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Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: Planet Money


Vital stats:
Format: probing of economic and financial issues
Duration: 15m-25m
Frequency: every 2-4 days
Archive available on iTunes: last 10

If, like me, you’re an enthusiastic This American Life listener, you’ve noticed a few trends on the show in recent years. One is that they’ve done more foreign stories, especially in the Middle East. I consider these episodes of a separate, slightly lesser series, which I call This American Foreign Policy. Another, more successful thread is their coverage of economic and financial issues. I, for one, never would have gone to a program like TAL to explain the health care industry’s structural problems — until, that is, they did it.

Those episodes were good in large part because they brought one of the show’s distinctive strengths to an issue that mainstream news usually covers. This strength is the understanding that the world’s problems are rarely, if ever, the fault of some shadowy individual or group, not can they usually be solved by some virtuous individual or group. This applies deeply to the parts of life that involve markets — and you could well argue that they all do — but most economic news doesn’t frame it that way. Most high-profile economic news is all about the finger-pointing, implicitly of explicitly. If any sector needed a This American Life-ing up, it’s that one.

Markets, of course, are just a whole bunch of individuals inadvertently working together through trade. Nobody controls them. (Unless you happen to be a conspiracy theorist, in which case, somebody controls them.) Most money-centric TAL episodes work from this premise, and they seem to all be co-productions with the show’s “friends at Planet Money.” It turns out that Planet Money [RSS] [iTunes] is also its own podcast, covering economic issues and economic issues alone. Sometimes it takes on the same broad subjects as its co-productions with Ira Glass’ team, but examine them more closely across a wider range of episodes.

You might expect Planet Money to play like a series of economically focused This American Life stories, but it’s pretty far from that. It’s more like those stories minus about half of their specifically TAL-esque qualities. While both shows do a great deal of field reporting and interviewing and (as I will be only the 256,395th public radio geek to point out) Alex Blumberg sounds like Ira Glass’ marginally reedier clone, PM goes much lighter on the narrative. This is actually a good thing, I would submit, since the reckless imposition of narrative renders most news reporting, and especially economic reporting, just this side of useless. Here, you get the facts and their relationship to one another, but it’s not typically hammered into the shape of a simple morality of the Hero’s Journey or whatever.

Planet Money’s chief value is in providing context. You hear this in microcosm every time, at the top of each episode, when a correspondent provides a certain economic indicator. This will be something like “$4.2 trillion,” “$128,000 per week,” or “seven.” Then the conversation that follows fills in the context behind the number, giving it meaning and relatability. The show touts itself as explaining economic issues in language anybody can understand, and for a long time that set off my intercranial alarm that warns of oversimplification ahead. But the program’s correspondents seem to know this, and will often acknowledge when they’re in danger of cranking down the complexity too far.

But by language anybody can understand, I think they really mean that they offer up a context that anybody can understand. A lot of reporting on the goings-on in the realm of money, even the high-quality stuff, takes so much context as assumed that it only seems linguistically impenetrable to the nonspecialist. Wags might question what something that comes from an entity like NPR, which seems to exist outside any structure you could call a traditional market, might know about buying and selling. A fair point, perhaps, but what are you going to listen to instead? Jim Cramer’s primal screams?

[Podthinker Colin Marshall also happens to be the host and producer of public radio’s The Marketplace of Ideas, the blogger of The War on Mediocrity and the writer of The Ubuweb Experimental Video Project.]

Samantha Bee: Daily Show Correspondent and Author of I Know I Am But What Are You: Interview on The Sound of Young America

Samantha Bee

Samantha Bee is the Daily Show's longest-tenured correspondent, having joined the program in 2003. She's also the author of a new memoir, I Know I Am But What Are You?

Bee grew up in an unusual tripartite family, splitting time between a matronly grandmother, a conservative, re-married father and a bohemian, Wiccan mother. She met her husband, the Daily Show correspondent Jason Jones, while working in a Sailor Moon-themed stage show at the Canadian National Exposition.

She talked with us from New York City.

Stop Podcasting Yourself 123 - Brad MacNeil

Brad MacNeil

Brad MacNeil returns for a super summery episode, complete with skinny dipping, summer TV, and the rules of Jinx.

Download episode 123 here. (right-click)

Brought to you by: (click here for the list)

Podcast: The College Years: Chosen People

Chris Jackson
Count Bass D
Sarah Silverman

The College Years is a look deep into the vaults of The Sound of Young America. Take a journey with us every week as we post a new program or two from our salad days.

Today's theme: Chosen People

Chris Jackson can be described as a sort of pop culture activist. With H.O.P.E. in America, Chris protests the mediocrity prevalent in the entertainment landscape. For example, he ruined Paris Hilton's book signing.

Following that, Jesse and Kathi interview Count Bass D. Listen in as Count Bass D talks about music, his artistic collaborations and making art in Nashville. Check out his latest work.

Lastly, Jesse speaks with his comedy crush Sarah Silverman. Between the flirting and passing of love notes, Sarah reveals her comedy origin story and describes Jesus is Magic as only she can.

The Jonathan Coulton Cruise!


Jonathan Coulton has been a loyal friend of He's appeared three times on The Sound of Young America, once on Jordan, Jesse, Go! and has performed at both MaxFunCons. Now he's headlining his very own Caribbean Cruise!

The cruise sets off January 2nd from Fort Lauderdale, and features four concerts, including our pals Mike Phirman, Paul & Storm, John Hodgman, Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett. I bet it will be a f*ing blast, so if you're the type who's always up for cruising (did that maybe come out wrong?) book your berth now.

If you mess with Louie and Terry, YOU'RE MESSING WITH US.


Great Americans

The brilliant comedian Louis CK has been a guest on our program on a number of occasions over the years. As I recall, the first time he appeared was nearly ten years ago, promoting the DVD release of "Pootie Tang." More recently, he's become a repeat guest on one of our favorite public radio shows, Fresh Air. In fact, we liked his last interview so much that we embedded it on this here blog.

Unfortunately, it seems that the folks at Mississippi Public Broadcasting didn't like the interview as much as we did. In fact, they disliked it so much that they pulled Fresh Air from their stations. This was reportedly prompted by the fact that the station plays as the "hold music" on the University telephone system, and a caller to the University who was put on hold happened to jump into the Louis CK conversation just as Gross was asking if he always kept his shirt on during sex. This one person was SCANDALIZED, and it led directly to an appropriate and proportional reaction on the part of MPR: dropping one of the best radio shows in the world.

This was the statement that MPB Executive Director Judy Lewis released to explain the decision:

Mississippi Public Broadcasting strives to deliver educational, informative, and meaningful content to its listeners. After careful consideration and review we have determined that Fresh Air does not meet this goal over time. Too often Fresh Air’s interviews include gratuitous discussions on issues of an explicit sexual nature. We believe that most of these discussions do not contribute to or meaningfully enhance serious-minded public discourse on sexual issues.

Of course, this thesis is absurd on its face. Fresh Air won a Peabody - the most prestigious award in broadcast news - because it's very, very, very "educational, informative and meaningful." Gross also won an Edward R. Murrow award, the most prestigious award in all of public broadcasting, in 2003. If you still need convincing that Gross and Fresh Air meet the goal of "educational, informative and meaningful content," check out this video of another of our heroes, Ira Glass, giving Gross a National Book Award.

This incident is of particular concern to us here at The Sound of Young America not just because we create a show with a format similar to Fresh Air's, or because Terry Gross is a personal hero of mine, but also because much of our show is focused on humor, and that seems to be the real target of the ban. Louis CK is, in my professional opinion, the single most insightful, "meaningful" comic working today, and he is no less insightful and "meaningful" in an interview context. Ms. Lewis' statement, to our eyes, seems to imply the age-old falsehood that the work of a comedian, because it's funny, doesn't "contribute to or meaningfully enhance serious-minded public discourse." That's directly contrary to the values upon which we've built this show. I've often said that one of our goals on The Sound of Young America is to demonstrate that you needn't be "serious" to be "serious-minded." In my mind, one of Fresh Air's most redeeming attributes is Gross' warmth and openness to the insights that can come from humor, though she herself is not a humorist. That's certainly one of the attributes I have most tried to emulate.

For these reasons, we'd like to stand with Fresh Air and our colleagues and heroes Louis CK and Terry Gross, and we've come up with a plan.

For as long as Mississippi Public Radio continues to unjustly bar one of broadcasting's best programs from its air, The Sound of Young America is hereby banning itself from Mississippi Public Radio. Mississippi Public Radio doesn't carry The Sound of Young America, and they probably weren't considering carrying it, but that won't stop us from snipping any potential consideration of carriage that might occur in the bud, should it happen to unexpectedly appear. WE'RE JUST THAT PRINCIPLED.

That's right: you mess with Louie and Terry, YOU MESS WITH US. Whether you KNOW WHO WE ARE or whether you are COMPLETELY UNFAMILIAR AND UNINTERESTED IN US AND OUR PROGRAM.

Consequences be damned.

We've started an "I'm Banning Myself From Mississippi Public Radio" Facebook page, so if you're ready to join us, sign up!

Comedy: Jordan Ranks America, July 2010 on The Sound of Young America with Jordan Morris

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Jordan Morris

Once again Jordan Morris joins us to inform us of what's hot and what's not for July of 2010.

This month's list:
5) Wolfman on DVD
4) The Bronze Age
3) Rhyming Words
2) Kissing
1) The Burrito

Jordan, Jesse, Go! Episode 139: Lola with Ryan Perez

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Ryan Perez

Saturday Night Live writer Ryan Perez joins Jesse and Jordan to talk about a missing parrot, unfairly maligned films and more.

Action Items:
What is the worst lyric in a song you actually like?
What films did you love that were unfairly maligned?

Podcast: Coyle & Sharpe Episode 89: Beware of South American Cruises


Welcome to season two of Coyle & Sharpe: The Imposters! In the early 1960s, James P. Coyle and Mal Sharpe roamed the streets of San Francisco, microphone in hand, roping strangers into bizarre schemes and surreal stunts. These original recordings are from the Sharpe family archive, which is tended by Mal's daughter, Jennifer Sharpe. You can learn more about Coyle & Sharpe on their website or on MySpace. Their recent box set is These 2 Men Are Imposters.

On this episode: Coyle & Sharpe ask the tough questions. Like what would you do if you found yourself mixed up with a travel scam/human trafficking operation?

Colson Whitehead, Author of Sag Harbor: Interview on The Sound of Young America

Colson Whitehead

Colson Whitehead is one of America's most acclaimed novelists. He was the recipient of a MacArthur "genius" grant for his fiction, which includes Apex Hides the Hurt and John Henry Days. His latest novel is Sag Harbor, about the African American beach enclave.

We talk with Whitehead about why he chose to write a coming-of-age novel without any grand revelations - no bodies found in caves, no one hit by cars. We also chat about why he made such a firm turn away from high-concept fiction towards unassuming naturalism, and how he overcame his fear of teenagers and his own teenage years.

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