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'Invisibilia' co-founder Lulu Miller explores the dark recesses of human experience

Image by Kristen Finn

Image by Kristen Finn

Unseen forces are afoot.

At least, that’s the theory behind NPR podcast Invisibilia, co-founded by Lulu Miller and Alix Spiegel. Now in its fourth season, the program unpacks the factors behind human behavior, feelings, and thoughts through science, psychology, and personal stories.

Miller took the long way to a career in radio. The Massachusetts native studied history and studio art in her undergrad years at Swarthmore College. After graduation, she answered a Craigslist ad from a woodworker. Over the year she worked for him, the radio was constantly tuned to NPR.

“I would find myself crying or laughing," she recalls of time spend listening to episodes of This American Life and Radiolab. "The humor; they were often so irreverent.”

Eager to immerse herself in that world, she applied to a series of radio internships and volunteer opportunities. After many rejections, Radiolab took her on as a volunteer for one day a week. When the program received enough money to create their first producer position, Miller got the gig, and began to assemble stories. But she occasionally had trouble asserting herself like her colleagues did, and wondered if she was cut out for the job.

"[I felt uneasy with] the power of the microphone,” she says. “There’s a part of me that is shy and would feel really uncomfortable having to call people 10 times and intrude into their lives.”

After a brief break at the MFA program at the University of Virginia, she eventually found herself longing for the way radio forced her out of her comfort zone. “I missed the world and the messiness of everyone else’s ideas and stories,” she says.

In the fall of 2012, Miller received a phone call from Spiegel, a reporter on the science desk at NPR, who proposed they create a podcast. Miller initially declined, but after the pair met at a conference a month later, Spiegel convinced Miller to do just one story together. It was about a Californian man who had violent thoughts so pervasive he was afraid to leave his home. He eventually sought treatment with a psychologist, who reassured him that the thoughts didn’t mean he’d act on them; she proved it by asking him to hold a butcher knife to her throat for 10 minutes. The man didn’t kill her, nor was he instantly cured, but he learned he didn’t have to fear those thoughts.

“That was a signature Invisibilia story, [we realize] now. We had no idea what we were making then,” Miller says. “There’s a human story with someone really struggling. It’s personal and has vivid, strange details, and then that bumps up against a broader scientific or cultural phenomenon.”

The duo did a second, then a third, hour-long story. They called their project The Dark Room because they wanted it to be “a place you can go in and close the door and tell your secrets,” Miller says.

The show was picked up, but higher-ups insisted on a name change. The Dark Room sounded like a photography podcast. For months, they auditioned a series of horrible name ideas until Spiegel’s mother suggested Invisibilia, Latin for “the invisible things.”

The first season launched at a fortuitous time: It was January of 2015, about a month after Serial ended, and there were millions of new podcast listeners jonesing for a fix. The show exceeded its founders’ and NPR’s expectations with 50 million downloads that first season. Funding helped them grow the staff and bring on Hanna Rosin as co-host.

“Now it’s like a real little radio factory,” Miller says.

Miller finds new subjects while reporting on an unrelated topic, through dumb luck, or by actively cold-calling people until she finds something weird enough for an episode. But Invisibilia doesn’t treat its subjects like acts in a freak show; instead it looks “at someone who has basically what you’re struggling with but in a really intense way so you can see it more visibly,” Miller says.

Podcasting was the ideal medium for such stories because “our eyes are these judgmental organs,” Miller says. “There’s something so dignified about audio because we don’t get to judge people – not just what they’re wearing or the color of their skin, but even little micro-expressions. We get all this information from the face and people’s postures and without realizing it, before they’ve said a word, we already have a story in our head about who they are and what they’re like. I think stripping that away puts everyone on this equal playing field.”

Miller herself will appear in the flesh at the Fitzgerald Theater on Friday as part of a variety show about her work. In honor of Mental Health Awareness month, she and MPR’s Tom Weber will discuss the dangers and the benefits of working with people’s stories of emotional pain. She’ll also share fiction, non-fiction, and never-before-heard audio tape.

In honor of "dance party," the last two words of every Invisibilia episode, which is then is followed by pop music, local artist Aby Wolf will also perform at the show. “It’s really introspective but then at times it’s really pop-y,” Miller says of Wolf’s music. “That’s important to me as a radio-maker and hopefully listeners feel that in Invisibilia: you go dark and you go light.”

An Evening with Invisibilia’s Lulu Miller
Fitzgerald Theater
8 p.m. Friday, May 4
$27-$55