NOTE: This issue of 10 looks back at Quill’s May 2006 interview with Kai Ryssdal, host of the popular “Marketplace” from American Public Media. Ryssdal was a featured keynote speaker at the Excellence in Journalism Conference, Aug. 24-26 in Anaheim, Calif. This interview originally ran just six months into his hosting gig for the flagship “Marketplace,” where’d he’d come up the ranks as a morning show host. Now, seven years later, Ryssdal is among the most popular and recognizable names in public radio. He’s known for an engaging, comical take on the sometimes dry topic of business and economics reporting. More about his EIJ conference appearance is at excellenceinjournalism.org.
What’s the origin of your name? It seems unusual for a broadcast name. Did anyone ever suggest you change it?
It’s Norwegian. My dad was born there, and no one suggested I change it probably because I was in my mid-30s before I began broadcasting
You’ve had an interesting career path — U.S. Navy pilot, Pentagon staff officer, U.S. Foreign Service — did you study journalism, and if so, where?
I was a history and political science major at Emory University. In my junior year, I had a fraternity brother in the Navy and thought, “That looks cool.” I took the physical and two weeks after graduation went to Officer Candidate School in Pensacola, Fla. I spent eight years in the Navy, flew for a while and then three years at the Pentagon. I had done everything in the Navy that I wanted to do, but I still wanted to travel overseas on the government’s dime, so I took the Foreign Service test.
I met my future wife in the Foreign Service. In 1997, after a year and a half in Beijing, we both left, and my wife enrolled in graduate school at Stanford University. I figured I’d get a job in Silicon Valley because it was the height of the dot-com boom. But I could have cared less about working in that environment. So I got a job shelving books at Border’s for $7 an hour.
It makes for a long, grim summer when you are 34 and trying to figure out what to do. My wife suggested I try journalism, claiming I was a weird news junkie anyway. I tried print for a bit, but as you know, you can’t get in unless you have clips, and you can’t get clips unless you get in.
So how did you wind up in radio?
One day I was shelving books in the career and counseling section (I had gotten a raise and was making $7.25 at this point) when I came across a big fat internship book. I saw the name and number of the KQED news director in San Francisco. I wrote him a letter, said I was interested in the news, gave him a bit about my background and said I would like to learn more about broadcast journalism. He called me a few days later.
I went up in my very best State Department suit and tie and briefcase. I don’t know if you’ve ever been in a public radio station, but there are no suits and ties. He said he didn’t have a job, but he had an internship available. So I took it.
I cut back on my hours at the bookstore, learned all the basics that other 19-year-old interns were doing. Eventually they needed someone to help with the morning show, and then asked if I could stay all day. After a year or 18 months, I was on the air doing some reporting. I wound up being a substitute anchor for the afternoon news, and then worked my way up to morning. I was doing the California Report (a statewide program) when someone at “Marketplace” called me.
Although I said I’d really love to come talk to them, my wife was about to have our second baby, and I really couldn’t leave her. My wife said “Marketplace” only calls once, so I called them back and went to the interview. That was the summer of 2001, my wife was on maternity leave from Yahoo, and so we moved the family to Los Angeles. It was absolutely, completely fortuitous. It appears, although it’s not true, that I’ve been suspiciously lucky. But my journalism career has been absolute complete serendipity.
Did your entrance to business news involve a steep learning curve?
Absolutely. It was almost like they left me alone in the wee hours and said you have to report on gross domestic product. It wasn’t quite that bad, but close. You have to sit down and digest the information because really none of us on the show are business people. It’s like learning the education beat or politics. I would call Steven Beard in London or Jocelyn Ford in China if I had questions on specific topics.
Traditional newspaper business reporting is often stuffy. “Marketplace” has a definite tone to it, and it’s somewhat sassy in a good way. How do you keep it engaging?
The charge is very clear, yet not explicit. We all know that we bear the burden of making this entertaining and interesting. We work hard on it every day, working with reporters crafting angles, and then I spend two solid hours choreographing the whole show.
Do you write your own copy? What goes into the writing process when you know at least a segment of the listening audience is going to be tuned in on their way home from work?
Yes, I write my own copy. After the morning editorial meeting, I don’t immediately sit down and think how I can craft the show. I let it sit in the back of my brain and bubble around. Around 11:30-12, I get a sandwich and listen to the stories and the commentary that are in, and then I start to write. I start with the end of the show and write it backwards.
I’m at my most creative under pressure, and I find I can’t get it right if I try to work from the top of the show down. So I work my way up so that by 20 to 25 minutes past 1, I’m working on my opening and commentary. I’ll do a table read with the senior producer to make sure it sounds good, but otherwise it goes from my computer to the airwaves.
You previously were on the “Marketplace Morning Report.” What’s the biggest change you’ve experienced in doing the morning and evening program?
Now I’m sleeping at night. I used to sleep in shifts. I would sleep from noon to 3:30 p.m., then get the kids, eat dinner and help with bedtime and then nap from 10 to midnight. Now I go to bed when I want. When you’re young, hungry and stupid, you’ll do whatever it takes.
What’s the most valuable thing you’ve learned on the job?
That you need to grasp opportunity when it comes. I was on a good path with KQED when “Marketplace” called. Yes, I had to get up in the middle of night to work mornings, and yes, I had to work hard, but it was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. KQED gave me training in radio; “Marketplace” is training me in reporting and hosting.
The east coast hears Marketplace at 6:30 p.m. Describe how you put a typical show together and when you’re taping.
The show is live to tape at 2 p.m. Pacific. If nothing changes during the day, stations will run it as is, which gives it the live feel. If something changes, we’ll do an update. The gong goes off to start the show at 2, and then we run straight through. I don’t find I can do bits and pieces because it takes me out of the flow of show.
What other job would you like to pursue?
I do run after my three boys, ages 7, 4 and 20 months. But I’ve only been doing “Marketplace” for six months. I don’t really have any place I want to go right now. Former host David Brancacchio used to say the afternoon “Marketplace” job is the best job in broadcast today. I completely agree. We have the freedom to take this dense, arcane topic and do almost anything we want. I’m only the point on the end of that spear.
Nobody here is interested in business in and of itself. We don’t care what the trade deficit is; we care about what it means for interest rates and unemployment. We leave digesting the numbers to Bloomberg and Reuters and prefer instead to think about the stories behind the stories. That’s what makes people listen.