`IT was always as if you had come in in the middle of a movie," says Jim Angle of the way much economic coverage struck him. "You kind of know what's going on, but you can't figure out who all the characters are or what action took place before you got there."
Demystifying economic reporting is how the host of American Public Radio's "Marketplace" describes his weekday program. Aware that people tend to switch off when economic jargon starts peppering reports, he sees his mission as putting the human face back onto business news and explaining the terms and statistics. It's what he calls "soft-core" economics.
Since its premiere in January 1989, "Marketplace" has met with remarkably rapid success and now pulls in an audience of just over 2 million weekly listeners. The most popular business program on radio, the half-hour weekday broadcast currently airs on 197 APR stations across the country and continues to be the fastest-growing series on public radio.
Mr. Angle, the show's senior editor and anchor, says too many programs aim at an audience of investors. Blithely launching into corporate issues and the latest bond rally as if everyone followed the market daily, these shows offer little relevance to people's day-to-day lives, he says. "It's like going to a dinner party where there are 10 people and nine of them work at the same office, except for you."
Yet the economy is nothing more complicated than how people make a living and what they do with their money, he says. Consumer spending is two-thirds of all economic activity. "We basically talk to people and say, `You are the most important part of the economy.' "
The program still includes economic indicators but injects a touch of irreverence by playing "We're in the Money" or "Stormy Weather" after stock-market reports.
Using this sprinkling of humor and layman's terms, "Marketplace," produced by USC Radio at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, has been named the "best business program" on radio or television by the Columbia Journalism Review. Its listenership is 40 percent female and especially strong in the 25-to-34 age group.
Mary Martin, an associate professor specializing in business at Boston University's College of Journalism, is not surprised at its success. Traditionally, business has been reported in a "cod-liver- oil fashion," she says. "Marketplace" is a program that "proves that business news doesn't have to taste like poison."
What does surprise her, however, is that it hasn't been imitated more by commercial radio. "The American public tends to be undereducated in matters of economics" and has a much greater appetite for business news than the media understands, she says.
Angle's experience seems to uphold that view. A veteran of National Public Radio, he says that wherever he goes, whomever he talks to, he gets the same response: People tell him they don't care about business, know nothing about the economy, but they like "Marketplace."
"They're sort of bewildered," he says, "because they don't know quite how to explain why they're interested in something they thought they had no interest in."
But Angle has an explanation. In fact, explaining things - the way the economy works, the way society operates - is key to the program's popularity, he says.
There's no course in school about how things work: We are never taught how to get a mortgage, for instance, or how the rates are determined, he says. "Marketplace" gives people "a sort of peek behind the curtain."
And the little we think we do understand, he says, may not be correct. A favorite saying of Angle's is from Uncle Remus: "It's not what you don't know that hurts you. It's what you know for sure that ain't so."
Dispensing this kind of information in an interesting and relevant way has a strong "empowerment component" - one that Angle says he and his staff are very conscious of.
The economy, the structure of business, and the workplace are undergoing more fundamental change than they have since the early part of this century when Henry Ford introduced mass production, he says. Heightened competition as business goes global and companies reengineer themselves to cut costs, and the accelerating pace of new technology are all very unsettling.
Angle says there's a tremendous amount of uncertainty in people's lives. By way of example, he cites a recent statistic that Robert Reich, Secretary of Labor, passed along. Only 14 percent of those who have joined the unemployment lines since 1990 will go back to the same job. Traditionally, that figure has been nearer half.
"We try to address that, to explain what is happening to their world," he says. "We can adjust to anything but uncertainty."
It's this very uncertainty that lost George Bush the presidency, Angle says. Not many things that the current administration is doing over the short term differ from what Bush was doing, he says. "The problem was [Bush] didn't recognize the need to explain to people what was happening."
But once you learn how the world works, Angle maintains, you can better negotiate everyday life. Now more than ever, he says, people need understanding.
* Check your local public radio station listings for broadcast times of "Marketplace."