Marketplace host Kai Ryssdal and his team from American Public Media’s popular news program stopped in Cleveland on October 1 on their No Horse, No Race Live Election Tour. Before the event at WCPN Ideastream’s Idea Center, Ryssdal found time to discuss the presidential election, give a word of advice to business students, and share the secret to keeping Marketplace relevant.
W: Your education is in history and national security, and you had careers in the Navy and in the U.S. Foreign Service before starting out in radio. Without a business background, did you find some concepts in economics and business hard to wrap your head around at first? How did you master the intricacies of credit default swaps and learn to interpret the NASDAQ and S&P 500 indices? (After all, Wikipedia was just starting out when you became the host of Marketplace!)
KR: As you said, I had a varied set of careers before joining public radio. I was at KQED for two years before I joined Marketplace. I was a general assignment reporter, which I loved. I would walk in at 7:30 in the morning every day and get sent out on a bunch of different stories. You learn very quickly what you have to learn to be able to do a story.
When I got hired at Marketplace, it was as the host of the Marketplace Morning Report, which means getting out of bed at midnight, going to the studio, and two hours later going on the air to what was then 2.5 million people--it’s now 5 million people--and explaining the global economy. You learn very, very quickly, when you’re all alone in the middle of the night, how much you don’t know! And so you do what good reporters do: You call people and you say, “Explain this story to me. Tell me why gross domestic product declining at .4 percent per quarter matters. Tell me why this story out of London today is important.” I would get on the phone and I would have people explain to me what was going on. It was a very, very steep learning curve the first six or eight months, and you realize very quickly what you don’t know, and I think so long as you know what you don’t know--if that makes any sense--you’re going to be alright. So that’s how you learn, and it’s just figuring out what questions to ask.
W: Marketplace is ostensibly a business news program, but it sounds more like a current events program. How do you keep it relevant for casual listeners?
KR: If you don’t tell anybody, I’ll tell you a secret: We don’t actually care about business or the economy. We have no MBAs working for us.We have nobody with a trading license. We have no economics PhDs. We like to tell stories about things that matter, and I think as we’ve seen in the past four years, what you don’t know about business and the economy in this country and the world can, in fact, hurt you very badly.
We want to tell you what it’s like for a General Motors retiree to have to pay for health care for the first time in his life. We want to tell you what matters when somebody decides to walk away from their mortgage. We want to tell you what happens when something like healthcare, one seventh of the American economy, is transformed so rapidly as it has been in the past few years. Those are the stories we want to tell.
If I don’t have to use a dollar amount in a story, I’m happy. If I don’t have to use an economic indicator in a story, that’s perfect. If I have real people, with real problems, who help us understand why all of this stuff matters, then that’s my preference. It’s fundamentally that simple.
And sometimes you get into trouble because you start throwing in the numbers. You start throwing in the quantitative stuff, and those stories get bogged down really fast, which is why Marketplace editors are some of the trickiest in the world. Because they will take those stories and untwist them and make them make sense to someone like my mother. When I sit down and write the show every day, I am writing for people who are like my mom. My mom is 70 years old, she’s a widow, she doesn’t have an ATM card, she still goes to the bank on a Friday afternoon, writes out a check to herself, and takes money out for the weekend. I figure if I can make all this stuff make sense to my mother, while at the same time keeping it interesting, sophisticated and subtle enough for the Wall Streeters who listen to us to enjoy it, then I think we’re doing alright.
W: What business or economic issue will you be following in the presidential race this election season?
KR: That’s actually a really interesting question, because the economy that we have today, at this very moment--in fact, the economy we had back in June and July--was the economy we’re going to have on Election Day. The numbers aren’t going to change unless something amazing happens. When the jobs report comes out on Friday, it’s going to be above 8%, which people have been saying is the death knell for the Obama presidency. But you’ll notice he’s ahead in the polls. I think it’s very interesting what’s happened. Obviously, you can’t put that much faith in the polls, but I think what’s happened is that the voters see, in the underlying, day-to-day economy, reason if not for hope, then for patience--if not for excitement, then for optimism. And I think they have decided that it’s not all Obama’s fault, and that whatever could have been done he has done. Obviously, with the debates and the temperamentalness of American voters, anything could happen, but that’s my sense.
But maybe in his three opportunities standing on the stage with the incumbent, Governor Romney will convince people that something else should have been done. The New York Times on Saturday had a great column on how the Obama administration blew it in 2008. They downplayed the severity of what was going on. Maybe Governor Romney will be able to convince people of that--I don’t know. But there is that case to be made.
I don’t think you can actually look at economic indicators now, a month out from the election, and say, “This is what’s going to happen.” I think it’s all mood and subtext and gut that’s going to figure this thing out. And as long as we’re talking about it, two things: One is that early voting is starting in a lot of states, and we’re talking about the fate of this election literally almost being, like, six counties in Florida, four counties in Ohio, a couple hundred people in Colorado, and maybe some people in Nevada. In fact, demographers and political analysts will tell you that it’s that strip between Tampa and Orlando in Florida [that will decide the outcome of the election]. Everybody else has made up their mind.
W: What do students graduating from business school right now need to know about the economy they are headed into?
KD: I’m thinking back on my own experience, because I started at KQED when my wife was at business school. She got out in ’99, which, obviously, was a completely different thing. I think the thing that she would tell you--and that comes from my own experience as well--is that it works against you to find the thing that is most remunerative. If you go for the paycheck, if you go for the glamour, if you go for the consulting gig that lets you do the George Clooney thing and fly around the country, you’re going to lose in the end. Because fundamentally, no matter what the economy--up, down or sideways--it’s about lifestyle, and appeal, and sustainability--not in the green, save-the-planet way, but you being able to sustain yourself a) in an acceptable lifestyle, but b) in terms that are acceptable to you and your family. And that, bar none, is what matters the most, I think. There’s nothing I’m going to be able to tell an MBA about the economy right now. You know--I’m a history and political science guy! I think you have to look at the big picture, step back and say, “What really matters in the longer term?” Rather than “How much money am I going to make?” or “Where am I going to live?”
I just had my 25th college reunion, which is kind of extraordinary. I remember in my senior year of college sitting with a guy who was an accounting major, and he literally said to me, “I just want to get a job at Arthur Andersen or one of the Big 7--then it was the Big 7--and work there for 40 years and retire.” Wow, really? It’s a whole different ball game today.
W: What is an off-beat or less-well-known news story of recent weeks that you wish were getting more attention?
KR: Well, if there were one, you’d hear about it on Marketplace!
There are so many subtexts to everything that’s going on in the economy. First of all, I think that anything can happen in this economy. And the other thing is that I fundamentally believe in the American economy. It may seem a tricky thing sitting here in Cleveland, a city that has had more than its fair share of hard times the past four or five year--or the past 25 years--but there is a fundamental resilience that I believe in, and that I think everybody believes in, that makes you keep going. I mean, we’re going through ridiculously hard times. But there is opportunity for progress in a substantive way. There will be creative destruction. There will be losses, and people who have really hard times. But I think, in the final analysis, that this country was built on recovering from these kinds of things. Period. In all honesty, I think the biggest obstacle to that is Washington, D.C.--the political paralysis and stasis in Washington. While this country is split on many issues, I don’t think [we’re] split on that: the opportunity that exists here. If Washington can get out of its own way, that would be better for the rest of us.