He has a memorable name and a prominent job, but public radio’s Kai Ryssdal followed anything but a typical career path on his way to anchoring the daily business program Marketplace. His story proves the truth of his own maxim: “Do what you love.”
After eight years in the Navy and four in the Foreign Service, Ryssdal found himself working at Borders for less than $8 an hour while his wife attended Stanford business school. One night, while shelving books in the career section, he looked up KQED, the NPR station in San Francisco, and contacted a senior editor. A few days later, Ryssdal was offered an internship a couple of days a week. He was 34, and he was on his way.
“It took me two careers and 13 years to find my passion,” he says.
Ryssdal may be passionate about journalism but he’s also clear-eyed about it. If journalism were a stock, would he buy? “I would hold,” he told the annual Excellence in Journalism conference. “These are dicey times.”
Survival, Ryssdal said, will depend in part on partnerships, like the ones Marketplace has with the New York Times and ProPublica.
It’s a force multiplier. Nobody has the resources to do this by themselves. You have to be able to find a way to pool resources and make them work better, otherwise the whole enterprise isn’t going to survive.
Digital is another essential for journalism, in Ryssdal’s book. “If you don’t think that way, you’re doing it wrong and you’re doomed. Full stop.” But Ryssdal is not as deeply committed to social media. He’s on Twitter because it’s real time, instantaneous and brief, but that’s it. No Facebook for Ryssdal. “I haven’t got time.”
Marketplace is known for taking complicated business news and making it understandable. For Ryssdal, the most important part of the show comes at the top: the open that makes people want to listen to the rest. So he writes it last. In fact, he writes the entire program “bottom up,” starting with the last story. “It warms me up.”
Ryssdal has built up a lot of knowledge about the complex subjects he covers, but he’s quick to deny that he’s an expert.
As soon as a journalist thinks he or she is the expert, he or she is lost. I talk to experts so I can get smart. Only by asking questions can I help listeners understand what they need to know. I am the listener’s proxy. Interviews are not about you and what you know.
For all his experience, Ryssdal admits he can still develop bad habits. His latest? Starting questions with the word, “so.” Even though he was aware he was doing it, he couldn’t seem to stop. So…a producer came up with a plan. Every time he says “so” on the radio, he has to put $10 in a jar. Is it helping? Tune in and see.
Oh, and about that name? It’s the number one thing people want to ask Kai Ryssdal about but it turns out to be pretty simple. His father is Norwegian.