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Down is up for 'Marketplace'

The radio program's irreverent take on the economic crisis has lightened up dark days.

October 20, 2008|Deborah Netburn | Times Staff Writer

It's somewhere past 6 p.m. in the middle of the gas-guzzling commute home from work, and certain Southland residents with certain types of radio presets are used to passing this time pleasantly enough with "All Things Considered" on KPCC-FM (89.3).

Except today (and for the last couple of weeks), people are not so interested in the first woman who ran for president in 1872 or this week's installment of "This I Believe." They want the juicy stuff -- news about Fed Chairman Ben S. Bernanke and Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson, an update on the credit crisis, more news on security-backed mortgages. Out of the way, Michele Norris, Robert Siegel and Melissa Block, they think -- bring on Kai Ryssdal and "Marketplace."

A year ago, it would have been hard to imagine the public-radio faithful anxiously awaiting a business program, but a year ago most of them had probably never heard of "credit default swaps" or "commercial paper." Now, engaged Americans find the rise and fall of the Dow more fascinating than Troopergate or even Madonna finally splitting with Guy Ritchie. The economy has become our national obsession, and for the public-radio listener, "Marketplace," the 20-year-old business program from American Public Media, has never been more relevant.

Or, it sometimes seems, more irreverent.

"Today is the second full working day of the post-bailout era," host Ryssdal's commanding voice told the audience one day last week. "Since the rescue package became law last Friday, the Dow Industrials are down about a thousand points, a great headline number -- you'll probably see it someplace tomorrow -- but that's not the real story. . . . "

On Oct. 9, the show led with: "We've said before that the Dow is not the entire U.S. economy, but as a snapshot? Boy, it is not a pretty picture."

Even during the darkest times of the past dark weeks, Ryssdal's smooth and wry delivery has carried what almost sounds like an extra jauntiness to it. His listeners vacillate between appreciating the light tone, which counteracts the doomsaying pouring from TV news, and wanting to throttle him because he seems to be having a blast while they worry about their shrinking 401(k)s.

"We've been criticized that now is no time for humor," says executive producer J.J. Yore. "I would argue that now is exactly the time for humor. The economic crisis is a critical story, but it isn't 9/11. . . . It could potentially be the death of a way of life, but it's not about mortality."

There's no doubt that Ryssdal is enjoying his role as captain in a sea of depressing economic information. "There is no place else I would rather be at this time in the news cycle than sitting right here," he said on a recent morning at the show's studios in downtown Los Angeles. "This is the best job in broadcast journalism today. Period."

And besides, humor and "irreverence" (a popular word among the roughly 40 members of the "Marketplace" staff) have been the ethos of the program since it was founded.

As producer Nancy Farghalli puts it, "Some of our stories on the face of it are paralyzingly boring, but for the past 20 years, the aim of the show is to make complicated economic stories accessible and tell them with a sense of irreverence and a tongue-in-cheek approach."

Recently, Farghalli helped organize "Marketplace's" "Road to Ruin" tour, which entailed sending one reporter to Charlotte, N.C., and one reporter to San Francisco, then having each drive to St. Louis, interviewing people along the way about how the financial crisis is or isn't affecting their lives. Ryssdal inevitably introduced the segment with a cheerful-sounding "Road trip!"

Tess Vigeland, the reporter who drove the San Francisco-to-St. Louis route and is the host of "Marketplace's" personal-finance weekend show, "Marketplace Money," seems a little more disturbed by the economic crisis than Ryssdal.

"The past four to six weeks have been intense," she says. "We're so inundated by the news, spending 12 hours a day reading what the analysts and economists are saying. You can't freak out about it because listeners are counting on us to be a voice of rationality and reason, but all of us here have bank accounts, and 403(b)s [the nonprofit version of 401(k)s]. We're not just covering it, we're experiencing it."

But, she adds, part of being reasonable is keeping the light-hearted tone of the show. "If we stop being fun, we become another voice of doom and gloom. We need to stay solid."

--

deborah.netburn@latimes.com

"Marketplace" airs weekdays at 3 and 6:30 p.m. on KPCC and at 2 p.m. on KCRW-FM (89.9).

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