Planet Money Reporters In 'Idol'-Style Contest Given one hour at the International Council of Shopping Centers conference in New York, three Planet Money reporters must come up with an insightful story about malls and economics. Listeners will choose the winning piece. All Things Considered Executive Producer Christopher Turpin explains how the competition works.
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Planet Money Reporters In 'Idol'-Style Contest

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Planet Money Reporters In 'Idol'-Style Contest

Planet Money Reporters In 'Idol'-Style Contest

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Missing "American Idol?" Can't wait for the new season of "Dancing with the Stars?" Well, if you are a fan of competitions like those, then we have a little something to take the edge off of your angst. It is the second Planet Money On-Air Radio Challenge.

And here to explain how it works is someone we don't usually hear from in front of the microphone, ALL THINGS CONSIDERED's executive producer Christopher Turpin. Hiya.

CHRISTOPHER TURPIN: Hey, Robert.

SIEGEL: Good to see you here. And how is this competition judged and what's the prize?

TURPIN: It's pretty simple. The contestants: three reporters from our Planet Money economics team - Chana Joffe-Walt, Adam Davidson, Alex Blumberg. They have been given a very specific assignment. They had to go to the International Council of Shopping Centers Conference in New York City. Doesn't that sound thrilling?

SIEGEL: Oh.

TURPIN: And our intrepid trio, they had one hour to find and report a story. And then we threw one little wildcard in here as well. Each of their final reports had to include at least one word in a non-Romance language. So they had to work out a clever way of getting a non-Romance word in there.

SIEGEL: And the language cannot be English.

TURPIN: The language cannot be English.

SIEGEL: Okay. So by my saying, angst already, I've illustrated something that they might do in their...

TURPIN: Yes. It was not as complicated as you might have expected it to be...

(Soundbite of laughter)

TURPIN: ...as you'll hear if you listen to three final stories.

SIEGEL: Well, how is the competition judged and what's the prize?

TURPIN: Well, actually, the listeners get to be the judge. We're going to play little extracts from each story in a second, but you can hear the full stories and vote at npr.org - and that's what we'd encourage you to do. But just as with "Dancing with the Stars" and "American Idol," we also had an allegedly professional panel of judges. As you know, no reality competition is complete these days without a curmudgeonly British judge.

SIEGEL: Well, we've got that one out, have we?

TURPIN: That's right. We may not have much in Public Radio, but we can one up "American Idol." We actually have two curmudgeonly British judges.

(Soundbite of laughter)

TURPIN: Katya Rogers, the senior producer of WNYC's "On the Media" and me. We got to play that role.

SIEGEL: Mm-hmm.

TURPIN: But ultimately, the only votes that matter are the listeners. And the prize for the winner: Their story gets played in all its glory on Thursday's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

SIEGEL: Do the losers get to play it on NBC or something like that?

TURPIN: They get to stay on the podcast, I'm afraid.

SIEGEL: On the podcast.

TURPIN: That's not an iTunes, which I hear is not a place you want to be.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: Let's get on then with a taste of the three competitors.

TURPIN: Okay. We're going to start with Chana Joffe-Walt. Her story is about a guy called Jeff Vecchio(ph). Jeff owns a small strip mall, and he's come to the convention determined to persuade a big national store to set up shop in his mall. And to Chana, it was a quest that reminded her of high school. And actually, she's one of the few NPR reporters who's actually young enough to remember high school.

CHANA JOFFE-WALT: Can I say it sort of seems like there's like the cool kids and the cool kids are the Subways and the Red Robins and the big names. And then you are like trying to be in that league.

Mr. JEFF VECCHIO (Strip Mall Owner): We want to be a center that has the cool kids. We don't want to be a center that has, you know, the delinquents or whatnot.

(Soundbite of footsteps)

JOFFE-WALT: So clipboard in hand, dream in his heart, Jeff wanders the halls of the Shopping Centers Conference.

TURPIN: And Chana follows him as he wanders the halls of the shopping center, tilting at corporate windmills, trying to persuade Subway stores and the like to come to his mall and set up shop in his little mall.

SIEGEL: That's a bit of Chana Joffe-Walt's story. And now, Alex Blumberg's story.

TURPIN: Alex's story is about Five Guys, which is a burger chain, Robert, that I think you probably have visited at some time or another. They're based in the Washington, D.C. area. And what interested Alex about them is that they've expanded rapidly, even during the recession. And if you hear this clip, it'll give you some insight into the secret of their success.

ALEX BLUMBERG: We're on a different level of the trade show now, on Concourse E, in front of the booth of a Canadian real estate developer who is munching on a special delivery from Five Guys Burgers. The guy who brought him the burger is the owner of Five Guys. We'll get to his name in a minute. This is not the first delivery he's made today.

Mr. JERRY MURRELL (Owner, Five Guys): Three different companies I've entertained with hamburgers today because they've never had them. And the greatest thing - and now you missed it - is to watch them take their first bite. You missed the eyes. You missed them go, wow. That's the bomb. That's what I want. That's a hamburger.

TURPIN: No wonder they've expanded to 500-and-something stores in the last few years.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: The soft sell, huh?

TURPIN: Exactly. The quiet approach to marketing, I think.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: And finally now, we have Adam Davidson's story.

TURPIN: Well, yes, Adam. Now, here's how Adam sets up his story from the international shopping center convention.

ADAM DAVIDSON: There are all these displays for mall developers, mall retailers, mall restaurants, software providers selling the latest tools to figure out how exactly to get the most possible money out of the pockets of the people walking through the mall. Then I turn a corner, and suddenly, I'm talking to Paul Fetcher(ph).

TURPIN: Paul Fetcher. And he's really the subject, or one of the two subjects, of Adam's story. And he's a guy who's interested in lifestyle malls, Robert. Do you know what a lifestyle mall is?

SIEGEL: No, I haven't the faintest idea.

TURPIN: It's apparently malls that can be urban gathering spots, more like the town centers of old. And this sets Adam exploring the similarities and differences between ancient Roman and contemporary American shopping malls. Need I say some more?

SIEGEL: It's about time we had a story that did that.

TURPIN: We haven't had enough stories on NPR that do that, and he does it, of course, in typically Adam-esque fashion.

SIEGEL: Now, who was the winner in the view of the professional judges, yourself and Katya?

TURPIN: It was actually unanimous. We both felt that Chana Joffe-Walt's story was the best story. It was a tough decision. But all three stories were interesting and well-done. They're three excellent reporters, and I'll be very intrigued to hear which one the listeners like the most.

SIEGEL: Christopher Turpin, executive producer of ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, thanks for the rare appearance.

TURPIN: Thanks, Robert. It was a pleasure.

SIEGEL: Okay. Now, it's up to you, you listeners, now to either confirm or override the so-called professional judges. You can hear the three Planet Money stories in full by going to npr.org, where you can also cast your vote on which one gets to be heard on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

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