Q&A with Tess Vigeland, Host of NPR’s Marketplace Money

by Deborah Mersino

I’m delighted to bring you the first Q&A in a my new Women Living Their Dreams series. My goal is to spotlight authentic women who are impassioned about their work and willing to shed light on their professional journeys. Get ready to meet Tess Vigeland, host of NPR’s Marketplace Money, who describes herself as “an animal-lover, dinner party diva, wine enthusiast, travel junkie, born with webbed feet (native Oregonian) which have now reverted to human form after 10 years in LA.”

1. Can you tell us a bit about how your career evolved over the past decades and how you wound up hosting Marketplace Money?

I started as a general assignment reporter at Oregon Public Broadcasting. I’d done an internship with them after my freshman year in college, and lo and behold, they wanted to hire me after graduation. I’m a big believer in internships! Lucky for me — although that’s a strange way to put it — I found myself at the center of two huge stories out of Oregon in the mid-90s… the Tonya Harding figure skating debacle, and the scandal surrounding former Senator Bob Packwood. Both happened around the same time and the network couldn’t get enough of them. Suffice it to say, covering those stories raised my national profile and bigger market stations came calling. I went to Boston to cover sports (!) for two years, and then returned to general assignment reporting. I spent six months in Ireland covering everything from the Wexford Opera to the peace talks in Belfast. Ultimately I got a call in 2001 from Marketplace. It was the place I’d always wanted to work — a dream come true. So we moved here to LA. I hosted the Marketplace Morning Report for almost four years, getting up in the middle of the night to report on everything from Enron to Martha Stewart’s stock trades and beyond. And now I’m with the weekend personal finance program Marketplace Money, hopefully helping people manage their dollars and sense!

2. What drew you to radio and how did your education prepare you – or not – for the job you have today?

I didn’t know anything about public radio before I took the aforementioned internship, but quickly fell in love with it because it was so different from, say, the local TV broadcasts that gave people so little real information. I loved that I had more than 10 seconds for “soundbites.” I loved that I could go deep on a subject. And I loved that I wasn’t expected to have anything to do with advertisers. And more than anything, I fell in love with the craft of radio. It’s all about the words, the imagery. We don’t have pictures and we don’t have words on a page. You have to be clear enough with your language and description and explanation that people get it on first pass when it goes in one ear. They can’t re-read what you’ve said. I love that challenge. As for my education… I went to a journalism school that was primarily oriented around print/newspapers. Once I decided I wanted to do broadcast, I thought being in a print program would be a disadvantage. But the opposite is true. Learning the basic craft of writing a good sentence, of bringing an audience with you through creativity and directness… that’s a skill for every aspect of life. If you’re a good writer, you’ll probably be able to get a job somewhere, somehow. I see younger journalists come through our newsrooms right now who need remedial spelling and sentence-writing. That’s criminal. I’ll always be grateful for the writing lessons I received not just in college, but also before than in high school. It’s a skill that — along with critical thinking — is a must-have for any successful career.

3. What qualities have served you best through the trajectory of your career?

Curiosity, curiosity, curiosity. I ask so many questions… I’m sure it drives people nuts sometimes. And I don’t stop once I leave the newsroom. I’m ALWAYS asking questions. One of my dinner party idols, Ina Garten, wrote in one of her cookbooks (aka party manuals) that if you’re shy in social situations or unsure of what to say, just ask people questions. Especially about themselves. They’ll come away thinking you’re the smartest person in the room. And you will be, because everyone you talk to builds on the information database in your head. Salespeople are told to ABC… Always Be Closing. I think ABAQ — Always Be Asking Questions — is far better and far more fun! Aside from curiosity, I think another quality that’s served me well is the ability to synthesize information. When I started as a sports reporter, the only reason I knew where the 50 yard line on a football field was, was because the number 50 was written REALLY BIG on the field. In other words, I did not know anything about sports. But it was a great opportunity to work on a fun show with a writer I’d always admired (Bill Littlefield). So I threw myself into the subject, absorbed everything I could, watched ESPN, read the sports section. And when I interviewed people, I’d ask them to explain things to me as though I’d never heard what they were talking about. (Which — I hadn’t!) And then I’d take it back to the station and put it in my own words to make it understandable and INTERESTING for people who didn’t think they’d want to hear about sports. I do the same thing now with business and economics. The first time I heard the term “collateralized debt obligation” I thought someone was speaking a foreign language. But it’s my job to be the synthesizer, the translator. And that’s an invaluable skill that’s served me well over the years.

4. What about college? What did you enjoy most? Did you face any particular challenges?

College was tough. I didn’t know a soul when I arrived on campus, 2,000 miles away from home. I’d been socially awkward in high school. A theater and music geek. I was better at conversing with adults twice my age than with my peers. I thought college would change that. Turned out I went to a school that was way too big for me. Too many people. Not enough individual attention. There was no way to know that beforehand. But I also was only barely 17 when I got there. So, socially, it was really tough. I was happiest when I was away from school on internships on the Hill in Washington, DC, and at a newspaper in Delaware. That said, I did have a small number of wonderful friendships that exist to this day. And as for what I enjoyed most? Living in/near Chicago. I was always going downtown to art galleries and even the symphony. I loved the big city. But I was itching to get out into the world. Get on with life and a career. College was just a signpost for me.

5. Going back a bit further, can you talk about being accelerated in elementary school? Did it serve you well?

Halfway through 7th grade, my parents asked me how I’d feel about moving up to 8th grade for the second half of the year. My teachers and school admin had advocated for me to accelerate and go to high school early (our system was 6-8 middle school, 9-12 high school). My folks sat me down for a quite serious conversation. I think I also spoke with some teachers (memory is fuzzy at this point) and the principal. Socially, it was hard enough to be the smart kid in class without then generating the special kind of ostracism reserved for a smarty-pants who thinks she’s so much better than anybody else that she can skip a full year of school. Some of my friends took it better than others. But the fact that I remember the pain from that long ago tells you just how powerful some of that schoolyard behavior can be. (Not physical, but emotional.) AND YET… best thing that ever happened to me. I finally felt challenged at school. I caught up socially… eventually. And it was absolutely the right decision. My parents ultimately left it up to me, and I’m glad they did.

6. Were there any teachers in particular who impacted you in a powerful way? Can you share more about him and/or her?

I had 2-3 teachers who were life-changing. One was my choir teacher, who I knew from 4th grade through high school. She was a sounding board. And she helped cultivate talents outside the classroom. (She was very supportive of my piano studies, which were pretty much my life until I got on the school newspaper and got bit by the news bug.) I also had two English/Literature teachers who were not just good teachers, but good people who really paid attention to individual students. One became almost a psychologist for me, someone outside my family (and friends) who I could talk to about things like not making the cheerleading squad. He recognized that he was that person for me, and he let me lean on him as an adult… mentor? That’s not the right word. An adult friend who would just listen. Not every teacher can do that, has the time to do that, has the energy to deal with a moody teenager outside of class hours. But to this day I credit him for helping keep me sane and on a path toward success.

7. What advice would you give students today who want to pursue a career in broadcasting or journalism?

I touched on some of this already, but really there are two keys. One, be curious about the world around you. I find it useful to know a little about a lot of things, instead of a lot about one or two things. I’m not a specialist. If you want to be, say, a science reporter, then you’ll need to know a lot about one subject. That’s different from what I do. I need to be curious about pretty much everything, from science to politics to finance to, yes, sports and beyond. And I like that. It makes every day interesting and keeps me on my toes. If you want to be in journalism, you have to be ready to learn every single day. Curiosity is your best friend. And secondly, writing. Writing, writing, writing. How do you become a good writer? It goes way beyond sentence structure and punctuation (you’ll notice I use a lot of ellipses and dashes — that’s just the way I’m used to writing for broadcast). It’s all about expressing yourself through words. And the best way to learn how to do that is by… reading. Find columnists, bloggers, book authors you admire and try to figure out why you’re drawn to them. Then use that to create your own writing personality. You don’t have to be Steinbeck. But you do have to draw people in, engage them, and get them CURIOUS about what you have to say. Good writing will do that.

8. What about stress? How do you handle it?

Multiple psychotropic drugs. No just kidding. I don’t know, I guess after 20+ years, I’m just used to deadline pressure. I thrive on it, actually. I was always a procrastinator, so constant deadlines are good for me. The bigger pressure is always having to pay attention to what’s going on in the world. As a news junkie, and because it is my livelihood, I can’t tune anything out. I have to pay attention to the debt ceiling debate. I have to pay attention to political scandals. I have to be aware of what’s happening in Greece and Egypt. Etc. It never really lets up. And that’s the stressful part. Most people can pick and choose what news they want to consume — I don’t have that choice. And in times like fall of ’08, in the thick of the financial crisis, it’s stressful to watch the wires issue bulletins every few seconds about bank closings and stock market crashes. But you barrel through, in part because the audience is counting on you to be rational and calm, and in part as a coping mechanism. Knowing that millions of people are listening and counting on you does wonders for keeping stress levels in check. Also — and I should have said this up top — lots of people have waaay more stressful lives than I do. I’m very lucky. I have a job. That I love. I am literally living my dream. Keeps things in perspective.

9. What’s been the hardest lesson you’ve learned in your career?

That I have to be my own most vocal advocate. My office is like any other. Nobody else is going to make the case for me when it comes to asking for things I want… whether it’s a raise or doing something different in my job or whatever. I’ve always been terrible at that. (And studies show that we women are terrible — in general — at that.) But you’re never going to get what you don’t ask for. It doesn’t mean you’re going to get everything you DO ask for, but nobody else is going to ask on your behalf. That’s a tough, tough lesson to learn. And if you don’t learn it early, it hurts you in the long run. So to sum up: tell everyone who will listen just how awesome you are, and ask for what you want!

10. What are you most proud of?

Good question and hard to answer. I think in terms of sheer effort and time spent on a project, I’m most proud of a documentary I reported and produced in the mid-90s about the chemical weapons depot in Eastern Oregon. It was an hour-long look at safety preparedness in the surrounding community. I’m also very proud of a collaboration our show did this year with the New York Times, which included two bylined articles from me {Note: Scroll down for links}. It doesn’t get much more exciting than a NYT byline. But I think my most emotional piece of work was an essay I wrote after visiting New Orleans — for the first time — three years after Katrina. That trip moved me like no other, and I wrote what was for me a very opinionated piece about the lack of recovery there. I’m supposed to avoid opinion in my job. But I didn’t that time. And I’m proud of that. I still tear up when I read it.

11. Can you tell us something about your non-professional life that might surprise people?

I gave a solo piano recital last year to mark my 40th birthday. I grew up studying classical piano for 15 years as a kid. Even thought I’d go to conservatory for college. But then veered off into journalism and, as they say, the rest is history. But I took up lessons again about five years ago and now am back at it with Chopin, Beethoven and all the greats! I study at the Pasadena Conservatory of Music.

12. Do you have any thoughts on how the United States could improve its support of gifted, talented, and creative learners in public schools?

Well it’s hard to answer this without getting into the foodfight that is American politics right now. It’s insane that governments are cutting back on education at all levels. And I fear these programs (we called them TAG back in my day… talented and gifted) may not fare well under the budget ax. Which means it’s going to be up to parents and others outside the school system to provide more of that support. But beyond that, unfortunately, I have no creative solutions. It’s up to all of you.

13. Lastly, how can NPR lovers best show their support?

Ah an opportunity to pitch for your donations! When you hear the fundraisers on your local station say they can’t exist without you… they’re not joking. They rely on listener support for the vast majority of their budgets. So if you’re a public radio listener… call now!!

Additional Links to Tess Vigeland’s Work

As an NPR fan myself, I agree with Ms. Vigeland regarding supporting public radio! And if you would like a closer look at the work referenced in this post, please see the links below:

Thank you to Ms. Vigeland for sharing her thoughts, experiences, and insights with us. What a privilege it’s been to spotlight her story! As always, I welcome your comments, questions, and takeaways. Feel free to “Leave a Reply” below. And stay tuned for additional Q&As with other Women Living Their Dreams in the days and weeks ahead!

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2 Responses to “Q&A with Tess Vigeland, Host of NPR’s Marketplace Money”

  1. […] delighted to bring you the second installment in my new Women Living Their Dreams series. My goal is to spotlight authentic women who are impassioned about their work and willing to […]

  2. We remember Tess in her childhood at St. Luke Lutheran in Portland, and hearing her play her recital pieces so beautifully as a teenager. We keep check on her with her parents in Portland.

    But most of all, we have SO enjoyed her radio broadcasts, as well as learning much too. We are so proud of Tess and all her many accomplishments.

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