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Radio vets team up for 'Invisibilia,' a new podcast on human behavior

"Invisibilia" creators Alix Spiegel (left) and Lulu Miller.
John W. Poole/NPR

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Despite the success of popular titles such as "WTF" and "Comedy Bang! Bang!," it seems like it's NPR's "Serial" that has pushed podcasts fully into the mainstream as one of the newest, most exciting media for storytelling.

Hot on the heels of "Serial" comes a new radio show/podcast from NPR News called "Invisibilia." Its creators, Alix Spiegel and Lulu Miller, are no strangers to the radio world: Spiegel was one of the original producers on "This American Life" while Miller spent five years working on "Radiolab."

When the creators of "Invisibilia" came by The Frame, we asked them about crafting their own voice in the radio world, and about the differences between radio and podcasting.

Interview Highlights:

What was the idea behind the show, and how long did it take you to define what you were trying to do?

Alix Spiegel: It's an interesting question. I've been covering human behavior for a very long time, and I've also been a fan of Lulu Miller, who worked at Radiolab for a very long time. Lulu's got a whole bunch of stuff that I covet in terms of her abilities. [When] we met two years ago, I was thinking about a story and I asked her to work on it with me, and she said, "Yes." I did that so I could learn what she has to teach. It just kind of evolved from there and we essentially just created all these stories by asking ourselves, What is the unifying theme? It seems like we are drawn to stories which allow you to look at these kinds of invisible forces that shape human behavior and all of the kinds of frames that hold us in place that we're not aware of.

Do you consider your show a radio show or a podcast? Is there a difference in your mind?

Lulu Miller: We are a radio show that will also be available as a podcast. There are a bunch of differences between a podcast and a radio show — you can go longer, you can go deeper, and you don't have to observe certain language things that I think we all know about. 

But so much has happened in the podcasting world over the last couple of months. How many times did the "S" word come up in your conversations?

Spiegel: [laughs] Serial? It [came up] in the sense that we were both fans, and when we were supposed to be working, occasionally we would be doing things like listening to the Serial theme song ...

Miller: Or the parody.

Spiegel: [laughs] The work that they've done is very impressive and it just makes clear how, in my mind, podcasting is almost a new medium. All the different things we can do with it aren't clear yet.

Because of what? What is the newness, and what does it give you?

Spiegel: I think you can go more intimate than you can do, even in radio. I've heard some podcasts, particularly out of California, that have really gone narrowly personal in a way that I think you probably wouldn't get away with on the radio, because the audience on the radio is so broad. I think you can go deeper. The truth is that there is a lot to explore still in terms of how flexible this medium is. For me, that's what makes it even a slightly different medium.

Miller: And the difference too is that, with radio, one of the most beautiful things is how serendipitous it is: you turn it on, and whatever's on is on. With podcasting, the user has so much control that you could try out something more extreme that maybe wouldn't be for everyone, but those people who make the choice to have it and listen to it really love it. And then they can take it into perhaps more intimate spaces, they can take it with them as they commute. It's audio and they share the beautiful qualities of audio, but there's a different infrastructure that I think allows for a more intimate experience, maybe because the user has more control? I don't know, I'm sort of making that up. 

I want to follow up on this idea of intimacy and going personal. In your first show there are two people that you look at, one of whom has incredibly violent and dark thoughts, and the other person has a horrible form of cryptococcal meningitis. They've both struggled mightily with their different ailments, and it's a very personal story that you're telling with both of these people. Does the format of the show intentionally try to use what you're saying — that podcasting or radio can do, in terms of the stories you're going to select?

Miller: I don't know if it does yet. When we both started, we were thinking about the radio audience more than the podcast audience. We came out of the traditions of hour-long episodes that go out on the airwaves, and I think we were both imagining those two stories in that place.

Spiegel: But at the same time, I think both Lulu and I are drawn to stories which really go deep, psychologically, and allow you deep into the head and the heart of whoever it is that we're talking to. And that's one of the great things about radio, right? That's one of the things that makes it so appealing.

The first episode of "Invisibilia" will be available as a podcast on Jan. 9. The radio show premieres on KPCC on Jan. 19.

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