Issue 242,  published January 21, 2020

On Development, Strategic and Beyond

A chat with Sofia Klatzker, VP of Strategic Development at 99% Invisible and President of the Roman Mars Foundation

This segment’s going to be a little different from what we usually do. A few months ago, I was bumbling around LinkedIn — a rare occurrence, given, you know, *broadly gestures* — when a profile caught my eye: one Sofia Klatzker, who holds two curious titles that intrigued me. The first is “Vice President, Strategic Development at 99% Invisible,” which piqued my interest because it’s not really a role I see often in this business at the show level. And the second is “President at Roman Mars Foundation,” because… Roman Mars Foundation?

So I thought I’d reach out and learn more about Klatzker’s work, despite there not being a particularly hard news hook. I mean, why the heck not? We jumped on the phone last Tuesday, in the afternoon, and we talked about what goes into the work of leading a popular podcast’s strategic development, what it means to launch a foundation, and what a typical work day looks like for her. She spoke with such clarity and structure that I figure I should probably just format this as an “as told to” piece, because it just works better that way.

But before we get into that, some background to note: Klatzker joined 99% Invisible in October 2018, after a long career in arts administration. She was previously Executive Director of Arts for LA, a non-profit 501(c)3 organization focused on building support for arts funding and increasing access to arts education across Los Angeles. And before that, she worked her way up the ranks at the Los Angeles County Arts Commissions, where she ultimately held the role of director of grants and professional development.

Which is all to say, a good fit for these roles. Here’s Klatzker:


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I started formally working with Roman a little over a year ago, when he hired me as the VP of Strategic Development for 99PI, and also to head up the creation of his own private foundation. To me, they’re deeply linked, but we’re still in the process of launching the foundation.

The strategic development work, however, has been underway over the last year. What that role means, really, is to pay attention to all the opportunities and partnerships that are available outside of the operations of a weekly podcast. I’m focused on building relationships and developing projects, all to figure out how to bring earned revenue into the podcast so we can make good decisions about how to invest it and tell the stories we want to tell. I should note that I don’t handle the day-to-day business affairs; Roman is still the one taking advertising calls, and being at the front of “What are we doing? How are we selling?” My focus is on: “Where else do we find revenue?”

You know, Roman has been doing this for ten years, and he gets requests daily from all over the place. It’s overwhelming, and he doesn’t really have the capacity to assess all these inquiries. They would just go off into the river of email, and there would be no response. So, part of bringing me on is to have someone that’s able to determine what partnerships and opportunities are worth investigating. This isn’t to imply that there are any bad partnerships, but when you only have so much time and resources, the question is: where do we put our energy? After ten years of making a weekly show, how do you reach new people? How do you get more people to feel that sense of joy and curiosity? What are the ways that will benefit while not draining the team?

It’s important to note that podcasting, in my view, is both part of a continuum and a response to media in general. We face all the things that all storytellers have always faced, which is, “I am talking to the people who are around me or who know me. So how do I reach people who might be interested? Who would also benefit from being part of the things we’re doing?” Sometimes you have a large platform, sometimes you have a smaller platform, but you’re always trying to reach out farther.

Just this week, we crossed over the 400 million download mark, but in my view, 99% Invisible still feels like a beautiful combination of something really independent and fun. It’s a group of likeminded people who just want to look at the world with curiosity and find meaning in places where you have to look a little deeper, a little harder.

The ethos is: “This is something that’s been designed. Somebody thought about this.” So, if you take that up to the larger strategy of the business, Roman and I are saying, “Look, let’s actually be thoughtful about this. What do we do next to expand our reach, or tell a story in a new interesting way, or do something that our core audience will appreciate but will also connect to people outside our platform?”

Our largest partnership last year was with the Guggenheim Museum in New York. They were celebrating the 60th anniversary of the actual building, and we were approached by the Guggenheim itself — they wanted to see what was possible in the telling of the story of the building, not just the exhibitions.

And I think it’s important to note here: I have a background working in the arts, and in museums specifically. I was a teaching artist, and worked in arts education at the Museum of Contemporary Art here in Los Angeles… oh, forever ago. So I’m personally aware of how tours and audio tours of buildings have sounded for my lifetime, for 45 years of going into museums. This was a chance to tell the story of a building in a different way, and to expand how to get that story out into the world in a different way, you know?

We presented them with a few possibilities. We told them that we could build this as something that would go out on our feed, which means we get journalistic integrity and you don’t actually have a lot of say in the content. Or we could do this as a committee, in which case it just belongs to you. In either case, it will be Roman’s voice and us investigating the story, but these are our options. They chose — wonderfully and remarkably — to have it be part of 99% Invisible, and also release it as an audio guide. So we were able to tell the stories that were emerging through the research that Roman and the team were doing. I think it was a really interesting moment of crossing the lines. It’s a story in a physical space about a physical space, but you don’t need to actually be in New York to appreciate it, and we’ve heard from a lot of listeners that it makes them want to go to the museum. It was something that our core audience could appreciate, and a way to reach more people. [Here’s a link to the episode.]

This is where we can connect back to the foundation stuff. How do we invest back in? And, look, Roman’s not a billionaire, right? We’re not going to be at the scale of a MacArthur or a Kresge, but we do have the ability to reinvest in space and people. So what does that look like?

In a macro way, the intention with a foundation is that, even if you only had $10, you can divide that $10 in a way that you have a “giving pot” no matter what your resources are. (It’s a pretty basic concept of Spending, Saving, Giving. It’s something I’ve taught both my children.) So, as Roman has grown and found success, he’s reinvested in his own team of lovely staff — which isn’t how he started, right? It was just him in a back cottage. And so, now, it’s not just about him and his team being able to tell stories about the cities we live in, but to invest in the people who live there to give them a chance to explore their creativity and their willingness to do something in that space. It’s about civic engagement, about connecting to your larger community, and also about investing in this space and place. And yes, we can do that in many different ways, but if we do it by providing grants to journalists, or artists, or for public art, or to rethinking who gets to tell the stories of place and people… that’s huge.

I’ve been talking to designers and universities about what it is that we could possibly be doing together…. I’m afraid there’s not much more I can say about that. Part of building relationships is respecting the nuanced moments in building those relationships. [laughs]

What’s a typical work day like? Well, here’s the funny thing. I’m a remote worker, and this is the first time in my life I’m doing that. The office is up in Oakland, and I’m based down here in Los Angeles, so I work out of my house. I also have two small children, and part of working with Roman… well, let me start here: I’ve known Roman since 1992. I really do consider him family; I have an understanding of who he is, where he comes from, and he has that same sense of me. So when he brought up this job, part of the thinking was that he needed someone he trusted who could think a bigger way and see a longer pattern, a larger strategy. And it would also give a chance not to commute downtown everyday, so I would have more time to spend with my children.

I start the day with lots of phone calls and emails. Right now, I’m working on a project with Sean [Real], to put out an album of her work. It’s going to be awesome; we’re doing it on vinyl. I’ve been working with a pressing house, so my next call after this will be to find out when we’re going to see a spec print of the album. I’m also working to get a show going in San Francisco for when we release the album. We’re working on a new set of designs for the store, and we have to finish a tote design today, so that’s a thing. Then, around four o’clock I start to wind it down, and go pick up my children. We make dinner, and we might play a game of Magna-tiles or something. Then it’s email again around 8.30 or 9.

You know, before this, when I was an executive director, I was working ridiculous hours and really wasn’t seeing my kids. So this chance to be with my toddler and my second grader is a super huge gift. I’m deeply moved to do as much work as I can for Roman, and I think it creates a symbiosis: I want him to feel successful, and he wants me to feel successful. Right now, it really works.

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You can find Sofia on Twitter here.