Names rejected by Planet Money, a new blogcast from This American Life producer Alex Blumberg and NPR's business and economics correspondent Adam Davidson: The Economy, Clearly; Big Global Purse; Sea Lanes and Camel Trains. I know this because the first few Planet Money blog entries list all the possible iterations that the staff could think of, and then go on to beg for additional ideas from the audience. More than a gimmick, this is an apt way of understanding how Planet Money does business. It's a collaboration between the staff, their connections in the world of finance and economics, and their audience, which for the moment includes a mix of podcast listeners, bloggers and Twitter-ers.
If it isn't obvious, Planet Money covers the economy, with a mission statement that boils down to "no jargon." Laura Conaway is the voice of the people and does a majority of the blogging. Adam is the business expert. Alex is... also a business guy. Or maybe a human-interest guy. Sure, Adam might use the phrase "jargon-free" a bit too often, and Laura's comments on behalf of the public can get predictable, but after listening for the last few weeks, it's impossible not to appreciate how invested the Planet Money staff is in keeping both market mechanics and their entire journalistic approach as transparent as possible.
Planet Money makes no assumptions about the prior knowledge of its listeners, so there are a lot of metaphors thrown about (carnival games and pizza delivery being two prime examples), and a lot of conversations interrupted to explain economic vocabulary. While this style might not work for everyone -- in fact, I've read some reviews that complain of infantilism -- my personal opinion is that, at least over the last few weeks, Planet Money has provided a more nuanced and informed view of the current market practices than a majority of its contemporaries. It's less a jargon-free zone than a daily dose of jargon explanation, complete with DIY instructions on how to apply your understanding of such jargon from home.
Another way of putting it: where do you go to check on the pulse of the economy? The Dow? No. Let's talk about the TED spread, LIBOR, and interest on 3-month US Treasury bonds (too high, too high, too low). What about the commercial paper market -- any movement? For that matter, now that we understand how stock injections were embedded in the language of the Paulson Plan by virtue of the vagaries of the word "assets," when should we start worrying about setting controls on dividends and the repurchasing of shares, or does any of it matter in view of the U.S.'s lack of liquidity backstops?
The last three weeks have been a crash course for all of us in regards to market games, and the tone of Planet Money, as with a lot of other media sources, has been that of watching a crisis unfold from box seats. The difference, however, is that in the Planet Money box, the hosts aren't too shy to say what they're really thinking, or to push their guests to do the same. Best of all, their number one concern is explaining not just the gross plays but the statistics that lie behind it all, and in language that doesn't cause your eyes to glaze over.
For the moment, Planet Money is in pilot mode, and the staff has the benefit of not just solid reporting experience and good connections, but extreme topical relevancy. I'm curious to see what they intend to do when, and if, the current climate passes, as well as how they plan to distinguish their programming from similar shows, such as Marketplace. My guess is more human-interest stories, like their sister program, This American Life, which could be great. My request is that they avoid the music-as-narrative trap that TAL seems to have rusted into. And that they keep it short and sweet -- 25 minutes is perfect for a podcast. Other than that, I'm looking forward to hearing more.