Interview Date: Wednesday August 04, 2004
Interview Location: Englewood Cliffs, NY
Interviewer: Steve Nelson
Collection: Legacy Collection
NELSON: Ron, why don’t we just start out and talk a little bit about your background, even your childhood growing up?
INSANA: Well, I was born in Buffalo, New York in 1961. I spent almost 13 years there and my folks moved to Los Angeles just in the middle of 7th grade. Not exactly the best year to part home but we lived there then for quite a number of years afterwards. I stayed until I was about 30 and was working for Financial News Network at the time, the predecessor to CNBC, and we were acquired in 1991, so I’ve been out here ever since.
NELSON: Okay, now before going to FNN though you did go to college. I think you went to Cal State?
INSANA: Cal State Northridge.
NELSON: Talk a little bit about that program.
INSANA: Well, it’s interesting. I started college as a music major. I was firmly expecting to be a drummer in a rock and roll band, or at least a bad pop band, by the time I was an adult and kind of shifted gears in college to become a film major and then expected to be working either for Steven Spielberg or George Lucas by this stage in my life. That didn’t happen either, so ultimately I ended up at FNN, but I was focused on the entertainment side really of either film or television production and spent some time making student movies and things like that, some of which are not remotely memorable and are the reason I’m here today.
NELSON: And we won’t show any clips from them.
INSANA: Thank you!
NELSON: So were you in some kind of a communications program?
INSANA: Yeah, at Cal State Northridge they had a radio, television, film program and you could have an emphasis either in film production or media management or something like that, so both those areas were the ones I explored and film production got a little pricey in college so I couldn’t afford to finish my senior project. So I ended up as a media management major. I don’t know what that means exactly, but I couldn’t find a job in entertainment, so got a job…
NELSON: You did look? You were trying to go Hollywood?
INSANA: Oh, looked very hard! I spent two years doing that. We were pitching shows around town. One of my friends from high school and I had developed a children’s television program together and my brother and I had developed some programs together, so we went on the pitch circuit for actually a couple years, as late as two years into my job at FNN we were still running around Hollywood being told that we were wonderful young minds and then never getting a return phone call. So that got frustrating enough on its own, but FNN became interesting enough, really, in a lot of ways that it overtook my desire to end up on the entertainment side.
NELSON: Now before we leave Cal State for a moment, Bill Griffeth went there, Sue Herera went there…
INSANA: Bridget McMahon, now Bridget Siri, who’s one of our lead directors here went there, in my class for that matter.
NELSON: Now, why all these people coming out of that one place? What was so special about it? That’s a lot of people coming out of one program.
INSANA: It happened I think to be really proximity to our homes. We were all within if not miles, in Bill’s and my case blocks, from Cal State Northridge, and also at the time this was a school that one we wanted to go to, but two was wildly affordable. This is a college that was up the street from my folks’ apartment and cost me when I started $90 a semester to attend and when I left I think it was $350 a semester. So it was convenient, it was local, it was a very good school, they had a good communications program, they had a great business program – I mean I wasn’t involved in that at the time, but they were a well respected college, and again, accessible and convenient and a whole host of other things. It just so happened that all of us were living in the area and all of us had access to FNN as a start-up cable company in Los Angeles and we just really kind of accidentally ended up there. I don’t think Bill and Sue coordinated it any more than Bridget and I did. In fact, my first week at FNN Sue Herera said, “Oh, you know my sister, Bridget,” and I said, “Yeah, yeah, we graduated together,” and at the same time Bridget had gotten a job there as well, so somebody I’d graduated with from the TV side was working in the same place I was.
NELSON: You graduated from college, you’re out there looking for fame and fortune in Hollywood and not necessarily finding it, and you look for a job now.
INSANA: So a friend of mine, Mike – and I don’t recall his last name now – and I were going actually together to a bunch of Hollywood production facilities, leaving our resumes and trying to get a call back for any kind of job, production assistant, gopher, whatever it was going to be…
NELSON: Mail room, get in the door in other words.
INSANA: Anything. I recall we went to one production company that sent us a rejection letter less than 24 hours after we were in the office, which was uniquely discouraging, but I had been to a friend’s wedding right around the time I graduated college and this was a friend of mine from high school – Casey Wyan, who is a reporter on CNN – and he got me an interview at Financial News Network and shortly thereafter I started as a production assistant, which today we call a news associate, so it was on the editorial side. My job was to rip the wire back when there was paper wires and they came off a roll, and essentially to stand there for eight hours a day and make sure that no stories were missed and I would dispense wire copy to Bill Griffeth and Sue Herera, who also had a bell or buzzer under their desk so when they were finished with their stock market or commodity market commentaries I’d come out and get the scripts and insert them into the pile, and so I’d stand there and wait for the buzzer to go off so Bill and Sue could feed me their contribution to the show.
NELSON: So how did you rise a little bit from that position still at FNN?
INSANA: It was rather circuitous. I got fired before I ever got on the air. In October of 1984, Financial News Network was a relatively troubled new cable company. I believe at the time we were in 12 or 13 million homes, some of which were cable, some of which were a loose amalgamation of UHF stations around the country. FNN, as I recall, was spending a million dollars a month on production and taking in a half million and the management at the time decided to break even overnight. So I was the first person who was let go in October of 1984. The executive producer, Steve Fentress, who has since passed away, came up to me and said, “Ron, remember when I told you I needed you next week? I don’t need you next week.” So I went home with no job and a week later the assignment editor gave me a call and said, “Hey listen, we’re having a big party because we think we’re going out of business. They just fired 85% of the staff; come on down. We’re all going to get together one last time.” They didn’t shut the place down; they did go to break even overnight. They kept Bill Griffeth and Sue Herera, then Sue McMahon, as the principle anchors for the place. They had a couple producers, my friend Casey was one, and a few on-air contributors – Ed Hart and John Bollinger. Bollinger still contributes to CNBC.
NELSON: I assume that Bill and Sue got worked to death.
INSANA: They split eight hours of programming between them every day, and it was an adlib shop from that point on. There was no production support of any kind. My friend Casey was the only producer in the room. There was one other producer who directed the wrap-up program at the end of the day and then also times the rundowns for the rest of the day and that was the way they divided the responsibilities. So Bill and Sue ran from the moment they got in the door at whatever it was, 5:00 or 6:00 in the morning – remember, we’re living on New York time in Santa Monica, California, so you started early and finished early – and the other contributors kind of talked about various aspects of the market for the rest of the day, and we had one guy on the overnights who handled about three hours of programming completely on his own. He wrote, produced and anchored the show. There was a director and a producer who timed the show and that was our entire overnight crew. It was insane. I was off back at The Vitamin Store, where I was working in college, trying to find any kind of work. I went to a variety of different places, again mostly on the entertainment side just trying to get back in the loop, and four months after I was let go Casey called me up and said, “Listen, I’m out of here,” he’d stayed on as a producer, “Do you want my job? It’s open and it’s between you and another guy. Come on in and interview for it.” Fortunately I got it and it was $22,500 a year, which was nearly double the money I was making as a production assistant and probably 150% of what I was making at The Vitamin Store, and so I was back at FNN in February of 1985.
NELSON: And then obviously stayed on.
INSANA: Stayed on, yeah.
NELSON: So ultimately, though, FNN got in relatively even greater trouble than merely breaking even?
INSANA: Ultimately, yeah. In the interim, I had the strange bit of luck that Bill and Sue called in sick on the same day of May of 1985 and managed to do a couple updates on-air because I was one of the only people in the room. I was also kind of in charge by default that day because our bosses had moved to New York and were operating FNN from New York even though the bulk of the programming was done in Los Angeles. So I told my boss, I said, “Hey, somebody’s got to go on and do this stuff. We’re calling in Eve Doran,” who was one of our anchors when the place was more fully staffed and we were sharing responsibilities and I got to go on air and do a couple of updates and managed to stay on the air despite an obvious lack of skill for a while longer and was able to do it long enough that ultimately I became part of the team, but not without a great deal of peril, and not without some severe embarrassment to myself along the way.
NELSON: So you really had no training from the on-air side of the business. You were from the production side.
INSANA: I had no training in on-air, I had no training in business information, which made me uniquely suited to work at the Financial News Network. I was able to go on… really within the space of about four or five months after that I ended up doing the overnight shift for three to six weeks – whatever it was – in a couple different stints because the gentleman who had worked the overnights quit and they had nobody to put on the air so they went ahead and put me on knowing full well they weren’t going to give me the job, but they needed a warm body from between twelve in the morning and six in the morning, and they just let me do it. It was a great learning experience. Content-wise it was probably a disaster. I was there for one of the biggest stories that broke in 1985, which was the G5 at the time, which is now the G8, the group of five industrialized nations decided to drastically devalue the dollar as a means of fixing the trade deficit and stimulating the U.S. economy. It was a huge story and it happened on one of the nights that I was working. I had no idea what I was talking about, and I kept trying to write this story – it was coming over the wires and they wrote it in trader-eze on the various financial wires that we received at FNN. I couldn’t understand a word and by the third hour I was told I had it close to being right, so a bit of a challenge at that point in my career.
NELSON: You worked it through on-air?
NELSON: I’m sure that was an embarrassing moment. Were there any others you can recall because you said that there were some bad moments?
INSANA: Oh, God! I recall one day stopping myself in the middle of a sentence, and remember, this was an adlib shop and so at that point in my career I was learning the content, I was learning how to be on-air, and I was doing it without a script, as were Bill and Sue and the other people that we had by that time on the air, but I realized in the middle of one sentence one day that everything I’d said prior was inaccurate and had to just stop myself and tell the audience to ignore what I just said. I know it was a very long sentence and it was a great deal of time that I’d spent on it, but fortunately I caught myself. There were moments that were difficult. This was not he easiest content to master. In a way, finance is like medicine or law; it has its own language. You have to learn the language before you can start talking about it and for most of us at Financial News Network we were learning the language as we were speaking it, and so there was always some great chance for error and it happened more often than not in the early days, but I tended to like it enough that I went up and bothered to learn it, both while I was on the job and in my free time.
NELSON: But of course the viewers looking at a financial news network as a source of credible credibility and accuracy…
INSANA: Not then!
NELSON: While they had no right to, perhaps.
INSANA: It was a brand new beast. FNN was supposed to have been a children’s television network when it was first conceived. A gentleman by the name of Glen Taylor and his wife, Karen Tyler, had decided to start a children’s television network as another offering on the cable menu, cable then being in its infancy in 1981, and apparently at the last minute changed their minds and decided to do a financial news network. So this was really kind of an ad hoc thing, and I was not there from the very first day. Bill and Sue both arrived before FNN went on the air and told me great stories about checks not clearing and them rehearsing in the parking lot for the first day of FNN, and I don’t think it had quite yet broken through to the national consciousness that there was even this thing to be watched and I don’t think anybody necessarily had, whether inside the shop or outside the shop, a distinct view of what was going to go on there. In a way it was revolutionary. You remember there were no home computers really distributed at that time in 1981…
NELSON: And you certainly weren’t on-line.
INSANA: No, nobody was on-line, and getting a ticker in your house for free was…
NELSON: Was unheard of.
INSANA: Yeah, unheard of. This was access to information that you previously had to pay for, and sure the information was 15 minutes delayed, but it was better than not having it at all, and it was the first kind of revolutionary moment in the process of democratizing financial information that took place. More would come later, but what went virtually unnoticed in that period ultimately became a fairly big deal.
NELSON: But even from a TV technology standpoint, putting that ticker across the bottom of the screen… of course now, everything is always rolling across the bottom of the screen in multiple layers.
INSANA: And you wouldn’t believe how the advertisers screamed about it, whether or not we should keep it during commercials, drop it during commercials. That was a good seven year argument. We went round and round, the sales guys would come in, “You’ve got to drop the ticker.” It’s like you drop the ticker you lose the identity of the network while you’re in commercial and nobody knows what they’re watching. So this was an argument; how much we did coverage of the markets; how much we talked about other things; this was an ongoing set of conversations. Some people wanted to do one thing, other people wanted to do another. At the time, because it was such a niche service…
NELSON: And so new.
INSANA: And so new, but we developed reasonably quickly this core, loyal, almost fanatical audience, so that if you didn’t show commodity prices four times an hour – and we used to show, I believe, 16 pages of commodity graphics every time we showed them – if you did not do that four times an hour people called in screaming. They wanted to know what wheat was doing, they wanted to know what gold was going, they wanted to know what oil was doing. Not that it’s any different today, but the frequency with which was delivered that information was deemed so important by our core audience that we really were governed by them in a lot of ways during that period from let’s say ’85 until now, in some ways.
NELSON: Now obviously overnight you don’t have the New York Stock Exchange, etc. What was different about being overnight and then when did you move out of that slot, or did you?
INSANA: No, I did. I was there for three weeks and then off for a bit and then back for three weeks to cover the vacation time of somebody that they’d hired. Diana Karecki, who coincidentally grew up five minutes from my house in Buffalo, I’d never met her at the time but she came in to train in September of ’85 and we were talking about where we had been born and grew up and we literally lived five minutes away from each other in Buffalo for quite a number of years and then met on the overnight set at Financial News Network. She took that job over and I eventually got a slot in the early mornings between 6:00 and 7:00 Pacific Time covering the market open. At that point, from about September ’85 onward I had my own slot on Financial News Network. Bill and Sue were still doing the bulk of the daytime programming and Diana and I were kind of carving up the overnight and early morning hours. I got into it. Art Cashen, who is a regular contributor to CNBC still, was one of my first regular guests on FNN doing a report from the floor of the New York Stock Exchange on the phone. Remember, going back to FNN in those days, we had no resources, we had no money. Most every interview was a phoner and we covered it with graphics or videotape, which actually got so stale that at one point the stock market floor videotape that we used, which we then called S1 was so old that we got a call from somebody at the New York Stock Exchange, and I don’t recall the year, but he said, “You know that guy that’s in the shot on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange? He’s been dead for two years.” This is how often we freshened our material. It was a resource constrained place to put it generously. The graphics would fail, the ticker would fall, our computer on-set would disappear, sometimes all at the same time and you had five minutes to go ’til commercial and you virtually had to just vamp for that five minute period and work off your notes. You couldn’t get the phone interview going and you’d just sit there for five minutes talking about as much market and economic information as you could spit out, and it was great training because it was disaster training all the time. There’s nothing that could happen to me on-air now that didn’t happen back then in spades. We would sit there and really just adlib as much as possible just to fill the time.
NELSON: And obviously you have much more support now is you get into that kind of a mode, if something goes wrong, or if there’s a big breaking story you’re not sitting there all by yourself kind of bare-naked to the world.
INSANA: 1987 was so important in that regard because we had the biggest breaking business story of our generation at the time, or so we thought, and that was the stock market crash of ’87, and fortunately at the time FNN kind of pulled all the stops out and gave us the resources we needed. I happened to be on the floor of the Chicago Board Options Exchange that day. I was visiting one of my best friends who was going to med school in Chicago and the CBOE with which we did a television show on Monday mornings at FNN was holding an options trading class that day for a couple of days. So I was there, I figured I’d write off the trip while I was visiting my buddy – he was in school all day anyway, so I needed something to do – and so I was at the Options Exchange on Monday morning October 19, 1987 taking an options trading class and I was going to do an interview on the show because Bill Griffeth who was hosting the program said, “Yeah, go ahead. You’re going to be there, let’s do something from the floor. It’ll be interesting.” Yeah, well, it was. I was probably one of the only people actually standing on a trading floor during the crash in 1987 and reporting from there and it was by far and away one of the biggest learning experiences I had ever had because it was just so immediate, so urgent, so big, and I was reasonably young. I was 26. It’s not terribly young to be a reporter on your first big story, but it was pretty much a formative experience and also helped change people’s perception of FNN at that time because we did do a pretty good job covering a meaningful event as far as the markets were concerned.
NELSON: Yeah, that’s what I was going to ask you. That must have been a real turning point for FNN in terms of the audience, the credibility of the network and people seeing it as something that you turned to for financial news as opposed to this oddball channel over there.
INSANA: And prior to that, we’d been getting beaten up, justifiably, for having a lot of sponsored programs injected onto our air during the middle of the market day and we were forced to sandwich our live legitimate reports about the markets in between commercials from commodity hucksters and other people who were probably of some lesser repute discussing what you should be doing with your money, and Barron’s used to write us up viciously about this not only conflict but real degradation of the product, and can you tell the difference. Barron’s did a story once where they put all our pictures up in TV screens adjacent to the page of this story and every infomercial host that we had on the air next to us. It was an embarrassing moment for us. With ’87, and then again in ’89 when CNBC started and we had to go into a much more competitive mode, we got some praise for the way we actually covered the legitimate side of our business, and for Bill and Sue and me and Diana we actually got a little recognition for the work we had been doing for quite a number of years toiling in obscurity for small amounts of money, too.
NELSON: So talk about that, when CNBC came on the air and how that affected what you were doing at FNN because now you’re not by yourselves anymore.
INSANA: We weren’t by ourselves; we weren’t fully distributed yet at the time that CNBC came on. I believe we were just north of 30 million homes and those affiliate agreements weren’t exactly airtight. So there was a lot of risk to the business model and the week before CNBC went on the air FNN had struck a deal with Ted Turner to purchase 49% of the network for at the time I think it was the astronomical sum of 100 million dollars or something like that. You can check the numbers, I don’t know if that’s right. We were almost bought out and almost lost operational control to Ted Turner and that deal unraveled for a variety of reasons, but all of the sudden the profile of FNN grew rather noticeably and people began to write these David and Goliath stories. You know, “scrappy little FNN”, run by a man who would ultimately go to jail for financial improprieties, but being attacked by General Electric, NBC and the new CNBC and what that battle was going to be like and whether or not we’d survive it or ultimately CNBC would prevail. Now, we beat them head to head for two years on a ratings basis. CNBC had experimented with a lighter fare and a presumably more palatable presentation of business news and we went harder. We focused more on the economy, more on the markets, and that seemed to work. The fact that we were run by a guy who ultimately would go to jail for a number of financial misdeeds kind of killed the goose that could have laid the golden egg. I mean, if this guy had played it straight, he would have been Bob Johnson. He would have made a billion dollars off his investment and he would have been a minority partner with General Electric at some point in the future, or could have gone on to do a lot of other things. In some ways he had the right ideas about what FNN should have been but he was always cutting corners and was always getting himself in trouble and ultimately lost the business in bankruptcy court to GE, which was then battling with Dow Jones in 1990 and 1991 for control of the company.
NELSON: Talk about yourself in the middle of that situation. Here you are in a financial news network, it’s being accused of fraud, it’s slipping into bankruptcy and then it’s going through itself an acquisition battle between two corporate giants. What was going through your head in the middle of all this?
INSANA: I think it’s safe to say that the irony wasn’t lost on those of us who had been covering this type of thing for quite some time. It was an uncomfortable, uncertain period. I had actually just entered management at FNN. I was the managing editor of the dayside programming, which was the bulk of our programming. I was the bureau chief in Los Angeles, which was the central operation, and I took that job just as we disclosed trouble with our auditors and I was in the job for the entire transitional period from that point on through bankruptcy and acquisition. So it was unusually uncomfortable. It was a difficult period to navigate. You had to keep people motivated and interested in maybe trying to acquire another job with the merged entity. Some people wanted to, some people didn’t. Some people had the opportunity to, some people didn’t.
NELSON: And you? Did you want to? I mean obviously you got the opportunity.
INSANA: Yeah, I did. I think at that point in my life when I was 30 years old I had the choice between personal bankruptcy and a job with CNBC. So I took the job with CNBC. It was uncertain in a lot of ways. Bill and I have talked about this many times. I mean, here we were living in Los Angeles, California, working in Culver City, California, a lot of the times you were done at 2:00 in the afternoon, you could be on the beach by 2:30 and enjoying the rest of your day, and we were going to move to Fort Lee, New Jersey, which I had only seen once and at the time I wasn’t terribly impressed.
NELSON: Having fled Buffalo. Northeast winters and all that.
INSANA: Having fled Buffalo, yeah, I broke into a cold sweat at the prospect of moving into a similar weather pattern, but in our guts, I think, ultimately given the way CNBC approached us to come work for them and the interest with which they viewed our work at the time, it was gratifying that we knew we had a place to go and that the merged entity was going to be stronger than the company that we were working for at the time and getting rid of all that uncertainty that surrounded FNN, and really that cloud that came with the way we went out of business was going to be lifted. Bob Wright was very gracious when we came over. CNBC, to their credit, treated us as equals, not as kind of fallen enemies, and made us a part of the team as soon as we walked in the door. One of the wildest things was we went off the air at FNN, I believe it was a Tuesday night, it was the third week of May of 1991 and on the air the next morning 3,000 miles from home. We took the flights out as soon as we finished our day and the next day we were on the air doing as much or more airtime than we had done at FNN with our new partners. I anchored with Ted David for three hours a day for quite a number of months after I got here and Bill was paired up with some of the CNBC talent. Sue Herera was already here; she had come over in 1989, so we were reunited with some of out friends from FNN. It was a pretty wild experience. It was wildly uncertain, too. We didn’t know if in a couple of years it was still going to work out or not. We kind of had a gut sense that it was the right thing to do, but it was fraught with some peril. I mean, I was comfortable in Los Angeles. It was kind of a nice place to live. I had just gotten the apartment of my dreams nine months before moving out here and suddenly I’m in kind of a high rise in Fort Lee, New Jersey, thankfully staring at the New York City skyline, but it was a challenging experience to start with.
NELSON: Now did you still have that managing editor responsibility? You obviously moved in a much larger organization with a lot more resources.
INSANA: Yeah, and the way this place has always been structured was that talent and management didn’t exist as a single job. That was not the way they were going to run the shop, which was fine, and in many ways something of a relief. You could kind of go back to focusing on what you do, which is to be a player rather than a manager, and I think that was the right thing. Given the FNN experience it was the right thing for me. That was not the best introduction to management that somebody could have and particularly at that age. Being responsible for people during a period like that one was uncomfortable at best and miserable most days, so it was nice to shed some of those responsibilities and go back to what I really like doing, which is to communicate with people and really dig down and find stuff out about why the markets were doing what they do.
NELSON: So it really wasn’t an issue for you of deciding the management side versus staying on air and communicating, as you say?
INSANA: No, I mean in the back of my mind it’s always been an interest but you can be a player coach or you can be a player, and there’s a certain amount of freedom that goes with just being a player that you don’t have when you have to straddle the fence like that. I think it was a benefit to me not to have to do that in those years because I could really recreate myself on-air and do a lot more with the resources I had than if I’d been preoccupied with worrying about the organization from that perspective.
NELSON: How about now? You’ve gone from a fledgling cable network to part of one of the world’s premier media organizations. How did that change being part of NBC, a broadcast organization? You talked about more resources, did that really affect CNBC or was CNBC at that point kind of off on its own?
INSANA: Well, at that point it was still a bit of a struggle. We were not even a rounding error for General Electric at that point. I don’t know that we were doing 100 million dollars in revenue at that juncture and we certainly hadn’t turned a profit, but I will say this: GE was deeply involved, deeply committed. Bob Wright was in frequent communication with us, Jack Welch had a big stake – intellectual and emotional stake – in the place and was really quite helpful at fostering the growth and as the place evolved they became more and more interested and more and more active in it, and certainly it affected the way my career went over that period of time and once we started turning a profit there was a point at which our pre-tax profits were $350 million. No longer just a rounding error even for General Electric. It was actually meaningful to NBC’s bottom line, and still is an integral part to NBC both in terms of public perception of the media company and also to the profit contribution that we make. So it was dramatically different today than it was then, but yet they recognized the future importance of the organization and always made sure we had what we needed. Not to the extent that we have it now because the economics were different, but they were always there supporting the operation and making sure it was growing properly. You look at guys like David Zaslav, who was the head of our affiliate relations operation and our chief general counsel – integral to the success of this organization, nailed the affiliate agreements airtight, continued to expand CNBC until it was fully distributed. That gets lost on people because they just see what’s on the air, but the nuts and bolts of the business were always handled very well by the people who were charged with that and if you can identify a handful of people who were responsible for the success of the organization, more than half would be on that nuts and bolts side.
NELSON: Well, obviously those carriage agreements were critical toward growing the business. Was there a point as you were at CNBC and it started to grow where it kind of dawned on you personally that wow, this is really a different ballgame and this has really got a future.
INSANA: 1993 and ’94 when the mutual fund business really began to take off and people truly recognized that planning their financial future was going to be an important part of their lives we got a sense of it, we got a little taste of it because people began to talk a more about it. It wasn’t the type of cocktail party conversation it would ultimately become, but we were getting it. ’96 was one of the worst years we ever had. The O.J. trial literally drove us to hash marks on a daily basis in terms of ratings, but our primetime lineup, which included Geraldo Rivera, Charles Grodin, Chris Matthews was so leveraged to general news that they did actually a fantastic job and allowed us to continue on because they were footing the bill for that transitional year, and then 1997 was the critical year for this place. You had the beginnings of a runaway bull market, you had the Asian financial crisis, which got people’s attention and that’s when we really started to pop. That’s when I started getting phone calls from the Today Show, from Imus, starting to do Nightly News on a regular basis with Tom Brokaw, and when you had Jack Welch, Bob Wright, Jeff Zucker, Brokaw, and Imus in your corner urging you to go out and explain that complicated stuff and do it in a number of different venues and do it in a variety of different ways in a more palatable sense for the Today Show, in a more detailed sense for CNBC, that was a critical turning point for me, for Maria, for Bill, for Sue, for Kernan, Faber, Haines, people who had been really wedded to this place for a number of years. A lot of things changed. We got a lot of media attention, whether it was the New York Times, whether it was Howard Kurtz, people were beginning to sit up and take notice of what we were doing, and that really was, I think, the launching pad for what CNBC ultimately became.
NELSON: Let’s stay in the mid-90s, mid to late ’90s because the world in terms of your audience is really changing. You’re really evolving from strictly serving financial professionals and people with a very strong interest in the market to a much broader audience. How does that effect what you’re doing on air? You’re talking to almost two different people.
INSANA: Yeah, we were and we went about it in a couple of different ways. One, you had to kind of segment the day in terms of what you time you addressed those specific issues. The market day has been and will likely always be the market day. You are somewhat wedded to the game. Granted you live and die then by how interesting the market might be and today for instance we’re in a period where the market on a day-to-day basis isn’t all that terribly interesting – up 30, down 30, moving sideways for four months. That’s a problem from a programming perspective, but in reality you are during the market day wedded to what’s going on there, to economic numbers, market movements, the movement of oil and gold – things that really do catch people’s attention and can be dramatic on a day-to-day basis. Then in the evenings, as CNBC began to evolve and as mutual funds began to proliferate, we realized that a show about mutual funds would be interesting and compelling as people began to understand the vehicle a little bit more and became more wedded to it along with the development of 401K plans and things like that. So Bill Griffeth at that time was hosting a show called your portfolio, and so we looked at mutual fund managers and Bill was interviewing the big names, the heavy hitters in the mutual fund world, the Peter Lynches of the world, and giving the personal side of those new rock stars on Wall Street and then at the same time providing information to people on how they might go about utilizing these relatively new investment opportunities. Now the 1960s was very much a similar period. The go-go funds of the ’60s created a mania all its own. People had forgotten that. We began that process again in the early 1990s, so we dealt with it during the day. We segmented it and created new shows around it at night and began to kind of leverage our future to what was becoming popular interest in finance, as opposed to just a professional or hardcore interest that we had in the early days of FNN and the very early days of CNBC.
NELSON: You were also turning into something that as opposed to people sampling programming or watching for an hour, a lot of people would turn it on and leave it on all day. I’ve got friends to this day that have the thing sitting right on their desk.
INSANA: Aside from sports, I still think we have the longest average viewing span, particularly among our dedicated viewers who will in fact get up in the morning, turn it on and leave it on until 6:00 or 7:00 at night. I think there was a period at one juncture in our history where the average span was something in the neighborhood of two hours, so you did have a hardcore following that was kind of committed to just letting the game play out on TV, but then we also had to be cognizant of the fact that people were going to consume the product differently. So the market guys from 9:30 to 4:00 were going to be kind of hardcore. And then they wanted the market wrap because at that point people weren’t watching TV in their offices they way they do now, so you had wrap up shows that allowed people to kind of come back and get a recap of the day, and then we got into mutual fund investing in the evening. Ultimately the primetime would change even more dramatically beyond that. But we segmented, we stopped using jargon. As finance became more popular we couldn’t just appeal to the day trading crowd such as it was back then. We had to become a little bit more accessible to people and so we really backed away from the use of jargon, we tried to explain concepts more, we did tutorials on the air. We started to do those things that would allow individuals to use us in a way that would be beneficial to them and not exclude them the way we had during some of our more hardcore days, so that was part of the evolutionary process to. We realized that if people were going to come to us we couldn’t talk in trader-eze. It is so off putting. It would be like two doctors discuss finer points of medicine and exclude anybody who might be sitting next to them, or two lawyers doing the same thing. You couldn’t do that anymore and we were aware of that. We began to evolve the product so that we became more interesting and more accessible and ultimately even in some ways, more entertaining and would allow people into the tent.
NELSON: Did that show up, I presume, in the ratings?
INSANA: It didn’t until 1997. I mean it was part of an evolutionary process. Now the ratings with respect to a niche service are always an inexact science. When you realize that the subset inside Nielsen that represents our dedicated audience can be unusually small, you get enormous swings when one person decides to leave the house for a couple hours, and we’ve always been somewhat aware of that and it’s still true today. So the ratings can either understate of overstate your audience at any given point in time. We began to feel it probably in the mid 1990s when more and more people approached us on the street, more and more people wanted to hear us speak at events. When you started to see those things take place you knew that the audience was growing, even if you couldn’t measure it accurately. So around the middle of the 1990s we felt it and then like I say, when ’97 hit it was a much different environment. Not that we ever or will ever attain rock star status, we were part of the popular consciousness at that point and that really reflected itself when you go out on the street.
NELSON: Well, maybe you got to that recognition point that you might have if you’d continued your career as a drummer. But talk about that a little bit because you went from this obscure network and now because of the attention to the network, broader distribution, etc., you’re no longer just the average guy that goes to do your job and go home.
INSANA: Right, I mean look, you don’t do this without wanting some of that and for us it’s always been quite comfortable because we’re known but we’re not famous, and there is an enormous difference. I was hosting the national Italian-American, and I’ve done this every year now for a number of years, and it helps put it in perspective, understanding your position in the media universe when Robert DeNiro is sitting behind you and there’s a crush of photographers four or five deep across the entire stage snapping pictures over your shoulder. You understand the difference between being known and being famous. So we had our taste of being known. People do recognize us on the street, but there is an immense difference occupying our universe and Robert DeNiro occupying his, so you get some appreciation for the difference, and it’s always been comfortable for us. People don’t accost us, they want to really talk shop more than they want an autograph or an article of clothing. It is an entirely different experience. They want to know what you know or they want to hear what you’re hearing. So it’s always been actually kind of an interesting and rewarding relationship with the audience. They’re kind of attuned to the information, they like what you talk about, they know that there’s some access that you have that they may never have that they want to be involved in, so they turn to you for that type of stuff, and that’s always been in a lot of ways the rewarding part of the job. The fact that I can talk to a Warren Buffet or a George Soros or occasionally sit down with the President of the United States and then share that experience with the audience, they kind of like that. In a way it’s different from the way that other news people do it. There’s in fact less of a barrier between us and our audience than there might be between somebody on the general news side.
NELSON: But do you find if you’re, say at a cocktail party, you want to talk about sports and somebody wants to talk about the market?
INSANA: Yeah, sure, but you know, it doesn’t get old. If talking about the market got old, I wouldn’t do what I do. It is interesting, it is different every day. It’s different in some ways, it’s very much repetitive in other ways, and even the repetitive nature of market cycles is interesting because it gives you a perspective on the world that you might not get somewhere else. You do see things cycle through, you do see things come back, you see concepts reshaped and repackaged and your job then is to recognize that the internet, for instance, is the same as radio or the automobile or some other transformational technology and there were financial market bubbles that surrounded those developments and there were financial market bubbles that surrounded technology of the internet and your job is to understand the history, explain it in context, understand what market they’re operating in, and that’s fascinating stuff.
NELSON: Speak more about the internet because that in a way changed things really dramatically for the kind of information you’re delivering where people could for the first time track their stocks, find all that. In a way it’s like the competition you faced when you were at FNN from CNBC. Now you’ve got this other competitive source of information, so how did you address that?
INSANA: It’s interesting too because in many ways the analog is the development of cable television versus network television. The audience got peeled back from general broadcast, it got more specialized, it became more accessible, for a small fee people could get a menu of services where before they were only watching three networks and now that process has occurred again where the internet has taken the basic information that we always provided for free and given people multiple ways to access it. You can get stock prices while you’re sitting on an airplane. You just look up at the GTE or Verizon handset that’s in front of you and you’ll see it scroll across the screen. You don’t even have to pick up the phone, you can see it just on the back of the phone as a service. You can use your cell phone, you can use your PDA, you can get to your computer and get all that core information that we used to provide almost in a monopoly fashion and get it anyplace else you like. So what that means for us is that now that information’s been commoditized we have to provide and add value to the information that’s easy to obtain. So what we can do better than most is to provide access to people and experts that no one else may have access to. We can put things in perspective, we can provide context, analysis, hopefully break news or do enterprise reporting that you won’t get anywhere else and continue to add value for people at home. That’s the challenge for us now is how do we do that, how do we stay relevant, how do we stay a step ahead of the competition, and how do we let go of that basic information? We’ll always provide it, it will always be there on the screen, but it’s less important to us now in terms of just being raw data as it is a platform on which you can add value.
NELSON: Well, one of the ways in which you add value is interviewing CEOs. Talk about that. How you get them and how you’re putting them in that position may or may not effect the market.
INSANA: Well, that too has been an evolutionary process. In the early days of FNN, landing a CEO was a big deal. First of all, they never had any interest in talking to us. They didn’t know what the product was, why would they talk to us when their sole responsibility was to communicate to their shareholders and employees, and in some cases many people, many CEOs didn’t want to let down their guard like that and allow the press in. I think there were some things that happened – Bhopal, the J&J fiasco with Tylenol and the Pepsi cans that had the needles in them, people began to understand that interacting with the press in a more proactive way was better for the company than running and hiding. Bhopal being the case in point. Union Carbide was not terribly proactive in that period when they had their big chemical leak in India and they were roundly criticized for it. It had a huge effect on not only the stock price but on the management team that was in place at the time, whereas at Johnson & Johnson the way they handled the Tylenol scare, the way they embraced the public, were open with the media had a real impact on CEO psychology, and I think from that point on it became increasingly easy to access these people. Then at some point, when the market and the stock became the thing, CEOs were rushing to us, not the other way around. They wanted their story out, they wanted that message there and we were not a passive conduit through which they could get their story out. We were also asking tough questions and they learned that we’d be tough and fair and it became much more of a two way street. I think at that point the business changed dramatically. CEOs wanted that profile; we wanted them here, and everybody wanted the exchange and they wanted it done out in the open and it worked ultimately to our advantage.
NELSON: Given the fact there’s probably more CEOs than there are available airtime, what is it you’re looking for from a CEO to bring on that makes them significant, relevant to your programming, your audience.
INSANA: Well, you look for a lot of things from a lot of different CEOs. Obviously size and scale mean something when companies can be viewed as proxies for the domestic or global economy, so when you’re talking at the time to Jack Welch, or now Jeff Immelt, you know that General Electric, even though they own is, is still a proxy for the economy. You know that large pharmaceutical companies have a lot of outstanding issues that you want to talk about. Big companies in general are interesting for a variety of different reasons. New companies are interesting if there’s a cutting edge technology involved. Financial companies are interesting because there’s another window into a certain world that you can’t get by talking to people who aren’t running the firm. So there are a variety of different reasons that you talk to CEOs. Sometimes they’re politically involved. Today for instance, John Kerry is getting support from several CEOs, a list that is five pages long that they’re handing out to the media. So, do we want to talk to CEOs who are supporting John Kerry? Sure we do. Then we want to go out and talk to CEOs who are supporting George Bush and find out why. What’s in it for them? What axe are they grinding? Why are they politically motivated at this point? How does it affect their company? How does it affect the economy? So, numerous reasons why you’d go out and talk to these people in addition to the headline value that they provide as well.
NELSON: Is there an interview that you recall where as a result of it it really moved the market one way or another? I know people will sometimes put their foot in their mouth.
INSANA: Well, you hope for that once in awhile. Yeah, listen, to the extent that we’ve had access not only to CEOs but government officials and at times leaders of the free world, sometimes that stuff has an impact. I remember Bob Ruben’s office calling up and wanting to do a sit down one day and I suspect – it was 1995 or somewhere in that neighborhood, maybe a little later than that – but they wanted to talk about the dollar openly, which led me to believe that they were going to shade their commentary about the dollar in such a way that would have an impact and ultimately that’s what happened. Certainly when you get a CEO on who has new news, or who’s in trouble, or who has a story to tell, it may not move the whole market, it may move their stock. I recall sitting down with Henry Silverman at one point, only several weeks before Ascendant blew up, and my last question to him was “You know, Henry, you guys who do these roll up acquisitions always make a lot of money but the shareholders ultimately get burned because somewhere along the line you make a mistake and you bite off more than you can chew and it’s a problem for the firm.” He said, “Ron, clearly you haven’t done your homework,” and proceeded to berate me on television and three weeks later Ascendant blew up because they’d purchased Compucard International which was inflating its revenues to the tune of 500 million dollars. The only thing we did that day was to replay that sound byte over and over and ask which one of us hadn’t done his homework. So for good or for ill, these interviews can be beneficial to a company’s stock price, they can be detrimental at some point. Under some circumstances people actually ignored the content of the interview during the height of the internet bubble when we bludgeoned the CEO of K-Tel about their strategy to shift from a company that sold bad ’70s music over the television to a company that sold bad ’70s music over the internet. No one paid attention to the challenging questions we’d asked and in fact the stock went up $5 or something after we finished the conversation.
NELSON: So much for your influence.
INSANA: So much for our influence. But it’s an interesting point because there was a period of time where people were questioning whether or not we were cheerleaders or whether we had undue influence over the market in the bubble years, and quite honestly for those of us who were somewhat skeptical about the process and worried that it was going to end badly during the big years of ’97 to 2000, people did not pay attention to cautious commentary and in fact I received probably more hate mail in that period of my career than anything that was laudatory. So you may have an influence at the margin, you may have an amplification effect on the markets, but to suggest that we were ever in a position of truly moving the markets in a big way in one direction or another was probably a misapprehension of our role.
NELSON: But maybe individual stocks as a result of somebody’s appearance.
INSANA: It could happen, sure. It did happen. I mean you’d mention that you were going to talk to a CEO and the stock would move before the interview. Now we can’t control that. You could then argue that well, we have to do all these interviews quietly and not promote the fact that we’re going to be talking to the head of X, Y and Z company. That’s kind of a silly way to program a television network.
NELSON: How do you try and balance the tough versus fair?
INSANA: Well, I think you always try to be fair. Tough is appropriate under some circumstances; it may not be so appropriate under others. Fair is always appropriate. It’s like trying to have this conversation about objectivity. Nobody is truly objective in a scientific sense. You’re as prejudice as your personal experience dictates, but you can always be fair. You can always allow somebody to present his or her side of the story. You can always ask the opposite question. You can always take the opposite side. You may have reason to agree with the person you’re talking to. That’s okay. That’s fair, too. Sometimes there’s evidence to support that person’s position and you have to acknowledge that as well. That’s true both in political interview and in business interviews. So, I think tough is appropriate under a lot of circumstances, but fair is always the way you’re supposed to play.
NELSON: Do you research your subjects before you interview them?
INSANA: Sure. You get pre-interviews, you get as much information as you can. You look at it, and sometimes you talk to people where it’s appropriate… It’s always appropriate to talk to people and get more information from people who have a deeper understanding of the subject matter than you might, so you find a new angle, you find a new question, you find a line of inquiry that you might not have thought of or might not have occurred to you at some point along the way in your own research. So you bring as much to the party as you can and hope that in the end what comes out of it is more useful to people than they might have expected in the first place.
NELSON: And do you feel a sense of personal responsibility in terms of being on-air, delivering that information, having a lot of people watching?
INSANA: As entertaining as this stuff might have been at one point along the way or continues to be today, ultimately you’re talking about people’s money; you’re talking about their financial future. There are very few other media where what you talk about has such a profound effect on people’s lives, and this is not to degrade local news or other forms of news. Talking about a house fire, well, it affects the people in the house, it affects maybe their immediate neighbors, but it doesn’t have a lot of larger significance. Almost everything that we talk about on a day-to-day basis has larger significance. It affects everybody, it affects everybody all the time, and it affects their future. It’s not a small responsibility, so if you’re playing fast and loose in our sandbox, you’re doing it not only at your own peril, but you’re also imperiling the audience.
NELSON: Now during the ’90s we saw this incredible bull market – up, up, up, up, up – and obviously that was driving your network. What happened when that turned?
INSANA: There was a surprising amount of lag with respect to the impact on the ratings. We’re only really been ratings challenged, if you will, in the last year to 18 months, and probably not even that long, but the downside was as big or bigger a story as the upside was. Had we seen the policy mistakes that were made, let’s say from 1929 to 1932, it would have been even a bigger story still. The fact that the policy makers were able to isolate some of the damage to the technology and telecommunications part of the world… there was a broader fallout in the economy, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as it could have been. Now don’t forget, 80 million people still have a stake in this game, regardless of whether the market has come down substantially or not there are still 77 million baby boomers who are facing retirement who have to do something about their finances. The subject is no less interesting or necessary now than it was four years ago but the world has changed. September 11th changed people’s focus from financial security or social security to homeland security. That’s had a dramatic impact on how we approach the subject. It’s had a dramatic impact on the way people consume the product. They are, it seems to me, much more concerned about other things, justifiably so, than they might be about the day-to-day movement in the stock market. From ’97 to 2001 it was nothing but the stock market as the central story, and by extension the economy, in this country. That was all people talked about and now there are really a lot of competing subjects that people preoccupy themselves with. So I think it’s been more of a challenge and it’s had an impact on our viewer ship. We’re going to lose that fringe anyway. When everybody was a day trader, when everybody aspired to be a day trader regardless of their capabilities, you had people who thought that that was the new growth industry, that somehow you’d be able to stay home and take your $50,000 that you started with and leverage that to a couple million and be fine, and that was your new avocation or vocation. That was not going to be the case; we always assumed that was the way it was going to end. The changes have been in some ways difficult to deal with. You did go from being the hottest topic around to one that is not quite as hot as it was then, so it’s a little different environment.
NELSON: I know there was an executive once who was quoted once with an anecdote that he knew it had changed and it was time to get out when the parking lot attendant brought him his car one night (I forget who this was) and started talking about stock prices with him.
INSANA: I’ll go you one better on that, and this harkens back to the Joe Kennedy shoeshine boy story of the 1920s where when the shoeshine boy was asking about the stock market he knew it was time to exit. We had a gentleman on Street Signs in December of 1999, Peter Henderson who was a specialist on the floor of the exchange, and had written about this in a book that a homeless person to whom he had given money on a regular basis, pretty much every day as he was walked to the Exchange, stopped him one day in late December of 1999 and said, “Listen, you work in the Exchange?” Peter said, “Yeah.” And he said, “I’ve got to ask you about his internet stock.” This is not to condescend to a person who you wouldn’t normally assume would have an interest in the stock market, but by the time that he might have been interested in the stock market you realize that everybody’s in and that the game was about to change, and it was by far and away one of the single best indicators that I’d encountered in that period because this is December of 1999, this is a month before the Dow peaked and two and a half months before the NASDAQ peaked. It was a good call. The fact that Peter essentially stopped me in the middle of our interview to share that anecdote on the air, everybody should have been running for the hills at that point, and you do have those moments where you kind of go, “Ugh, everybody’s in!”
NELSON: How do you get out?
INSANA: How do you get out, or as Alan Greenspan relays a Georgie Jessel story, he bought a stock, wanted to buy more, wanted to buy more, continued to buy more on the way up and he called his broker and said, “I want to sell,” and the broker said, “To whom?”
NELSON: You mentioned September 11th. Talk about that, about being on-air on that day. What the impact… obviously people’s concerns were on things other than the market at that point.
INSANA: Well, look, this will be probably the single biggest moment in my professional and personal life because I was too close to the building when it came down and ultimately was able to relay that story on NBC. Having nowhere else to go in Manhattan I just went to headquarters, but a producer from MSNBC whom I’d bumped into on the street and I were walking towards the building as it was about to come down, we both got caught in the cloud, we went in different directions, and honestly, I thought he was dead, he thought I was dead. I hid in a parked car for a period of time thinking that was pretty much where I was going to spend my last couple of minutes, then as things cleared up and I was able to make my way to midtown Manhattan I went on the air and talked about it. It was immediately obvious, though, even in the context of what was a geopolitical event that they were targeting symbols of the American economy. I mean, hitting the World Trade Center and bringing that down and having a clear impact on the economic infrastructure of the country, we started talking about that right away. It is in some ways one of the dumbest things I’ve ever done as a professional, which is to walk towards a 110 story building that’s on fire and about to come down, but by the same token one of the most profound experiences I’ve had as a reporter as well trying to – as I should say Tom Brokaw, Matt Lauer and Katie Couric were so put together during this, as were my colleagues at CNBC although I didn’t see a lot of what was going on at CNBC that day because I couldn’t get back here. But they handled that as well as any journalist could handle a subject and using them as inspiration to kind of keep my head and relay what I’d seen that day and the experiences I had, it was going to be forever the most profound experience I’ve ever had as a working journalist.
NELSON: Walking toward the building, as you say, as opposed to away, was this just the journalist instinct taking over?
INSANA: Well, yeah, I think so. John Zeta, who was at MSNBC, called me out and we were a couple blocks away from the building when we ran into each other down there. He had actually called in sick that day but knew that there was work to be done, and I was at breakfast in midtown and when somebody at the next table told me what had happened I got in a cab. I knew our people were down here already; we had a presence at the New York Stock Exchange. Our guys were on the west side of the towers. We had come down the east side, or were on the east side when I ran into John. So when we got inside the police barricade they said, “Listen, go down a block, go over, and you’re going to have to walk in front of the southern portion of the buildings to get to the West Side Highway,” where all the crews were, where all the TV cameras were, so we were basically walking straight towards the tower and we were about a half block away and we looked up and smoke started to blow out the side and we saw a piece fall and we turned and ran. As I ran I made a right, John kept running straight down the street, and I looked over my shoulder and you saw the cloud start to roll toward him and that’s where I pretty much lost him. I don’t remember the sound, I just know it was so loud we couldn’t communicate and I just plopped down next to this car trying to get out of the way of whatever was coming, and sat there for a few minutes trying to figure out what my next move was going to be knowing that this was not the smartest thing I’d ever done in my life, but then reached up to the door handle to see if the car was open and it was. So I just got inside and stayed there for awhile. Yeah, I mean what do you do? You walk toward the story. Thousands of people are streaming up lower Manhattan and you’ve got these people who are dedicated to their jobs actually going toward the burning building and so yeah, that’s what you do. I was in Seattle; I got gassed by the Seattle police in 1999 covering the World Trade Organization meetings having not been able to get inside the convention center because the protesters had formed a human ring around the building. You had to stand there and watch what was about to take place and be in the middle of it. In Genoa in 2000 at the G8 where protestors were pretty active and one of whom got killed, and apparently was an Al Qaeda target. I didn’t really find that out until recently that they had designs on that particular meeting in Genoa. So yeah, you go. You go to the story. That’s what you do. If you didn’t like it you wouldn’t be doing it. September 11th is not a story you like, but being in the vicinity was a story you had to go help cover.
NELSON: Was that something you knew was in you or did you discover it that day? The gassing was accidental, you were stuck in a spot. It was different.
INSANA: Yeah, I was stuck in a spot and the wind shifted. What are you going to do? Yeah, I think I found out a little bit about how I handle crisis situations. Eventually it would have a little more of an emotional impact than it did that day, but yeah, you do your best to keep your head even though things got a little crazy and then you try to relay the story as best as you can without being over the top. I remember I was somewhat reluctant to use a couple of expressions that I ultimately used on the air, which was one, using the film Independence Day for kind of a template for what I’d seen and for what the area looked like after the buildings came down, or used the expression “nuclear winter” which I ultimately did as well, but that was the visual image that occurred to me having seen it and even though it was happening relatively quickly when I’m being debriefed by Tom and Katie and Matt, I went ahead and used it even though I was having second thoughts while I was speaking because it seemed to me the most accurate depiction of what I saw. I realized there was a risk of sounding hyperbolic, but it’s hard to employ hyperbole in an environment like that one. So you kind of go ahead and do it and risk the criticism and also try at the same time to remain somewhat balanced about the information you’re presenting. I didn’t see the other side of the buildings where people were jumping off and those things were happening. I saw some blood on the street, I saw some people panicky as they moved up the streets in lower Manhattan, but in many ways it’s the most unique challenge I’ve ever faced, to try to keep my head in an environment like that. Some people were critical of the way I described it. Some people thought I was grandstanding. You heard that from some viewers, which everybody’s entitled to their point of view, but until you have one of those experiences it’s kind of very easy to Monday morning quarterback them.
NELSON: But I guess they weren’t on the street with the smoke rolling up toward them.
INSANA: It was a different experience. To this day I can’t watch it. It’s still pretty emotional to think about it or talk about it or kind of go back and sit through that moment in my head. My wife was 8 weeks pregnant with our second kid at the time I was sitting there, so a lot of the personal stuff goes into as well. I know this from having conversations with other people who were there, how profound the experience was. I’ve talked to Tom Brokaw about it because he was… I don’t think I’ve ever seen three people handle a situation like that better and Tom and I have talked about how long it took to unwind after the experience. Here he was, charged with voicing that experience over, offering perspective, guidance, the news, and staying in his skin, staying in his head and doing that in a way – and Matt and Katie as well – where they had to control the emotional component in a way that you’re never really asked to do under any other circumstance. The stock market crash pales by comparison. To a certain extent it was good training because doing what we do when you have one of those market moments where you think the financial world is coming apart you also have to restrain yourself. You want to use the right descriptions. You don’t want to overstate, you don’t want to understate. A crash is a crash and recognizing that is important and being able to describe it to people is important, but then you get into this other area where it’s human life, where it’s a big geopolitical event. It’s a unique challenge and when you watch your colleagues handle it in the way that they did, it’s inspiring to see people be able to perform like that.
NELSON: You talked about how the World Trade Center of course was a financial target as well as a symbolic target, and as we’re doing this interview just a couple of days ago the alert level was raised and the Stock Exchange, etc., certain financial targets again were singled out as potential Al Qaeda targets. In a bigger sense, how does the world of events, war, politics, affect how you’re covering the market because obviously the market is deeply impacted by all these things?
INSANA: It affects it a lot and the interesting thing is that we forget that by and large the world, or world history, has mostly been like this. Our generation has been relatively immune to this stuff. The 1990s were an anomaly in history where you had ten years, relatively speaking, of peace and prosperity and we thought that this would extend forever. We are now being pulled back into the normal sweep of human history where there is violence, where there are setbacks, where there are other concerns besides simply making money and simply creating new technologies or expanding the economy, or things like that – the dominant themes of the 1990s. We’re now joining the rest of the world in having that experience where you have to worry about violence, you have to worry about conflict, and so it’s going to color the way we view our subject matter and it’s going to influence it too. When you do have a warning that threatens financial institutions in the United States it’s a pretty big story. People get a little tired of hearing it, quite frankly, and they say, “Well, why aren’t you just going back to covering the markets?” Well, we are. This stuff has an influence, and as Art Cashen, one of my longtime guests said on the day that the alert was actually put in effect in New York on that Monday, he said, “An alert is not an attack.” So the market then comes to deal with it in different ways. The alert is much better than the attack. It may be a temporary psychological setback, but it’s not the event that you’d hoped you’d never experience. So we live with that reality now and it will color the way the economy grows, it will affect the financial markets from here on out. I suspect that, and most people believe this, we haven’t seen the last attempted attack, we haven’t seen the last attack. There could be something big and bad out there that we’ll have to deal with someday in the future and that’s reality. People are now kind of reorienting themselves towards that reality here, in a place where for the most part in the United States you haven’t had to deal with it. So it’s going to change what we do, it’s going to change the way we do it. Now by the same token, that said, most people still have to get on with the business of day-to-day life, they still have to put money away for retirement, they still have to finance their lives, they still want to buy homes, they still want to do all those things that we’ve always done. So the topic doesn’t become irrelevant, it just becomes discussed in a different way.
NELSON: Well, you have a day-to-day life, I assume, outside of all of this. What do you do when you go home and relax and watch TV? Other than watching John McEnroe.
INSANA: Dennis Miller, John McEnroe, yeah.
NELSON: We’ll skip the CNBC things. What do you look for?
INSANA: At this point, at age 43, I have three children who are under the age of seven. So immediately upon getting home it’s dinner time with the kids, it’s bath time with the kids, it’s story time with the kids. Regular stuff. It’s dad, which is a much different job than what I do here, and they understand my job. Even my son, who’s two years old, loves to come to the office and hang out. I hear a little too often from him, “Going to work, Dad? Again?” There’s that pull that didn’t exist seven years ago where nobody asked me that question. My wife at the time was working here, so she knew when I was going to work because she was coming in with me, and we pretty much had the same day and we had the same night and that type of thing. Now it’s competing interests. It is more of a challenge. Not that I think you can achieve that mythical balance where you’re spending…
NELSON: The elusive balance.
INSANA: Yeah, the elusive balance where you spend as much time at home as you do at work. It’s not entirely possible, but those are now the drags on my time, and I don’t mean that in a pejorative. I mean it’s just there are competing interests. Watching three kids grow up actually in a world that’s slightly than I thought they would grow up in is also a challenge. We had a bomb scare in New Jersey yesterday. The 166 bus from Manhattan coming into Tenafly, New Jersey where I live was stopped three blocks from my house because of a bomb scare. There were four helicopters directly above my house and in the context of the current threat level you get a little worried. I told my wife, I said, “If things get a little weird, one, I’ll be over at the bus,” not having learned that lesson yet, “but you put the kids in the car and go in another direction and we’ll catch up in a while.” So you still have these competing interests. There’s the draw of the story, particularly since it might be something that is important, and the draw of being dad and being husband and trying to keep everybody safe and out of harm’s way. And then also just have the regular life at home and do baths and stories.
NELSON: So the kids go to bed, do you ever sit there remote control in hand and…?
INSANA: I’m as bad as any guy with the remote control. The NFL channel comes on and you’ve got NFL films from 1972 and you watch the Immaculate Reception over and over and over again, and then switch to The Godfather and have my wife look at me, “You’ve seen this 50 times.” Will it kill you, as Dennis Miller said one time, “Will it kill you to watch it for the 52nd time?” Yeah, it’s all the same. I mean you flip around and see what’s on. I like the History Channel and Discovery as much as I like anything else. Movies – I was a film major in college so I’m still drawn to movies.
NELSON: How about CNBC today? What do you think its role is and what do you think its legacy will be going down the road for what it’s done as far as we’ve seen to date?
INSANA: I think we’ve done a good solid job of portraying… What we’re immediately remembered for right now is for having been involved in that moment in time that was known as the stock market bubble of the 1990s, but I think in the long run as we evolve the programs we are going to be, I hope, that network that provides critical information to people so that they can make intelligent, informed, financial decisions.
I hope that CNBC’s legacy is that it is the network that helps people make intelligent and informed decisions about their economic lives. That’s important to me; that’s the role I hope we always played and will continue to play. It will be shaded differently now, and I think in some sense we’re going to end up a bigger picture organization because the economy is the story. For the 1990s the micro was the macro. The stock market was the big story of the period to the extent that it permeated American culture. You knew that when The Sopranos mentioned CNBC one season. You knew it when the movie Boiler Room came out. It had gotten to the point where Wall Street had infiltrated Main Street in such a way that it had become pop culture. That was a moment in time. It was in some ways enjoyable for us, it was different for us, we achieved a level in popular consciousness that business journalists don’t always get to enjoy, but in the long run our job is to take that big picture – the economy, the economic environment – and help people work their way through it, from jobs to investments to just the way they live their lives, real estate, the home. That’s the type of thing that we’ll probably encompass in the long run and hopefully again we’ll not deviate from the mission of providing people the information they need to make better decisions.
NELSON: And how about from the standpoint of you? What do you think your contribution has been, what kind of legacy will you have left? I know you’re not quitting yet!
INSANA: I still have three kids to get through college and I’ve done the math. If they’re private institutions, by the time my one year old is in college, Harvard or Princeton or Yale will cost something in the neighborhood of $200,000 a year. So I’m not done by any stretch of the imagination. I hope that people remember the passion and interest that I brought to the subject matter. It’s always been something that’s been fascinating to me. I hope that people feel that when I do what I do. I hope they feel that I’ve been fair and honest and worked as hard as I can to get the right part of the story out. In some ways maybe I changed the perception about what markets are, that it’s not just an up and down game, that it’s not just a winners and losers type thing, that in fact the markets do transmit information that’s helpful. That if you pay attention enough, if you listen to the message of the markets – not to plug the title of a book that I wrote – but if you listen to that that you’re actually a better informed person because you’re taking the cumulative wisdom that the markets represent and using it to your own advantage. If there is a contribution that I’ve made, I hope that’s the thing. I hope that people kind of look at markets a little bit different because I’ve talked about them a little bit differently than some people have.
NELSON: One more question: you’ve been here a long, long time going back to the FNN days – Bill, Sue, there’s a long list of people. What is it other than the fact that it’s a fun job, but what is it that’s kept all of you here for so long?
INSANA: The information. It’s one of the hardest things to understand, it’s one of the most difficult things to explain, but it’s one of the most fascinating subjects you can cover. People think, or thought anyway, that business was dull and lifeless when in fact, if you do the work and you understand that in every sector of the market there’s a different story, that you have to be a great generalist and also be a great specialist. If there’s a story that comes up about healthcare, that means you have to understand healthcare. If there’s a story about technology, you have to understand technology. If there’s a story about finance, you have to understand finance and then take whatever it is that you’re covering and share that in a broader context. That means you have to know as much about everything including politics and economics on a day-to-day basis as you possibly can. There’s nothing dull about this job. Every day’s different. You have a boring day here and there; you have a boring stretch here and there…
NELSON: Don’t we all?
INSANA: Don’t we all? But if you drill down, there’s nothing boring beneath the surface. Every time you open the hood on Wall Street there’s different story to be had, there’s a different sector to cover, there’s a different issue to deal with – politics, finance, economics, industry stuff. Trying to figure out what the internet was all about was not any easy task. You had to understand the technology in addition to understanding the environment in which it occurred and was growing. So, it’s three-dimensional chess every day. To the extent that you can master that and hopefully you get to a level where you’re pretty good at it, you’ll never be at risk of not boring someone at a cocktail party with what you learned that day.
NELSON: Ron, talk about the legacy of CNBC.
INSANA: I hope ultimately the legacy of CNBC is that it will be the network that is remembered for having provided the information that people need to make informed and intelligent decisions about their financial lives. Hopefully we’re even a little more than that at some point, but I think in the long run that’s the best thing we can be remembered for.