Planet Money: A case study in taking risk

ADAM DAVIDSON: I think when you're a creative person and you're starting something new and you want to do great work it can be a little terrifying. You have yourself, maybe a small team. What are we supposed to do to be great? What are we supposed to do to be fully ourselves? It was looking back at Planet Money that I created with a small group of friends where I saw so many lessons in what you can do early on that sets you up for success.

Creating Planet Money came out like a lot of things out of frustration that I felt, I wasn't born interested in business. I grew up in a home of artists who could care less about business. In fact, I grew up in a world of artists where everything was open for discussion – sex and drugs and art and everything except money. Money was this lame, horrible thing that no one wanted to talk about. So I, of course, became fascinated by the lame, horrible thing no one wanted to talk about. But I didn't particularly care what the stock market was doing on any given day or what the Fed policy was. I had to learn to find that interesting.

And when I did find it interesting and I found that business is directly tied to every aspect of our lives. It determines how much comfort we have and in many ways it determines who we marry, how many kids we have, where we live, how we live. And business itself represents dramas that the characters in business and in economic policy have their personalities and their emotional states and all of the things that make a good drama. The drama is there. It just requires translation.

And as I began to feel, that and then I would think about most business coverage and it was so lifeless. Just the stock market did blah, blah, blah. The Federal Reserve blah, blah, blah announced this policy. And it just made me frustrated. It made me really, really frustrated. And surveying the landscape I felt not in every case but in a lot of, in many cases there was either serious but really boring and hard to understand business coverage or there was fun, lively business coverage that was sort of silly and thin. And so we, I guess it was an experiment but we felt like it would pay off. What if we just started the most of both. We wanna be very substantive, very serious, very grounded in smart, thoughtful stuff, but also fun and exciting and filled with drama and characters and all of that. And what if we just refused to accept that there's a tradeoff and just insist on the most of both.

And it's not that we always succeeded or every episode succeeds but setting that as a bar allowed us, frankly, to just not give up early in the process. And I've often said there's not a Planet Money way of telling a story. There's a lot of little tricks and gimmicks and approaches we came up with but it really is just a group of people who agree we're going to hold ourselves to this really high standard and we're just going to keep trying until we succeed. And that's true for every individual episode and then it's true for the show as a whole. And that's by the way what I've noticed, you know I've worked at This American Life, at The New Yorker. I've worked at places that, the New York Times magazine, that do really consistently incredible work. And that's what I keep noticing. Yes, I mean in all those places people are, there are very smart people. They're very capable people. But it really is just there's a tone set like we're gonna just go for this thing that we all agree is important and we all kind of know we could give up a little early but we're just going to push each other to get past the finish line. And that to me, as simple as that is, is the secret to a culture of excellence. It's not about oh, I'm excellent, therefore anything I do is excellent. And it's not oh, here's the excellence rule book and I'm just going to follow it. It's having a tone and an agreement that we're going to push each other until we succeed.

Another thing I'm proud of with the show is that from the very beginning we decided, we thought a lot about the tone of the show and the show was born at the time of the financial crisis when, to us it felt like what we saw as the traditional business journalism voice: "The Federal Reserve did this today." It's sort of a man usually in a suit telling you what happened with utter authority. We're like that voice is absurd. It's absurd. They completely missed the biggest financial story of multiple lifetimes. They don't know anything and you can't have a voice of authority when you're covering the complete collapse of authority. And luckily we also didn't feel like we knew everything. So we really developed this voice that we called 'holy crap, I just learned this fascinating thing. Let me tell you about it.'

So the authority we have is not we know and you don't. The authority we have is we happen to be lucky and have this job that allows us to really look into this stuff and allows me to tell you what's so interesting about it. And that was really important. Another thing is the host of the show, the voice of the show was a shared sensibility, not one person. Which sometimes was frustrating because I felt like in the beginning it was my baby and I wanted everyone to know that. And they didn't always. But it's allowed for real longevity because different voices have come in, added. Other voices like mine have left, but there's a central sensibility that remains and I'm very proud of that.

  • Adam Davidson, staff writer for The New Yorker and cofounder of NPR's Planet Money, was raised in an environment in which everything was grounds for discussion — except money. So, of course, money was what he took an interest in.
  • The idea for Planet Money came from a place of frustration that Davidson and his friends felt toward the shortcomings of current business coverage. They aimed to breathe new life into the field.
  • Planet Money's road to success has consistently involved a team that holds each other to a high standard of thoughtfulness, intelligence, humility, and impeccable storytelling.

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