Ryssdal 85C goes to work in the middle of the night.
3:21 a.m. and most of downtown Los Angeles is sleeping, but
Ryssdal, looking crisp and caffeinated in a polo shirt and khakis,
already has been at work for more than two hours. And he has
seven to go.
Im on the air in half an hour, and I have absolutely no
idea what Im going to say, he says, cheerfully,
navigating the brightly lit but empty offices of the radio company
Marketplace Productions. Ryssdal is the early-morning anchor
for Marketplace Morning Report, a business and financial
news show carried by some 320 public radio stations nationwide
(including the Atlanta affiliate, WABE) and heard by more than
4.5 million people each week. When he takes the microphone at
3:50 a.m., thousands of working listeners on the East Coast,
where its a more civilized seven in the morning, will
be tuned in while they shave, put on mascara, or drive to work.
off-kilter workday, it soon becomes clear, is carved not into
hours, but minutes; even seconds count. His show, which he will
deliver once every hour between 2:50 a.m. and 8:50 a.m. this
morning, must last precisely seven minutes and fifty seconds.
Ryssdal puts together his own script for the most part by scrolling
rapidly through a hodgepodge of sources for the days notable
business stories: the Associated Press and Reuters wire services,
major newspapers, favorite websites, and scripts left for him
by the Marketplace night editor. The assistant producer
at the cubicle across the way, B.B. Rivero, lets Ryssdal know
what segments are filed and ready to go from various news correspondentsand
of course, how long they are, down to the second.
just Rivero for company, Ryssdals pre-dawn work routine
is deceptively quiet. Besides the clicking of the computer keyboards,
the only sound is his voice as he talks through the script on
his screen, making sure the show is the correct length and testing
how it sounds.
without warning, hes out of his chair. Rivero jumps up,
Ryssdal says, and they head for the studio at a smart clip,
plucking the script from the printer on the way.
on a stool in the studio booth, Ryssdal is clearly at ease behind
the microphone, and its easy to see why the program gets
dozens of letters from listeners each week (paticularly from
women, according to colleagues). He injects his delivery with
just enough of his own style to give it flavor without being
distracting. The lead news item this September morning is the
Kodak companys plan to downsize its traditional film products
and go digital.
do you do when your signature product is losing some of its
luster? Ryssdal starts off smoothly. If youre
Kodak, you change your focus a bit. This sort of mild-mannered
humor is a Ryssdal trademark.
quick transition from sitting quietly at his desk to broadcasting
a live radio showat four oclock in the morning,
to boottook some getting used to, admits Ryssdal, who
has been the Marketplace morning anchor for more than
two years. One of the pleasures, but also the curses,
of this shift is that the show goes straight from my computer
to the radio, he says. I have to make the decision
about each segment, its quality, whether its objective
or not. They pay me to get up in the middle of the night and
make these decisions.
keen news judgment has earned the appreciation of his colleagues
and his boss, who considers Kai to have the kind of subtle star
quality that lends itself perfectly to public radio. Kai
is very self-confident, says J.J. Yore, executive producer
of Marketplace. Hes able to make a lot of
decisions very quickly and thats a great virtue when youre
on an hourly deadline. Plus, he has this wonderful, breezy,
casual sound on the radio, but he is credible at the same time.
Thats a hard marriage to pull offto sound like everyman
but still authoritative.
is known for looking at business and economics sideways, giving
the news a fresh slant. Other stories of the day include a dip
in demand for durable goods like cars, an increase in the gap
between rich and poor (the widest its been since 1979),
an update on the pay scandal at the New York Stock Exchange,
and Starbucks plan to open up shop in cafe-laden France.
The shows tone is light without being fluffy, carried
along by longer features such as a two-and-a-half minute report
from London correspondent Stephen Beard about a surge in the
production of English wines, thanks to a bumper crop of grapes,
while more refined French winemaking suffers from the summer
drought; and the Chinese governments intention to improve
the countrys international image by cultivating more and
better public relations experts.
spin doctors may be a dime a dozen in this country, but in China,
the government has just realized its facing a deficit
of politically savvy P.R. peopleand its decided
to do something about it, Ryssdal tells listeners conversationally,
never stumbling. From Beijing, Marketplaces
Jocelyn Ford reports.
the adjoining sound booth, the technician starts the Jocelyn
Ford story with the push of a button on the vast, mysteriously
blinking control panel and voila: Ryssdal has forty-nine seconds
3:50 a.m. broadcast is only the second of what turns out to
be an unusually long day. Tess Vigeland, the other Marketplace
Morning Report host who goes on the air at 6:50 a.m., is
out with a back injury, so Ryssdal must carry the show solo
through the final broadcast at 8:50 a.m. In between live broadcasts,
he tapes two interviews for future shows: one with ESPN.com
senior editor Michael Knisley about a major NFL lawsuit and
one for another public radio show in which Ryssdal himself is
the expert on the Kodak story.
the fact that he has to perform seven on-air broadcasts in a
row, which offer more or less the same major stories, Ryssdal
freshens each successive show by changing the wording, the order,
and the minor news items.
of the job today is mixing and matching the news, so it doesnt
get old for me or for the listener, he says. If
I repeat myself verbatim I start to feel . . . slimy.
a sign of Ryssdals dedication, Rivero points out, that
he spices up each segment just in case there are repeat listeners,
even though their research shows most people dont tune
in to NPR for two hours straight in the morning.
really goes out of his way to make each cast different,
and tries to bring variety and depth to these stories,
she says. The audience picks up on his humor, his laid-back
delivery. It really connects somehow.
key aspect of Ryssdals job is to translate the news from
business jargon into language the listening public can understand.
When he arrived at Marketplace, he says, the learning
curve was steep and the intellectual bar was high.
not a business guy, Ryssdal readily admits. But
then, no one here is. Thats what lets us speak English
about the news. My rule is, if I cant understand it, then
neither can the guy driving down the freeway. But if I can break
it down so that I get it myself, then maybe I can help others
only a small staff working twenty-two hours out of twenty-four,
Marketplace is less a source for breaking or straight-up
news than for smart commentary. Ryssdals favorite business
stories are those with an interesting twist or a hint of fun,
such as a recent piece on the economics of exotic dancing.
give perspective, thats what we do best, Ryssdal
says. It takes a lot of people working crazy hours to
make it all happen.
is a joy to work with, so natural that he makes getting up in
the middle of the night worth it, Rivero says. He
just has a very easygoing way of delivering the news. He makes
it seem easy on the air, but I see what he goes through putting
it togetherits quite a job. A good sense of humor
helps a lot at this time of the morning.
likes to joke that he went to Emory back when he could get in.
could not have been a better decision, he says. Its
reputation has only grown since then. When I went there, no
one had ever heard of it, and now everybody knows it. Its
become this major university.
says he chose Emory because it was time to make a change from
Westchester County, New York, where he had lived with his parents
and little brother since he was eight. Before that, his family
lived in Denmark and England where his father worked for an
an Emory freshman, I was planning to be a lawyer,
Ryssdal says. But a couple of things happened to dissuade
me, not the least of which was getting an F in Latin.
he majored in a natural interest, history. Ryssdal also got
some theatre experience while at Emory, which may have prepared
him somewhat for radio work. Still, he didnt anticipate
his most recent career twist.
for a minute did I imagine Id be on the radio, he
says. The fundamental thing about my time at Emory is,
it gave me the background I needed to do three different things
with my life.
before getting into radio, Ryssdal, now forty, enjoyed two other
full-blown careers, gaining richly varied experience that now
serves him well at Marketplace. Three weeks after he
graduated from Emory, he threw everything he owned into the
back of his car and drove down to Pensacola for naval officer
idea of public service had always been important to me,
he says. Frankly, it just seemed like a good thing to
spent eight years in the Navy, first flying planes from the
aircraft carrier U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt and then as
a briefing officer for the Pentagon Joint Chiefs of Staff. Ryssdal
also earned a masters degree in national security studies
from Georgetown University.
that point, I had done everything I wanted to do in the
Navy, he says. I had gone to sea, learned how to
fly, and worked at the Pentagon. So at twenty-nine, he
took the foreign service exam and went to work for the U.S.
State Department for four years.
was in the foreign service orientation that Ryssdal met his
wife, Stephanie Fossan, just before taking an assignment in
Ottawa, Canada. For their next assignment, the two offered to
go anywhere they were needed as long as they could be together.
So they spent six months learning Chinese for positions in Beijing.
They had been in China for eighteen months when they learned
that Stephanie had been accepted to the MBA program at Stanford
quit our jobs, got married, she started school, and I moped
around for awhile, trying to figure out what to do with the
rest of my life, Ryssdal remembers.
the fall of 1997, Ryssdal was shelving books at a Borders bookstore
in Palo Alto when he stumbled across a book on internships in
radio journalism. A self-professed news junkie, he had always
been interested in radio and the spoken word. So he put on his
State Department suit and tie (thats before I learned
no one ever wears a tie in radio, he says) and applied
at KQED-FM in San Francisco. They offered him a beginning-level
internship position two days a weekquite an about-face
from flying Navy planes and working at the Pentagon.
the move turned out to be a good one. At KQED, Ryssdal learned
the radio business from the ground up: How to work the equipment,
tape record a show, hold a microphone, conduct an interview,
and put together a story. He caught on fast and soon became
a morning news producer, then a part-time reporter with a monthly
contract, and eventually a regular substitute anchor.
took me close to a year to get on the air, he says.
remembers that the first time he was called upon to host the
KQED afternoon show, he dropped his entire script as soon as
he went on the air and it cascaded to the floor in a disordered
jumble. He did manage to collect it, trying to contain the rustling
sounds, while drawing on memory to start the show.
got easier. When Marketplace called, Ryssdal was working
as a reporter and substitute host for KQEDs California
Morning Report, a news program that ran on public radio
stations around the state. He covered business and the economy,
state politics, criminal justice, capital punishment, and agriculture,
winning awards from the Radio and Television News Directors
Association and the Public Radio News Directors Association.
wife was pregnant with our second son and was ten days from
her due date when Marketplace called. I said, Im
not going to be able to help you, Ryssdal recalls. Then
I hung up and I thought, you know what? Marketplace doesnt
call every day. The show is in the top ten, easilyup there
with Fresh Air and Car Talk. It was an enormous step up.
he flew to L.A. and interviewed in May 2001, returned to San
Francisco, had a baby, and got an offer from the program, which
is produced by Minnesota Public Radio. The family moved to L.A.
Ryssdal hasnt had any real sleep since. He gets to work
at one a.m. and, after his final broadcast somewhere near dawn,
goes for a long run in the downtown L.A. area before the morning
editorial meeting. He leaves the office at ten, sleeps from
11 to 2:30, then picks up his two young sons, Tait and Adin
(he and his wife are expecting a third boy in March) from school
and spends the afternoon and evening with his family. He grabs
another quick nap from 10 p.m. until midnight, and then its
back to the studio.
get used to it, he says. But then, Ive done
two and a half years without having good, sustained sleep. .
. . Maybe Ive forgotten what its like.
me tell you, nearby editor Nate DiMeo puts in dryly, its
all its cracked up to be.
the grueling shift pays off for Ryssdal when there are magic
moments such as a recent interview with Michael Lewis, author
of the hit financial book Moneyball.
really enjoyed that one, he says. It just felt right.
Sometimes something on the radio is like that, just right. I
guess, for the listeners, Id like to be somebody they
enjoy listening to, and I hope they appreciate a more relaxed,
laid-back style. Its funny, the concept that I am this
person that occupies a portion of the listeners day is
just really interesting. The schedule is brutal, and what suffers
is just the amount of sleep I get . . . But the trade-off is,
I get to be on the radio, which is great. Ive found what
I want to do.