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“Feels Like Old Times”: Planet Money Faces Another Economic Crisis

The last time there was a global economic crisis — which, in case you forgot for some reason, was the halcyon days of 2008 — the iPhone was barely a year old, the Obama presidency was in its first innings, and there were only a few batches of millennials in the workforce, still not yet unfairly maligned but still not yet fully cognizant of just how screwed they (we) were going to be.

These were conditions under which Planet Money was born, subprime mortgage bubble and all. The first major public radio podcast property, Planet Money was created off the momentum of a widely-recognized series of This American Life-NPR episodes, beginning with “The Giant Pool of Money.” You might already know the names of those who made the thing: Alex Blumberg, then at This American Life; Adam Davidson, then at NPR; Ellen Weiss, then providing key institutional support from NPR. As a public service enterprise, the podcast was built to explain, in clear and human ways, what exactly was happening in the economy, often an opaque and inhuman thing, and it continues to do so to this very day.

Planet Money is plenty different now than it was back then. The original team is all gone. The staff is bigger now. The podcast even has a daily spin-off project now, called The Indicator. But the essentials have stayed the same: the show remains one of the best possible vehicles that can accessibly communicate the complexity of a massive economic disaster. As we find ourselves in the teeth of yet another crisis, Planet Money and The Indicator are predictably doing some of the very best work on the way the global economy has been affected by the pandemic. (See: “Stimulus Rex,” “America Unemployed, “Scarcity in the Emergency Room.”) It’s also doing some of the very best work it’s ever done.

“It feels like the same moment all over again,” said Alex Goldmark, the Supervising Producer of Planet Money and The Indicator. “Listeners that have been subscribed for ten years are writing in to tell us it feels like old times.”

Goldmark spoke to us about how the team’s production process, whether its inherently suited to covering crises, and what this moment says about the legacy of Planet Money, which we traded over email. This Q&A, which was conducted over email, has been edited for clarity:

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Hot Pod: How has the production process changed for Planet Money and The Indicator since everybody went remote?

Alex Goldmark: A lot! I’m sure it’s pretty similar to all other shows. Everything takes 25 to 50% longer or more depending on the task. We’re less likely to do what we call “Group Shows,” where each host takes a segment then we combine. Our producers are now also expert IT consultants, while NPR’s actual IT team are journalism supply chain heroes. Dongles we never knew existed are saving hours and hours of time. I can go on.

Creative approach is where things are really interesting. Our normal process is pretty collaborative. Everyone gets a chance to pitch in the best idea. Pre-reporting suggestions come from all corners. Drafts are shared, notes solicited. But after we went remote, our editor, Bryant Urstadt, put out a guidance that all of that had to change. “Speed over perfectionism” was the essence — don’t wait for consensus, work solo or in small pairs, trust your colleagues. We’re lucky we have such talented hosts who can each make great shows on their own, while each having their own styles and expertise.

We’ve moved the brainstorm chatter online to Slack. We’ll kick around ideas there for a bit, sometimes we just call each other up one-on-one. Every day in a morning group video chat, we’ll talk about what we’re all curious about, and if there’s enough curiosity for a topic, it gets some refining with Bryant, and then the hosts charge away at it. The result is faster and scrappier shows. More of them too. There has also been more variety in styles, which I’m really liking. The challenge comes in thinking through how to pair people up, so we get the benefits of teamwork without it slowing us down too much. It’s a balance.

Also, it’s worth saying: we have a show staffed by reporters many of whom who spent years as beat reporters on local stories or fast-paced beats. So they have that type of news metabolism. I couldn’t get them to slow down with this story even if I tried. They’re turning in drafts before deadlines to keep up with news right now. It’s amazing.

HP: When did it become apparent to the team that the COVID-19 story was also going to become a big, sprawling economic crisis?

Goldmark: I think we’re all still seeing just how massive this is. But I remember a moment, way back at the beginning of March, where we had some plans around a newsletter for Super Tuesday and started to see prices spiking for masks spike. That’s when we first turned our attention to pandemic coverage.

Sarah Gonzalez had wanted to do a vaccine story for a while, and she just raced to make it work ASAP. Since then, it’s been waking up, reading, and asking: what is the biggest economic question our audience is likely to have today and next week? And how can we answer that in the most interesting way as fast as possible to help the audience when they need it?

In other words: what’s the listener need? What is huge and happening now that needs explaining and causing confusion? That’s what we cover in the most interesting way possible. Other outlets might say, “the Fed is injecting $2.5 trillion into the economy” and leave it there. But what the heck does that mean? “Injecting?” That’s what we’re here for. Hopefully we’re succeeding at being clear and interesting, while blending expertise with empathy right now.

HP: It’s not lost on me that Planet Money came out from the Great Recession — which is to say, the last economic crisis. Do you feel like there’s something inherent to the show’s DNA that makes it uniquely built for moments like these?

Goldmark: Planet Money was created to fill the need of making sense of chaotic and confusing, huge and important economic forces that were moving so fast it was hard to keep up with. And at the time, the reporting in the mainstream media might talk past you, using terms like Collateralized Debt Obligation, but then didn’t say what those were or how they worked. Or maybe the coverage was for Wall Streeters, which causes it to read like a foreign language if you aren’t a finance geek yourself.

Planet Money’s goal is to put what’s happening in plain, conversational English, and to use the narrative journalism approach to make it actually interesting. It was also extremely scrappy and experimental at the start, all over the map in style and topic. And fast. The approach has evolved over the years, but the core service, and the core need, never changed. All of the original staffers are gone now. But this team is stepping up in a huge way.

So, yes, I think Planet Money in particular is built for this moment and that in itself is motivating to the team now. We have the expertise, the sources, the systems. We know how to move fast. And, I’ll add, the variety of hosts with different interests and styles, which lets us be nimble and varied in format, topic, whatever.

HP: There’s something to be said about Planet Money being almost a dozen years old, and that it’s been able to sustain long enough to see an echo like this. How does that inform the way you think about its significance and legacy?

Goldmark: Roman Mars affectionately called us an “old dog” in the podcast game. I’ll take it. An old dog, ten years after its creation is back in the same role serving the same need, even to some of the same audience members who have stuck around for ten years, but with a completely different staff — to me, that’s a marker of maturity of podcasting as an institution.

The secret sauce, or whatever you call it, is not in one person or founder, but in the group, and that group can change and evolve as the show can evolve and change. (And it has.) But the core service is still there. This is what it means to be an institution, for better or worse. That the show can go on without the original host and still thrive. Podcasting doesn’t have many institutions like that. I suspect we’ll start to see more and more.

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“Podcast as Theseus’ Ship,” Goldmark added before ending his email, going full public radio. You can find Planet Money and The Indicator here, in case you’re not already following them.