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Around the Dial

'Marketplace' Covers Wall Street at a Distance

David Brancaccio presides over a financial news show that aims to be hard-hitting and whimsical.

June 23, 2000|MARC WEINGARTEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

You might think that the host of public radio's top-rated business news program is a strictly button-down declaimer of stock quotes and SEC rulings given to fits of pique whenever a hint of frivolity creeps into the proceedings. But for the nearly 4 million listeners who tune into "Marketplace," David Brancaccio is something like an avuncular everyman who just happens to be tapped into Wall Street's information pipeline and is more than willing to share what he knows with his audience.

That's what makes "Marketplace," the 30-minute public radio show that Brancaccio has hosted five days a week since 1993, such a big hit--with institutional investors, day traders and casual speculators alike.

"I see myself as a seminar leader rather than a lecturer," says Brancaccio, 40, in the stentorian, authoritative voice that's become one of public radio's most recognizable trademarks. "We try to make it important without becoming tedious."

The show's smart yet lighthearted take on sober-minded news has made it one of the four highest rated shows on public radio--the others being "All Things Considered," "Morning Edition," and "Garrison Keillor's Prarie Home Companion."

"It's a great show," says Jeffrey Dvorkin, ombudsman and former vice president of News and Information for NPR. "Brancaccio is very smart and very much able to make complicated business stories make sense. I think that's his genius. It's not impenetrable in a Wall Street Journal way."

Brancaccio has just finished another taping of Marketplace in the show's studios, which are situated just off the USC campus (campus station KUSC-FM co-produced the show until Minnesota Public Radio purchased the program late last year), and he's decamped to his cramped office, which is decorated with Brancaccio-snapped photos of his three children and freebie business books scattered everywhere.

Although Brancaccio, with his sandy blonde hair and hazel eyes, could pass for a well-heeled hedge fund manager, he's no hair-shirt economic wonk--just a very good ringleader and storyteller. He's almost proud of the fact that he doesn't have an MBA and is careful to note that he doesn't play the market, lest he get into sticky conflict-of-interest scenarios.

"I have a mutual fund for my retirement," he says. "No individual stocks."

Hard New Coverage and Oddball Yarns

As the senior editor of "Marketplace," which is partially bankrolled by General Electric and distributed by Public Radio International, Brancaccio presides over a show that treads a thin line between gravitas and whimsy. In addition to in-depth stories and analysis about the usual economic cycles and Dow Jones fluctuations, "Marketplace" also functions like a business-page version of NPR's popular news show "All Things Considered"--hard news alternates with oddball stories that shed light on both sides of the economic divide.

Recent segments include a piece on a company that makes armored passenger vehicles, and a mock-quiz show in which Brancaccio grilled one of the show's production assistants about the companies that would be owned by newly formed mega-conglomerate AOL-Time Warner. And L.A.-based humorist Sandra Tsing Loh, whose droll commentary has made her a staple of KCRW, periodically weighs in with "The Loh Down" on "Marketplace."

"Lots of public radio is geared toward baby boomers. It's like church for secular humans," Brancaccio says. "But you can also do something that's smart but a little more irreverent and funny, and even a little cheeky. It's really how people talk."

According to Brancaccio, the objective is to provide an outsider's perspective on financial matters with an insider's reportorial savvy.

"What Jim Russell, the producer and creator of 'Marketplace,' had in mind was to take liberal arts undergrad types, critical thinkers with diverse backgrounds instead of MBAs, and put them on the business beat," says Brancaccio, a Stanford University grad who began his career on "Marketplace" as the show's London Correspondent in 1990, "not some guy with a deep voice reading corporate earnings."

"Marketplace's" Los Angeles beachhead, which leaves it well outside the orbits of Wall Street gives the show license to mix it up in a way that, according to Brancaccio, would be tough on the East Coast.

"There's a tendency on the East Coast to want to be respected when you go in with your fancy sources," he says. "We want to be smart and fair, but I don't care that we have a little fun with certain things. It's funny, in D.C., cab drivers recognize me by my voice. In L.A., I can't get arrested!"

Brancaccio's being a tad disingenuous; he has, in fact, a sizable national following, so much so that Simon & Schuster recently published his book, "Squandering Aimlessly: My Adventures in the American Marketplace," a meditation on economic and social values in which Brancaccio canvassed the country in search of the answer to that age-old question: If you came into some money, how would you spend it?

"The book's supposed to be fun," Brancaccio says. "I was actually on a plane recently, and I had that moment every author dreams of--someone was actually reading the book. I waited for a laugh, but nothing. Finally, I turned to the guy to ask him what he thought of it, to which he replied, 'that Brancaccio guy's all right.' "

* "Marketplace" can be heard weekdays at 2 p.m. on KCRW-FM (89.9) and on KPCC-FM (89.3) weekdays at 2:30 p.m. and repeats at 6:30 p.m.

--- UNPUBLISHED NOTE ---

This story has been edited to reflect a correction to the original published text. "Marketplace" and "Prairie Home Companion" are distributed by PRI, not NPR.

--- END NOTE ---

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