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Home > Publications > Quill > Ten: Kai Ryssdal


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Monday, May 1, 2006
Ten: Kai Ryssdal

Ten questions with Kai Ryssdal, host of American Public Mediaís Marketplace and Marketplace Money

By Wendy Hoke

Q: Whatís the origin of your name? It seems unusual for a broadcast name? Did anyone ever suggest you change it?

A: Itís Norwegian. My dad was born there, and no one suggested I change it probably because I was in my mid-30s before I began broadcasting.

Q: Youíve had an interesting career path ó U.S. Navy pilot, Pentagon staff officer, U.S. Foreign Service ó did you study journalism, and if so, where?

A: I was a history and political science major at Emory University. In my junior year, I had a fraternity brother in the Navy and thought, ďThat looks cool.Ē I took the physical and two weeks after graduation went to Officer Candidate School in Pensacola, Fla. I spent eight years in the Navy, flew for a while and then three years at the Pentagon. I had done everything in the Navy that I wanted to do, but I still wanted to travel overseas on the governmentís dime, so I took the Foreign Service test.

I met my future wife in the Foreign Service. In 1997, after a year and a half in Beijing, we both left, and my wife enrolled in graduate school at Stanford University. I figured Iíd get a job in Silicon Valley because it was the height of the dot-com boom. But I could have cared less about working in that environment.

So I got a job shelving books at Borderís for $7 an hour. It makes for a long, grim summer when you are 34 and trying to figure out what to do. My wife suggested I try journalism, claiming I was a weird news junkie anyway. I tried print for a bit, but as you know, you canít get in unless you have clips, and you canít get clips unless you get in.

Q: So how did you wind up in radio?

A: One day I was shelving books in the career and counseling section (I had gotten a raise and was making $7.25 at this point) when I came across a big fat internship book. I saw the name and number of the KQED news director in San Francisco. I wrote him a letter, said I was interested in the news, gave him a bit about my background and said I would like to learn more about broadcast journalism. He called me a few days later.

I went up in my very best State Department suit and tie and briefcase. I donít know if youíve ever been in a public radio station, but there are no suits and ties. He said he didnít have a job, but he had an internship available. So I took it.

I cut back on my hours at the bookstore, learned all the basics that other 19-year-old interns were doing. Eventually they needed someone to help with the morning show, and then asked if I could stay all day. After a year or 18 months, I was on the air doing some reporting. I wound up being a substitute anchor for the afternoon news, and then worked my way up to morning. I was doing the California Report (a statewide program) when someone at Marketplace called me.

Although I said Iíd really love to come talk to them, my wife was about to have our second baby, and I really couldnít leave her. My wife said Marketplace only calls once, so I called them back and went to the interview. That was the summer of 2001, my wife was on maternity leave from Yahoo!, and so we moved the family to Los Angeles. It was absolutely, completely fortuitous. It appears, although itís not true, that Iíve been suspiciously lucky. But my journalism career has been absolute complete serendipity.

Q: Did your entrance to business news involve a steep learning curve?

A: Absolutely. It was almost like they left me alone in the wee hours and said you have to report on gross domestic product. It wasnít quite that bad, but close. You have to sit down and digest the information because really none of us on the show are business people. Itís like learning the education beat or politics. I would call Steven Beard in London or Jocelyn Ford in China if I had questions on specific topics.

Q: Traditional newspaper business reporting is often stuffy. Marketplace has a definite tone to it, and itís somewhat sassy in a good way. How do you keep it engaging?

A: The charge is very clear, yet not explicit. We all know that we bare the burden of making this entertaining and interesting. We work hard on it every day, working with reporters crafting angles, and then I spend two solid hours choreographing the whole show.

Q: Do you write your own copy? What goes into the writing process when you know at least a segment of the listening audience is going to be tuned in on their way home from work?

A: Yes, I write my own copy. After the morning editorial meeting, I donít immediately sit down and think how I can craft the show. I let it sit in the back of my brain and bubble around. Around 11:30-12, I get a sandwich and listen to the stories and the commentary that are in, and then I start to write. I start with the end of the show and write it backwards. Iím at my most creative under pressure, and I find I canít get it right if I try to work from the top of the show down. So I work my way up so that by 20 to 25 minutes past 1, Iím working on my opening and commentary. Iíll do a table read with the senior producer to make sure it sounds good, but otherwise it goes from my computer to the airwaves.

Q: You previously were on the Marketplace Morning Report. Whatís the biggest change youíve experienced in doing the morning and evening program?

A: Now Iím sleeping at night. I used to sleep in shifts. I would sleep from noon to 3:30 p.m., then get the kids, eat dinner and help with bedtime and then nap from 10 to midnight. Now I go to bed when I want. When youíre young, hungry and stupid youíll do whatever it takes.

Q: Whatís the most valuable thing youíve learned on the job?

A: That you need to grasp opportunity when it comes. I was on a good path with KQED when Marketplace called. Yes, I had to get up in the middle of night to work mornings, and yes, I had to work hard, but it was an opportunity I couldnít pass up. KQED gave me training in radio; Marketplace is training me in reporting and hosting

Q: The east coast hears Marketplace at 6:30 p.m. Describe how you put a typical show together and when youíre taping?

A: The show is live to tape at 2 p.m. Pacific. If nothing changes during the day, stations will run it as is, which gives it the live feel. If something changes, weíll do an update. The gong goes off to start the show at 2, and then we run straight through. I donít find I can do bits and pieces because it takes me out of the flow of show.

Q: What other job would you like to pursue?

A: I do run after my three boys, ages 7, 4 and 20 months. But Iíve only been doing Marketplace for six months. I donít really have any place I want to go right now. Former host David Brancacchio used to say the afternoon Marketplace job is the best job in broadcast today. I completely agree. We have the freedom to take this dense, arcane topic and do almost anything we want. Iím only the point on the end of that spear.

Nobody here is interested in business in and of itself. We donít care what the trade deficit is; we care about what it means for interest rates and unemployment. We leave digesting the numbers to Bloomberg and Reuters and prefer instead to think about the stories behind the stories. Thatís what makes people listen.

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