SYLVIE DOUGLIS, BYLINE: This is PLANET MONEY from NPR.
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NICK FOUNTAIN, HOST:
The other day, I got on a Zoom with a PLANET MONEY listener named Rachel Dzombak.
So I understand you have a story about PLANET MONEY changing lives.
RACHEL DZOMBAK: Yes. I'll start at the beginning.
DZOMBAK: But in 2017, I was living in Berkeley, Calif.
FOUNTAIN: She was working on her Ph.D., and a friend walks into her office.
DZOMBAK: Said, hey; did you hear that Jeff was on PLANET MONEY?
FOUNTAIN: Jeff Lackey, her old friend and ballroom dancing partner from college. He was a guest on a show we did about free-range chickens being eaten by eagles. Jeff's job, you may remember, was shooting off these explosives to scare the eagles away and make them ruin less products, so to speak.
JEFF LACKEY: And there they go. Did you see on the backside of that tree?
JACOB GOLDSTEIN, BYLINE: Oh, yeah.
LACKEY: There goes one right now.
GOLDSTEIN: There they go.
LACKEY: We can move them with the bird bangers.
FOUNTAIN: And when you were listening, you know, were you feeling butterflies?
DZOMBAK: I think I was more so feeling intrigue because his life was so different from mine. I was sitting in an office, writing code to do optimization functions. And he's out in a field, you know, trying to navigate this bald eagle population problem.
FOUNTAIN: And then a few weeks later, Rachel says, you know what? Why not reach out? Sends him a text.
DZOMBAK: I think the text said nothing more than, hey; I heard you on PLANET MONEY. Hope you're doing well - so not a ton of content to go off of.
FOUNTAIN: It would be so weird if he was like, new phone, who dis?
DZOMBAK: (Laughter). Thankfully, I felt confident that he still had my phone number.
FOUNTAIN: For Rachel and Jeff, that one text turned into more texts. Those turned into calls. And then she went to visit the chicken farm in Georgia.
DZOMBAK: I had no idea what was going to happen when I flew to Georgia. I just more so thought it would be an adventure and a great story, which - turns out it was. And it led to this amazing relationship that I have, a PLANET MONEY baby who was born 12 weeks ago.
FOUNTAIN: A baby.
FOUNTAIN: You have a newborn.
FOUNTAIN: PLANET MONEY baby? That's crazy.
DZOMBAK: Yeah. His name is Knox Frederick (ph), and he's adorable.
FOUNTAIN: Oh, my God. Congratulations.
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FOUNTAIN: Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Nick Fountain. Today we're going to take Rachel's example. We're going to reach out to guests from PLANET MONEY's past and see how they're doing 'cause even though we publish people's stories - we write these nice, tidy endings - it's not like the stories end when we stop recording. No, no, no. They keep going. And so we owe it to the people of the stories and to our listeners to check back in, see what's happened since. It's our annual tradition, the show we call The Rest of the Story.
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FOUNTAIN: Of the many stories we published this past year, maybe the ones with the most at stake were those that touched on the war in Ukraine. One of those episodes was about a CEO who, horrified by the Russian aggression in Ukraine, decided to try to get her employees out of Russia. The reporter on that story was Amanda Aronczyk. Hey, Amanda.
AMANDA ARONCZYK, BYLINE: Hey there, Nick. How's it going?
FOUNTAIN: Pretty well. All right. So you talked with the CEO again to get an update. Remind us her name.
ARONCZYK: Well, we didn't actually say her name at the time because we had to keep it a secret.
When we first spoke, we were very careful to not use your name. We didn't use your company's name. What changed?
NATALIE KAMINSKI: Well, first of all, we were able to finally get everyone out who was going to get out. So that's the main reason - right? - because we didn't want to risk naming the name of the company and potentially putting all these people who were still on their way out at risk. But since then, you know, we don't do anything in Russia anymore. And so now we can speak freely, and people are no longer afraid.
ARONCZYK: So I can say it now. Her name is Natalie Kaminski. She was born in Russia. Now she's American. And she is the CEO of a software company called JetRockets. And ultimately, she got every one of her employees who wanted to leave Russia out of Russia. That's more than 50 people. And Natalie - she is good at keeping things in perspective, right? She knows there is this brutal war in Ukraine. She actually has a sister who is trapped there right now. At the same time, she's had to manage complications with her company. She's had to help people start new lives, find apartments, enroll their kids in new schools, set up an office. This is all happening mostly in the neighboring country of Georgia.
KAMINSKI: Actually, a funny story. You know, when we opened office in Georgia, we learned very quickly that Georgia doesn't have IKEA. And IKEA, of course, is a wonderful resource to furnish your office space.
ARONCZYK: It is. If you want to furnish an office quickly, IKEA is...
KAMINSKI: You go...
ARONCZYK: ...The place to go.
KAMINSKI: ...To IKEA. Well, there's no IKEA in Georgia.
ARONCZYK: So they decided that their best plan was to actually go get the desks and chairs that they left in Russia. They'd also left behind all sorts of personal belongings because when people left, they were often pretending they were just going on vacation, so they brought a suitcase or two. So Natalie and her team booked some moving trucks to go get all of the stuff and drive it from Russia to the country of Georgia.
KAMINSKI: The first time, no hassle at all. The second time, there was some interesting occurrence at the border. But let me tell you, there is nothing, apparently, that cannot be solved with $500.
ARONCZYK: All problems disappear if someone is...
ARONCZYK: ...Handed $500 cash.
FOUNTAIN: So with some creative problem-solving, they've opened their office in Georgia. A bunch of people are relocated. How's business going?
ARONCZYK: Business is going well. Natalie's company - they build software and apps for clients, things like - they recently made a website for selling clothes and built a virtual conference app. Natalie said that since the war started, they have not lost clients and, in fact, have grown. So they've had to do this other thing that companies sometimes have to do when they get bigger.
KAMINSKI: We reached 76 people. So now we have this employee wellbeing manager, and he organizes all sorts of, like, biking trips and hikes and other activities to help people keep their spirits up because still, it's almost a year in. And it's getting hard. You know, people are realizing that it's no longer a short trip to a new and exotic place. You know, they're probably going to stay there for a while, if not forever but, you know, for a long time.
ARONCZYK: You know, it has been 10 months since Russia invaded Ukraine, and the war doesn't seem to be ending any time soon.
FOUNTAIN: Amanda, thanks for calling up Natalie and getting that update.
ARONCZYK: Yeah, of course. Thanks, Nick.
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FOUNTAIN: One of the stories we covered this year - and by we, I mean Erika Beras, who joins me now. Hey, Erika.
ERIKA BERAS, BYLINE: Hey, Nick.
FOUNTAIN: One of the stories was one you did about this community outside of Atlanta, Ga., that was trying to level up, was trying to become a city. And they had one final step. They needed to vote on whether or not to incorporate, to become a city. What happened there?
BERAS: OK. So there's this community, Mableton. And it's kind of part of this movement that's been happening around Atlanta where communities have said, hey; we're going to form our own cities. This summer I went to Mableton. I met with one of the organizers, Leroy Hutchins. Everyone calls him Tre', so we are, too. He's lived there most of his life, and he's like, Mableton is not getting the investments and attention it could get or it should get.
LEROY HUTCHINS: I met with, like, friends, people I grew up with, people I went to high school with, and we were eating some wings and talking about it. And then finally, we were just like, well, do you guys think this is something we should be doing? And they were like, well, Tre', why don't you do it?
BERAS: And so they had this big thing that they had to do. They had to get the people that would be part of Mableton - that's, like, 75,000 people - to actually vote for it on the ballot in November.
FOUNTAIN: How'd it go?
BERAS: Well, I checked in with Tre' after the election.
Tre', do you have a city?
HUTCHINS: We do have a city. It's the city of Mableton. Yes.
BERAS: Tre' says it was a nail-biter.
HUTCHINS: In any election, you just never know. And this was a big election. Our governor's race was on this election.
BERAS: Oh, I know. The whole country was looking...
HUTCHINS: That's right.
BERAS: ...At Georgia.
HUTCHINS: That's right. It was the last question on our ballots.
BERAS: People voted all the way down the ballot. Mableton got cityhood with 53% of the vote. But now they actually have to do all these things they said they would do, like force businesses to follow local laws and relax the zoning laws.
FOUNTAIN: Ah, the real work.
BERAS: Yeah, no, it's the real work. But the thing is there's no one yet to do it 'cause there's not yet a mayor or a city council or any tax revenue to work with.
HUTCHINS: You can't just flip the switch on and then revenue starts coming in. It doesn't work that way. But, you know, the county would probably need a year to just transition all of their processes and all of the different things that they have in place for a new city. So that will probably take a year or more.
BERAS: So one of the things that Mableton is probably going to have to do is the thing that a lot of these other new cities around Atlanta have done, which is they hire these companies that are, like, these plug-and-play companies that, like, set up a new city for you. And you kind of pay them after the fact. So you are like, come in. Do all this stuff. And then when our tax revenue comes in, we can pay you. There is, like, a whole little cottage industry around that. And so that's what they're going to start doing. And they are going to hope that they can kind of deliver on some of those promises that they made when they campaigned.
Is this nerve-wracking?
HUTCHINS: (Laughter) Yes. Yes, it is. Yes, it is.
HUTCHINS: Because for me, you only get one chance to get it done right. So, yes, it is nerve-wracking 'cause now it's time for you to put up. You know, we were just talking before, and talk is cheap, you know? So now it's time for you to show and tell.
FOUNTAIN: All right, Erika, thank you for the update. Happy New Year.
BERAS: Happy New Year, Nick.
FOUNTAIN: In a minute, the answers to so many unanswered questions. That $100 million deli in New Jersey - was it a scam? Political pollsters - how'd they do during the midterms? And the question you have all been asking - we hear you - PLANET MONEY Record's debut song, "Inflation" - is anybody listening to it?
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FOUNTAIN: A couple months ago, my co-host Jeff Guo and I went to visit Poughkeepsie, N.Y., and the folks at the Marist College Polling Center. They taught us about polling. They taught us how to become pollsters. They taught us about the problems of modern polling. Jeff joins me now to give an update on that show. How's it going, Jeff?
JEFF GUO, BYLINE: Hey, Nick. It's going great.
FOUNTAIN: Now, I have not followed how the pollsters did this midterms. But, Jeff, you checked in with the folks at Marist. What'd they say?
GUO: Right. And just to remind folks, the crux of this problem that pollsters are facing right now - it's that people, especially young people, just aren't picking up the phone.
FOUNTAIN: I remember it very well. I got hung up on as well.
GUO: So many times.
FOUNTAIN: Many times.
GUO: And so there's this question - right? - that we and a lot of other people have been asking. Are the polls broken, or can they accurately predict elections? So I called up the director of the Marist poll, Barbara Carvalho, to see how her team did in predicting the midterms. By the way, Nick, she says, hi.
Hey, Barbara. It's good to see you. How have you been?
BARBARA CARVALHO: Great, great. I heard you guys had a great 2022, and so did the Marist poll.
GUO: Oh (laughter).
Full disclosure - Marist has a working relationship with NPR. They do a lot of polls for us. Anyway, this was a big year for Marist 'cause they were trying all of these new things. And it turns out everything worked really well. This was an amazing election for Marist. And for these midterms, their poll estimated that overall, Republican congressional candidates would get three percentage points more votes than Democrats across the country. And when the final election results came out, Republicans were up 2.8 percentage points.
FOUNTAIN: They nailed it. They nailed it. Oh.
GUO: They totally nailed it. It was, like, right on the nose. It was amazing. So they are obviously really happy, and they credit all the new things they were trying. So they were texting people to take their poll. They were asking people to take polls online. And so they're just, you know, coming up with new ways to reach people.
FOUNTAIN: All right, Jeff, but you will remember that you came up with this idea that we should try to fix all of their polling problems by suggesting some questions. And Barbara was game. She put them in her polls. How'd our questions do?
GUO: Right. So our questions were designed to not just ask people who they were going to vote for but who they thought their friends and family were going to vote for, who they thought was going to win the election. And the idea is that these questions harness the wisdom of the crowds, so they're more predictive. And, you know, like, Nick, we didn't, like, invent this, right? Like, we did - we talked to researchers. We, like, did our homework.
FOUNTAIN: Yeah, there was...
GUO: We thought that this was - you know...
FOUNTAIN: ...Real research papers about this stuff, for sure.
GUO: Yeah. There's, like, real evidence that these questions do really well at predicting elections.
FOUNTAIN: Why are you defending this so much? I have a feeling that our questions did terribly judging by how much you're setting this up.
GUO: (Laughter) I'm just going to let Barbara tell you.
CARVALHO: What we found was when we added the wisdom of crowds questions, it moved it to be more Republican. So...
CARVALHO: It moved it to be a plus eight Republican.
FOUNTAIN: Swing and a miss. Our questions did way worse than the Marist poll. That is a bummer.
GUO: I know. But Barbara convinced me that, you know, this is what science is all about, right? You try new things. You make a new hypothesis. And then you gather data. So it's OK to be, like, wrong about stuff 'cause you're learning things. So, you know, she was actually really happy about how things turned out. Of course, she also, you know, nailed the election, so...
FOUNTAIN: (Laughter) All right, Jeff. Thanks so much.
GUO: Thanks, Nick.
FOUNTAIN: See you next year in Poughkeepsie again.
GUO: Same time, same poll.
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FOUNTAIN: Some of the best PLANET MONEY stories unfold as mysteries. And most of the time the mystery is solved by the end of the show. But sometimes the mystery is so fresh that we publish an episode with more questions than answers, including a show that involved submarine sandwiches and Mary Childs. Hello, Mary Childs.
MARY CHILDS, BYLINE: Hello. It's a delight to be here.
FOUNTAIN: Remind us what your show was about.
CHILDS: Yes. So in 2021, everyone, including but not limited to us, got obsessed with this deli in New Jersey. It sold sandwiches, and it was really normal except for the fact that it was publicly traded and valued at $100 million. That seemed weird.
FOUNTAIN: Yeah, because usually delis are not publicly traded. They're not on the stock market. Wait. So did you actually figure out what was going on with the deli ever?
CHILDS: Kind of. It turned out there was a lot going on. And to hear about it, I caught up with the CNBC reporter we talked to last time, Dan Mangan, who chewed through every aspect of this story except for, I would argue, the most important one.
Did you eat a lot of the sandwiches from there?
DAN MANGAN: No, I didn't.
CHILDS: Oh, come on.
MANGAN: My boss at the time went down there, and he said it was pretty good.
CHILDS: Even last year, it seemed like what was happening was the guys effectively running the company that owned the deli were positioning the company to get bought. The thinking was they wanted to make the shares look artificially high, which, for reasons that we went into on the show last year, would help make the company an attractive acquisition target so that some other company that wanted to be publicly traded without the hassle of actually going public would come in and buy it. And someone did. Someone came in and bought the company that owned the deli.
MANGAN: The deal worked in reality the way it was supposed to work on paper. At least that part of it did.
CHILDS: And then what?
MANGAN: So then, yeah, it was quiet for, you know, a long time until a couple of months ago, I found out that the Justice Department had indicted three people who were intimately involved. And also, the SEC had filed a civil complaint against those three.
CHILDS: Nick, I have the indictment right here. It is one of my many open tabs. It charges three guys who owned a lot of the shares in what was essentially a shell company that owned a real deli that made real sandwiches, Hometown International, Inc., and then this other company, E-Waste, that owned nothing. The three guys are charged with 12 counts, and most of the charges have the word securities or fraud in them.
MANGAN: So what they did was - allegedly - was they either structured or were aware of trading activity that artificially pumped up the value of these stocks by, in the case of Hometown, more than 900%.
CHILDS: That's a lot. That's a big percent.
MANGAN: It is - but, in the case of E-Waste, by nearly 20,000%.
CHILDS: An even bigger percent.
FOUNTAIN: So it was essentially, allegedly, a pump-and-dump scheme.
CHILDS: Yeah, I mean, halfway because the three guys who effectively ran the company never got to dump. They never ended up selling their shares, maybe because we all were paying so much attention to the story. A few months ago, two of the three were arrested. They have pled not guilty, and the third is still at large, allegedly maybe in Hong Kong.
CHILDS: I know - real espionage stuff. Also, the deli closed. Dan will never get to try those sandwiches. It's a tragedy.
FOUNTAIN: Mary, now that you have had some time to digest - I'm sorry...
FOUNTAIN: ...This story...
FOUNTAIN: ...Any big takeaways?
CHILDS: Well, Dan made this observation that I really liked, which is that the market for stocks like the ones we're talking about, which are small-time but publicly traded - they're not traded on a normal exchange. You can't go into the New York Stock Exchange and buy them. You have to, like, find a guy. It's like the Craigslist of stocks. And that leaves a lot of room for shenanigans. But Dan says maybe with this one example of the deli, where it was just this one sandwich shop in the middle of New Jersey with no growth plan - maybe it was so egregious and we all made so much fun of it that regulators might start to take a closer look at this market.
FOUNTAIN: Mary Childs, thank you for that update. May you have many delicious sandwiches in this new year.
CHILDS: Oh, thank you. A hundred-million-dollar sandwich to you, too.
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FOUNTAIN: Probably the thing that gave us PLANET MONEY staffers the most life this year was this project by our producer, James Sneed, and Sarah Gonzalez and Erika Beras and a whole host of other people. And that was to take this song that had been recorded in the '70s about inflation and put it out into the world and make a PLANET MONEY record company. Sarah Gonzalez is here to give us an update about it. Hey, Sarah.
SARAH GONZALEZ, BYLINE: Hey, Nick.
FOUNTAIN: So people, I'm sure, listened to this. If not, you have to listen. The episodes are called "PLANET MONEY Records, Volumes 1 And 2." But, Sarah, if they did not listen, remind us what this whole project was about.
GONZALEZ: Sure. Yeah. So we introduced you a couple of months ago to a guy named Earnest Jackson in Baton Rouge, La. He is 74 years old today. He's been singing since he was 5 years old. And he has been trying to make it in the music industry his whole life. Here's Earnest.
EARNEST JACKSON: I've never been signed by a label. That's my hope and dream.
GONZALEZ: So PLANET MONEY became a record label, PLANET MONEY Records, and we signed Earnest Jackson. We released one of his songs, "Inflation." Here's that song.
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SUGAR DADDY AND THE GUMBO ROUX: (Singing) Inflation can't help the situation. Now, people, stop what you're doing, and listen to what I have to say.
GONZALEZ: And our plan with this song was to sit back, see how it did on all the streaming platforms. And I have some updates for you.
FOUNTAIN: And I know that I have been listening to it a bunch, and my...
GONZALEZ: Good job, Nick.
FOUNTAIN: ...Family has been listening to it a bunch.
FOUNTAIN: ...Have the rest of the people who are not...
GONZALEZ: The people.
FOUNTAIN: ...Paid by NPR - have they been listening?
GONZALEZ: All right. I'm going to give you a couple of stats. So, like, on YouTube Music, we have about 27,000 streams.
FOUNTAIN: All right.
GONZALEZ: Little good, not that great. That translates to $31-ish for Earnest Jackson - so, like, really not that great, right? But a little bit better news - on Spotify, our song has more than half a million-ish streams, which is pretty big.
FOUNTAIN: I feel like that is respectable. That is a hit.
GONZALEZ: Oh, it's - I mean, it's not a hit. But apparently, these are actually impressive numbers.
FOUNTAIN: OK. That's a lot of streams. But it all comes down to money.
GONZALEZ: I know.
FOUNTAIN: How much is Earnest going to make off of this?
GONZALEZ: All right. For half a million-ish streams on Spotify, Earnest gets, like, 1,400-ish dollars.
GONZALEZ: Yeah, not great. It's, like, a little bit depressing. These are just estimates. They're pretty reliable estimates on, like, these royalty calculators. But they are, you know, still just estimates. So it could be a little bit more. But actually, more likely, it'll be a little bit less. We won't actually know exactly how much money the song made and how much Earnest gets to keep of that until we get our first check in the mail, which should come at the end of this month or in early January. We're, like, very anxiously awaiting our first check on the song. The minute we get paid, we're going to tell you all about it. But I do want to remind our listeners that our goal for this project was actually to reach a million streams.
FOUNTAIN: So come on. You got to...
FOUNTAIN: ...Stream it. Put it in that New Year's Eve playlist.
GONZALEZ: Exactly. We're halfway there. It's, like, so, so close but also so, so far away. It took us two months to get to half a million streams. So, you know, for Earnest, stream this song again. Tell your people to do it. You actually have to listen to at least 30 seconds of the song for it to count as a real stream that we make money on.
FOUNTAIN: The song is called "Inflation." It is by Earnest Jackson. You can find it anywhere. You can find it on Apple Music, Spotify, Amazon Music, Tidal, YouTube Music. Sarah, thank you so much for this update. I can't wait for - there's going to be a lot more updates, I get the feeling.
GONZALEZ: We got some stuff in store for everyone. Also, thank you to our listeners who have been listening to this song For Earnest. It's pretty cool.
FOUNTAIN: All right. See you.
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FOUNTAIN: It's that time of year again. We would really appreciate it if you supported this show and helped us keep doing this work that we love so much. The best way to do that is to donate to your local NPR member station. And an easy way to find that is to go to donate.npr.org/planetmoney. Please use that URL because then that station will know we sent you their way - again, donate.npr.org/planetmoney. Today's show was produced by James Sneed, mastered by Robert Rodriguez and edited by Jess Jiang. It was fact-checked by Sierra Juarez. I'm Nick Fountain. This is NPR. Thank you for listening, and have a happy New Year.
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