school radio company… with all the cultural and managerial baggage that implies.

In his own Twitter thread announcing the move yesterday, Mars seemed to preempt this read. “Whatever cliche you have in your mind about what happens in an acquisition with shows moving to other networks, this isn’t like that,” he wrote. “A bunch of people from the PRX and SiriusXM/Stitcher teams worked together with good intentions to transform a show that needed to evolve for the sake of its creator, and I am grateful for that.”

His belief here will have to stand up to corporate history. “[SiriusXM’s] vision for audio is so much different than not just Roman’s, but a large number of people in podcasting,” a media executive who has dealt with the satellite radio giant for years told me yesterday. “SiriusXM is about creating cheap content with high marketability. That’s a model that works for them. But they will look at Roman’s operation — which they now own, and gut it. Completely.”

I run this thing.