If you live in South Africa, you definitely know someone who runs ultra-marathons, probably lots of someones. Here, ultras are the stuff of a whole country’s new years resolutions and mid-life crises. They’re the kind of thing that a totally ordinary, not-athletic person wakes up one day and decides they’re going to do -- and then does. In one of the most economically unequal countries in the world, extreme distance running is a sport that feels like it includes everybody. And improbably, that inclusiveness happened during one of the darkest, most divided moments in South Africa’s history – during the final years of apartheid.
Back in 2017 we ran an episode about the history of Brazil's iconic, yellow national soccer jersey. We were reminded of that story during the recent world cup, and then again on January 8th as a mob of right wing rioters attacked the Brazilian capital, many of them wearing those iconic yellow shirts. Needless to say the story of the yellow jersey has taken some real twists and turns in recent years, so today we’re going to rerun the original story about the jersey’s origins, and then producer Emmett Fitzgerald is going to update us on everything that has happened since.
We’re kicking off the new year at 99pi with a fresh installment of mini-stories, including: what lies at the intersection of a street and a road; the most unlikely of theme parks; and the evolution of ancient alleyways in Beijing, China.
This time of year, right in the middle of the holiday season, there's a beloved, frenzied tradition playing out in Filipino households all around the world, with which reporter Gabrielle Berbey is intimately familiar. A Balikbayan box is a huge cardboard box (often weighing over 100 pounds) that Filipinos living all over the world send to family members who are still living in the Philippines. The word Balikbayan literally means homecoming in Tagalog.
The whole conceit of this show is that if look at the world in the right way, you’ll see stories everywhere. Some of the stories are epic power struggles chronicling the construction of a famous skyscraper or the founding of a city; but other stories are more modest, smaller in scope and scale. We call those mini-stories and they're part of an ongoing, end-of-the-year tradition in which 99pi producers and friends of the show talk to host Roman Mars about something cool and fun that you can tell your friends or family about during a holiday get together.
You’ll hear about a very, very long escalator! Beavers dropping from the sky! We’ll hear from Janet, Miss Jackson if you’re nasty! Plus a visit from the queen!
If you’ve ever flipped through the radio dial — not satellite, not podcasts, but good old-fashioned AM and FM radio — you may have noticed something. Right wing radio talk is everywhere.
But the airwaves weren't always so dominated by such a narrow range of voices. Reporter and friend of the show Katie Thornton has the story of how talk radio has evolved (and perhaps devolved at times) over the past century, and what all of it means for the airwaves today.
Hear the rest of the the series from On the Media
Wildlife and urban development don’t usually go well together. Roads in particular fracture the habitats of wide-ranging animals. It restricts their movements and makes it harder for them to find food or a mate. But biologists and urban planners have started working together –- crafting a plan to try to help pumas move more safely around the city. And in the process this one cat, dubbed P-22, has turned into something of a celebrity—the symbol of a movement to redesign our cities and make the built environment more friendly to animals.
Los Angeles' El Peatonito is part of a subset of real life superheroes who are more focused on things like picking up trash and taking on civic issues than catching criminals in alleys.
These super citizens take their inspiration from comic books but in some ways have more ambitious goals than defeating a make believe villain. They are out to solve big societal problems. Wherever a city is plagued by traffic accidents, or people are living on the streets…these heroes heed the call of service.
Check out David Weinberg's brilliant series The Superhero Complex
When people ask me what my favorite episode of 99% Invisible is, I have a hard time answering. Not because they’re all my precious little babies or some such nonsense, but mostly it’s because I just can’t remember them all and there’s no simple criteria to judge them against each other. But the show is definitely in contention for the best episode we’ve ever made. It just has everything– engaging storytellers, brilliant reporting, and a compelling history of a moment when the world really changed. It’s called the Freedom House Ambulance Service. It originally aired in the summer of 2020, when a lot of the fundamental aspects of work, life, health, law enforcement, structural racism, cities were all being questioned by more and more people because of COVID and the George Floyd protests. Kevin Hazzard, who reported the piece, subsequently released a whole book on the Freedom House Ambulance Service called American Sirens: The Incredible Story of the Black Men Who Became America's First Paramedics. It’s new, it’s out now, you should buy it. should read it, it should be on all your Christmas lists. To celebrate the book’s release, I’m proud to re-present to you: The remarkable story of the Freedom House Ambulance Service.
Funiculars are great, which is why the main image from our previous train episode featured one -- except we didn't actually talk about that one during the show. It's a cable car from Wellington, and as it turns out it's one of hundreds of funiculars in this city. Roman and Kurt are back with another series of railroad tales. All aboard!
Articles of Interest is a show about what we wear. Host and producer Avery Trufelman investigates our collectively held beliefs about fashion and explores topics like the intellectual property law behind knockoffs, creation of tartan and the history of plaid, and how a dolls in a rural museum in Washington state saved French haute couture. This new season investigates a style that keeps coming back again and again and again.
Previously part of 99% Invisible, the show is now an independent production and a proud member of Radiotopia from PRX.
The basic mechanics of the bike are pretty simple --- it’s basically a triangle with wheels and a chain drive to propel it forward. No batteries or engines. It seems obvious in hindsight .... And that’s why most people guess the bike was invented a long time ago. Yet the ‘running machine,' a kind of early proto-bike, debuted around 1817.
For much more on the history of the bicycle, check out Jody Rosen's book: Two Wheels Good: The History and Mystery of the Bicycle.
Even if you haven't made the pilgrimage to Southern California, you can probably already picture what the Walk of Fame looks like. It's a 1.3 mile walkway lined with terrazzo and brass squares. Each slab spotlights a salmon-pink star, and the name of a different famous celebrity deemed worthy enough to become a permanent part of Hollywood's urban fabric. The Walk of Fame is the story of Hollywood, the film industry. and the very origin of stardom itself.
Reporter/producer Gillian Jacobs (Community, Winning Time) takes us on a stroll on the Walk of Fame, which chronicles Hollywood history and the vicissitudes of fame itself.
The vuvuzela is a two foot long injection-molded plastic horn. It only plays one note: a B flat. And it gradually became a regular feature of South African soccer. But prior to the 2010 World Cup, the rest of the world had never heard anything quite like it. Even people in the soccer world didn’t know what they were. But by the time the first game of the tournament was underway, vuvuzelas were all over. For critics, the vuvuzela was a relatively new, mass produced noisemaker. But supporters ended to think of the vuvuzela as an instrument, producing a loud, attention grabbing sound that grew out of South Africa's rich footballing tradition.
Jamaica is famous around the world for its music, including genres like ska, dub, and reggae. It’s tempting to think that the powerful amplifiers and giant speakers at the dance parties were designed to perfectly capture Jamaica’s indigenous sounds. But it’s actually the other way around. Those speakers and amps came first. And the electricians, mechanics and engineers who built and adapted that technology would then play a decisive role in the creation of Jamaica’s modern music. They helped pioneer approaches to making and performing music that would spawn whole other scenes from the Bronx to the UK.
The magical mythical "jackalope" is a essentially a horned rabbit, with antlers of different sizes and shapes. The jackalope is a mascot of the American West – inspiring an absolute river of trinkets and songs and whiskies and postcards and tall tales.
On this special feature episode, President Bill Clinton interviews 99% Invisible host and creator Roman Mars.
Roman Mars has spent his career chronicling these bits of human ingenuity that we so often take for granted—things like the utility codes, the curb cuts, the traffic signals, and much more. As host of the 99% Invisible and, with Kurt Kohlstedt, co-author of the book The 99% Invisible City: A Field Guide to the Hidden World of Everyday Design, his work challenges all of us to look up and around, and to think about the how and the why of design around the world in a different way.
Adam Rogers has been thinking and writing about what’s known in the industry simply as "search." For the last decade, people have been grumbling about not being able to find things online, both in our private data and on the public web, despite ever-evolving algorithms. Ever since humans started writing stuff down, the struggle has been in how to organize it all so that its contents wouldn't be lost in the stacks. Search has always been an attempt to fix that problem.
In downtown Windhoek, Namibia -- at the intersection of Fidel Castro Street and Robert Mugabe Avenue -- there's an imposing gold building with an affectionate nickname: the Coffee Maker. This notable structure was built to commemorate Namibia’s fight for independence from apartheid South Africa, which it achieved in 1990. And for many of the visitors, the museum feels like a huge achievement. But for a museum that commemorates throwing off the chains of colonialism and forging a new era of self-determination, it has one pretty strange feature. It wasn't designed by a Namibian architect. It wasn't even designed by an African architect. It was built by North Korea's state-run design studio, which has long been a prolific maker of statues around the world. North Korea has left a distinct visual stamp across Africa in particular, with museums and monuments erected in more than a dozen African countries since the 1970s.
Back in March, Netflix picked up a long running Japanese TV program based on a children’s book from the 1970s. The show is called Old Enough, but the name of the original Japanese program translates to My First Errand. Because in each episode, a child runs an errand for the very first time. Episodes are only 10 to 20 minutes long, but in that short time a toddler treats the audience to a bite-sized hero's journey.
My First Errand is a gimmicky show with hokey music and a laugh track, but it’s also rooted in a truth about Japanese society: most children are remarkably independent from a very young age -- way more independent than children in the US. In Japanese cities, fifth-graders make 85 percent of their weekday trips without a parent. And this remarkable child mobility is made possible by everything from the neighbors next door to the width of the streets.
There's a particular one-kilohertz tone that is universally understood to be covering up inappropriate words on radio and TV. But there are other options, too, like silence -- so why did this particular *bleep* sound become ubiquitous?
In the final week of the most recent term, the Supreme Court decided to limit one constitutional right (abortion) and expand another constitutional right (guns). But there were other cases decided that week, which were also important and marked this as one of the most historically significant terms in over 100 years. So what happened in those other cases and why are they so important?
A few years back, 99pi producer Emmett FitzGerald brought us a beautiful story about peat bogs. Peat is essential for biodiversity and for the climate – it is really, really good at storing carbon. But like a lot of things we cover on the show, peat often goes unnoticed, in part because it is literally out of sight underground. We’ve noticed peat and carbon sequestration more and more in the news lately. Journalists have been brilliantly covering stories about the tree planting movement, private ownership of Scotland’s bogs, and the threat to peat in the Congo Basin. Couple that with more extreme weather happening in more places, we thought it would be a good idea to repeat this story.
In the final episode of our vernacular spectacular anniversary series, 99pi producers and friends of the show will be sharing more stories of regional architecture–some close to home, some on remote islands– that capture our imagination and inspire us to look deeper. Stories of Bermuda roofs, Queen Anne Cottages, and what exactly counts as an "earth tone."
Only a small percentage of architecture is actually designed by architects. And while a famous architect-designed tower in a skyline might be the best way to identify a city at a distance, up close it’s the subtle cues and vernacular design that make the city what it is. This week, 99pi producers and friends of the show share more stories about architecture we love from our hometowns and other places we've lived, but with an emphasis on examples that may be a bit shaggier, and have somewhat more functional origins. These may not be the first things people call beautiful, but they’re beautiful to us, and they are essential parts of the places they’re built.