“Stephen, how's your eye?” Ethan Lindsey asks.
It's 3:30 a.m. Outside in downtown Los Angeles, it's the dead of night, but inside the Frank Stanton Studios on Figueroa Boulevard, it's the heart of the work “day” for the Marketplace Morning Report overnight shift. And things are bustling.
While most of the world sleeps, Lindsey, the show's 34-year-old producer, spearheads a close-knit team of six, which churns out seven newscasts and more than 40 minutes of original programming nightly. This is the fast-paced world of public radio: There's no time to be tired when 5.9 million listeners depend on you for the morning news every week.
Right now, Lindsey is on the phone with reporter Stephen Beard, who lives and reports from an off-grid farm outside of London. Beard, who cuts his own firewood, had suffered wood-chip splinters to the eye that forced him to the emergency room and out of the morning rotation.
“Why were you chopping firewood last night?” Lindsey asks. He turns to his co-workers. “Most of the time I wear my protective goggles,” he says.
Phone to his ear, chatting nine time zones away while multitasking on two screens, Lindsey fires off hundreds of emails to reporters worldwide, scans wire services and websites on a half-dozen tabs and sips countless cups of coffee, defying the body's circadian rhythms and downright common sense.
Lindsey's team produces seven nationally syndicated casts that run at 10 minutes before the hour, every hour, from 2:50 to 8:50 a.m. Then, at 8 a.m., Lindsey leads the morning meeting as the daytime producers and editors arrive, briefing them on the show's coverage and the already breaking news.
“One of the reasons it's impossible to fall asleep is because it moves so fast,” Lindsey says.
Coffee in hand, blazer unbuttoned, his brown hair scruffy and his eyes darting intensely, he fields questions from a visiting journalist. (Full disclosure: This reporter worked for Marketplace Radio as a contract researcher and digital associate producer in 2011.)
“If you can't be fast, then you can't,” is how associate producer Jolie Puidokas puts it. “People sort of get it, but you can't get it until you've done it.”
If Lindsey is the captain, Puidokas is second-in-command. They've gotten to the point where they can communicate nonverbally. “When I have to call him from the studio,” she reports, “it's a series of grunts.”
This small team consistently produces the most popular of the Marketplace family of shows — which include the daytime show Marketplace, Marketplace Money and Marketplace Tech Report. But for all their camaraderie, members of the overnight crew know they can't work this shift forever. The hours are taxing. There's a saying around the office that every year working the overnight translates to losing one year of your life.
To keep morale (and their bodies) up, some members of the team swear by melatonin. Others, including Lindsey, use eye shades and blackout curtains to ensure sleep during daylight hours.
But even after almost seven years working overnight shifts in Washington, D.C., as a reporter for The White House Bulletin, followed by two stints as a reporter and then producer with Marketplace, Lindsey maintains that he's undeterred by the schedule.
“It becomes your normal life. It doesn't bother my body clock,” he says.
His strict dedication to keeping a “normal” schedule is key to his success: “You have to go back to your normal life on the weekends. If you don't, you don't have a life and the job isn't worth it because you've lost your life.” His wife isn't as happy as he is, he admits, “but we found a way to make it work.”
For the UC Berkeley graduate, the hardest days are Mondays and Fridays. Mondays because he's recovering from the weekend, when he goes back to a nighttime sleep schedule, and Fridays because he doesn't sleep at all.
“On Fridays I don't go to bed. I'll just sleep for an hour or two,” he says. “Because if you sleep a full day or full night in the morning, you're really awake at 3 a.m. Unless you're going out to raves, it's not going to be a good schedule for you. I try to get a couple hours so I'm really tired. I may have been tired on Friday, but at least I can stay up until a normal hour and fall asleep — and then I have a normal weekend.”
Despite the hours, Puidokas says, the shift can be freeing in terms of staffers' personal lives. You can run errands like seeing the doctor or shopping without feeling a time crunch. There's also the added value of being able to take a nap at the beach when everyone else is stuck in rush hour traffic on their way to work.
(Weeks later, however, Puidokas learns that these nightside pleasures will no longer be hers. Promoted to become Marketplace's associate producer of wealth and poverty coverage, she's planning a move to the dayside.)
Jeremy Hobson, the show's host, says the unorthodox shift is an adrenaline rush. “The hard part is going to sleep,” he says. Still, he admits, “Sometimes it feels like you're on a spaceship.”
Even more alien to most listeners, however, is the fact that Marketplace is not actually a part of NPR. Instead, it's distributed by American Public Media, which also produces A Prairie Home Companion and owns Southern California Public Radio, which runs KPCC (89.3 FM), one of Southern California's two NPR member stations. On average, NPR affiliates like KPCC receive 15 percent of their funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, with the proportion lower in urban areas.
Confused yet? The fact that the show comes on as the last 10 minutes of NPR's Morning Edition doesn't help. “Even my parents think I work for NPR. They don't know the difference. They just listen to public radio,” Lindsey says.
Still, he loves the job. When confronted with the prospect of going back to the dayside, the young producer wavers momentarily. All he knows is that he wants to stay in public radio journalism. There are more jobs here than in print, and he likes that theatrics and humor are encouraged to enhance storytelling. “There's an art to it.”
“The sandbox here at Marketplace is incredible,” he adds, praising his colleagues and supervisors. “They've given us the ability to be ambitious. They want us to experiment to make it interesting for everyone else.”
The audience is listening. Even at 3:50 a.m.