Business news on the radio
TALKING BIZ NEWS EXCLUSIVE
Charles Herman left the comfortable confines of ABC one year ago this month to try his hand at reporting business news for WNYC Radio in New York.
Herman is the business and economics editor for WNYC Radio and the national morning news program, “The Takeaway.”
Each Monday, he joins “The Takeaway” to discuss the week’s business news.
Prior to WNYC, Herman worked at ABC News for nearly 16 years. For more than five years, he oversaw the business news unit during the financial meltdown and recession. Prior to this position, he was the deputy bureau chief in the Los Angeles bureau overseeing news coverage for the western region of the U.S.
Before that he was the Miami bureau producer from 2001 to 2003 where he covered events in Florida, the southern United States and in Latin America in countries such as Colombia, Cuba and Venezuela.
In 2003, Herman helped set up ABC News’ operations in Baghdad. He began his career at ABC News in the Washington Bureau in 1994.
During his time at ABC News, Herman won a Business Emmy for a series of stories for World News Tonight with Peter Jennings entitled “The Broken Pension Promise,” and shared an Alfred I. DuPont and a Peabody Award with the news division for coverage of Sept. 11, 2001.
Herman talked recently by e-mail with Talking Biz News about his switch from television to radio and how he first got into business journalism. What follows is an edited transcript.
How did you first get interested in business journalism?
My real start came when I moved to New York City in 2004 to become the producer for the business news unit at ABC News. At that time, I had been with network for more 10 years, mostly as general assignment producer, and I had done a few business stories.
Knowing that I enjoy having a beat where I can develop sources and an in-depth knowledge of a particular subject and “business” is such a broad category, the job seemed really interesting to me. Also, I knew that many people (including reporters) are put off my numbers and economics so I thought it would be great to develop an expertise in this subject area.
Fortunately, I had about three to four years of on-the-job training, producing and reporting business stories, before the financial crisis hit. That was crucial in covering and understanding what was happening, especially in the fall of 2008.
What types of business and economics stories interest you the most?
What I like most about this subject is that it plays a part in so my stories, from politics to culture. So while I get to have this very specific beat, I also contribute and report on many other stories. I’ve done stories about the people who buy foreclosed homes at auctions, about the search for new source of oil, about three generations of one family worrying about how they will afford retirement.
Specifically, I like stories that involve real people and consumer spending. By that I mean the how, where and why we spend money. This could be stories about the business of retailers, employees and wages, marketing and advertising, the merchandise we buy, consumer behavior, inflation.
Consumer spending, I think, shows our interests, our priorities, our worries. Are sales up at luxury retailers but down at discounters? What does that say about income inequality and rising prices? What types of cars are we buying? Why are housing sales falling even with low interest rates and already low prices? I think examining how we spend (and save) gives real insights into us as Americans.
Are there any limits on what you can cover for WNYC?
Not really. What limits there are are mostly based on balancing the need to cover daily news events as well as working on more in-depth features. As for subjects, New York City is such a national and international city, the stories here can often reflect what’s happening beyond the five boroughs. And it works the other way as well.
Also, WNYC is more than just the New York City. The station produces numerous national shows like “Radiolab,” “On The Media,” and “The Takeaway.” Part of my job is to work with these shows as well.
And then there’s our website. Of course we cover what’s happening locally, but, for example, we have a site — “It’s a Free Country” — that covers New York City and state politics as well as national political topics.
You made the switch to radio form TV in 2010. How is covering business news for radio different than TV?
First and foremost, there’s no video. And that means you have to spend some time thinking about how to put a listener into a story. For ABC, I produced a story about oil sands mined in northern Canada. The video showed the massive extraction operations underway as well as the gooey, clay-like oil sands.
You could literally see the feet of the Bill Weir, the correspondent, sink into the muck. The pictures helped explain the story. You obviously don’t have that with radio, so you have to think differently about sound and about how you write the script. I do miss TV for that visual impact, especially in a big breaking news story.
But, at the same time, I enjoy radio because there is something quite intimate about it. It really draws in listeners. And from a pure logistics point of view – setting up interviews and booking crews – it is much easier. If television is a metaphorical, 500-pound pencil, radio is about a 100-pound pencil.
How are they the same?
They are both about good reporting and storytelling. And you are writing for broadcast, which is different than writing for print or the web.
Are there limitations to covering business and economics news for radio listeners?
Numbers are perhaps the hardest part. A lot of them in a story can really weigh it down. And that’s not just for radio, it’s for TV, too. But in TV you can use graphics to help explain the concept to viewers. In print, a reader can take the time and stop and think about any numbers in a story.
With radio, however, the story keeps on going and you don’t want your listener left behind,, thinking about the numbers they just heard and not listening to the rest of the story. I find I need to be even more judicious with numbers that in TV. And I also have to try harder to not just rely on the number but what the number actually means.
I could say CPI is up 0.5 percent, and average hourly earnings were flat. Or another way, with inflation rising and incomes flat, it feels like a pay cut for many Americans .
What about the time to tell a story?
It really varies. Some news items have to boiled down to 20 seconds for newscast while features run about four minutes, even longer. It’s nice to have the variety. I think having been in TV for so long has helped me focus in producing or writing or editing stories. Stories should grab people and hold their attention, especially if they are going to listen for a few minutes.
What can radio do with business and economics news that other format can’t?
Depending on the program or the story, you can have people on-air for longer interviews where you can dive deeper into subjects. And radio is really embracing the web, especially podcasts.
You see it with programs produced not just by WNYC, but NPR, American Public Media and Public Radio International. Podcasts can be really simple – say, an interview — or much more produced and complex. A great thing is they are allow subscribers to choose when they want to listen.
Podcasts are by no means unique to radio, but I think public radio is doing a good job with this format. In fact, a show like “Radiolab” now has more podcast subscribers than terrestrial radio listeners.
Why aren’t there more business journalists in radio? When I think of good business news on radio, I think of Kai Ryssdel, Marketplace and the Planet Money folks. Are there others doing good work?
I think there are more. APM and WNYC are producing “Freakonomics” stories for Marketplace, as well as a weekly, Freakonomics Radio podcast. NPR’s Planet Money does great work. And our station intends to grow its business coverage of New York City and beyond.
It feels like after the financial crisis, audiences are looking for coverage of this topic, whether it’s in print or on the web or broadcast. Maybe the economy isn’t leading the news every day like it did in 2008 and 2009, but it’s definitely still front and center.
What do you like most about your job?
I’m incredibly curious and being a journalist, I am constantly learning about new subjects. And then I get to turn around and share that knowledge with other people. It’s a great feeling.
I really enjoyed working in TV for as many years as I did. I had some unbelievable opportunities and experiences, going to places I could never had imagined, meeting and interviewing remarkable people. I covered the financial crisis and ensuing recession for a major television network! Amazing.
Now, in radio, I am getting to stretch new muscles and learn new skills. For example, I am doing a lot more on-air work. This job is a great mix of editing, reporting, managing and developing the station’s strategy for business and economic coverage going forward. New York City is such an incredibly vibrant city. I hope I can bring some of that excitement and energy to our news coverage.