In the American
(Simon & Schuster)David Brancaccio is senior editor of "Marketplace," a half-hour weekday program heard on almost 300 public radio stations. This book, Squandering Aimlessly is a journal of his travels around the United States experimenting with spending money frivolously (in Las Vegas), meditating on home ownership (in Levittown), visiting with socially-conscious investors (in Jackson Hole), among others. It is filled with tid-bits of economic information about America and Americans --- that the average fifty-year-old has saved $2,300 towards retirement, that almost 850,000 new businesses are started in this country every year, and approximately 850,000 businesses fail.
Brancaccio is a facile writer, as befits one who has spent several decades in popular journalism. Like others of his calling --- he can spawn thousands of words at a sitting, and it shows. His tale of gambling in Las Vegas is an example of what we old journalism majors used to call "milking the cow:"
I bet one chip. The first hands are dealt. I have a 7 and a 5. The dealer's up card is a 10. I hit by pointing at my pile. An 8, which equals...I take a breath...20. I wave my hand in the cutoff motion over my pile, stand. The dealer turns over cards totalling 22. Anything over 21 is a bust. I win another $5 chip. This isn't all that bad.
It's the fine art of word-pissing, and it has just as much importance to you and me and the mystery --- the real mystery --- of money and finance and exchange as the leavings in a toilet-bowl.
Brancaccio's egregiousness is not confined to writing books. That 280 public radio stations should be transmitting a half-an-hour a day of stock market trivia at prime time (some stations repeat it in earlier or later time slots) is one of the major scandals of tax-supported public broadcasting --- another sign of the decay of what could have been (indeed in its early days, was) vital, controversial, creative radio.
"The Dow was down 158 points today, the NSDAQ 85..." intones Brancaccio to the strains of "Stormy Weather" (he plays "We're In The Money" when the Dow is up). And it's all a kick in the face for a laid-off warehouseman in New York City, a welfare mother in Detroit, an unemployed Mexican day laborer in Brancaccio's home town of Los Angeles --- all of whose tax dollars go to support this fluff.
The message being sent out by these outlets is quite clear. "These broadcast facilities are owned and operated by the elite --- those for whom the price of a share of Qualcomm is so important that it becomes the news. For the rest of you out there who don't have the spare change to invest with Merrill Lynch or Charles Schwab --- too damn bad."
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Public radio was originally established to fill the gaps in commercial broadcasting. That was long ago. Now the NPR and PRI stations pride themselves on playing to the twin whores of ratings and neo-commercialism. They go "public" for the two weeks they do fund raising. The rest of the year, they are very very private.
If you have any doubts about that --- go to your local PBS station with a hot idea for a local, controversial program. See where that gets you. Even more fun, go to their offices and ask to see their financial records --- especially annual income/outgo, and salaries of the top dogs (station manager, fund-raising executives --- "development" staff). Since the stations are owned by tax-exempt corporations, this material is supposed to be a matter of public record --- but, guaranteed --- they'll give you the royal shame-
on- you- for- asking don't- be- bugging- us routine.
This portion of the broadcast spectrum was initially set up to serve all the people --- most especially those who had no access to vital information from commercial broadcasters that could affect pocketbooks, health and survival. That so much time should be devoted to such fret-work as "Marketplace," "Talk of the Nation," and "Car Talk" says much, too much, about the orientation of your typical NPR/PRI station.
That what could be great radio should be perverted for the likes of these programs is a scandal. The poor and the dispossessed who have never had, nor never will have, the wherewithall to invest in Microsoft (or Philip Morris or e-Bay or Coca-Cola --- or "Marketplace's" sponsor, GE) are routinely missing vital information that can and does affect their lives: consumer protection; necessary survival mechanisms in a world dominated by oligopolies; the routine screwing of the poor and minority by the retail outlets they must depend on; a commercial media that glorifies debt-financed consumerism.
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It's easy to see how Squandering got cooked up. Some literary agent in New York thinks, "This guy Brancaccio is hot. Why don't we ring him up and let's see if we can boiler-plate 50,000 or 75,000 words on money --- always a popular topic --- to sell to some publisher. It'll be the nuts."
True to his calling as a gun-for-hire, Brancaccio whips out the requisite manuscript in record time (he's trained to meet deadlines). The agent loves it, Random House loves it, all the critics out there (except for one) adore it --- and the author will prove that the turkeys at NPR/PRI, just like everyone else in the radio-tv biz, know how to parlay their high media profile into a quick buck.MORAL:
Build a better mouth-trap and PRI will give you prime time.--- L. W. Milam