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Full transcript: Roman Mars, host of the 99% Invisible podcast, on Recode Media

“What I really loved was the idea of the intentionality of the way people designed everything they designed.”

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99% Invisible podcast show logo 99% Invisible

On this episode of Recode Media with Peter Kafka, Roman Mars, the founder of Radiotopia and host of the hit podcast 99% Invisible, talks about the state of podcasting in 2018.

You can read some highlights from the interview here or listen to Recode Media on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts, Overcast or wherever you listen to podcasts.

Below, you’ll also find a lightly edited transcript of the full episode.


Peter Kafka: This is Recode Media with Peter Kafka. That’s me. I am part of the Vox Media podcast network. I’m here at Vox Media headquarters. My ask to you is that you tell someone else about this show. Thank you. How was that for an intro, Roman Mars?

Roman Mars: It’s very good.

This is very, very intimidating for me because I screw around on a podcast once a week, but Roman Mars is a professional OG podcaster public radio god. There’s a good litmus test when I bring a guest in, sort of who is excited about that guest. A couple weeks ago we had a guy named Marques Brownlee come in. Do you know who Marques Brownlee is?

I do not.

He’s a giant YouTube star who does gadget videos. Huge star, six million followers. Different reaction from different people about Roman Mars today. It was a very long windup to say Roman Mars is the host of 99% Invisible, co-founder of the Radiotopia podcast network. Welcome, Roman.

Thank you so much for having me.

Now we’re done. That was an easy interview, right?

So simple.

You are talking to me today because you’re touring across the country. Not only are you podcasting but you’re doing a live show periodically. So, how long does the tour go on for? I’m not sure when this episode’s going to air.

It’ll be over in a couple days. We’re in Boston.

So you can’t see Roman live. Don’t go see Roman live. But at some point you can.

Exactly.

Let’s start with just the basics. What is 99% Invisible?

99% Invisible is a podcast about design and architecture and all the things that have been designed that people really take a lot of time to pay attention to and create that you probably don’t notice.

It’s enormously popular.

Yeah, I guess so.

Among a certain sector of people, some of whom I work with. You’ve been doing it for how long?

Almost eight years.

Eight years, and prior to that you were doing radio?

Yeah, I worked in public radio since 2001.

I want to ask you more about 99% Invisible and design, a bunch of questions about that, and then explain what Radiotopia is. You are the co-founder of that.

Yeah, so, Radiotopia was this collective of podcasts that I created with PRX when the show ...

PRX is?

Is the Public Radio Exchange.

Which is different than NPR.

Yes, exactly, but it’s also a distributor and sort of ... Actually, it’s sort of a distributor and tech work R&D of public radio. They make things, tools, and they work with a bunch of people like NPR and stations to create new things, and they’re also a distributor of content. They’re just always in the forefront of things when it comes to public radio.

I was working with them on an XM radio channel that I used to do, a program for them. And at the time, I did a Kickstarter for 99% Invisible, and it was one of the first times that a public radio show went to the crowd, did something like this, this Kickstarter, without going through stations for other distributors. It was self-funded.

If you’re old and you remember, and either you or your parents used to listen to public radio, you’re familiar with the pledge drive idea.

Totally.

Which they stopped programming for about a week to tell you. It’s also for PBS, right? “Please give us money. We promise we won’t do it for another quarter or year, depending on how much money we raise.”

Totally. I used to be one of those people that asked for money on KALW in San Francisco. And, so, I did this Kickstarter and then when I went to PRX, I created this new model for how to directly fund a show. We should help what we think are the best producers that couldn’t really find their way in public radio to create their own shows and then go directly to the audience and get support.

Now Radiotopia is a collective? Is that the word to use?

Yeah.

It’s a little like a coop, but it’s ...

I mean, it is in a way because it’s like, I’m not their boss. Everyone owns their own show. We just get together and share resources, you know, tithe to the mothership so that we can run and it works like that.

And there is commercial versions of this, right? I mean, there’s, I mean, Vox Media aspires to have it’s own network of shows. The difference is that Radiotopia itself is not a for-profit business.

Right. So, Radiotopia is a project inside of PRX, which is a nonprofit, but the shows themselves, the way that we split money, like, the shows themselves are businesses that can have ads. There are shows like mine, which are quite big, which have ads, and then we also get funding from donors and grants through PRX. And then there’s shows that can be smaller that maybe don’t really care about chasing ads and have one or two people on staff versus mine who has 11 on staff. So, you can kind of be however you want to be outside of the network.

What is the common thread between Radiotopia shows other than that they’re good?

I mean, that’s the first one. In the beginning they were very sound-rich, storytelling-type shows, stuff that you would here on public radio, like This American Life for Radiolab. Later on, we expanded to more talk and, you know, at this point, we’re really trying to find people that function as really good producers and are really good entrepreneurs and run a small business. We’re trying to facilitate people to create their own thing. They own it all. They run it all. We help them, but they really have to have a business sense.

Is part of the idea that there’s an aesthetic sensibility or there’s kind of the reaching the same audience, that if you like Radiotopia you’re also going to like Song Exploder?

Yeah. I mean, that’s the hope.

Yeah.

But, that’s the one thing that’s sound-rich, like you want a very produced podcast that doesn’t tend to be like the three-hour, two-dudes-in-a-room sort of thing. At this point, when we did our first talk ones, it was sort of related to the ... Hrishi from Song Exploder does this show called The West Wing Weekly, which is his recap of “West Wing,” but he does it with Joshua Malina, who was on “The West Wing,” and, you know, Aaron Sorkin drops by and stuff like that. So, it’s like ...

That’s a Radiotopia show?

Yeah, it’s a Radiotopia show.

That’s so great.

And, so, I think our sense is like we just want things that are highly produced and great.

Can we talk about 99% Invisible?

Sure.

Your thing, you’re known for that show, but broadly being a guy who’s into design, and I asked you to describe the podcast and you said, “It’s about design.” So, I listened. I like it. It seems like it’s a stretch. Maybe I’m missing the design episodes, but I just listened to this week’s episode. It’s about how doctors explain to patients that they’re going to die. It’s great. John Cleese has a cameo in it.

I know.

Explain how that’s about design.

I mean, it’s really just about thoughtfulness and whatever humans rank as design.

That’s a very broad umbrella.

It’s a really broad umbrella.

Intentionally?

Oh, totally.

Or did you say, I initially want to talk about Bauhaus, and then eventually that’s too narrow?

No. Initially, I was thinking I wanted to make a little minute, like a story about a building in a minute in San Francisco, and place it in Morning Edition. That was the first concept of what 99% Invisible was. And then I wanted to broaden that to the concept of design where I talk about manhole covers and door knobs or whatever. And then it became very clear to me that what I really loved was the idea of the intentionality of the way people designed everything they designed, governments designed, you know, voting districts.

Why is this thing the way this thing is?

It really is.

Someone made it that way intentionally, probably.

And, so, this thing, this SPIKES Protocol, was how doctors are trained to talk to people with giving them bad news.

Right.

It’s totally a designed experience, and even though you might view it as being really individual to you when it’s happening, it has a procedure, and I’m always interested in the things that have procedures that you’re not aware of.

Do you feel like part of your job is to tell people who are really interested in what they think of design begin, I don’t know, thoughts, that this is designed as well, or at this point are you just telling interesting stories and whether or not people use the same framework that you do, it doesn’t matter?

Yeah. I mean, the thing that I would try to do, so like this show was the culmination of many, many years of making radio, and so, the best thing you want is a way to tell whatever story you want to with a lens that focuses that idea. So, we tell any type of human story with the lens of design, and that to me is fun because I’ve been doing this a long time. It’s super easy to get bored of the show that you make, and this is a way to not get bored of the show that you make.

This show, I talked to Jad Abumrad. I probably butchered his name, but I practiced it enough.

Close enough.

Probably a year ago.

Yeah.

About his show. It strikes me that there is a certain kind of show. Thirty years ago these shows didn’t exist, right? Public radio sounded like public radio.

Right.

And then there was This American Life.

Right.

There are a bunch of shows that sound like each other, not in a derogatory way.

Yeah. No. I get that.

Did I just make up a word, derogatory. That’s a real word.

Derogatory is a real word.

Thank you. But, once you start listening to one you kind of know how they’re going to sound. They’re all very different stories, but they kind of have a similar aesthetic. They have a similar sound. How much time do you spend thinking about, “Oh, this is what I want a show to sound like, and it’s on a continuum of shows that kind of sound like this.” Or do you think, “This is my own thing, it just randomly happens to sound like This American Life,” which is a narrative story. It’s told by different people.

I mean, I think there’s certain, like, there’s certain rules of radio that make things sound the same just because they’re the best way to tell a story, and Ira was really good at figuring that stuff out.

But that was a break, right, because before there was a much more sort of stentorian, here is a report, I am a reporter, I’m done.

Absolutely. But the tone of voice, the rhythm of things and all that sort of stuff, we took that and we ran with it. I think Jad brought in a whole new element of sound and sound design, which was really playful where the musicality of the whole thing was really good. I mean, I was extremely aware of what I was creating and how much of what it was. I was like, I want to be like 40 percent Radiolab, 40 percent The Memory Palace, 20 percent Benjamin Walker. I had this idea of the way I wanted it to sound.

I think about design in every aspect of things, and very much so what I was doing when I was creating this, the least of which was like, you know, at that time I was the senior producer, behind-the-scenes producer, of an NPR show called Snap Judgment. I was like, I wanted to write and host a little bit more. You know, so, it was like, for me, I created the situation that I wanted.

So, you’re like a musician. I have these influences. I like The Beatles. I like this band. I like Kanye West. I’m making a thing.

Yeah, and to me you often find your voice through other people. You know, you sort of like, I have this thing that like stealing plus lack of talent equals creativity. So, in an effort to try to create something that’s just a facsimile of the thing that you like, you don’t have the same talent. I don’t have the same talent as Jad. I have different talents than Jad. Me trying to make Jad’s show, I won’t hit the mark, but I’ll create something completely new.

Stealing plus lack of talent equals creativity.

Yes.

That’s a great one. I’m going to steal that. How much do you think it matters to your listeners that they either know that this show sort of sounds similar or maybe they’ve never listened to this kind of show and this is brand new? I think about this a lot with The Daily, which, again, fits in this continuum.

Sure.

I’m assuming The Daily reaches a lot of people who have never listened to This American Life or your show or shows like that. Maybe it’s the first time they’ve heard audio like this.

Possibly. I mean, what do you mean?

I guess my question is, do you think, like, there’s a kind of person who either thinks about, “Oh, this is the kind of audio I want to hear,” or, “I’m comfortable with this,” or maybe they’ve thought of audio is a traditional NPR newscast or maybe like a drive-time DJ, where it’s a very different way of consuming audio. Do you think this is sort of the standard sort of way that people are going to consume audio?

No.

Or is this a slice of audio?

It’s just one.

Or a slice of the listening public?

I think it’s one kind. I know when I first heard This American Life, I was blown away by it.

Yeah.

Because it was, it’s kind of normal people talking. That was the big revolution of it.

That was a race-home-and-listen-to-it-when-it-aired show.

Totally. And, you know, it fed on KQED on Friday nights in San Francisco. It was an appointment for me. It was appointment listening. I think that when people hear it, it hits them in a certain way and for some people it doesn’t work. I mean, the reason why I have a podcast and I had to self-fund is because no one would hire me to do my thing on the radio. Because I wanted this tone of ... I knew I was telling what I think of as interesting stories about mundane things, and the way of doing it is to sound like a voice in your head. Like, I mic myself as if I’m a voice, not like I’m a BBC reporter. BBC reporters talk like this, you know, like they’re ...

Mm-hmm.

I want to sound like a voice in your head, and sometimes that doesn’t fit the format of like the morning news or whatever. And, so, you know, so some people will really key into that. They really like that. Some people just like, it doesn’t compute to them and, you know, so be it.

I want to talk more about money and radio and the style.

Sure.

First, we’re going to hear from a commercial. First we’re going to hear from a sponsor. That’s a better way of putting it, right Golda? Golda nods her head. Okay. Be right back.

[ad]

Back here with Roman Mars, public radio podcasting god. Welcome back, Roman. Of course, no one left. They all listened to that ad from our fine sponsor.

Totally.

There are a lot of people who are in podcasting who are very successful in podcasting who were in public radio and left either, like you said, because they couldn’t find space for themselves, and now more recently, I think you’ll find people saying, “I’m successful in radio. I’d rather be in podcasting.”

I just talked to the newest Radiotopia member. I don’t know if you guys have announced her publicly, so we’ll pretend that you haven’t announced her yet. She’s leaving WNYC, joining you. In your world, it makes sense that you would leave radio and go to podcasting. To a normal person, it’s audio. Explain why a podcast doesn’t work still today in traditional radio. I mean, a lot of people’s conception of what a podcast is is an NPR show that’s just downloaded onto their phone, right?

Right.

What are people like me not getting about that distinction?

Well, one thing is just time constraints. The podcast is as long as it needs to be. It doesn’t have to fit. I mean, so much of my time as a producer for 15 years was, you know, filling to make time or cutting to make time. It feels bad. It’s tiresome.

Which, again, was a traditional, like, newspaper versus internet distinction, but that’s also exploded as well.

Yeah. You know, I’m glad I had training in that, so it made me a more rigorous editor. And probably people who get into podcasting now who’ve never been through a period of time where they were in news or had to, you know, fit something to time, aren’t as disciplined.

Learning to cut is a good thing.

Totally. But also recognizing what a story does need is it’s own thing, and I think that’s a good skill to have as well. And then, the other part is just sort of autonomy in trying to create the show that you want. I mean, I’ve worked for lots of people. I think it’s good to work with people, work for people. There was a certain point where I didn’t want to work for people anymore. I wanted to own my own thing. The thing was, especially back then when I started this show — and this was not proven at that point — I knew the thing that we had had value. And anyway, inside the public radio system, the building got paid for, the CEO got paid for, the staff got paid for. The producers got paid last, and I didn’t want to do that anymore. I wanted to set up a situation where the producers got paid first.

There’s no free lunch, so you still need money.

Absolutely.

To pay your rent. How many folks work on your show? Like eight, nine?

I think it’s up to 11.

Eleven. So, you’ve got to pay them.

Yeah.

You do that through ads and also by asking your listeners for support, like you were talking about in the beginning. A few years ago when you did Kickstarter, that was a novel idea, I think at least for podcasts. Now there are a bunch more ways to fund things like this. Patreon seems to do very well with podcasts in particular. What is sort of appealing to you as you think about how you’re going to fund this show for years to come? What model do you think is going to make sense?

I think that the model that makes sense to me is the one where podcasts are open and not sort of Balkanized to these new entities that are like ...

So, you’d like them free and available on multiple platforms?

Yeah. Absolutely. I think the ad-based stuff, it works for me. I think that the listener-member model, the voluntary member model, which is something I’m very comfortable with in public radio, I think that’s a very good model.

If you like it more, if you like it a lot, give us some money and we’ll give you something.

Just be part of something.

Yeah.

I think that the ones that are a part of something are more engaged as listeners, and, you know, like I really depended on them in the beginning. Like, this show had no value to most people until a bunch of people said, “It’s valuable to me,” and then advertisers said, “Oh, I guess this is valuable to me too,” and then it just built on itself. With Radiotopia, with the help of PRX, which is innovative in the public radio space, we rely on grants, we rely on donors and we rely on advertising. We put that together to produce the shows.

You mentioned this Balkanization move, right? There are a bunch of people sort of thinking and experimenting with saying, “Well, this is only available on this platform,” or there’s Stitcher and Earwolf and Midroll are launching something and I keep thinking maybe I should pay for that stuff. I haven’t done it yet, in part because I have an iPhone full of stuff.

I think that’s totally true.

A lot of it comes from the same creators who want me to pay for something else. I’m happy to support artists and creators. That’s a good idea. But I’m a little confused about how to spend my time and money. But, that said, I’m comfortable with the idea that that show is on Netflix, and if I want to watch it on Netflix I’ve got to pay $10, and that show’s on Hulu and that’s another $10, and I’m reasonably comfortable with that idea.

Yeah. I’m less comfortable with that idea.

Why? Is it an ideological thing or do you think actually as a distribution idea it doesn’t work?

I think it’s both of those things. I don’t want to spend my time figuring out the thing I want to watch is on what thing.

Right.

That drives me crazy. I don’t want to spend even a half a second deciding, where do I find the movie “Fletch”? I get really irritated by that sort of thing. Is it on Netflix? Is it on Hulu?

Are you a cable subscriber?

No.

No, so you get a lot of irritation in your life.

I totally do.

Yeah.

But, you know, cable is just as irritating too. Then the other part, like business-wise, I think that we’re in the very beginning stages of this, and a lot of stuff is available for free. What we’ve done is we’ve taken a very expensive cable package that’s $120 or something like that and reduced it to, I don’t know, $40 worth of things that you pick and choose, and that’s one direction to go in.

Right now, we have almost completely free audio, and we’re asking people to sort of like divide off and decide where we’re going to be, and right now I don’t think we have the overall mass to support that change. We had 70 years of broadcast television to get to a point where we could hone it to people’s ... they need it in their lives, and so we hone it to them to pay for a certain amount so they can have “The Sopranos.” I don’t think we’ve had that period of time with podcasts.

What do you think about the free versus paid idea? I like free for a lot of reasons. It supports this podcast and yours, so that’s working. A counter says, listen, you’re training people to expect this stuff for free and you’re demeaning the value, you’re reducing the value of the thing you create. People will pay for things they want, and if you start by offering it free you’re never going to be able to charge for it. And, by the way, look at the entire advertising ecosystem over on the internet where it’s a race to the bottom.

You know, it’s becoming a running joke on this podcast, but most people who come in here who have a web publishing business of some sort either are announcing their paywall on this show or they’re about to launch one, or if they’re not they’re a rare anomaly, and everyone’s moved towards the only way to make this work is to charge people. By the way, that’s a righteous thing. So, a long-winded way of asking, why not charge for podcasts?

I mean, I think you can. I think there’s a way to make that model work, but I think right now we’re in the, like 80 percent of the world doesn’t know what a podcast is.

Right.

Let’s tackle that first and then we figure out how to divide them up.

“Here’s a cool thing you like. Now you like it. Maybe you’ll pay for it.”

Pay for part of it or whatever.

Yeah.

I mean, like I’ve paid for the things I’ve made in different ways for a long career of this. I filled out CPB grants and all sorts of other things. Right now, I’ve found in that amount of time I’ve found that advertising was the easiest, least-strings-attached money that I’ve ever gotten.

I was reading an interview you did with Rob Walker a couple years ago for Money. You said, “I’m a guy who’s basically personally avoided thinking about money as much as possible.”

Right.

Now you’re boss and you’ve got to think a lot about how to do this stuff.

Most of the time.

You comfortable with that divide?

Yeah. I mean, you don’t go into public radio because you’re like, “Oh, I’m a great businessperson. I’m going to crush it.” But I always thought of myself and the person and the role that I value most in this world is producer, and a producer is the person who does anything to make a thing happen. Now my job is to make sure all these people get paid and they get health care and they get to do their best work. Solving that problem on a day-to-day basis is actually really fun for me. It’s a new job for me, but I actually like it quite a lot.

We mentioned at the top of the show you’re doing a tour.

Yeah.

I can’t go see you now because the tours are now happened in the past. I do a live podcast periodically, but it’s just what I used to do. It’s just me interviewing someone onstage, which you’ve done that for a long time.

Yeah.

You have the sound-rich narratives. How do you think about putting something like that onstage?

We have to design it for stage. I mean, there has to be a reason why people are in a room to watch it. So, we have live music. We do stories. I do a show about visual things. I mean, design architecture is is usually thought of as highly visual, and so we have this opportunity to have pictures in front of people, which is nice.

The tours are tough. I mean, they’re very much, I enjoy them. I enjoy meeting people. They’re very much for the fans. They don’t generate content the way that an interview show on a stage would generate a thing that they could then release. I mean, they kind of use content, you know. We can’t do them a lot. They’re a very heavy lift, and for the type of show we want to do, and we hired this incredibly capable tech crew led by Lynn Finkel who I met at Ted, and she does like the Emmys and stuff like that. She’s amazing, but she’s like a huge public radio and storytelling fan and so she just gives us this great rate to do it. But we want to make sure we do it right and make it a nice big show.

And it’s a produced show.

Totally.

It’s an event and people have bought a ticket, and their expectation is they’re seeing a thing. They’re not just closing their eyes and listening to a podcast.

Totally. It’s a real event. It’s super fun, but they’re a heavy lift.

It’s not really a revenue stream for you? I mean, it’s covering costs, it sounds like?

It covers costs.

Yeah.

For me, it’s like if I want to make money I make more shows. That’s the way that my operation functions.

I think there’s a strain of podcasting that says, this is a promotion for the live show, especially a lot for comedians.

It’s not that way for me.

Not for you guys.

The live show, just because we have an expensive show.

You’ve got a bus full of people.

We have a tour bus. We have lights and stuff and we have everything, a bunch of really overqualified professionals that are helping us out. We start off by talking about design and how design works as a podcast theme.

Do you want people to think about design day to day if it’s not their daily job? If my job is not designing a webpage or designing whatever, should I be spending time thinking about design in my life?

You know, I don’t know if you have to be, but I like it. When I started the show ... I mean, the reason why the show’s called 99% Invisible is for the most part you only notice bad design. You only notice the things that don’t work. “This door is badly designed.”

Exactly. I have to push instead of pull.

You notice it irritates you and all that sort of stuff. The 99% invisible stuff is the good design stuff, so I wanted to highlight some of the good design in the world. The one thing I like about covering design is I’m not a naturally, like, extremely optimistic person. I’m okay, but one of the things I love about covering design is when you notice something that has really good design, you really notice that the world is full of people that are really smart that are looking out for you.

There’s something kind of optimistic about that world where somebody has really carefully paid attention to some kind of design detail that makes your life a little bit better and it’s something that you’ve never noticed before that they thought about a lot. There’s a certain sense that there’s a lot more caring in the world if you view the world in that way, and that’s the part of design I like to make people aware of.

It’s cool, and in a non-drug-use way it sort of blows your mind.

It does.

Because, you know, you can go down to the new World Trade Center transit hub and there’s a mall there with a soaring roof and it looks cool, right, but the really cool part is how it’s designed to move people around. Unless you’re thinking about it, you’re not going to think about it.

Totally.

Again, you only notice when it doesn’t work and you get off the train and you want to go left and everyone else is going right.

Totally.

Do you think that is something that more people are paying attention to or do you think sort of the bigger the world gets, the faster things move, that that stuff sort of gets sloughed off because it’s not utilitarian enough?

I think that design awareness is at an all-time high, mainly because the internet and people can find each other and people argue about fonts on movie posters and stuff like that.

Right.

Which is something they never did before.

But that’s a niche, right” It’s the guys who are into Helvetica versus whatever.

I mean, it’s a little bit of a niche, but the fact that you know the word Helvetica ...

Yeah, but I’m designer adjacent.

You’re slightly more that. And then there’s more than that, but people are more and more aware of this. I mean, there is a reason why my show hit at a certain point to tell narrative stories about things that really would be considered, a few years before, completely inconsequential.

I mean, some of it, right, is like, you know ...

It’s the phone.

Marketing, right? People saying, “This is a well-designed phone,” and so you have to sort of think about that. If you’re very old and you had a phone in your house that you rented from the phone company ...

Right.

Your choices were sort of what color that phone would be and that was it.

Yeah. I think it all kind of hit at once. There’s companies that are design-first, like Apple that’s design-focused, and they market based on that sort of thing. And people will recognize, “Oh, these are the things I like and things I don’t like.”

They’ve been taught to recognize it by giant, enormously profitable companies.

Absolutely.

That’s not a bad thing.

No. That’s not a bad thing. People have been doing good design that helps people for a long time, like really nice, easy-to-read subway maps that aren’t perfect representations of where the tracks go, but they are easier to focus on and navigate. People have been doing this a long time. It just took someone with some good marketing brain to go ...

When is the newest Radiotopia show coming out?

We launch our summer slate May 31.

May 31. Should we tease the show that I’m thinking about?

When does this get released?

That is a good question. Should we just guess? There’s a cool thing about blockchain coming out.

Yeah. There’s a cool thing about blockchain.

I know some of you have just turned the podcast off. A lot of you are really going to enjoy this.

Yeah.

All right. We’ll keep it quiet until then.

Yeah. We’re supposed to announce May 31, but there’ll be an interest.

If you haven’t heard about it yet, then stay tuned. If you have, go listen to that episode. Go listen to an episode of 99% Invisible, all the Radiotopia shows.

Yeah.

Roman, thanks for coming.

My pleasure. Thanks for having me.

This article originally appeared on Recode.net.