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Copyright 2015 by Jessica Abel

All rights reserved.
Published in the United States by Broadway Books, an imprint of the
Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC,
New York.
B R OA DWAY B O O K S and its logo, B \ D \ W \ Y, are trademarks of

Penguin Random House LLC.

Background drawing assistance by Matt Madden
This work received the support of the Cit internationale de la bande dessine
et de limage, in the form of an author residency at the Masion des auteurs
(Angoulme, France).

Library of Congress cataloging-in-publication data is available upon request.

ISBN 978-0-385-34843-0
eBook ISBN 978-0-385-34844-7
Printed in the United States of America
Cover illustration by Jessica Abel
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
First Edition

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6/12/15 9:25 AM

No one gets into radio to

become rich and famous.

Where does that

passion come from?

Every producer
I talked to for this
book is in this game
for one reason: they
are passionate about
their stories.


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6/3/15 9:26 AM

It comes from the fact that when these

producers and reporters go out looking for
stories, they find them by paying careful
attention to whats interesting to them.

And by following whats

interesting, by building their
understanding of whatever
that is and digging deeper, they
arrive at the most surprising
and engaging stories youve ever
heardand, crucially, that
theyve ever heard, either.

Theyve learned
to notice whats
exciting to them,
what they tell their
friends about, what
they have questions
about. Its a real skill,
it takes practice.

My message is:
Amuse yourself.

Ira talks about having good

taste and knowing your
taste, and I think this is
what he means by that.

Story ideas are not sprinkled

on us like fairy dust. Finding a
story idea is a job within itself.
Ira giving a commencement address at
the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.
Before anything is
going to get inside a
reader or a viewer or
a listener and stick in
their gut, its got to
stick in your gut first.

On our show, the

best stories come
from someone just
following some itch.


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6/3/15 9:26 AM

The most popular, commentedon, awarded piece of journalism

we ever did was an episode called
The Giant Pool of Money.

This producer, Alex Blumberg,

before the housing market
collapsed, he just got really
interested in the banking industry.

I had been wondering about

this question of debt for a while.
It seemed like so many people
were borrowing so much money.

Alex Blumberg
I remember, even in 2005,
wondering about it. I became
totally obsessed with this housing
finance website called Calculated
Risk. It was a place where skeptics
about the housing bubble gathered.

Someone explained to him that banks were doing

this thing that banks had not done in the history of
banking, which is that they would give out loans to
people who were not qualified to get loans, and the banks
wouldnt even check what the people reported they earned.

The episode starts out

with someone named
Clarence Nathan,
who at the time
was making about
$45,000 from three
part-time jobs, and
he got a bank loan for
$540,000 for a house.
Its almost like you pass a
guy in the street and say
Lend me

Would you have loaned

you the money?

Well, what
do you do?

I mean, I know guys that are

criminals who wouldnt lend
me that money and they break
your kneecaps, soha ha ha!

Hey, I got
a job.


I wouldnt have loaned me the

money, and nobody that I know
would have loaned me the money.

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6/3/15 9:26 AM

I didnt understand it, and

I knew Adam Davidson
was already an economics
correspondent at NPR. So I would
ask him. And he would tell me

The people I talk to say

theres not a problem as long
as the models are right.
So in January of 2008,
we really started working
in earnest on it. And
by that point we had pieced
together what was going on.

But you know, the

models could be wrong.

Ha ha

And I wasnt sure if I was

succumbing to alarmist internet
rhetoric, or whether there was
this false confidence of the
economic mainstream.

But, it was
clear there was
a problem in
subprime at the
very least, and
we should try
to do a story
about that.
We had this
whole chain
that started
with a

Id had people explain to me

what a CDO was, how housing
loans were being packaged, and
these crazier and crazier and
crazier Wall Street inventions.

and went
to a Wall
And it turns out that we came out with The Giant
Pool of Money just as the crisis was reaching
the national consciousness. So our timing, totally
accidentally, turned out to be a little bit perfect.

That was the key thing. Everybody was aware

that something was going crazy in the housing
market, but they didnt know exactly what, and
we came along, and gave everybody a narrative.


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6/3/15 9:26 AM

Which is totally gratifying,

because thats why I did the
story in the first place. I
didnt understand what was
going on. The amount of money
that was being lent, and to
whom, it just seemed crazy.

Not only do
the best stories
come out of this
kind of selfawareness and
avid pursuit
of the surprising, but the
best shows do,
as well.

And that was why I

wanted to do the story,
to explain it to myself.

Origin story
after origin story
of these great radio
shows comes down
to this: Someone, or
a couple people, got
obsessed with some
idea for a new way
of thinking about

and then allowed

him or herself to
pursue that idea with
curiosity, avidity, and
professional discipline
until that new way
caught our ears, and
we cant stop listening.

Alex got obsessed with

the housing market of
all things, and then he
didnt say, Thats not
interesting and shut it off.
Instead, he
went deeper.

He did this without

a thought, initially, of
what it might mean.
*A common shorthand for This American Life.

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Eventually, years later,

his interest led to one
of the most successful
This American Life
episodes ever, and then,
soon after, to a brandnew show, a partnership
between TAL* and NPR,
Alex and Adam Davidson,
called Planet Money.

Now, that
is what I call
a good idea.

6/3/15 9:27 AM