Kai Ryssdal: Telling the stories behind business

By Kimber Williams | Emory Report | Feb. 10, 2014

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As keynote for the Goodrich C. White Lecture, Emory graduate Kai Ryssdal examines the health of the economy, the role of media and his long journey to a career in radio. Emory Photo/Video.

Consider the conundrum that is Kai Ryssdal.

As host and senior editor of public radio’s popular “Marketplace,” a daily business report that covers national and global economies in a style that is at once smart, accessible and entertaining, the Emory graduate (85C) tackles some of the thorniest issues of the day.

Stock market gyrations? Debt ceiling politics? Emerging markets? He’s got it covered, unraveling economic complexities in unexpected ways for millions of public radio listeners with a smooth voice and easy-going banter that makes the world of business seem not only easily digestible, but — dare we say it? — fun.

At the same time, Ryssdal bluntly admits that he has “no interest in business news whatsoever."

Ryssdal spoke to an Emory journalism class Tuesday, during a daylong campus visit as keynote speaker for the Goodrich C. White lecture, a highlight of Emory’s Founders Week.

“If you think about it, we’re not really a show I about business. We don’t have anyone (on our staff) with an economics PhD, no MBAs — none of us care whether the GDP (gross domestic product) is up down or sideways,” he said. “It’s about using this subject matter as a lens to tell stories.”

Business and the economy offer “a really useful lens for that, especially given the last five years,” he added.

A career, in three acts

Not surprisingly, Ryssdal spent his day at Emory visiting with MBA students at Goizueta Business School, being interviewed by students in journalism lecturer Sissel McCarthy’s “News Literacy in the Digital Age” class and chatting with Visiting Professor Gordon Streeb’s economics class.

Though Ryssdal is quick to point to his career as the product of the kind of solid, broad-based liberal arts education that he found at Emory, he also acknowledges that his path was anything but deliberate.

In fact, if his professional life was a play, it could be divided into three acts:

Act One: Weeks after graduating from Emory, Ryssdal was on his way to Pensacola, Fla., for naval training. He spent eight years in the Navy.

Act Two: Next stop, the U.S. State Department. Ryssdal served in Ottawa and Beijing. (He can still converse in Chinese, a talent he demonstrated in the classroom with an international student.)

Act Three: Ryssdal wound up in Palo Alto: “I was 34 years old, working at a Borders bookstore on University Avenue making $7 an hour, and (we were) about to have a baby,” he said. “I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life — if you’re never been there, it’s a very, very dark place.”

While shelving books at work that night, he stumbled upon a compilation of internships, prompting him to apply at KQED-FM, San Francisco’s NPR affiliate.

Ryssdal soundbites

Here are a few highlights from Ryssdal’s visit with journalism students and his Goodrich C. White lecture:

The economy: The next time you hear a stock market report: Listen, observe the numbers and consider the context … There are some things about it are real, some things about it that are perception, some that are straight fear and nervousness.”

The stock market: “What’s not reflected in the stock market, the Dow, the S&P … there’s no accounting for wages that have been flattened, in real terms, for years. There’s no reflection of the near complete reliance on the American consumer to drive spending in this economy, as companies have. And there’s nothing about the ongoing fragility of the recovery, which while real, is tenuous at best for many people out there who live in the economy.”

The business of news: “For all the problems that journalism is having right now, there has never been a better time to be a news consumer. In fact it’s almost too easy to get your news, almost too many options —podcasts, Twitter, Facebook…

We don’t have to work really hard to get our business news today. The problem is we have to work hard to make sense of it, to be discerning. The other thing to remember is that everyone out there is trying to figure out how to monetize this digital stuff, which means they are trying to monetize you…”

How the media is doing its job: “Objectivity and balance do not mean putting a Republican and a Democrat in the same piece; they don’t mean quoting a CEO and a union leader in the same story. That’s simplistic, a disservice to listeners and a disservice to citizenry in a representative democracy. If we don’t hold ourselves accountable to the agreed upon truths, I’m wasting your time and mine.”

What’s next for the economy: “I am fundamentally a believer in the resilience of the American economy. I believe in its people, I believe in the power they have and the ability they have demonstrated to rebound from difficult moments."

Big things on the horizon: “Income inequality, burdensome regulations that make businesses large and small inefficient, the long-term unemployed, and I believe the biggest obstacle to the success of the American economy, the Congress of the United States.”

Liberal arts education:  None of his careers would have progressed “without the four years that I spent at this institution. The people, the experience, the realization that you’re not in college to get A’s, you’re here to find the time and space to (discover) the passion and interest in the thing that will drive you. I was 34 before I found it, but none of that would have happened without this place.”