I've been a fan of Ray Suarez's work dating back to his days hosting NPR's "Talk of the Nation." My favorite part was always the brief essay he he would write to introduce that segment of the show. The man can write -- and radio gave his words a real intimacy, almost like he was reading to us from a short story he had written. I was happy for him (even if sad for us listeners) when he moved to the NewsHour but of course that just means he's doing great work for PBS.
But now I'm a different kind of fan-- a grateful one. Here's the story (and here's the (7-minute!) clip to give away the ending):
Reid Cramer at the New America Foundation invited me to Washington, D.C. to talk about BROKE (click here for the webcast). Reid is director of the foundation's Asset Building Program. For the better part of two years, I was hanging out with all these people getting rich draining the working poor of their hard-earned money. I understood the point of view of the entrepreneurs behind the payday loan and rent-to-own but they were also ensuring that all those waitresses and welders and warehouse workers among their customers could never build up a savings account. The saddest part is that if people had just $500 or $1,000 in the bank, they'd never need to use a pawn broker (and borrow money at annual interest rates of between 60 to 300 percent, depending on the state) or a payday lender (fees that make a pawnbroker seem like a bargain). And here New America has been thinking of creative ways to help people build assets (read here about the Foundation's nifty idea a lifelong savings account that every American would receive at birth). My time on the economic fringes convinced me that financial education might be the most formidable weapon against the more abusive side of these businesses--and that was a thrust of New America's approach as well. Yeah, a group talking about financial education and innovate ways of encouraging asset building among those of modest means? I'm there.
I go down a day early because I'm hustling a new book and who knows who might be on the other end when the phone rings. Luck had me in Washington just as Barack Obama was about to sign a high profile financial reform package. Ray, who knew my work from our younger days working as political reporters in Chicago, had read BROKE and liked it and recommended me as a guest. My first morning in Washington, a very friendly producer (I'd give his name but I don't want him mad at me for publishing it here on the Internet) calls to deliver the bad news but offer me a consolation prize: I pitched it for tonight, he told me, and they said no. But would I mind coming in to do the web extra they offer viewers each night? At the risk of being repetitive, I'm an author slogging his latest. Of course.
Friendly producer calls while I'm having lunch. Why don't I come in a little later, he suggests. That way we can put you in one of the NewsHour studios and we'll have the "flexibility" in case we want to use any of the interview on the air. I'm not exactly sure what he means but in this context "flexible" sounds like a good thing. I meet the interviewer, Hari Sreenivasan (pictured). We talk a bit about the book while we're waiting for studio space (that darn Judy Woodruff was using it to interview some high-ranking Obama official), I feel like a tourist watching the interview wide-eyed from the producer's command post. We do the interview at 5:00, it's over before I know it, and as we walk off set, there's Friendly Producer telling me something else had fallen through, they're airing the segment on that night's NewsHour. It was a real thrill to be on a show I've been watching for so long I'm one of those people who instinctually still wants to call it the McNeil-Lehrer show.