'Marketplace' is America's most popular business show. Now it has ambitious plans to expand

Weekday afternoons, millions of Americans — many stuck in rush-hour traffic — learn the business news of the day from Kai Ryssdal, a former Navy pilot and host of the public radio show “Marketplace.”

“I spend almost as much time with Kai Ryssdal as I do with my own husband,” joked Sally Kilbridge of Scottsdale, Ariz., who toughs out her more than two-hour-a-day commute by listening to public radio.

“Marketplace,” which is produced in downtown Los Angeles by American Public Media, is the most popular business program on radio or TV in the U.S., with an average of 14.6 million listeners a week. In the last year, the 28-year-old program has seen its audience grow 16% — benefiting from Americans’ increased appetite for news.

Hoping to capitalize on its success, “Marketplace” has launched an ambitious plan to remain a vital source for economic information as consumers’ listening habits change, putting a strain the traditional broadcast model.

“We cannot rest on the idea that listeners are always going to come to us,” Deborah Clark, senior vice president and general manager of “Marketplace’s” portfolio of programs, said in a recent interview. “They've been a captive audience. We're on the radio and they know how to find us there — but now people are not just looking toward the radio for the content.”

Consumers have more choices, including in their cars. New vehicles are equipped with screens and technology that enable drivers to use voice-activated Internet-connected devices — opening the floodgates of content available to commuters who spend hours in their cars and raising the level of competition for “Marketplace.”

At the same time, consumers are adding to their homes smart speakers, such as Amazon’s Echo, that connect with Internet radio. Tech-savvy and younger audiences are more in tune with podcasts and personalized music playlists than old-school radio.

Another threat exists in Washington: President Trump last month recommended eliminating government funding for public TV and radio. “Marketplace” doesn’t directly receive any federal money. But if Congress goes along with Trump’s plan, local stations would face deep cuts and some might have to scale back on programming, perhaps dropping Marketplace.

Cognizant of these challenges, “Marketplace” is expanding its staff, producing more audio podcasts and figuring out other ways to reach listeners and generate more revenue. The plan is to turn a show about business into a self-sustaining business that can prosper in the era of digital media.

“I want us to grow,” said Ryssdal, the popular host of the flagship afternoon program. “We need to be a go-to source about things that are happening in this economy. We need to grow to a point where our reputation matches our ambitions.”

Key to “Marketplace’s” strategy is cultivating listeners who are not devotees of public radio. Finding new sources of revenue also presents challenges because public broadcasters are not allowed to run overt commercial messages, and “Marketplace’s” mission — “raising the economic intelligence of the country” — puts a priority on education, not commerce.

“I’ve always admired what ‘Marketplace’ does,” said Ben Manilla, director of audio at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. “But the question is how will the programming be delivered, how will it be paid for and how will people find it in this vast sea of content?”

“Marketplace” has long been an outlier. The show launched in 1989 at Cal State Long Beach’s KLON radio station before being acquired in 1990 by USC, which sold the operation a decade later to Minnesota Public Radio.

It now distributes the four “Marketplace” programs — a morning report, the flagship 30-minute afternoon show, the weekend report and “Marketplace Tech” — through American Public Media, the St. Paul, Minn.-based parent company. Together, the shows attract a larger audience than leading cable business programs such as Fox News’ “Your World With Neil Cavuto,” which draws nearly 2 million viewers an episode, according to Nielsen.

“Marketplace’s” annual revenue is about $18 million, about two-thirds of which comes from corporate sponsors. About a quarter of the money comes from the carriage fees paid by radio stations that air its programming. More than 750 stations carry “Marketplace,” including local stations KPCC-FM (89.3) in Pasadena and KCRW-FM (89.9) in Santa Monica.

The show has attracted loyal fans, including Kilbridge, associate director of the Donald W. Reynolds National Center for Business Journalism at Arizona State University in Phoenix. In the current polarized media environment, Kilbridge said she appreciates “Marketplace’s” evenhanded treatment of the news and Ryssdal’s humor and conversational style.

“Kai dumbs it down without making me feel dumb,” she said.

Workdays begin early at “Marketplace’s” downtown Los Angeles offices that overlook a busy on-ramp to the Harbor Freeway. Ryssdal, 53, and a small contingent of editors huddle in a conference room, beginning at 7:30 a.m., to discuss the news of the day and prepare the lineup for the show that tapes at 2 p.m. Reporters then have four hours to complete their assignments, boiling down a complex subject into 90 seconds of audio.

Unlike many other radio broadcasts, Ryssdal writes his own script.

“The me that you hear on the air is pretty much the me that you get in real life,” said Ryssdal, who spent eight years in the military and four years with the U.S. State Department, including in China. He returned to the U.S. in the late 1990s, and while his wife attended graduate school, he worked at a Borders bookstore in Palo Alto and tried to figure out what career to pursue.

At the age of 34, he became an intern at San Francisco public radio station KQED-FM (88.5) — and quickly got hooked.

He joined “Marketplace” in 2001, moving his family to Los Angeles and working the overnight shift to anchor the morning report, which is now produced in New York with David Brancaccio. Ryssdal became the host of the afternoon show nearly 12 years ago.

On this morning, he and his Oakland-based colleague Molly Wood recorded an episode of their recently launched digital podcast, “Make Me Smart With Kai and Molly.”

“This is an opportunity for us to go in spaces we haven’t been,” he said in an interview. “There’s a giant universe of people out there who don’t know what public radio is, and they are [into] podcasts.”

According to Edison Research, podcasts (digital audio broadcasts) have become one of the fastest-growing media formats. About 24% of the U.S. population listens to at least one podcast a month, according to an Edison survey this year, compared with 12% in 2010. The audience skews young; about twice as many listeners ages 12 to 24 download these audio stories compared with those over 55.

“The spoken word isn’t old-fashioned anymore,” said Megan Lazovick, director of research for Edison Research in New Jersey, adding the rise in podcasts correlates with the adoption of smart phones. “Podcasts are not going to replace radio, but it is really growing. There is a podcast for everyone.”

“Marketplace” is well-positioned to capitalize on the trend because it has expertise in audio storytelling and high production values. The team has produced podcasts for more than five years and its podcasts now reach an audience of 5 million. The group now markets half a dozen podcasts, including “Code Breaker,” a series with Tech Insider; “The Uncertain Hour,” a documentary series about welfare reform; and Corner Office, Ryssdal’s conversations with big-name chief executives.

“Make Me Smart With Kai and Molly” is more personality-driven and more casual than the radio broadcasts. For example, a recent episode was: “Avocado toast is really a story about NAFTA.”

“Marketplace” has tackled complex stories, such as a current series called “The Big Promise,” which explores Trump’s campaign promises and why voters embraced him. Ryssdal and other reporters have been focusing on the economy in Erie, Pa., which went for Trump in the last election. Another current series, "Robot-Proof Jobs," examines how automation is displacing traditional jobs.

Three-quarters of “Marketplace’s” audience comes from the radio broadcasts, but Clark, the general manager, expects the mix to change as audiences shift to digital sources.

Changing viewer habits prompted “Marketplace’s” new business plan, not the proposed cuts in Washington, Clark said.

Clark plans to add nearly a dozen employees to “Marketplace’s” staff of 85, and she recently hired a chief operating officer, public radio veteran Mark Crowley, to explore revenue opportunities, including live events, “Marketplace” video games and perhaps even creating educational materials for school curriculum.

“This is about taking our brand and building it in a way that allows us to introduce our form of storytelling to more people,” Clark said. “This also is about putting some more meat on the bones and positioning for the future.”

meg.james@latimes.com

@MegJamesLAT

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UPDATES:

3:10 p.m.: This article was updated with additional ratings information.

April 12, 8:07 a.m.: This article has been updated to clarify that “Marketplace” is the most popular business broadcast on radio or TV in the U.S.

This article was originally published at 3 a.m.

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