When, last summer, Invisibilia announced its latest season (the show’s seventh), the news came with a twist.
The acclaimed podcast — and, I should note, NPR’s first major hit among its shows that didn’t start as radio programs — would be “passing the torch,” with longtime hosts Alix Spiegel and Hanna Rosin stepping aside for two new hosts to take over: Yowei Shaw and Kia Miakka Natisse, both existing producers on the show.
With the change in leadership also comes a promise of reinvention. Since Invisibilia’s 2015 debut, with Spiegel and Lulu Miller as originating hosts, its episodes, about the “unseeable forces that govern us,” have built stories around distinct topics and concepts, typically science inflected. They produced stories about emotions, reality, expectations, immortality, and the impact of authoritarian tactics on the notion of trust. When we spoke recently, Natisse described the Invisibilia approach as being “a little bit like free therapy,” in the sense that its stories tended to be framed around how these concepts can help listeners navigate their own life. Which, you know, is a description that I totally agree with and a large part of why I think the show has garnered such a strong following over the years.
They sought to preserve that spirit in its new iteration, the new Invisibilia team told me last month, though in a phone call that included Shaw, Natisse, veteran show producer Abby Wendle, and the recently hired Andrew Mambo, they also spoke about an intent to further broaden the show’s frame.
“Something we’ve thought about for a long time is how the show has historically had a strong emphasis on the individual and the internal world and how there was an absence of perspective about the larger structures that the individual exists inside of,” said Wendle. To describe the intended shift in somewhat reductive terms, then, this new iteration is an effort to step away from the purely psychological and towards the more structural, societal, and sociological.
That shift is alive and present in the three episodes out now. The season debut takes on the idea of reparations, running the inquiry through a DIY social experiment in Vermont. That was followed by a two-parter on conspiracy theories, local news, and how a controversial website effectively shaped the political atmosphere in the city of Stockton, California (the site, by the way, of what seems to be a successful universal basic income policy experiment).
Part of the impulse driving the new Invisibilia is a desire to be more responsive to the moment. This marks a change for a show that, I’m told, had historically shied away from dealing with current events too directly, a stance that some on the team attribute to the production being born out of a different time — specifically, the Obama era, with all the politics of optimism that entailed. Of course, the past year, along with the past presidency, has changed the cultural variables considerably, and optimism is more of a tenuous proposition these days.
“Our show is being birthed out of a moment of chaos,” said Natisse. “We’re acknowledging that we’re at a place where everything feels like it’s falling apart. We’re not avoiding that feeling, and with this show, we’re trying to navigate questions we’re all wrestling with right now.”
There are other more fundamental, and more obvious, dimensions to how this new construction of Invisibilia reinvents the show. “One of the bigger changes is that, well, we’re not white women,” said Natisse, who is Black. (Shaw is Asian American.) “We bring our own cultural sensibilities and backgrounds into the work, and we center them in ways that, because we’re in the host chair, can be emphasized a little differently than when we were producers.”
Getting to this point of substantial change was a hard-fought journey for Invisibilia. Speaking of chaos, the past year had been a tremendously turbulent one for NPR, as the organization simultaneously grappled with a generational news moment and substantial financial shortfalls caused by the pandemic.
As those realities began to sink in last spring, Invisibilia had just wrapped its sixth season and was in between production periods. There began to be questions about the fate of the organization’s seasonal podcasts. “In that moment, it felt like we were moving into a few future, and everyone was trying to figure out the best way to do that,” said Hanna Rosin, who joined the podcast as co-host in its second season.
The team was asked to suspend operations, and individual members were redeployed to other desks to support coverage. Rosin went to Investigations. Shaw and Spiegel were reallocated to assist Short Wave, NPR’s daily science podcast. The rest of the crew, including Natisse, Wendle, manager Liana Simstrom, and senior supervising editor Deborah George, floated between other teams. “The idea was that we would reconvene and carry on after the whole corona thing subsided,” Spiegel told me of that time over email.
But given the tough financial picture at the organization, the Invisibilia team was told they would need to cut back on headcount. This, of course, was no easy thing, and the notion of doing what Spiegel described “might be a shadow of the old show” didn’t strike the co-hosts as the right path. That sense was further informed by the fact that Spiegel had already been thinking about moving on from the show, having been with the production since the very beginning. Rosin, as well, had been entertaining similar ideas. For a moment, it seemed like the future of Invisibilia was on the bubble. “We thought it was over,” said Shaw. “Some of us started looking for other jobs.”
Soon, however, the idea of having a new generation of hosts take over Invisibilia began to foment and gain traction, partly aided by the chaos of the pandemic, which contributed to a greater willingness to take leaps of faith. The proposition provided what seemed — to my eyes, at least — like an unexpected win-win-win scenario where the show could live on, younger talent who’ve never hosted before could step into the spotlight, and the older guard could move on. (Spiegel took a job on The Daily team at The New York Times and has since left to work on other projects. Rosin, meanwhile, is now the Editorial Director of Audio at New York Magazine, which, I should say, syndicates this newsletter under its Vulture vertical. By the way, Lulu Miller, who co-created Invisibilia with Spiegel, had left a few years earlier to write a book and recently joined Radiolab as a new co-host.)
Spiegel told me that the notion of passing the show had always been part of the original vision for the production. “From the very beginning, Invisibilia was conceived as a shared vessel — something that would be aggressively passed between different people — as opposed to the more traditional model of ‘host(s) with a single vision that is realized,’” she said. “The problem, of course, was how to share.” When Spiegel and Miller first started the show, they tried to build a new operating structure around this idea of a shared vessel, but they weren’t ultimately able to get the institutional support to fully actualize the idea. And so the show largely drifted into a classic host-oriented construction, though they took pains to elevate their producers.
With the new Invisibilia, that original vision might get a second chance. As the story goes, things started in earnest when Natisse reached out to Shaw with the idea of taking over the show. A phone call turned into a string of conversations, which turned into extensive meetings vetting and shaping the idea — all while they were handling their daily responsibilities, having been assigned to other desks, through the thick of the pandemic and, not long after, the rising wave of protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd.
In what was described as fairly rapid succession, Natisse and Shaw eventually pitched NPR leadership on the reinvention, and the new season was approved on the spot. “It felt like we were being handed a blank check,” said Shaw. “It’s like mom and dad left, and you’re being handed the keys to the car.”
Today, the newly reinvented Invisibilia is in the middle of its five-episode debut season. And as the team works through the process of fully realizing their new take on the show, they’re also hoping to carry forward the show’s original vision of rethinking the very way shows of its kind are produced.
A central point of concern for the team, I’m told, is to foster a distinctly non-hierarchical production culture. “It’s a live question for us,” said Shaw. “We don’t just want to reinvent the content — we also want to change our workplace. We want to make impactful work, but we also want to have good jobs. One is not more important than the other.”
As the team told me, this comes as a response to the ill effects they’ve seen around the industry that fall from the “old way” of doing things in long-form audio production, one where, as Shaw described, work is treated almost as religion. “‘As long as it’s good,’ ‘as long as it’s perfect,’ ‘as long as it’s beautiful’… those are made to be the most important things,” she said. “But that causes a lot of other things to suffer: work-life balance, sanity, and so on.”
They’re still trying to figure out what that tangibly means in practice. Much of it will come down to concrete tactics around process and culture: maintaining strong lines of communication; cultivating an environment where any team member, regardless of seniority, can feel empowered to talk about things that are bothering them; creating a space where everybody can contribute and feel recognized for their contributions; and committing to a stance of challenging the classic host-producer divide, which may include things like ensuring that if a story involves considerable labor from a particular producer, that person will be made more visible and present in the work.
Ultimately, though, a good portion of that enterprise will come down to shifting the audience’s perception on the nature of this kind of work. “We’re also trying to talk about stories differently,” said Shaw. “This might involve audience education around what they’re hearing and letting them know that whatever they’re experiencing, that’s the work of a bunch of people. Not just the host or producer, but the intern, the editor, and everyone else who contributed with their skill.”
She added: “Trying to trouble that norm in the industry would be good, because it makes everyone who works on these stories feel ownership as well.”
You can find the latest season of Invisibilia here.