Breaking Down The Power Broker with Conan O’Brien

In 1974, two very significant things happened, if you are a fan of 99% invisible. Number one is that 99pi host Roman Mars was born. And number two, The Power Broker by Robert Caro was published.

Roman learned about the power broker when he first started to cover cities and infrastructure on the radio. This massive book is about 1200 pages long and is perhaps the most important and complete explanation of how cities are formed, how neighborhoods are destroyed, bridges are erected, roads are laid down, parks are designed. fortunes are made, lives are ruined, and power is amassed.

The Power Broker is a biography of Robert Moses, who built more structures and moved more earth than anyone in human history. And he did it without ever holding elected office. Outside of New York City, Robert Moses wasn’t exceptionally well known. Inside of New York, he was mostly accepted by the media as simply the man who built all those nice parks. But The Power Broker, which is subtitled Robert Moses and The Fall of New York, changed all that. It is a tour de force of journalism, history, and biography. Roman also argues it’s really fun to read and is strongly in contention for the best book ever written.

But there is something of a catch, which can hang readers up: the book is a daunting 1200 pages long. As influential and amazing as this bestseller is, many people who do have it simply own an unopened copy gathering dust on their bookshelf. But that is a crime because this book needs to be read or at least discussed at length on a podcast.

So we’re going to spend 2024 reading it together. We’re going to study it. We’re going to break it down. We’re going to revel in the genius of its author, Robert Caro. We’re going to shake our fists in the sky at Robert Moses. It is going to be amazing. And Roman will be joined in this endeavor by Elliott Kalan, co-host of the pioneering (and very funny) Flop House podcast as well as former head writer of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. He owns a signed copy of The Power Broker.

For this introductory episode, Roman and Elliot are joined by comedian, podcaster, late night television host, and absolute fanboy of author Robert Caro: Conan O’Brien. He jokes that “you should read the power broker because you will save so much money on your satellite or streaming service,” because, more seriously, “you will be enveloped by this incredible story … about how power works and what one person can do to completely change the face of an American city.” (To keep him company, be sure to listen to his show: Conan Needs a Friend.)

So if you have a copy of The Power Broker, pull it off the shelf. If you don’t have it, put it on your holiday wish list. We’re going to spend 2024 reading it together and talking about it with some of our favorite people. These will be extra monthly bonus episodes of 99% Invisible in which we’ll cover about 100 pages at a time, taking us all through the coming year. The first proper episode drops on January 19th, covering the introduction plus parts 1 and 2. It’s up to you if you want to read ahead or just listen along as we make our way through this epic tome. There’s no wrong way to tune in and enjoy.

Sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date with the series, and learn more about the show and our other series on our about page!

And speaking of books and wish lists: if you haven’t already, be sure to get your copy of The 99% Invisible City, and a few for holiday gifts, too!

  1. Lisa

    Thank you for hosting this read-a-long and podcast series! My mom, born in 1939 in Brooklyn and raised there, (so, way before it was hipster- creator- ville) knew about Robert Caro. She knew about the corruption around him, but was so grateful for all the parks. She was in the parks almost every weekend until she was 21. When she moved to California in 1967, she found all the parks (yay for CA State Parks!) and learned the names of all the trees. Now, wherever I live, I find the parks and learn the trees…

  2. Anna Pace

    This is fantastic! I have worked in urban planning, specifically transit planning, for 40 years. During my education and through my career I read the Power Broker 3 times and each time gained new insights about cities, growth and governance. You articulated the importance of this book brilliantly. I will definitely be listening and participating with you.

  3. Susan Sheridan Tucker

    I am so excited by your new project! I’ve been a fan of Robert Caro’s for well over 30 years. I read the Power Broker as part of my master’s degree in Urban Planning. I’m a native New Yorker and it forever changed the way I viewed the city I love. Your first episode brought back a flood of memories.

    A funny story…after the release of his first Johnson book, a fellow city planner I worked with and also a huge fan, was frustrated by the lag time between the first and second volume. Robert Caro’s home phone number used to be listed. On a whim, he called it. Robert answered and graciously acknowledged his frustration and thanked him for his readership. Remarkable writer and a genuinely likeable person. Kudos to you for sharing this great work with your listeners. We are in for a treat. (My copy is quite weathered. I split my version in two so I could reasonably carry and read on the subway.) Really looking foward to listening to more.

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