Friday, May 14, 2010

The man got skills. . .

David Kestenbaum, on high

I came to WMRA just over ten years ago to host All Things Considered and immediately became a David Kestenbaum groupie. When you are the local host of an NPR news show, you listen to every story. In my opinion, all were good, but some were terrific, and for me the terrific ceiling was pierced most consistently by David Kestenbaum.

At the time, he was an NPR science reporter (his Harvard PhD is in physics), but as public radio guru Jay Allison put it  in (Allison's showcase and workshop for new public radio), David Kestenbaum
somehow got hooked on public radio. He worked for WOSU in Ohio, and "really just did radio and slept.That was about it." He got very good at it, especially at the job of taking difficult subjects and making them interesting. In four minutes and thirty seconds.
Ten years ago when I joined his posse, David Kestenbaum was a science reporter. Science stories are not ones to which I automatically hyper-attend. There I'd be, Ms. ATC local host, listening to the news, waiting for the next announcer break. And whenever one of David's science stories came on, I'd focus in on it with the same laser-sharp attention I usually reserved for political or book pieces. Why? Because the guy was, to my mind, the most delightful, informative writer for public radio that ever spoke into a microphone. Plus, he appeared to be having a good time talking to his interviewees, and they appeared to be having a good time talking to him.

High praise, I know. And yes, I'm given to hyperbole. But I really do think, in this case, I mean exactly what I say. Jay Allison is not, in my opinion, going far enough in saying David makes difficult subjects interesting. In my opinion, through his writing, his delivery, and his story telling style, David makes difficult subjects entertaining, as well.

As I'm also not shy, I fired off an e-mail to Mr. (Dr.) Kestenbaum announcing that I was his groupie and explaining why. I got an immediate response in which he said he'd never had a groupie before and, as I remember it, rather liked the idea.

We began a desultory correspondence. Once, when I was wrestling with how long to spend on one of my own NPR stories, I wrote D.K. and asked him how long he took on his stories. He wrote back to say usually about a week. Unless he was going for art. If he was going for art, then the sky was the limit. Art, he ventured to say, was never done.

Once, when I was up in Washington, I went over to his cubicle and introduced myself. He jumped up and gave me a big hug. As I'd always thought he rather wrote like a hugger, I was not surprised.

About two years ago, David joined NPR's Planet Money team and began reporting (story-telling?) almost exclusively about financial issues. And low and behold, he brought the same quirky clarity to money that he'd brought to science.

Okay, you ask. Why is Martha writing a confessional about her status as David Kestenbaum's groupie?

Well, here's why.

Yesterday, on the way home, I heard a D.K. Planet Money story about Greece's debt which made me want to hug my car radio. Oh the writing! The writing! The quirkiness of setting and and delivery, and the clarity of story-telling! In my opinion that story just needed a dose of public praise.

In case you missed it, here's a transcript of the beginning minute or so of "Greece, Breaking the 'Orbital Pull of Stupid.'"
May 13, 2010 - MICHELE NORRIS, host:
To Greece now, where that country's economic outlook has improved, but it will take a long time before its books are in order. The Greek government is facing a problem a lot of ordinary people can relate to: too much debt and not enough money coming in. So David Kestenbaum with our Planet Money team called up a well-known personal finance guru to get some advice for Greece.
DAVID KESTENBAUM: If you've got credit card debt or teenagers who overspend, there is always one place you can go, one man you know can help you out.
(Soundbite of music)
(Soundbite of TV show, "The Dave Ramsey Show")
Unidentified Man: Live from Financial Peace Plaza, it's "The Dave Ramsey Show," (unintelligible) cash is king.
KESTENBAUM: Dave Ramsey, mega popular radio host, TV host, author of multiple books, balancer of family checkbooks. And starting right here, informal financial adviser for Greece.
Mr. DAVE RAMSEY (Host, Financial Adviser): Hi, how are you?
KESTENBAUM: Hi, good. Thank you so much for doing this. Greece, really, is not so different from the mothers, retirees, small business owners who call into his radio show behind on their bills. I explained to Dave that I have this friend--I'm calling because I have a friend who's in--he's in a lot, a lot, a lot of debt.
Mr. RAMSEY: Okay. How much?
KESTENBAUM: $405 billion.
Mr. RAMSEY: Wow, that's a little bit. So, what's his annual income?
KESTENBAUM: He's a pretty high wage earner, actually, $343 billion.
Mr. RAMSEY: So he owes more than he makes in a year? Wow. So, we're throwing around billions, but, I mean, let's just put that in perspective. This is a guy making $100,000 a year who owes 150,000 in credit card debt
(Soundbite of scream) . .
What followed was a wonderfully accessible presentation of one large aspect of the global financial mess.  It was vintage David Kestenbaum.

You go, guy! Much has changed in my life over the past ten years, but I am still your groupie!

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