Analyzing Invisibilia: NPR’s addictive new podcast for 2015


To ring in the new year, National Public Radio (NPR) released the first episode of a brand-new, and addictive, podcast called “Invisibilia” on January 8.

Latin for “all the invisible things,” and purported by its co-hosts Alix Spiegel and Lulu Miller to tell “stories about the invisible forces that shape human behavior,” Invisibilia has proved a hit and has received the praise to prove it. For instance, according to The New Yorker, “’Invisibilia’ combines sophisticated storytelling with cultural and scientific reporting, yielding astonishing stories that can feel almost too good to be true.”

So is all the hype worth the download?

In my view yes–with a few caveats. Overall, this journalistic podcast is a pleasure to listen to: Spiegel and Miller’s energetic-yet-soothing voices keep the stories they tell light and upbeat (no matter how dark or depressing they may be), and they engage in meaningful conversations with their interviewees. The addition of musical (non-cheesy) sound effects and relevant natural sound add a cohesiveness and sense of movement to each episode of the podcast.

Of Invisibilia’s six primary one-hour first-season episodes (also included in this season were two shorter “bonus” features), I enjoyed “Fearless” and “How to Become Batman” the most. Like Invisibilia’s four other full-length podcasts, these two opened with engaging narration and natural sound. Together, this combination provides listeners with both a bit of a story’s background, some context and interesting details that hook the listener, just like an effective lede in a good written piece of journalism.

Consider “Fearless”: In this episode, listeners hear Spiegel and Miller’s descriptive, flowing narration in addition to the muffled laughter and voices of children and music. Alex opens the story: “Today we are talking about fear. And like many stories that involve fear, this one begins in the woods. This is tape from a film, which shows two little children, ages 4 and 6, together in a clearing in the forest. They are alone; two tiny bodies dwarfed by tall, dark trees. Close by in the brush, a man is watching them, by his side there is a camera…” I mean…how could someone NOT listen to the rest of this episode: cliffhanger alert!

“How to Become Batman” is similarly engaging, yet the narration style is a bit different. The episode begins with Spiegel and Miller narrating exclusively, but then the narration shifts to also include the voices of their interviewees. Alex kicks off the conversation with: “Today we’re going to tell you a story that we think is going to make you believe something that you do not currently believe.”

The conversation then continues: “Right,” adds Lulu. Then Alix picks up, “And to begin to explain this story, we want to introduce you to something.” A new (male) voice: “A rat.” Then Alix: “Recently, Lulu and I got a rat and we brought it to NPR.” Then listeners hear natural sound of laughter. “Hi buddy!” And then many people’s voices describe the rat: “It’s a rat.” “Pinkish ears.” “Reddish eyes.” “Long nose.” It’s a mix of men and women’s voices, bringing new characters into Spiegel and Miller’s story, while also telling the story. But then things get even juicier…

Alix continues, “And we invite people to walk into this room, one by one, look the rat in the eye, and then answer a simple question: ‘Do you think that the thoughts that you have in your head–the private thoughts that you have in your head–could influence how that rat moves through space?'” The interviewees all say “no”…except for research psychologist Bob Rosenthal, the story’s main “expert,” who says “yes.”

What?! Why does the expert say yes to this question, the answer to which, most people would say no? At this point, as a listener, it’s almost impossible not to keep listening. After all, you must find out why such a seemingly impossible situation is possible.

But, this precise introduction also brings to light one caveat–and my major criticism–of Invisibilia: the co-hosts’ voices are too similar. Though it did not bother me enough to stop listening, the similarity between Spiegel and Miller’s voices poses a bit of an issue. At times, it seems like just one woman is hosting, which isn’t a problem. But then the co-hosts start interacting with one another and things get confusing (you may begin to wonder “Why is this woman talking to herself?” I wish Invisibilia’s co-hosts–like the co-hosts of most other two-host podcasts–had dissimilar voices, just to make the identity of who is speaking more clear to listeners.

Screen Shot 2015-03-18 at 9.40.34 PM
Miller, right, and Spiegel, left, both have engaging voices. But at times it’s challenging to tell their voices apart.

Overall, the audio quality of the podcast is high. Spiegel and Miller’s voices are always crystal-clear, as are the podcast’s sound effects. Though it prevails, this high-quality sound is not consistent. Some interviewees’ interviews and natural sound come across as “grainy,” which is understandable given the technological capabilities of long-distance communications and audio-recording equipment. However, this inconsistency can be distracting, and, on occasion, interviewees voices and natural sound are difficult to hear and decipher.

Overall, however, I highly recommend Invisibilia. Spiegel and Miller have upbeat personalities and convey their shared sense of curiosity, which renders the podcast extremely engaging. They include a wide range and diversity of interviewees into their stories–from experts to everyday people–which keeps the podcast interesting and conversational. And lastly, like other good pieces of journalism, Invisibilia’s stories are transparent, with Spiegel and Miller backing up each with cited facts, sources’ backgrounds and information on how they went about reporting.

Browse, listen to and download episodes of Invisibilia here.


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