You Talkin’ to Me?

In television, 40 people behind the scenes make you look like a genius. There’s a script. There’s staff. There’s a TelePrompTer. And if that’s not enough, there’s a little man talking in your earpiece telling you what to say, how to say it, and when to stop saying it. You only have to talk for a minute or two anyway before you go to tape or a commercial. Everybody thinks you know what you’re talking about even if you are a total idiot. 

In radio, a man on the other side of a sheet of plate glass points to you, and that’s it. You start talking. About what? About whatever comes into your head. And fourteen minutes later, you are still talking. No script. No handlers. No prompter. No man in your ear. Just you. A radio broadcast studio is at once the loneliest and the most creative glass box on earth. 

I didn’t know any of that last year when I took the job as host of “RealMoney,” an hourlong financial-talk show (with the same name as the Website I write for). Over the past seven months, the show’s been expanding around the country, and it finally debuted in New York last week. It’s on WBBR, 1130 AM, weeknights at 11.

I had listened to plenty of talk radio growing up in Philadelphia, a town where radio hosts are bigger celebrities than their television counterparts. So I figured, What the heck, what’s so hard about talking? I’ve been doing it all my life.

But when the twenty bars from my theme music, Steve Miller’s “Take the Money and Run,” ended and my producer brought his finger down, I found myself staring right into the microphone without a clue as to what to say.

So I just talked … talked like I was at my old trading desk at Cramer Berkowitz, where I had been a hedge-fund manager for fifteen years. At my trading turret, I used to call the market like John Madden, talking up the tape, that relentless cascade of stocks, volume, and prices that scrolled across my terminal. I’d castigate the crummy stocks and the bad guys that run them, while singing out hosannas for the hot ones and the CEOs and their analyst acolytes who propelled them higher. Back then, I used to drive everyone nuts with my endless description of the action. Having some nut chattering endlessly in the background is not a conducive environment for reading a balance sheet or monitoring a conference call. But I couldn’t resist. I love to talk stocks. Even when no one was in the room, I would talk stocks to myself. I would have been happy to come over to your house and talk stocks just to you!

That’s why the “RealMoney” radio show turns out to be the most enjoyable challenge I have had since I started running other people’s money 21 years ago. That’s why, after the first fourteen minutes of nonstop monologue, I have to fight myself to take calls. Who wants to share the mike with someone else – “Jenny, who wants to know how to invest a $400,000 inheritance,” or John, who wants to know whom he can trust after Enron?

But I do it, because, for once, after being a carping, “cranky” money manager, as the New York Post described me recently, I can’t believe how amazing a call-in show can be, where it can take you, and where, if you are willing, you can go when pressed by real people who are fed up and angry about losing money in a stock market that was once paved with daily highs and spectacular returns.

And I love every second of the 42 minutes a day that I’m on the air. After seven months facing that mike, I feel like a vet. I no longer tremble when Dave Gorab, my fabulous producer, gives me the high sign. And I’m getting used to those talk-radio catchphrases: “Longtime listener, first-time caller,” and “I can’t believe I got through.” But I don’t think I can ever get used to the losses that people have taken in this market. When you are managing the money of the superrich, you don’t get many chances to speak to the people who have borne the brunt of this terrible two-year-old bear market in tech, not to mention the low or stagnant returns (at best) in other sectors. You don’t know the anger and hatred that people have toward the managers at Janus or Putnam or Invesco, despite the hundreds of millions those folks have spent trying to keep you in their mutual-fund chains. You can only guess at how much people now feel the market is rigged, what with their 401(k)’s decimated while Ken Lay’s wife pleads poverty because they have to sell a few of their many multi-million-dollar homes to finance some legal bills.

For me, these daily exchanges with the real owners of stocks are like pure oxygen – I can’t believe how personal it all is, especially after the solitude of the printed word and the forced statesmanship and good manners demanded of all of us who go on television.

My deal with the show’s producers is simple: I can say what I want as long as I know it to be true. Which means that I can get people out of all of those crummy investments they’ve been jammed into and tortured with, and put them into something solid, or at least less dangerous to their financial health. At first, I thought it was only a matter of time before my willingness to castigate lousy companies and their stocks got me in hot water with the radio powers that be. I am no stranger to that on television, where I had at one time or another been warned about not badmouthing companies that I knew were hopeless money traps.

But not in radio. In radio, you are freer to say what’s on your mind than on TV. It’s more direct, less muted. I’ve received only encouragement from the honchos for blasting those who don’t deserve trust and praising those who can make you money. Stuff like “The Danger Zone,” a segment where I actually tell you what stocks to sell – something you rarely hear on Wall Street – wouldn’t last a minute on television, or even cable.

So how long will the show last? Alas, radio, like television, is a ratings game. If no one tunes in, they pull the plug and I’m back calling the game to myself, alone in my office.

Right now, though, I’m “between books,” meaning I am just now going into my first full ratings season. I feel it’s up to me. If I can make this money game as interesting as Mike and the Mad Dog or Jim Rome can make sports, if I can get people laughing or angry about stocks like Howard or Rush, I may have found my next career.

You Talkin’ to Me?