NOEL KING, HOST:
Every week at Planet Money, we have a story meeting. We're supposed to be pitching ideas of stories that we want to do, but a lot of the time we just end up talking about stories that other people have done, stories that are so brilliant and so perfect that we just throw up our hands and say, why didn't I think of that? And then we move on. But - but one day a year, we do not move on.
Hello and welcome to Planet Money. I'm Noel King. We have an annual tradition here - started it last year, and the idea is we just give a shout out to people whose work we love. Today on the show, we send out valentines to the best of the best of the year. We've got the secret history of ranch dressing, the coolest kid in Kansas and Young Thug.
GLYNN WASHINGTON, BYLINE: We'd like to say a quick thank you and share a message from one of our sponsors FreshBooks who are on a mission in 2017 to simplify your paperwork. FreshBooks makes cloud accounting software for self-employed professionals that's so ridiculously easy to use, they've now helped over 10 million small businesses save time and get paid faster. Send an invoice in under 30 seconds. Set up online payments in two clicks and track time using their mobile app. For your 30-day free trial, go to freshbooks.com/planetmoney and enter Planet Money in the how did you hear about us section.
KING: All right. First up is Jacob Goldstein. Jacob, what's your valentine?
JACOB GOLDSTEIN, BYLINE: My valentine is a story that appeared on the front page of The Wall Street Journal on - let me see - October 19, 2016. Headline - "What Does Nevada's $35 Billion Fund Manager Do All Day? Nothing."
STEVE EDMUNDSON: You know, I didn't love the he-does-nothing-all-day title of the article. Of course, all my coworkers were telling me to get to work.
GOLDSTEIN: That is Steve Edmundson. He is the manager for the pension fund for Nevada state employees. And that headline on this story - it's a joke about this investing strategy called passive management. And it's sort of become all the rage, you know, the traditional style of managing money. And this is true for, like, mutual funds for ordinary people's retirement funds, but also for big pension funds. The traditional style is active management, and that is basically you pay someone who's like really smart and who studies the market to, like, pick stocks and bonds that they think are going to do great.
The idea of passive management is that is a waste of money that those people are not worth the money you're paying them, and you're better off not paying them and just more or less buying all of the stocks and all of the bonds and not trying to pick which ones are best. And so if your job is just, oh, buy all the stocks, you don't have to spend all day being like, oh, I'm going to research this one. I'm going to call the company. You just buy them all.
And the genius of this story from The Journal is it captures this whole sort of idea of passive management in the form of this one person of Steve Edmundson. He is like the embodiment of passive management. You know, he manages a lot of money.
EDMUNDSON: As of this morning, 36.6 billion in assets.
KING: Thirty-six-point-six billion? He's doing nothing with it?
GOLDSTEIN: I hear that amount of money, and I picture, like, you know, giant midtown Manhattan office with like a ridiculous Central Park view. Edmundson works in a little one-story building in Carson City, Nevada, got a little office.
EDMUNDSON: I almost get a view of the mountains.
GOLDSTEIN: Not quite.
GOLDSTEIN: He's got to like walk over to the window. He's mostly looking at the office building across the way. He drives an old car.
EDMUNDSON: It's a 2005 Honda Element.
GOLDSTEIN: So there's all these delightful details about him in the story, but there's also, I think, this interesting idea here which is, you know, it if - it is really contrary to human nature to, like, look at some massive news event or whatever and be like I'm not going to do anything.
EDMUNDSON: I think that the human instinct is to constantly act.
KING: So what does he do all day?
GOLDSTEIN: Well, OK. So yeah he doesn't do nothing to be clear. He's not like trading much, but, you know, he basically has to sort of just kind of manage the checkbook of the fund, you know, like employees are contributing into it, and he's got to make sure their money, you know, gets out into the stock market. Retirees need to get paid.
So it's not that he's truly doing nothing. He's just not trading much. And I should say the piece in The Journal - it's just a really lovely little story, really nicely written. The reporter who wrote it was Timothy W. Martin.
KING: Jacob, can you stick around?
GOLDSTEIN: Yeah, no. I'm getting paid by the hour. I got all day, guys.
KING: (Laughter) Passive hosting. All right so my valentine is something that, Jacob, I know you love, too. It's - it goes out to the obituary section of The Economist magazine. I love it so much...
GOLDSTEIN: So they run one obituary every week...
KING: Every week.
GOLDSTEIN: ...At the back of the magazine.
GOLDSTEIN: Sometimes it's someone famous. Sometimes it's someone I've never heard of.
KING: It's so good. And I wanted to know who writes those obituaries? So I thought it would be some like very grim, serious buttoned-up dude. And I was completely wrong...
GOLDSTEIN: Because everybody who writes for The Economist is that.
KING: You have that in your mind, right? It is actually this woman named Ann Rowe, and she's not buttoned-up. She is just lovely.
ANN WROE: I should warn you I've got a cold. So...
WROE: ...I'm holding it at bay. Well, it might sound low and sexy or it might just sound too croaky.
KING: (Laughter). The thing I love about her writing is something that I think is true of all great writers. You read something by her, and even if her name's not on it, you know it's her. So my favorite obituary from the past year that she did was of Prince. I loved Prince, so I must have read about 10 Prince obituaries. And here's what most of them are like. This is a real one, and it starts (reading) Prince the songwriter, singer, producer, one man studio band and consummate showman died on Thursday at his home Paisley Park in Chanhassen, Minn. He was 57.
So that is a typical obituary, but Ann's obit in The Economist starts out talking about freedom. I asked her to read her opening lines.
WROE: (Reading) So sexy, freedom, so sexy he couldn't begin to explain it.
KING: So sexy - comma - freedom.
KING: All right. And then she goes on.
WROE: (Reading) Free to put on mascara, paint his lips, glue on long eyelashes to lower, flutter and seduce, strut in ruffles, squeeze in black leather, preen his naked midriff, shake his naked ass out of a yellow jumpsuit.
KING: (Laughter) Keep going.
WROE: Maybe that's enough (laughter).
KING: Yes, no, you're good. You're good. You're good.
KING: So good, right? It's so good. All right. So I asked her, you know, what are you doing?
GOLDSTEIN: Like what's...
KING: How do you do this?
GOLDSTEIN: ...Her secret?
KING: Yes. What is your secret?
GOLDSTEIN: Secrets of The Economist obit writer. Is there an answer?
KING: Yes. There is. There is. Here's what she told me. She said first thing is she will get her assignment on a Thursday. And at that point, she only has 36 hours to turn this thing around, so she gets right to work.
WROE: My first port of call is the London Library which is just around the corner from here, luckily. And I race there, and I see if my subject has written an autobiography. Otherwise...
KING: Do you really run down there yourself or do you send like an intern?
WROE: No, I try to go there myself.
WROE: Otherwise - I mean, if I don't go, who knows what they might miss, you know? You've got to go yourself. Anyway, it's only around the corner.
KING: OK. Then she goes online.
WROE: And I google, google, google like a mad thing. And I google strange things with the name. You know, if I was googling Prince, I might google Prince and then cheese.
KING: So none of this seems strange or secretive, right?
GOLDSTEIN: Well, Prince and cheese is strange.
KING: (Laughter) That's something, OK. But - so here's the thing she told me.
GOLDSTEIN: This is the secret part though.
KING: This is the secret sauce.
KING: She is not really interested in what other people have to say about her subjects, so their friends, their co-workers, their family. She doesn't usually talk to those people. She only wants to hear what the person she's profiling has to say about themselves.
GOLDSTEIN: Ah, that's rad.
KING: Right? And then she feels like she can hear their voices in her head. So she sits at her desk, and she chews her pen. And she channels them like she's actually writing in their voice.
WROE: You're trying to get the human soul. I really believe in the soul, and therefore what I think I am doing is catching souls. And that's an almost impossible business to be in.
KING: And I think that's the reason that she's so memorable and so extraordinary because when she writes, she's actually becoming someone else.
GOLDSTEIN: It's genius.
KING: Yeah. Right? All right. Thanks, Jacob.
GOLDSTEIN: Does that mean you want me to leave now?
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
KING: All right.
NICK FOUNTAIN, BYLINE: Howdy doody (ph).
KING: Hey, Nick Fountain.
KING: Who's your valentine?
FOUNTAIN: My valentine goes out to a music video director. His name is Ryan Staake, and he made only one video that I've ever seen. It is a music video for The Atlanta-based rapper Young Thug. And, Noel, the reason I love this video is because of what I do every day, right? I'm a producer here at Planet Money. And what I do largely is like reporter wrangling and guest wrangling and making sure that all the right elements for a podcast are in the right place at the right time, right? Fair?
KING: Yeah. Fair.
FOUNTAIN: And sometimes that delicate choreography just goes all wrong. And Ryan Staake, my valentine, the music video director, took one of these disastrous production days just the worst I had ever heard of and made it into something brilliant.
RYAN STAAKE: The first moment I realized things were kind of, you know, not going according to plan and going south is probably that first shot.
FOUNTAIN: The reason things were going south is because Young Thug, the star of the video was not there.
KING: Which undermines the entire point of a music video.
FOUNTAIN: Right. But Staake thinks no worries. It's 11 a.m. We've got time. We can just shoot some establishing shots, and when Young Thug arrives, we can shoot him in those places and edit him in post.
STAAKE: And then from there, it just got worse and worse and worse.
FOUNTAIN: So all day long he's shooting scenes of this Young Thug video without Young Thug. And keep in mind he had hired a huge crew. He had blocked off the street. He's a little nervous, but he's like I'm going to make this work. He keeps shooting.
And then the sun goes down, and Staake is like I've spent $75,000 already. I just got to get one shot of Young Thug singing the lyrics to this song. It's not going to be pretty, but I'm going to make it work. And then after 10 hours of shooting...
STAAKE: He pulled up and we thought he was going to be coming up shortly to be part of the scene. And then...
STAAKE: Yeah. Awesome feeling. And then he did not come out of the car.
KING: (Laughter) He didn't come out of the car. So they have nothing now.
FOUNTAIN: They have absolutely nothing. It's just a nightmare. It's absolutely a nightmare.
KING: I shouldn't laugh. It is.
FOUNTAIN: And Staake is like this is the worst day ever. He's driving back to the hotel, and he's with somebody from his crew. And he's just like repeating it over and over in his head.
STAAKE: You know, I would just like mention something in the shoot like, man, didn't it suck when, you know, blah, blah, blah happened? And he'd be like yeah, that sucked. And then I'd like be quiet for a while then I'd be like and then that part when, you know, he didn't get out of the car - didn't that suck? He's like, yeah, that was bad. And it was just like - kind of like repeating the same like obvious stuff over and over like almost in a daze.
FOUNTAIN: But the reason we're here today, Noel, is because Staake made something anyways, right? He made a music video about making a music video where the artist featured in the music video hasn't shown up for the music video. I'm going to play it for you.
FOUNTAIN: Here it is.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC VIDEO, "WYCLEF JEAN")
FOUNTAIN: So, so far...
KING: Standard music video, models, cars.
FOUNTAIN: Yeah. But then there's like these subtitles like it's a foreign language film, but it's just these like passive aggressive commentaries on the day. So this first one is Young Thug didn't show up in time for that shot.
KING: Ouch. He's like calling him out.
FOUNTAIN: He's totally calling him out. And the next one says in fact he never showed up for any of our shots.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC VIDEO, "WYCLEF JEAN")
YOUNG THUG: (Rapping) Boolin' rockin' nuder Frank Muller. I know some...
FOUNTAIN: And then it gets better. He has like these little outlines of where young thug should be sitting in these shots. And it's the producer in me who loves this because he just made this beautiful thing out of nothing. And that's something we all aspire to do.
KING: All right, Nick Fountain, thank you so much.
FOUNTAIN: One more thing.
FOUNTAIN: I reached out to Young Thug's people for comment. He has not gotten back to me.
KING: Maybe he will by sundown.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WYCLEF JEAN")
YOUNG THUG: (Rapper) OK. My money way longer than a NASCAR race. I told her keep going on the gas, [expletive] the brakes.
KING: All right. Next up is a quick one from Alex Goldmark. Take it away, Alex.
ALEX GOLDMARK, BYLINE: My Planet Money valentine goes out to someone named Ernie Smith because he is a connoisseur of the mundane. He is an expert in boredom. He runs a newsletter called Tedium where he obsesses over boring things until they become interesting. He writes these long posts filled with details where he digs up old patent filings or clippings from hundred-year-old newspapers, archival audio. He just goes so nuts, and I love it. So I called him up, and I asked him about some of his favorites.
ERNIE SMITH: I did a really great one about the issue with umbrella patents. It was titled "When It Rains It Pours."
GOLDMARK: The issue is inventers keep coming up with new ideas for umbrellas, but consumers don't ever buy them. They just stick to the old, cheap ones.
SMITH: I did one on the history of ranch dressing a while ago which was very much, I would say, a personal interest of mine (laughter).
GOLDMARK: It really is from a ranch, and it really was called Hidden Valley.
SMITH: The history of fingernail clippers and how we clipped our fingernails before we had fingernail clippers.
GOLDMARK: So many ways - one device was kind of like an apple peeler, and it looks terrifying in the drawings. And, no, Ernie Smith never claims that these posts are important, but he sees what he's doing as a kind of antidote to the firehose of tiny updates and breathless news - Tedium, the newsletter.
KING: I'm going to check it out. Thanks, Alex.
GOLDMARK: You got it.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
BRYANT URSTADT, BYLINE: All right. Next up is our editor Bryant Urstadt. Bryant...
KING: Hey. Is this the first time you've been on air with us?
URSTADT: This is the first time I have ever been on a podcast.
KING: Awesome. Well, we're happy to have you. And who does your valentine go out to? Who are you jealous of?
URSTADT: So I'm going to tell you how I found out about my valentine first. My son came home one day, and he was like, dad, can we get a trampoline?
KING: Wait. How old is your son?
KING: OK. This makes sense.
URSTADT: So it doesn't make sense because we live in a tiny little apartment, and it's only like 6-foot from wall to wall. And I don't think he's ever seen a trampoline, so there's no possible way we can get a trampoline. And I didn't know what he was talking about. And I just sort of wrote it off. And I said, no, we can't get a trampoline. And then he came home another day, and he said can you take me to the store so we can get some spiking gel?
KING: Like spiking...
URSTADT: For his hair.
KING: For his hair. OK.
URSTADT: Because he wanted to spike it up straight.
KING: He's 11 (laughter).
URSTADT: And I was like 11 - OK, OK. We can do that. And then he came home a third time, and we were just sort of sitting quietly. And he said can we move to Kansas? And I said Kansas? Why? And he said because that's where Tanner Braungardt lives. And Tanner Braungardt is a YouTube star. Since he's about 7, he's been chronicling kind of his whole life on YouTube. He makes these inventive little skits and videos and kind of has created a whole little entertainment empire that's just him and his friends. He has 2 million fans.
KING: Two million fans?
URSTADT: Mostly like my son who just love everything he does, and they all have spiky hair and want trampolines.
KING: How old is this kid now?
URSTADT: He's probably about 18.
URSTADT: And he has made Kansas seem like the most interesting place you could possibly live, and I am jealous of him because I think he's a person who has kind of found and figured out a new art form that didn't exist even just a few years ago. And he's done what a person does with art which is take the mundane and the normal and the stuff that we think is too uninteresting to be excited about and made it into something that everyone else wants to be a part of. And, like, I'm kind of jealous of that because I wish I was like that, too.
KING: You wish you were an artist or you wish you were 18 again?
URSTADT: Yeah I wish - yeah, I wish I had...
URSTADT: Well, everything, but I wish I had that sense of how to transform just regular life into special life, and I think he's done that.
KING: Very cool. OK, Bryant, one last thing before you leave. We should say that we stole the conceit of this show from the place that you used to work, Bloomberg Businessweek.
URSTADT: That's right. Over there we called it the Jealousy List. And in some ways, I think that was maybe a better name because these are valentines here, but they're also about jealousy and envy which is like one of the seven sins. And it's like a serious feeling, and we would get it. And we would want to be those people and have done the things they did.
KING: All right. Thanks, Bryant. I hope your first podcast appearance was fun.
URSTADT: I am exhausted. I have to go rest now.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
KING: OK. One last item. It comes from Planet Money producer Sally Helm. And, Sally, yours has to do with straight-up jealousy.
SALLY HELM, BYLINE: Yes. My valentine goes out to a website that I love. It is called Reductress.
KING: And what is Reductress?
HELM: Reductress is a satirical women's magazine. It's like the Onion meets Cosmo. I went down to the Reductress offices a few days ago, and I talked to three ladies there. They are Beth Newell, Sarah Pappalardo and Nicole Silverberg. They edit the site, and a big part of their job is coming up with funny headlines which, Noel, I think you maybe can agree we need a little help in the headline department.
KING: They are not our strong suit.
HELM: I mean, well, we're good at them. We do come up with two good headlines a week but...
HELM: Yes. The thing is it takes us forever, like way, way too long.
At Planet Money, we tend to spend like three hours on a Friday afternoon just trying to come up with a headline for the one episode that we have to put out that day. How many headlines do you guys come up with every day?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Oh, it varies. I mean our writers pitch us hundreds a week so...
HELM: So I have a question for you. We are doing a show that is an annual tradition for us. It's our jealousy show. It's specifically about professional jealousy, so jealousy of other people's work. If you were to come up with a headline for that episode, what would you call it?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Like, Oh My, God, I'm So Happy For You.
KING: Oh My, God, I'm So Happy For You.
HELM: Yes. It's the subtext of all of these valentines that we've done a little bit. It's like I love what you made. I wish it had been me a little bit, but I mean, I'm so happy for you.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
UNIDENTIFIED ARTIST: (Singing) Move on, move on, move on. I've got somebody new. Move on, move on, move on. I've got somebody, too.
HELM: What stories have you read that you think we should have done on Planet Money? You can send us an email we are email@example.com. You can also find us on Facebook or Twitter @planetmoney.
KING: Our show today was produced by Nick Fountain and by Elizabeth Kulas. Thanks, guys.
HELM: And if you're looking for something else to listen to, check out the Ask Me Another podcast. It's like your favorite game night or trivia night, but way funnier. Our very last valentine goes out to them. You can find Ask Me Another on the NPR One app or at npr.org/podcasts. I'm Sally Helm.
KING: And I'm Noel King. Thanks for listening.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GOLDSTEIN: Prince died?
KING: Like (laughter) I never thought I'd laugh about Prince's death. But...
GOLDSTEIN: So yeah - so you read 10 obituaries.
KING: All right. So I must have read 10 Prince obituaries...
GOLDSTEIN: Prince died?
KING: (Laughter) Stop it - must have read 10 (laughter) - now I'm laughing about this man that I love.
GOLDSTEIN: At the death of a great artist.
KING: And I loved Prince, so I must have read about 10 Prince obituaries and he...
GOLDSTEIN: Prince died?
GOLDSTEIN: I just couldn't help myself there.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.