Defogging the Economic Crisis
‘This American Life’ defies dismal reporting on the dismal science Online Exclusive posted 3/10/09 5:00 p.m.
By Jamie McIntyre
It was more than two hours into Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner's testimony, and the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee was getting pinwheel eyes.
If only government officials like Geithner and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke could just speak plain English, thought Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., maybe the American public, and the Congress for that matter, could comprehend what the nation is facing.
"It's Greek ... it's not understandable," Baucus gently chided Geithner as the March 4 congressional hearing on the economic crisis wound down. "I don't want to overstate this point," Baucus continued, "but I happened to be listening to NPR.."
Baucus struggled to come up with the name of the show, "American something," but he remembered vividly how the broadcast managed to explain the arcane world of banking in ways almost anyone could understand. "Started with a little balance sheet, this guy had $10 and loaned to – I think he might have made a dollhouse and so on .." Baucus recalled.
"Yes, I thought they did a very nice job. I agree with you," Geithner, who has also caught the radio program, quickly concurred.
Baucus pleaded for similar clarity from government officials: "If somehow you can just .. put it in terms that the average American household relates to, that might help quite a bit, for whatever it's worth."
The radio show that caught the ear of Baucus and Geithner is "This American Life," aired on 500 public radio stations and heard by some 1.8 million listeners each week. Another half-million or so listen to the free podcast.
The hour-long program, produced by Chicago Public Radio, is hosted by Ira Glass, and typically features an eclectic mix of factual and fictional stories loosely connected to a theme.
But in February, for the third time in a year, the show's producers departed from the usual format to tackle the daunting challenge of explaining the global financial crisis to an increasingly perplexed public.
"Bad Bank," the latest installment, was another collaboration between Chicago Public Radio and NPR, featuring the tag team of Alex Blumberg, a master radio storyteller from "This American Life," and Adam Davidson, a veteran financial reporter from National Public Radio.
The show employed an easy on the ears, informal style that is the hallmark of "Life."
Alex Blumberg: "If you want to understand this crisis right now, this banking crisis, you need to understand this one thing. And it's one thing, Adam, that the mainstream media is afraid to touch."
Adam Davidson: "They're afraid because they think it's really boring."
Alex Blumberg: "Right because, what this central thing is, this thing that we need to discuss .. is a bank balance sheet."
From "Bad Bank"
From there, Alex and Adam set out to explain, using small, round numbers and a fictional dollhouse, how banks thrive, then get sick and sometimes die. It was a radio primer that entertained as it detangled the complex debate over nationalization of America's banks.
The response to the economic shows has been overwhelming.
"It's off the charts," says Blumberg. "The reaction we have gotten from people, over and over, is like relief and gratitude. It's sort of like, there's this thing out there. I know it's serious, I don't understand it at all."
When Blumberg proposed a full show last May devoted to the economic crisis last spring, he had no clue it would be so popular. "We were doing an hour on mortgage finance. We had no idea."
That hour, titled "The Giant Pool of Money," explained mortgage-backed securities, credit default swaps and other exotic financial instruments so complex that even some experts investing in them didn't always understand them.
The show drew rave reviews. And so NPR and "This American Life" collaborated in October on a second program, "Another Frightening Show About the Economy," as well as another spinoff experiment in explanatory journalism, a daily podcast and blog called "Planet Money."
Blumberg thinks part of the formula's success is not getting caught up in the jargon. "We have outsider status. We are not a business program, and we were never a business program," Blumberg says, admitting that before he started the project he was as ignorant as the next person about the intricacies of high finance.
"The one thing I do have expertise in is figuring out how to tell a story. All these storytelling tricks we have learned over the years we have brought to bear in the same way," Blumberg says.
He also says that all three programs have tried to be scrupulously impartial. "I feel like that's something we have studiously avoided, trying not to slip into the media narrative that 'it's the evil banks or it's the lazy homeowners.'"
While the show's producers have not set out looking for villains, Blumberg hints that might soon change. "Most of what we have done so far is just trying to explain the system, but now it seems there might be some people who may be at fault, some people you could actually blame for this."
Jamie McIntyre (email@example.com) covered the Pentagon and military issues as a CNN correspondent for 16 years. He is now studying at the University of Maryland's Philip Merrill College of Journalism.