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NPR’s ‘Invisibilia’ could be the cure for ‘Serial’ withdrawal

Here's your new obsession.

Mar 1, 2020, 12:15 pm*

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Nayomi Reghay

With more than 5 million downloads and streams, hit podcast Serials  unprecedented success spurred speculation about the future of the medium. What stunning feat of storytelling would capture our attention next?

A new podcast is now topping the iTunes charts. NPR’s Invisibilia, a compelling, thoughtful look at our unseeable world, debuted on Jan. 9 and edged Serial out of its reigning position at No. 1.

Invisibilia, produced by Lulu Miller of Radiolab and Alix Spiegel of This American Life, is a podcast about all the things we can’t see, like fear or thoughts. Each episode tackles a new invisible article and, through carefully crafted stories, examines how they affect our daily lives.

The stories released thus far are truly fascinating: a blind man believes blind people can see, a woman is incapable of feeling fear, a newlywed is taken prisoner by his thoughts, a man was trapped in his body for 12 years. But, unlike Serial, the podcast doesn’t ask us to focus on characters or even get to know anyone in particular for very long. Rather, these people are present only to illustrate ideas and concepts, to edge us further into the world of questions and possibilities.

In the first episode of the podcast, “The Secret History of Thoughts,” hosts Miller and Spiegel ask strangers what they are thinking about and relay a wide range of responses before delving into one man’s story of unwanted thoughts. In episode 2, “Fearless,” they hop from scientific to subject to self. 

Perhaps what’s most disarming about the podcast is that unlike This American Life or Serial, whose tone tends to vary between grave and wry, Miller and Spiegel present as sensitive but upbeat. Together, they form an optimistic duo determined to find hopeful answers and rewarding outcomes. And, while they willingly admit what cannot be known, they’re comfortable with open speculation. In fact, they revel in it.

In a quest to rid herself of her fear of snakes, Miller, nearly giggling, announces, “All right, Alix, so this music signals that we are going to leave the land of strict reporting and journey to the land of fact-based wild speculation.”

“Your natural habitat,” replies Spiegel.

“My natural habitat,” Miller agrees.

There is a candor and openness to the reporting that enlivens the podcast, but what truly makes it so listenable is their joyful approach to the process of discovery. They truly want to know more about our world and the mysteries it contains, and rather than approaching the process with dry skepticism, they dig in with all the gusto of children clawing through dirt in a hands-on science experiment. After listening to an episode, you feel more alert, more awake to the molecules around you, infected with their awe for what our world is and what it can be.

Those who guffawed at the notion that a golden age of podcasts is upon us may need to hold their tongues. Experienced reporters who honed their skills at This American Life and Radiolab are emerging to make their unique voices heard, and they may be able to surprise and dazzle us yet.

New episodes of Invisibilia are released Thursdays on iTunes. Guest episodes can be heard on This American Life and Radiolab.

Photo via Neil Krug (CC BY 2.0) 

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*First Published: Jan 19, 2015, 2:50 pm