How Articles of Interest Provides a Roadmap for Spin-Off Podcasts

Creator Avery Trufelman discusses the inspiration and process behind launching her lauded fashion series out of the hit show 99% Invisible.

If a podcast lands on a topic that begs for further discussion, when is it time to let that subject matter have a series of its own? That’s a question Radiotopia's 99% Invisible answered in September 2018, when, instead of its usual episodic releases, it began airing Articles of Interest, a themed mini-season created by producer Avery Trufelman about fashion.

While 99% Invisible focuses on the design aspects of architecture and technology that so often go unnoticed by everyday people, Trufelman wanted to turn her attention to fashion, a subject that hadn’t interested her until she saw an exhibit on punk and New Wave icon Vivienne Westwood.

"I was never particularly interested in fashion or designers,” she says. “I always thought that that didn't have anything to do with me. I thought it was snobby. The way that women's bodies are represented, those idealized, white, poreless faces, who can relate to that? I certainly couldn't."

But after seeing the designer’s works, she came to a realization: "The reason I can wear a t-shirt with holes in it is because Vivienne Westwood created $600 bondage pants in a high-end boutique. This does affect me."

That epiphany led Trufelman to ponder how episodes about fashion could work for the 99% Invisible audience. "When I started interning and then eventually working there, we were covering a lot of stories where the premise was, 'See this thing all around you that you've taken for granted? Someone designed it and there was a lot of care and intention and here's the story behind it,’" she says. Thinking about it that way from that angle led Trufelman to delve into this world she’d previously dismissed. "It wasn't just about industry and what we buy. It also affects what we think is beautiful. Punk, for example, changed what we think is interesting, that we can wear these ripped-up dirty clothes."

Part of what made Trufelman confident she could write and host her own series under the 99% Invisible banner was a 2017 episode she hosted, "The Pool and the Stream," which tells a story that connects Finnish architect Alvar Aalto to modern skateboard culture. "It really turned my world upside down. I was so profoundly moved by the story itself, I wanted it to have a different structure,” she says. “That episode was the first time that I really got to just jam—write exactly the way I wanted to write and speak exactly the way I wanted to speak. It spoiled me."

Rather than pitch the idea outright, Trufelman started collecting material, first by chatting up people at parties then asking to interview them about Westwood and the broader fashion world. “I was just gathering all this tape and sitting on it,” she says. “I had this series I wanted to do and I was really nervous about the idea, so I really wanted it to be good."

When she felt she had enough for a six-episode show, she pitched the idea to Mars, saying, "I want it to be in my voice, I want to write it, and I want it to sound different than 99% Invisible.” She also suggested it have a different series name “just to create that cognitive difference so that people wouldn't be like, 'Hey, where's Roman?' and allow people to understand this is a little bit different." After seeing her notes and outlines, he agreed.

When Articles of Interest debuted in 2018, it was featured as a miniseries on the 99% Invisible feed, distinct in tone and structure but not totally divorced from the main show. But with the series' success came its own feed and a follow-up season that dives even deeper into fashion. Trufelman likens this slow evolution of the series, and the fans’ growing interest in it, to "boiling a lobster."

"I thought if we just came out with an episode that was about this high-end fashion designer, it might be too much of an abrupt heel turn for the audience,” she says. “I thought, Let's just do it slowly. Let's talk about material. Let's talk about plaid. Let's talk about denim. I tried to make it accessible and gender-neutral for most of the time." But by the second season, this lobster was fully cooked, so she decided, "Let's do capital-F fashion. Let's talk about more designers. Let's talk about luxury and branding and logos, and these things that I worried would alienate people the first time."

Now, with the recent end of Articles of Interest’s 12-episode, two-season run, Trufelman’s fashion and podcasting awakening has come full circle. Her first episode, which covered kids' clothes, ties up neatly with the final episode of the series that discusses wedding gowns. "There's a little Easter egg in there for the people who recognize it: One of the first lines on the first episode is one of the last lines in the last episode. It's complete. There's just a lovely arc to it."

Trufelman’s experience is one many podcasters can learn from, whether they run or work on the staff of a successful series: With the right topic and a passionate host, any story can turn into a spin-off that resonates with listeners. It just needs the time and opportunity to grow into something all its own.

—Wil Williams