Real voices in fiscal drama

The voice coming out of the radio sounded folksy and a bit worn-out, speaking words so honest they almost made you feel embarrassed to be listening in. But all Don Holzschuh, a trucker from Iowa, did was tell the truth: The bills could pile up so high, sometimes it was hard to make it on his income of about $50,000 a year.

When interviewer Kai Ryssdal suggested the recession had been over for a couple of years, Holzschuh snorted out a short chuckle. “I’m one nostril above the water,” he said. “and when a wave comes by, it puts me under.”

Holzschuh’s words came courtesy of “Marketplace,” the Los Angeles-based public radio program that has grown while other old-media outlets have been shrinking and has built an expanding national audience by putting a human face on business and the economy. It’s done all this from an unlikely, off-off Wall Street perch -- studios on Figueroa Boulevard in downtown Los Angeles.

It hasn’t hurt that interest in all manner of financial news has risen during the ongoing economic crisis and particularly since Standard & Poor’s downgraded the U.S. credit rating three weeks ago. Among the beneficiaries have been franchises with a sharp focus on markets and investors, like cable TV’s CNBC (audience up nearly 70% in the first two weeks of August, compared with the same period in July) and the Internet site (which had more than double the audience the first week of August, compared with the same time last year) and the more well-rounded, consumer-oriented “Marketplace.”


Snippets of “We’re in the Money” or “Stormy Weather” accompany the show’s good or bad news on the markets, refrains so ubiquitous that they join talk doyenne Terry Gross’ purr and the incessant cackle of the “Car Talk” guys as the signature sounds of public radio.

“Marketplace” (which airs locally at 3 and 6:30 p.m. weekdays on KPCC-FM [89.3] and at 2 p.m. on KCRW-FM [89.9]) has grown into a behemoth and spawned several spinoffs because it does more than merely “the numbers.” The half-hour show specializes in finding the owners who’ve lost homes in the mortgage crisis, commiserating with the growing legion of unemployed and, this week for example, personalizing the retirement of Apple’s Steve Jobs with a first-person account from a former co-worker.

The cumulative weekly audience for the half-hour “Marketplace” and its related programs, like Marketplace Money and the Marketplace Tech Report, has grown to a combined total of 9.3 million per week. That’s compared with 5.3 million a week in 2001, shortly after the franchise was bought by the Minnesota-based public radio power that is now called American Public Media.

More than 500 public radio stations carry the shows. That includes “Marketplace Money” on the weekend and “Morning Report,” updates that public radio stations tend to sprinkle into weekday breaks in National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition.”

“Marketplace” has survived for more than two decades. But before it came along, tweedy public radio hadn’t embraced business programming. Then a journalist named JJ Yore, who had covered public media, moved West from Washington, D.C., to launch “Marketplace,” which began with only three other full-time employees. Yore just wanted to tell good stories and to send a message by basing the program far outside the financial industry’s cozy home base.

He had no idea about the complications involved in sustaining such an enterprise. The program survived only because USC stepped in during the 1990s to give it financial support and a home, KUSC-FM. But a platform for long-term growth didn’t come until 2000.

That’s when radio magnate Bill Kling and his Minnesota-based network bought not only “Marketplace,” but also, in a separate deal, acquired control of Pasadena-based KPCC-FM. The “Marketplace” staff has almost doubled in size since then, to nearly 50. Yore recently was promoted to general manager of the franchise and was replaced as executive producer by Deborah Clark, a veteran of the show whose previous efforts helped make the former NPR program “Day to Day” a small gem.

“Marketplace” works because it shucks the jargon and prognosticating that drive a lot of business reporting, in favor of a straight-ahead, vernacular style. In recent days, the show offered a listener-friendly, one-hour review of the financial devastation since 2008, “The Breakdown,” and a sobering interview with a BBC correspondent (the British network is a regular partner) about how Japanese-style economic stagnation could be coming to this country.


The show routinely presents people who reside far away from Wall Street, such as elderly Americans who marvel at the minuscule earnings from their certificates of deposit. The show betrays no political tilt and doesn’t shrink from dissenting voices, like the Kansas City federal reserve bank president, who this month called for pushing interest rates off virtual-zero.

Rick Wartzman, a longtime business journalist and executive director of the Drucker Institute at Claremont Graduate University, praised “Marketplace” for “humanizing business.” He added: “It’s a great thing they do, because sometimes people get so steeped in it they forget that business is really about people. There has to be that human dimension.”

Host Ryssdal, 47, doesn’t come with the standard journalism pedigree. He flew in the Navy, served as a staff officer in the Pentagon and then joined the foreign service, before getting into radio while in his 30s.

“Marketplace” stands out as one of the few major economic shows not based in New York. Ryssdal -- a father of four whose profile is rising as he appears on cable TV and plays host at major business forums -- likes it right where he is. “It gives us perspective,” he said, “and helps us not get caught up in the craziness.”


The “Marketplace” staff does not expect any quick exit from the story of our economic travails. “What everyone has realized is there is an underlying shift in the economy,” Ryssdal said. “It’s going to take years to work through it. This is not a stock-market story. It’s so much more.”


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