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So What Do You Do, Kai Ryssdal, Marketplace Host/Senior Editor?

'My job is to make sure that everybody who's listening at the beginning of the broadcast is still there at the end'

By E.B. Boyd - January 28, 2009
If you're looking for the latest news on the economy these days, one place you might be turning to is American Public Media's flagship broadcast, Marketplace. If so, you're in the company of an estimated five million public radio listeners* who rely on host Kai Ryssdal to explain the intricacies of mortgage-backed securities, credit default swaps, and where exactly that $700 billion is going.

Ryssdal started his career as many do: as an intern at a public radio station. Unlike most, however, that was after having already been a Navy pilot and a U.S. Foreign Service officer. In 1997, Ryssdal and his wife left their postings in Beijing so she could attend business school at Stanford. He took a job at a bookstore in Palo Alto, and it was while shelving books one evening -- and wondering what he was going to do with his life -- that he came across a book listing radio internships. Long considered a "news freak," Ryssdal decided to give broadcasting a shot. He spent a year and a half schlepping at San Francisco's KQED before finally making it on air.

Ryssdal moved to southern California and the Marketplace Morning Report in 2001, where he spent four years waking up at midnight in order to begin broadcasting at 2:50 a.m. -- which was 5:50 a.m. back east. Ryssdal took over the reins at Marketplace in 2005. caught up with him to learn why he gave up the glamour of diplomatic postings to become a radio slave and what the keys are to shepherding a skittish public along the precipice of a depression.

Name: Kai Ryssdal
Position: Host and senior editor, Marketplace
Resume: "Starting at the beginning, U.S. Navy (1985-1993), U.S. Foreign Service (1993-1997). Then I managed to get myself an internship at KQED. I stuck around long enough, they finally put me on the radio, and 10 years later, here I am."
Birthday: October 8, 1963
Hometown: Briarcliff Manor, New York
Education: BA, History, Emory University 1985; MA National Security Studies, Georgetown University, 1993
Marital status: Married since 1997 with three sons and one daughter
First section of Sunday Times: "The front page, then Sports, then the wedding announcements, then Week in Review, then Business."
Favorite TV show: Lately, Mad Men
Last book read: "Goodnight Moon, to my 1 1/2 year old. Otherwise, catching up on back issues of The New Yorker."
Guilty pleasure: Peanut M&Ms

With all the bad economic news, it seems like you could easily lose your audience if Marketplace was all gloom-and-doom all the time. Did you make any decisions about how you were going to cover the news, taking into account your listeners' mental and emotional states, in addition to their desires for information?
We have been getting those complaints from our listeners about doom-and-gloom for about a year and a half. For our listeners, us telling it like it is about the economy is really nothing new. The conversations we had back as this whole crisis got heated up, and as it intensified last summer, [were about] how to make sure we're doing our job in public radio and in business journalism -- which is to make these things accessible, to make people understand why they really need to care about this stuff.

How do you do that?
Marketplace is a half-hour program, so we can't possibly fit in everything. We can't do eight minutes on credit default swaps, and we can't do every utterance of the Federal Reserve Board chairman or the Treasury Secretary. In some backward way, we have the luxury of time. We get to prioritize what we believe are the most important stories of the day.

Do you have an algorithm for deciding what makes a Marketplace story?
One of the most important things we do is context -- to place individuals and companies and the larger economy in their proper context. For individuals, it's why things like auction rate securities matter, [and] what that will mean for their municipalities as they try to get loans to build a new swimming pool. For companies, what the earnings picture is. For the U.S. economy, what the global economy picture is. There's a finite amount that anybody can digest. This stuff is dense, and it's hard, and it's complicated -- and frankly, sometimes it's not all that interesting. It's a pretty high bar to get on to the program.

"The economy is the story right now. The things that have set us apart from the beginning -- our attitude, telling the stories behind the numbers and statistics -- have really helped keep us ahead."

It seems like the economic meltdown came as a surprise to a lot of people. Was it a surprise to you guys, or did you have an in-office pool about when it was going to hit?
Marketplace, along with a lot of other serious business journalism organizations, like The Wall Street Journal, have been reporting this for a year and a half. But it wasn't sinking in. In the spring of 2007, we did a story on New Century Financial, which was one of the first sub-prime mortgage lenders to throw up its hands and say, "We're not doing this anymore." And we said, "Whoa. This is going to be a huge story."

We and others were reporting that story all through the summer of 2007, up through the winter and the spring, and then finally, what really happened was, when Bear Stearns went under in March [of 2008], people really started paying attention. That's when you started having a lot of other news organizations covering this stuff and realizing the seriousness of it.

It's been a year and a half, almost two years, of us getting nasty letters from our listeners, saying, "Why are you guys so negative?"

The fact that it took so long for folks to catch on -- what do you think that says about the human interest in bad news and/or business journalism's ability to ring the bell?
This stuff is so complicated, and in this instance so dark and so depressing, that it's easy not to pay attention. There's also so much noise out there. The less you personally have a filter -- where you say, "I can't pay attention to that. I'm going to listen to these 14 things today and not the 80 that are out there" -- you just get swamped. Then all the information that is out there gets devalued, because there is so much.

What does your typical day look like?
I get up really early because out here in California, we're behind the time zone. By the time I get up at 4:30 or 5:00 in the morning, things are already happening on the East Coast. I get up and digest the news of the day. I start thinking about what the lead story is going to be and what the through-line of the broadcast is going to be. If you think about my job, it's really to make sure that everybody who's listening at the beginning of the broadcast is still there at the end. So I have to make that connection between the lead story of the day, the stories that follow in the newscast, and then the features and interviews that devolve throughout the program.

I do a quick check of the markets. I call some people if there are issues or questions about a story that I don't quite understand, and then our morning editorial meeting at 8:00 gets everybody rolling. We do a pass-down from our overnight shift, the guys who work on the Marketplace Morning Report, so we know what's been going on overseas and in the overnight economy.

Reporters get assigned, I do interviews or other prep work, and then at noon, I start writing the show. The reporters and editors work to get their stuff in by 1:00 p.m. Los Angeles time, and we go on the air for our first set of broadcasts at 2:00 pm L.A. time. On a not-market-meltdown day, things are pretty calm around here by 4:00 p.m.

I've been told the Marketplace broadcast explicitly has a specific persona. Is that right?
There absolutely is a Marketplace persona and a Marketplace voice. It's something you figure out very quickly when you get here. All our reporters, producers, and editors understand that the thing that makes Marketplace is the sound. It is the irreverence, the wit, the accessibility, the humor, and when needed, a bit of edginess that makes these stories we do listenable. It's absolutely something we concentrate on and work at very hard.

Who figured that out?
It's been that way at Marketplace for 20 years. When Jim Russell and J.J. Yore started this program, they deliberately started out to do a business program that was not straight numbers and straight stocks and all that not-so-interesting stuff that other business programs are. It has carried through 20 years amazingly successfully because we all realize that this is our niche.

What stories have most resonated with listeners?
The stories we did from China two-and-a-half years ago, even today. I was in Baltimore recently, giving a couple of speeches, and people were still coming up to me, saying, "Those China broadcasts were just the most amazing thing I ever heard." But point out any story in the last four months for sheer impact and importance, and you can pick those as well.

How about anything that didn't get a reaction when you thought it would?
A lot of the coverage we did in the early days of the Iraq War. Adam Davidson, who is now on National Public Radio, but then was our correspondent, went to Baghdad and did some really great work. He got some mentions and won a prize or two. He was doing some early work on contracting fraud that didn't stick for some reason.

Why didn't that stick?
Maybe because in the early days of the war and the occupation, I don't think anybody was paying much attention to economics and contracting. The entire experience was so new for this country -- real honest-to-God occupation and war -- that it got buried.

Before going into radio, you flew planes off aircraft carriers, you briefed generals at the Pentagon, and you worked overseas for the State Department. Why did you give up that life of glamour to become a radio slave?
After eight years in the Navy, I'd done pretty much everything I'd joined the service to do, but I really wanted to keep going overseas and have the government pay for it. So I took the Foreign Service exam and joined the State Department, where I met the woman who would eventually become my wife. We got sent to Beijing. After a couple of years there, we said to each other, it's time for us to do something else. She wanted to go to graduate school, and by that time, I'd been in government service for almost 13 years. She got into the MBA program at Stanford. This was 1997. I said, "Well, gee, Silicon Valley. I'll get a job at some dot-com something." It took me about three seconds after we got back there to figure out I really had no interest in doing business, in being at a company.

To help pay the rent, I took a job at Borders Books in Palo Alto, shelving books. My wife was taking math refresher courses, and I was moping around trying to figure out what to do with my life. I was 34, and we were about to have a baby. She sat me down one day and said, "I think you ought to try journalism. You're this weird news freak who gets up at 5 o'clock on a Saturday morning to read The New York Times." I said, "Sure, fine," and didn't think much more about it. About a week later, I was in the bookstore, shelving books at closing time. I was in the Career & Counseling section. I grabbed a book to put back on the shelf, and it was one of those big, fat books of internships. I started flipping through it, and I found the name and the address of the senior news editor at KQED, and I wrote him a letter. He called me a couple days later and set me up with an internship two days a week.

I stuck around long enough that they finally put me on the air. When I was hosting The California Report one day, somebody down here at Marketplace heard me and called me about the Marketplace Morning Report job.

What advice would you give to someone who wanted to follow in your footsteps?
You have to do whatever makes you happy. You can't replicate what I did because I got unbelievably lucky. I was in the right place at the right time and willing to make a change and take some risks. When I came here to take the Morning Report job, I was married, I had two little children, and I was getting up in the middle of the night to go to work. You have to be willing to do whatever it takes. Never say no. If someone says, "Can you come in on Sunday and go to Chinatown to get us some tape for the Monday broadcast," you have to say yes. And that goes now more than ever in journalism, when it's so hard to find really good work. If you have an opportunity, you absolutely have to grab it.

Was there anything you learned in the Navy that is coming handy now?
Discipline. Getting up at midnight to go to work for four years in a row takes a certain amount of discipline. Writing on deadline every single day takes discipline.

Who do you see as Marketplace's main competition, and how do you think you're doing against them?
Our competition comes on two levels, really. On the macro scale, we've got to deal with the same issue everyone else in journalism does -- the sheer amount of information that's out there, online, on the air and on paper -- and how to make ourselves stand out. More specifically within public radio, business and the economy is the story right now, and a lot of other programs have raised their game. I think the things that have set us apart from the beginning -- our attitude, how we go about telling the stories behind the numbers and statistics -- have really helped keep us ahead and set us apart.

What about your future? You've already had three or four careers. Do you think you want to do something else down the road?
There is nothing I'm not willing to try. I got into radio because I think it's fun and interesting. But there's a lot going out there.

What's a blog or news source where you get really interesting news, insights, and tidbits from, that the average person might not be aware of?
Planet Money at NPR because Adam Davidson is a) a friend of mine and b) really creative and talented. And Clusterstock -- they've got really good insights, they don't take themselves too seriously, and they speak plain English.

What's the most interesting economic story going on today that's not getting as much play as it should?
What to do about all the garbage that banks still have on their books -- "unrealized losses" is the technical phrase. Is the government going to take it over? Will some of the biggest banks in the country be effectively nationalized? How much time do we have before Citigroup and Bank of America aren't too big to fail anymore?

E.B. Boyd is a freelance journalist based in San Francisco. She blogs about the news business at The Future of News.

* Listener estimates are copyright Arbitron Nationwide DMA P12+, F07/Sp08 average.

[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]

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