Inside NPR’s latest radio show, Invisibilia

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When Alix Spiegel shared with Lulu Miller an idea for a story about people consumed by dark thoughts, she had no idea that two years later it would evolve into a full-blown radio show.

Spiegel was working on NPR’s Science Desk and Miller was a freelancer when the two met at the Third Coast International Audio Festival in Chicago.

“We just liked each other’s work. So we went for a walk around this pond right outside the conference,” said Miller. “And Alix started telling me about this story idea.”

Then Spiegel asked Miller to help her report the story.

“It was just so much fun. It was ridiculous fun,” said Spiegel. “Then we pitched it to [Anne Gudenkauf, NPR Science Desk senior supervising editor] as, ‘We want to make a podcast.’ And then it just grew from there, from that one story.”

But it grew to more than just a podcast. That story will air alongside others exploring human thoughts in the pilot episode of NPR’s new radio show Invisibilia, which launches Jan. 9.

In a preview of the show, the hosts begin telling the story of a man who has images in his head about murdering his wife. While he doesn’t act on the images, they terrify him. Listeners also meet a psychotherapist who tries to cure his patients’ crippling thoughts by having them put a knife to his jugular.

“On our show we go out into the world, talk to unusual people whose lives are dramatically shaped by invisible forces, to better understand how those same forces shape us all,” the hosts say in the preview.

The subject of human behavior grew from Spiegel’s beat covering the same subject for NPR’s Science Desk for ten years. And while Invisibilia is the first time Spiegel and Miller have hosted a show on NPR, they’re no amateurs in radio. Spiegel started her career in 1995 as a founding producer of This American Life. Her reporting has won her a Peabody and numerous other awards.

Miller, Spiegel’s co-host on the new show, was a founding producer of Radiolab and produced the show for five years before joining NPR in 2013 as a reporter on the Science Desk. Her work has also received Peabody Awards.

The hosts say Radiolab and This American Life are influences on the show, but they also cite inspiration from The Daily Show, The Colbert Report and “maybe a little bit of [HBO’s] Girls,” Spiegel tells me, while still being original.

“I don’t think we know what we want [the show] to become,” Miller said. “We’re kind of just learning story by story, but with a commitment to continuing to try to break rules.”

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Invisibilia co-hosts Alix Spiegel and Lulu Miller. (Photo: NPR)

The show will also be distinctive for what its creators call the “Anne mandate,” named after Gudenkauf. The editor requires the hosts to come up with a story for each episode that hasn’t been reported elsewhere.

“We decided in December, basically a year ago, that we were really going to do the show,” Spiegel said. “I remember after we got a go-ahead to do it, for the entire month of February I would bring her story after story and she just said, ‘Nope, nope, nope.’ She wanted something that nobody had heard before.”

It’s no wonder, then, that Eric Nuzum, NPR’s vice president of programming, calls Invisibilia a “big show,” even though only seven people are working on it (two hosts, four part-time producers and Gudenkauf).

“If we fail, we want to go out big,” he said. “This is a big radio show, and it’s meant to be that.”

Nuzum said that he would be “disappointed with less than 200 stations” picking up the show. When TED Radio Hour debuted, it was airing on about 250 stations.

But unlike TED Radio Hour, Invisibilia will not be a collaboration with an outside partner but a production of the NPR Science Desk. Though that’s not necessarily a sign of things to come with future shows, Nuzum said.

“We find that we get much further with collaboration,” he said. But finding a partner isn’t easy, and NPR doesn’t plan to collaborate for the sake of collaboration. “I’d rather figure out the people instead of finding the right partner,” he said.

New show, new model

It wasn’t always clear whether the production would proceed as a radio show, and Spiegel and Miller had to squeeze in time after hours to work on it. But the two hosts helped the show stand out.

As Gudenkauf played it for her superiors — Madhulika Sikka, executive editor for NPR News; Margaret Low Smith, former senior vice president for news; and Kinsey Wilson, former chief content officer — “they loved them,” Gudenkauf said.

“This is the one show that got to this stage, and there are 50 ideas that didn’t make it to this stage,” Nuzum said.

In a preview of the first episode provided to Current, the hosts come across as a likeable duo, joking with each other and making snarky comments — though it can be difficult to tell their voices apart. The show also draws on thorough reporting. According to Miller, Spiegel often interviews dozens of sources that don’t even make it on the air as part of her research.

Invisibilia follows a relatively new model within NPR for creating radio shows. According to Nuzum, the old model involved developing a concept, piloting it in secret, marketing it as an amazing new show, investing millions of dollars and hoping to build an audience.

The new model is more like this: Make quality content and then “throw it against the wall and see what sticks,” Nuzum said. That’s how NPR developed TED Radio Hour and Ask Me Another. TED Radio Hour is now on 520 stations, and Ask Me Another is on 232, according to NPR. As for Invisibilia, several dozen stations have been signing on each week to carry the show, and it’s on track to air on a majority of stations at launch, according to NPR.

During its first run of six episodes, Invisibilia will get a boost from excerpts featured on This American Life, Radiolab, All Things Considered and Morning Edition.

“As we’ve seen with Serial, you can grow an audience really quickly,” Nuzum said. “But the first step is to make a great radio program.”

As far as what other new shows lie ahead for NPR, Nuzum says the network’s new production model is based more on quality than quantity, so future programs are difficult to predict.

“We may have three things that pop up next year,” he said. “We set the standard and wait until things meet the standard to release them.”

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