Man on the Street

Photo: Thad Russell

Voss's truck stop on old Route 66, near the town of Cuba, Mo., is at the very center of the U.S. census map. Fascinating? David Brancaccio, host and senior editor of public radio’s Marketplace, thinks so. That’s why, for a week last winter, he chose to broadcast his financial news program from the hair salon at Voss’s, right in the middle of Middle America.

“It’s the sort of thing regular listeners have learned to expect from us—keeping Main Street, not Wall Street, at the front and center of our coverage,” says Brancaccio, MA ’88. Intent on exploring globalization’s effects on Main Street, he reported on everything from a local ostrich ranch at odds with South Africa’s export regulations to an enterprise selling Old Kentucky bourbon barrels around the world.

Most days, however, Brancaccio doesn’t travel far from his home in L.A.’s La Brea neighborhood, where he lives with his wife, Mary, and their three children. In fact, his workday starts there. Awakening just before dawn, Brancaccio reads news bureau updates and scans Reuters English abstracts of major world newspapers before driving a blissfully short 15 minutes to the radio studios in downtown L.A.

Today, as he does every weekday morning, Brancaccio joins senior producer David Brown and the editorial staff in the “war room” of their offices at 8:15. The nine editors, directors and assistants gather around a long oval table. Two large whiteboards rest against the wall, beneath five clocks registering time in Tokyo, Moscow, London, New York and Los Angeles.

The combined tyranny of blank boards and ticking clocks is not lost on these individuals. They have just 45 minutes to decide on the “news hole,” a major story that will fill four unassigned minutes leading into the 28-minute, 45-second program. Brancaccio watches as production assistant Joe Zefran lists topics in green marker: Prez signs antiterrorism bill . . . Global goods trade slow . . . New home sales tumble in East . . . Glaxo smallpox vaccine. . . .

“Yes, but what’s the main story?” Brancaccio asks. After a few minutes ping-ponging ideas, the group reaches consensus. Today—Friday, October 26—the Pentagon will award its $200 billion contract for the joint-strike fighter, giving one of the two remaining giant defense contractors, Boeing or Lockheed, a desperately needed shot in the arm. Washington bureau chief John Dimsdale has been working on the story, but the announcement will not be made until sometime after 1 p.m. Pacific Time. Marketplace is fed live to the satellite at 2 p.m. and refed at 3 and 3:30 p.m. These last two feeds allow time for changes. But 2 is the deadline.

Brancaccio returns to his office and settles in front of the computer, composing questions and intros for two of today’s live interviews. He knows that if the Pentagon doesn’t make its announcement by 2 p.m., he’ll find himself talking around the lead story.

Brancaccio has been talking on the air since 1973, when, as an eager but unpaid 13-year-old, he read the news on the 6-to-9 a.m. weekend shift at Colby College’s station, WNHB, in Waterville, Maine. (His father was a professor of American literature at Colby.) “I got the job because no college kid would get up that early on Saturday morning,” Brancaccio says. After a year in Madagascar, where his father taught on a Fulbright, he returned to Waterville nurturing an ambition to be another Wolfman Jack. An African studies major at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, he went on to work as “Metro Dave,” a weekend rock ’n’ roll DJ on KFOG in San Francisco; as a newscaster and reporter at KQED-FM in San Francisco and WASH-FM in Washington, D.C.; and as a freelance correspondent for Voice of America.

At Stanford, pursuing his master’s in communication, Brancaccio says he was trained in both the practice and ethics of journalism. From there he began freelancing Bay Area stories for Marketplace and Christian Science Monitor radio. In 1990, Brancaccio and his wife, a high school English teacher, decided to pack up and move to London, where he hoped to report more regularly for Marketplace. “We saved Mary’s money, just quit our jobs and went,” he says. “Very iffy.”

Within three years, however, Brancaccio had set up a Marketplace London bureau that boasted strong ties to the Economist magazine. As a financial journalist, he says, “I wanted to make my mark and not just do milquetoast stories.” One way to do that was to get out of the studio and report stories where they were happening. When asked, for instance, to cover a conflict between French and British farmers over the dumping of cheap British meat in France, Brancaccio hitched a ride in the cab of a British lorry ferrying lambs across the Channel. Just days before, rioting French farmers had set fire to hundreds of lambs in such a truck. “We went over on the ferry,” Brancaccio recalls, “and there some were exciting moments interviewing British drivers and angry French farmers on the docks.”

His work from London and his early reporting from San Francisco caught the attention of Jim Russell, general manager of Marketplace Productions, who tapped him in 1993 for the job of host and senior editor. “David loves to tell stories about how the world works,” Russell says. “He gets it the way the audience gets it. It isn’t just that he’s good on the air. David’s a natural—he was born to do this.”

Marketplace now plays on 315 stations and is heard regularly by more than 4 million listeners from Anchorage to El Paso to Cape Cod. It’s also broadcast overseas. But Brancaccio seems less concerned with the program’s geographic reach than with the range of people it engages. Rather than skewing coverage to obsessive market-watchers, “we want to interest people from various backgrounds,” he says. “We want to be compelling and fresh.” Inspired by his studies of Africa, Brancaccio has covered issues such as the economics of underdevelopment and debt relief in third-world nations. He also has broadened his audience with such recent series as “Checking In,” about America’s newly unemployed.

Back at his office, it’s 1:15 p.m., and still no word on the Pentagon contract. Brancaccio returns to the studio and prepares to record the Friday segment “Week on Wall Street” with David Johnson at KERA in Dallas. The engineer checks sound levels as Brancaccio and Johnson do a last rundown of topics. At 1:25, they have just started recording when Brown, the producer, rushes into the control booth. “Lockheed has the contract!” Brancaccio and Johnson stop, take a minute to absorb this news, then start again, readjusting their dialogue to the latest information.

When it’s in the can, Brancaccio listens to Dimsdale’s just-completed Pentagon story on his computer. He perches in his chair scribbling notes on his script, then grabs his coffee and notes and heads for the door. “Okay, let’s do this thing!”

He slips into the control room to check on times for two of the pieces, then goes into the studio alone. “Performing on the radio is my one zen-like experience in my crazy day,” Brancaccio says. “I assume it’s like a piano player who gets to sit down and focus on his performance. It recharges my batteries.” He slips on his headphones, adjusts the tilt of two flat computer screens in front of him and leans into the microphone. Now it’s his show. Cue theme music.

“This is Marketplace.”

Raymond Hardie is a freelance journalist in Del Mar, Calif.