Planet Money grew ‘organically’ from ‘A Giant Pool of Money’

In this Q&A Karen Everhart talks with This American Life producer Alex Blumberg and NPR reporter Adam Davidson, who produced a radio documentary about the bursting mortgage bubble, “A Giant Pool of Money,” last May, months before the implosion of the global financial system. The broadcasts on TAL and All Things Considered pulled a trifecta of the duPont-Columbia, Polk and Peabody awards.

They continue to collaborate on Planet Money, a blog/podcast spinoff of “Giant Pool,” and on reporting about the financial crisis. Their fourth full episode of TAL, “Who’s to Blame,” is slated for broadcast Friday, June 5 [2009].

What & when

‘A Giant Pool of Money’ examined lending practices that led to the meltdown of the U.S. mortgage market and the world financial system. It aired on This American Life May 9, 2008, and NPR gave it major play, airing an extended excerpt on All Things Considered. The collaboration between the Public Radio International-distributed TAL and an NPR newsmagazine was unprecedented and so well-received that all parties agreed to keep it going.

New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen described “Giant Pool” as “the best work of explanatory journalism I have ever heard.” Responding to an outpouring of e-mails and other listener responses, NPR Ombudsman Alicia Shepard praised Blumberg and Davidson for telling the story “in a fascinating, compelling way that anyone can understand.” The judges of the 2008 Peabody Awards described “Giant Pool” as “impressive for the arresting clarity of its explanation of the financial crisis we’re in, and even more so for its having aired so early—May 2008.”

Since September, the partners’ vehicle has been Planet Money, a podcast and blog on NPR.org. The podcast is downloaded more than 1 million times a month, consistently ranking among the most popular podcasts on iTunes, according to NPR. The blog generates about 400,000 page views a month.

“Giant Pool” flowed out of Blumberg and Davidson’s friendship and shared interest in figuring out what was happening in the housing market, but NPR’s new leadership now sees it as a model for future projects. “We need more Planet Moneys,” President Vivian Schiller told the NPR Board May 7, describing her priorities for strengthening NPR’s journalism on radio and new-media platforms.

Others say it holds lessons for the entire field. In a commentary  in this issue, Rob Paterson, a consultant on major NPR and CPB projects, tells how “Giant Pool” and Planet Money show the way for public broadcasting producers.

Who

Alex Blumberg, a producer for This American Life’sradio and television shows, and Adam Davidson, NPR international business and economics correspondent, reported and produced “Giant Pool,” and Les Cook edited it. Ira Glass, host and executive producer of TAL, and Ellen Weiss, senior v.p. of NPR News, were e.p.’s. TAL is distributed by Public Radio International and produced by Chicago Public Radio. The Planet Money team includes David Kestenbaum and Davidson as correspondents; Laura Conaway as editor; Caitlin Kenney as associate producer; and Blumberg as contributing editor.

Current talked with Davidson and Blumberg by phone April 30, 2009. The interview is edited.

Tickets for Davidson and Blumberg’s first-ever Planet Money stage show, hosted by KCRW in Santa Monica, Calif., sold out in four hours and became an on-demand hit. (Photo: Petula Pascall, Fire Rose Photography.)
Tickets for Davidson and Blumberg’s first-ever Planet Money stage show, hosted by KCRW in Santa Monica, Calif., sold out in four hours and became an on-demand hit. (Photo: Petula Pascall, Fire Rose Photography.)

Why & how

Everhart: What was the idea that inspired you to collaborate in producing “Giant Pool”?

Davidson: At first neither of us thought of it as moving in the direction of a show. When Alex started calling me, it was just two friends talking about something that was interesting—whether or not the country was in a housing bubble.

Blumberg: We were both interested in what was going on in the housing market: Adam was the expert reporter, and I had become sort of an interested dilettante, trolling on the Internet. We had these conversations about it, and I would say, “It seems crazy.”

Davidson: This was long before the crisis hit in a big way, so it was still reasonable to ask, “Are we in a housing bubble? How bad is it?”

Alex’s questions were pretty straightforward — “Why are we giving huge loans to people who don’t have any money or assets?” I had spent a lot of time talking to economists and thinking I understood the answers, and would explain why it made total sense.

I had worked a lot for This American Life before joining NPR and I thought I wouldn’t be allowed to do stuff for them because it’s a competing company. It wasn’t so much an inspiration to collaborate. It was more like, “Boy, I really wish I could collaborate, but I guess I can’t.”

Then it just seamlessly turned into a collaboration. It’s the least dramatic story in the world: Ira Glass and my boss Ellen Weiss, the senior v.p. of NPR News, had a chat about doing something together, even though they work for different organizations. Alex and Ira were already talking about how this whole thing about mortgages and the housing bubble could be a This American Life show. It was all very easy and quick.

Everybody talks about collaboration being the way forward in this business and about how hard it is.

Davidson: What Ellen has said, which I think is very smart, is that institution-to-institution collaborations generally don’t work, in her experience. When it’s the big shots at the top of the food chain deciding to collaborate and assigning reporters to it—those collaborations never work. But when it starts organically on the reporter level—those things generate their own enthusiasm and excitement and tend to much work better.

We’ve already found that. Planet Money, the outgrowth of this, is inherently a collaborative enterprise. We’ve done collaborations with the New York Times, Slate and a lot of places. The ones that work really well are when we meet the reporter, we like the reporter and we chat. The ones that go nowhere are the ones where big bosses are brought in early and there is some strategic reason to do it.

How did Planet Money come into being?

Davidson: Also remarkably organically. Before “Giant Pool of Money” aired, nobody knew it was going to be this big deal. I thought there was a pretty decent chance it was going to be the worst episode ever of This American Life.

When it came out, everyone realized instantly that there is a real hunger for things that actually explain this complicated economics story. Right away Ellen and I began talking about doing this in an ongoing way. I called Alex and said, “Why don’t we do this?” Alex talked to Ira, and he said, “Sure, let’s make this happen.” The decision to do it was very quick.

Were you given a staff and a budget?

Davidson: Over time. It started with Ellen and me, and then pretty quickly we got Alex as a part-time staffer. He’s still technically a full-time This American Life person and part-time NPR person. As things went on we added a web expert, another producer and another reporter. It was all very natural.

I hear that during a recent meeting with some big stations in Chicago you outlined plans to expand Planet Money. Can you elaborate on what you’re planning to do and what the timeline is?

Davidson: “Outlined plans to expand” is grander than it was—I basically talked about things we would like to do.

Throughout Planet Money, like a lot of entrepreneurial start-ups, we have made little plans, and generally they’ve been overtaken by other things. Whatever goals we set, they’ve been dramatically surpassed by the hunger of the audience for more. And the opportunities that presented themselves.

We’re trying to figure out how to continue our organic growth and considering what plans we should have. It’s as vague as that. Right now we’re on the radio, we have a podcast, and we have a blog. We want more than just a blog. We want a real web platform.

Basically, we realize is there is an unbelievable hunger in America and around the world for not just economic news but for economic information for the smart but non-expert audience. And, frankly, the smart expert audience, too—they generally understand one aspect of the financial system but not the whole thing.

People are looking for a place to not just learn today’s news, but to have it make sense. Where are we in this crisis? Who’s at fault? What should we do going forward? How does this affect me? How did this come to be?

We’re just trying to figure out what else we can be that satisfies that need, and we’re in the early stages.

Frankly, our goal right now is to get the next This American Life story on the air, which is sort of terrifying to us.

What is the story?

Blumberg: We’re trying to figure out who is at fault for the financial crisis in America. We’re not going to answer that question definitively, but we’re trying to find out who are some of the players who bear responsibility.

The problem is, nobody folded their hands and cackled an evil cackle and said, “I’m going to bring down the U.S. financial system—the world financial system.”

Davidson: You should say, “There’s nobody that we’ve found.”

Blumberg: Maybe there is no supervillain — we have not found them. We will not be presenting them on this show. But there are people whose roles were more central to the collapse.

Specifically, there are the credit-rating agencies. They were the ones who blessed these fancy securities with the highest ratings and made people think they were safe to invest in. There were the people who were creating the products in the first place—these crazy, highly leveraged financial derivatives.

Like the Jim Finkle character we heard about in “Giant Pool of Money?”

Blumberg: People like him — right. The thing is, within that industry there were ways of doing it, and some people were safe, and others weren’t as safe.

Basically, the idea is to try to figure out what people were thinking at the time. A lot of them were thinking, “Woo hoo! I’m in it for the money, and that’s fine. I’m on Wall Street, and I came here to make money, and I’m doing my job.”

The worst you could accuse people of is thinking is: There are suckers are out here, and I’m getting the better end of the deal over them. But the better end of the deal ended up creating this crisis.

I spoke with someone who feels really bad about it and is calling into question his assumptions. He thought the worst-case scenario was, “They’re the loser, I’m the winner,” and it turns out the worst-case scenario is the near-collapse of the global financial system.

That idea has shaken people who were involved in it, and that’s what we want to talk to them about—how does it feel to know the thing you were involved in nearly brought down the world’s economy?

The problem is the narrative has been so angry that it created this dynamic where the people are yelling at each other on TV. Those who were involved say, “You can’t blame all of this on me.” There’s this huge hunger for someone to blame. It all seems so confusing and spirals into this morass where people don’t admit anything.

We’re hoping to talk to people about the extent to which they do feel accountable—to get them to talk about that—without it feeling like a witch hunt.

Are you having trouble getting people to talk to you?

Blumberg: One of the stories we’re doing looks at the credit-rating agencies. In their minds, they’ve been really burned before by making one of their people available to a television network. They feel like he got hijacked and yelled at and, basically, blamed for the entire catastrophe.

At the same time, the agencies didn’t do their jobs well. When you talk to people who have left the company, they admit they didn’t do their jobs well and that the financial instruments were flawed. But when you talk to the companies, their official position is, “We did nothing wrong.” That’s very frustrating.

I feel like there’s got to be a middle ground between berating somebody and actually getting into an honest conversation about, “C’mon, you’re literally saying nothing bad went on here?”

Davidson: We’ve discovered a higher level of self-critique and self-analysis among people involved in the financial industry—higher than it’s probably ever been—but it is still incredibly low. Lots and lots of people in the industry and outside of it feel shocked and upset. Some are afraid that maybe they’ll go to jail.

Blumberg: Once you have the government involved in bailing companies out and responding to constituent concerns and hungry for blood—I would be scared, too. You don’t know what the government is going to do.

You might feel like, “I’m being a tough Wall Street shark, because that’s what I am, and there’s nothing illegal about it.” And then you find that now people are thinking that it should be made illegal.

When is the show going to air?

Blumberg: In two weeks, May 16th, God willing. [The date was later switched to June 5.]

How many dedicated episodes have you done for This American Life?

Blumberg: This will be the fourth, and we’ve had Planet Money stories on a couple of other episodes as well.

I’m sure there’s also a lot of demand for you to be on NPR shows. How do you manage all of this?

Blumberg: We don’t sleep very much. If anybody reading this interview wants to give us some money or help us get more resources, we’d be very happy.

Where did your style and approach come from, and how did it evolve?

Davidson: The single clearest influence for us would be Radio Lab with Robert Krulwich and Jad Abumrad and their way of co-hosting. It was sort of an accident that we ended up co-hosting, but we found that it’s really useful to explain complicated things. There’s something about two people reacting to each other and slowing the pace down, if needed, that’s very effective and helpful.

Blumberg: And one person in the group can play the role of the audience—“That seems crazy! That’s weird! Wait!” So you can stop and slow down. Sort of like a Greek chorus to represent what the listener is feeling or thinking.

Do you work off a script? It sounds like you’re just two guys having a conversation.

Blumberg: We just go in and wing it!

Davidson: It’s all very tightly scripted. We spend weeks honing the scripts.

Blumberg: On the shows, not the podcasts.

Davidson: The podcasts are scripted, too.

Blumberg: We deviate from the script, too. Occasionally, if something occurs to us that’s not in the script, we’ll say it. If it works, we’ll cut it in.

When you say, “Stop the tape. That is a key piece of tape,” that gives listeners a sense of what happens in the making of media. Was that a deliberate decision you made to bring listeners in?

Blumberg: It’s a trick that Ira has used a couple of times, and I think he suggested it in the first “Giant Pool of Money.” It’s also a Radio Lab trick. It’s very helpful since the things we’re explaining are so complicated, and there is drama, but to get to the drama, you have to have all this explanation beforehand.

We have a whole arsenal of tricks to make the explanation bearable and interesting and hold up the reward of drama or emotion or feeling.

Getting back to what you said about not getting much sleep and being spread pretty thin. What qualities are you looking for in the people you bring on to your team?

Blumberg: We’ve focused on good storytellers and people who have a strong narrative ability to tell a story in a fun way. When you’re listening to the radio, there are some reporters who just break through. Their pacing is different, their voicing is different, and that’s exciting.

David Kestenbaum, who is an old friend of ours, was an obvious choice. Neither of us had met or knew anything about Channa Joffe-Walt. We heard her on the radio and were like, “Wow.” She just jumps through as a real person reacting in a real way and telling great stories.

Blumberg: People who find the unexpected moments and follow them and pursue them—that’s what we’re looking for. Curiosity is the most important tool.

Davidson: Our feeling, based in part on our personal experience, is that it’s much easier to learn economics and finance than it is to learn that approach to storytelling. Most everyone on this team has no background in economics, but they’re smart and curious and learning quickly.

If you’ve been an expert in a certain area, it’s hard to remember what’s weird and confusing about it. When I was reporting from Iraq, I would come and go on assignments into Baghdad. My first few days there were always the best for reporting because everything was weird and strange. Then, within a few weeks, it became normal. It wasn’t interesting that bombs were going off.

Finance is crazy. It’s fascinating. There are brilliant things in it, but it’s really weird. People who have been in it don’t see that anymore. I have the longest background reporting on it, and I often think I see the weird stuff the least.

Blumberg: I didn’t have an economics or finance background. I feel like this is a lot like taking a graduate program in finance and economics.

People don’t understand the extent to which we are intertwined on a daily basis with Wall Street and the finance and banking system.

NPR President Vivian Schiller has begun talking about Planet Money as a model for creating innovative content. What have you learned from it that others might find useful?

Davidson: There was an old theory among various people in the media field that we can create new multimedia communities in which every person is a radio reporter, a video reporter and a print reporter.

That view misunderstood the technical expertise and dramatic differences between different media in storytelling.

What we’ve learned from Planet Money is that there is a sensibility, a voice that is translatable, but you need to have experts in those different fields working on the same team. To me, that is a valuable lesson. It’s not like tomorrow you say, “You’re no longer radio reporters. Now you do everything.” It’s more that you bring together the right people with different expertise. And you need to do it in a collaborative way.

On our team, we have Laura Conaway who really understands both the technical elements of the Web and the feeling of social communities.

The old model at NPR and other media outlets is the opposite of this approach. There are people in the building who do radio; there are people doing online; and there are people who write text. They don’t really interact.

We have all of these people with different areas of expertise, all talking to each other, bouncing ideas off of each other and working from a core sensibility. So it’s not just a radio reporter and radio editor as a binary team, doing all the reporting, and then separately a team of web people doing other things. That’s one big lesson.

The other big lesson — the annoying business way of describing it — is to focus on “topic verticals.” Unlike broadcast shows, the Web allows you to not just cover the day’s news. You have a variety of ways to help the audience engage on this overall topic.

I think of it as producing on different time levels. We can give you today’s news that you’re only going to care about today. We can also provide things such as “The Giant Pool of Money” that will endure as core, conceptual structures that help you understand the issue. And then we provide a variety of other things that we update maybe every few months.

It’s not a daily radio news show, it’s not a book that has binding. It’s a dynamic thing that exists at different levels of time and space. At the core of all of that is some unifying sensibility or approach to a topic.

Blumberg: Building a good web community is going to take the same level of skill, tricks and expertise as making a good radio story, so personnel is very important.

The other thing that is very exciting—I feel like it changes the way reporting will be done in the future and the way people interact with reporting.

Two years from now, or five—or maybe already—people will have the expectation that they should be able to e-mail the reporter, to talk with the reporter.

That’s starting to happen now on the Planet Money blog. There is this discussion going on and it’s going to grow. As it grows, it’s going to change the whole landscape.

We are in a constant communication with the readers and listeners, and it’s very exciting. It helps with the reporting. It helps the audience feel you are honest and responsive and working hard to get it right. The fact that the wall is coming down feels like a profound shift. It’s very exciting to be watching it happen.

Davidson: We’ve now reached the point where we can’t respond to every e-mail and every comment. That’s the next stage, figuring out how to get beyond the two-way conversations of e-mail, creating a platform for intelligent communication where the community is helping each other.

It could devolve into a screaming match, but it hasn’t. We’ve begun to build that community.

Blumberg: When it does get bigger, that is going to happen. I’ve seen it with other websites that I like. They start with people posting comments that are thoughtful and then it gets overtaken by somebody being spiteful.

Blumberg: That has happened with This American Life. People were commenting on the discussion board about people in a story as if they weren’t real. But the people in the story were also on the discussion board. Ira chimed in and said, “C’mon, don’t be mean.”

Do you have surrogates to manage this discussion for you?

Davidson: The primary people are Laura Conaway, our director of social media, and Caitlin Kenney, our producer. David Kestenbaum is very active.

How much web traffic does Planet Money generate?

Davidson: In a given month, we’re NPR’s most-listened-to podcast and one of its top blogs.

Blumberg: The numbers we have could be much, much bigger. That’s one of the hard things about growing, because there’s all these ways you can grow, but you don’t have the resources to grow in every direction. Do we beef up the podcast? Do we beef up the Web? Do we get more stories on the radio? It’s all choices. There’s a great opportunity to do Flash-style animations that would help explain things. That would be really great also.

Davidson: When we talk about expanding, it’s trying to figure out what is the next level you want to get to.

Alex and I have spent our careers toiling away as freelance reporters and not particularly famous public radio people. We just spent eight months saying “yes” to everything. Now we are stretched too thin. We need to be the ones deciding what we do and thinking about it.

Blumberg: There was a sense early on, “Yes, Mr. Director—I will be in your movie!” But then you’re in Weekend at Bernie’s 3 and thinking, “Wait! What movie do I want to be in?”

Does your relationship give you ownership of Planet Money and some say in all this? How does that work?

Davidson: Vivian, Ellen and Ira definitely are incredibly supportive of the idea that Alex and I might not be the legal owners, but this is our project. We hear again and again that Alex and I and the rest of the team are creating Planet Money from the bottom up.

Even if they wanted to, they could not do it without us. We have assembled an incredibly great team, and there are not other people out there who could do this thing exactly.

Blumberg: Ownership or something like ownership—everybody seems to be on board with that. I think it’s interesting that this could be—

Davidson: Alex, let’s just—we’re still in the middle of these conversations, I don’t think we should say more about it.

Blumberg: Okay, exactly.

You’ve become media darlings, appearing on TV, racking up more major journalism awards than most broadcasters hope to win in their careers. What does it feel like, this sudden acclaim?

Blumberg: It’s really fun. It’s also sort of exhausting. You don’t know what to think about it.

The fun thing is that now when people meet me, they have an assumption about me that’s different from reality. Before I was a public radio reporter, and you knew what that was. And nothing about that has really changed. Planet Money is still a division of NPR, and we still have our jobs.

It’s strange. I don’t quite understand what the perception of us is.

Davidson: Every reporter in the world spends their career thinking, “If only my editors understood my vision.” Basically, Alex and I have spent a year where everyone has said, “Yes, you can fulfill all your dreams, and we’ll give you resources.” Most of it is thrilling and awesome, and a lot of it is terrifying and really, really difficult.

In a certain sense, it’s a lot easier to be a broke freelancer knowing in your heart that if only people would recognize how smart you are, you’d be able to do anything.

Blumberg: We feel like we’re on the precipice of something and we don’t want to let this opportunity slip by, whereas before we were never in a position to let an opportunity slip by.

This interview includes a post-publication update. The air date of the fourth This American Life broadcast was shifted to June 5 after this interview appeared in print.

ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT