Journalist Q&A: Adam Davidson, NPR

Adam Davidson's work on topics from the Mideast to the economy has been featured on public radio stations, and in outlets like Rolling Stone and The New York Times Magazine.

Name: Adam Davidson
Title: Correspondent
Outlet: National Public Radio
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Web site:

Adam Davidson's work on topics from the Mideast to the economy has been featured on public radio stations, and in outlets like Rolling Stone and The New York Times Magazine. He spoke to Frank Washkuch about what makes economic radio content unique.

What's your day like as an NPR correspondent?

Adam Davidson: We created the Planet Money team to have a group of business reporters who do more feature-magazine versions of business and economic news, and take a step-back look. What I love about the job is I get to think, ‘What does our audience want? Where are they? What are they wondering about? What do they want to understand?'

The other thing is trying to figure out how to take a fundamentally confusing story of terms and people doing things on Wall Street that no one understands, and interviewing lots of economic and Wall Street people, and figuring out how to turn it into good radio.

What makes a good radio story that's not found on TV or in print?

Davidson: I think radio, in many ways, is the worst possible medium for business and economic journalism most of the time, because it's really helpful to have visuals and graphs. The New York Times has these amazing graphics on its Web site to explain market securitization and other issues, and that's very helpful.

What radio typically is unbelievably good at, and better than others, is creating stories and speaking intimately with someone. When you read a print article, unless it's written in the most beautiful language, it‘ll be hard to engage the subject of the article. But with audio, it's sneaky and it comes in below your defenses. It's amazing to me how you can hear a radio story and hear someone just like you.

And when we are really using radio at its best, I feel as if we are able to bring two things to this financial crisis story – which I don't think anyone else can do well: a sense of narrative and an emotional engagement.

What are the big stories for the rest of this year and 2010?

Davidson: Eventually we want to make the financial crisis merely one of the stories for us, instead of the only story we cover. I don't think there is any more important issue in economics than the simple fact that far too many people in the world are really poor.

Why is that? That's a story that I very much want to tell and to figure out how to tell. I still think there are massive stories to tell, about how the US economy has faced such unprecedented change in the last decade or so; the rise of China; the opening of trade barriers; and manufacturing.

How would you describe your audience?

Davidson: Education, curiosity, and intelligence levels are the key demographic requirements. I think that there is a perception that our audience is extremely liberal, but our data says that's not true. Our listeners are about one-third self-identified liberal, one-third self-identified conservative, and one-third self-identified independent.

I'm surprised at how popular we are among finance professionals. I find it kind of puzzling, like, ‘Don't you guys know this better than we do?' One of the many themes in this crisis is that we have an economy that is sort of all over the place, and very few people – I would say, nobody – really understands all the features.

What are you doing that's Web-based?

Davidson: We're doing a lot; it definitely changed everything. I would say first off, that most of what is distributed on our podcasts is not just radio in another form. For podcasts, someone has gone out of their way to ask for your content, which right away allows you to do more, to go longer, to get more in-depth. But we still want it to be well produced. Plus, it allows you to be less finely honed and less raggedy. We think it implies an interest in you more as a person. It makes it possible for us to be more ourselves and less anonymous.

How do radio correspondents get pitched differently than print and broadcast reporters?

I would say, in the vast majority of cases, I am pitched in ways that show that the person doing the pitch does not get radio. What we want are interesting and weird characters. And if you're pitching clients, I don't want to know that they are the leading expert on US-China trade or spent six years as the US trade representative. I can get to those people. I want to hear that this guy is an amateur comedian, and he plays the tuba, or is really funny.

When I wake up every morning, what I need is someone who can come on and talk about the economy in straightforward ways that involve humor and that are successful to an audience. Nobody ever pitches me that; they're always pitching me a résumé.

There are so many different topics and subtopics to the recession story. Which are best on radio?

The ones that are good for storytelling. The ones I see a lot of news shows on TV covering are the poor shmucks who lost their houses. It's a very easy to tell that story and a very simple narrative – they had a house, they lost the house, and it's sad, and something bad in the world made that happen. We've avoided telling those stories, frankly, because we like the challenge of telling the harder story, and we see it as complicated. Yes, there are real victims who are getting screwed, but overall this crisis was the result of lots and lots of people throughout the economy engaging in a mass delusion. And that doesn't mean everyone is equally responsible, but it's hard for me to find anyone who is an absolute victim.

What are the other stories you'd like to cover, if not for the downturn?

Global poverty is a huge one. And how China is changing the way the world economy works, and how that is affecting the US and US manufacturing and what kinds of jobs we have in the US. And India – the economists talk about ChIndia, China and India – all those issues around outsourcing and what kind of jobs will be successful in the future, and what won't. I think there is a lot of anxiety and that is a major theme that we want to spend a lot of time on.

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