Planet Money, NPR: *****
Hosts: Ailsa Chang, Cardiff Garcia, Jacob Goldstein, Noel King, Kenny Malone, Robert Smith, and Stacey Vanek Smith.
Production team: Nick Fountain, Sally Helm, Alex Goldmark, Darius Rafieyan, and Bryant Urstadt.
If money is one of the themes that unifies this podcast, then it may just as aptly be called ‘Planet Persistence’, or ‘Planet Character’. Follow one woman’s wrangle to buy a Birkin bag ("having the money isn't the hard part [...] they haze you" #672), one man’s mission to sell cheese ("it was like OPEC but for cheese" #575), or one gent’s goal to own a dinosaur museum ("one of the main [Jurassic Park] characters is actually based on him." #660). If Planet Money covers the economic side of off-beat social issues, what it highlights is the coming together of economics and passion to incentivise often bizarre behaviour. Creatures of habit, by whom I mean regular listeners, can constantly be surprised by their capacity to empathise with the weird and the wonderful when given a window into other peoples’ projects by sympathetic reporting and slick editing.
But it wasn't always this way. Back in post-banking crisis 2008, Planet Money was a new show consisting of self-conscious ("Hopefully, we'll succeed, at least, most of the time") economists trying to explain the reasons for the crash to the layperson, at some times talking over each other, at others stuttering in excitement, dipping in and out of related storylines. But in short order, they have become story-telling masters. They begin in medias res and zoom in and out to give the listener a cinematic view of their subject. The self-reportedly 'scrappy' team apply their narrative nous to the likes of Ben Bernanke's history of the 2008 financial crisis; Hernando de Soto's take on how the Doing Business report transformed poor countries globally; and whistleblowers' exposure of retaliatory behaviour by the scandal-hit Wells Fargo, for which they won a 2016 Peabody Award.
What hasn’t changed over time is the snappy interchange between the hosts, the dedication of the research team (some episodes contain archive or personal audio footage dating back 20 years), and the creative ways they grapple with complex issues on the economy.
If one thing had to change?
This (UK-based) writer would ask them to travel more. Largely, their economic lessons are globally applicable. But the episodes in which they do travel, (for example #843: Swamp Gravy in Colquitt, Georgia), are told so vividly that it begs the team to give their take on eccentric stories further afield. This is hardly a criticism, however, so five stars go to this celestial show.
#337: The Secret Document That Transformed China
#575: The Fondue Conspiracy
#524: Mr Jones' Act
#599: The Invisible Wall