National News

The Konami Code for vintage gamers

Marketplace - American Public Media - Thu, 2015-07-23 13:05

Even though it’s been years since arcades reached their peak of the '80s, there’s still a fondness for the classics. Whether it’s Pac-Man, Donkey Kong or Galaga, old-school arcade games still have an audience.

One store that celebrates that love is the Vintage Arcade Superstore in Glendale, California.

Gene Lewin is the owner. At the store he sells everything from pinball to Pong. He says his love for all things retro and arcade began when he was young.

"I started playing when I was 16 in 1972,” Lewin says. “All thorough my teenage years, I went to arcades and played pinball.”

After playing for a few years, Lewin decided that he had to own a piece of the arcade for himself. “I got my first pinball in '76, and I still have it.”

The machine was called Jumping Jack and was based on the Jack-in-the-Box restaurant. He eventually found out how to make money with his new machine. “I put my Jumping Jack into a billiard place,” Lewin says.  “And since my game worked better than all the other games, it made more money than anything else. So I talked the owner into letting me take over the whole location, and that’s how I got started.”

Lewin’s business plan ran into a major problem in 1985: The market for video games and arcades completely crashed. He managed to stay in business, but just as things started to pick up for video games in general, arcades could not return to their former prominence. The release for arcade games slowed, and the ones that did come out were derivative of ones that were released on consoles.

“[The developers] lost their creative edge," Lewin says. "I thought maybe it would come back, but it really didn’t.”  

With arcades struggling, Lewin decided to try a new business venture: selling games and pinball machines.

“I figured out these games would be collectible years before anyone else did,” Lewin says. “It started with pinball. I would go to pinball shows and see ‘Oh, these are worth money now!’ So I started thinking after a few years, ‘Oh, this is going to happen to video games too!’ ”

Lewin would buy the games for cheap prices and then collect them until their value increased. Then he'd sell them back to his fellow fans. The buyers would get them for restaurants or just for their homes. “They want to own a piece of their childhood,” he says.

Most of the machines go for thousands of dollars, and that price only increases as they become rarer.

Lewin doesn’t plan on retiring any time soon. “A lot of people hate their work,” he says. “I always end up staying late, and my favorite thing when I’m done working is to go over to the showroom and play pinball. It’s pretty awesome.”

The changing platform for YouTube stardom

Marketplace - American Public Media - Thu, 2015-07-23 13:00

YouTube is growing up, and the line between YouTube stars and celebrity is becoming blurrier. Thousands of screaming fans are out in force at VidCon, a conference for online video makers in Anaheim, California, on Thursday.

Freddie Wong will be among them. His YouTube channel, RocketJump, has more than 7 million subscribers, and he is one of the latest YouTube stars looking to move their production off YouTube.

Earlier this year, Wong signed a deal with Hulu for a half-hour comedy. He says the business of making video content is one that involves doing a little bit of everything.

"We produce and create, write, shoot, direct, edit, post production — everything is sort of all done in house," Wong says.

So, when you've got 7 million YouTube fans, why move to a different platform?

"It doesn’t really affect what we do on our end," Wong says. "At the end of the day, we still make the things that we make. And we found that the best strategy in this very fluid marketplace is to not be tied into any given platform, but to be able to make good content, and good content will be able to live anywhere."

Wong says it's a whole new world for content creators today. Back in the day, content creators had to ask big companies to fund their project and give them a platform. Now, you build your own audience — and people with money come to you.

HBO picks up former ESPN host Bill Simmons

Marketplace - American Public Media - Thu, 2015-07-23 13:00

ESPN has parted ways with a lot of its big-name talent recently, including Bill Simmons, whose contract was not renewed back in May. Simmons has landed at HBO, where he'll host a weekly talk show and work on sports documentary projects.

“Bill Simmons is a name that’s known in the sports industry, and he will have his followers come to HBO with him,” says Kenneth Shropshire, a professor at the Wharton School. Simmons was one of the most popular and controversial hosts on ESPN. Last year he was suspended for three weeks for criticizing NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. HBO may offer more creative freedom.

“For Simmons, HBO is kind of a blue ocean in terms of what he’s going to be able to do there," Shropshire says. "There’s a great deal of flexibility it appears in terms of how HBO lets its talent perform.” 

HBO has had a hand in sports for a while, and Shropshire is unfazed by the move. “They’ve done a lot in terms of documentaries, boxing and other programs, so going further in this space is not surprising.”

Click the media player above to hear more.


Celebrities are mastering the art of the group selfie

Marketplace - American Public Media - Thu, 2015-07-23 13:00

When I was talking to YouTube video creator Freddie Wong, who heads the channel RocketJump, he told me that today — far more often than signatures — fans want selfies.

So, these stars are coming up with efficient ways to take a bunch of them in a short amount of time. 

Apparently at some of these conventions, fans form big circles, with their phones out, and the stars runs around the back of the circle putting their head in shot after shot.

Whatever you think of selfies, you've got to admire the ingenuity. 

US companies adjust to a more mature Chinese economy

Marketplace - American Public Media - Thu, 2015-07-23 13:00

It’s not easy doing business in China these days.  Stocks have fallen — in some cases by 30 percent — and property values are down.  

“You know, all American companies are getting whip sawed in China to a certain extent,” says Barry Naughton, a professor at the School of Global Policy and Strategy at the University of California, San Diego.

Naughton says U.S. companies are having to adapt to a more mature Chinese economy that is slowing down. But American businesses are reacting differently; some Wall Street investors are leaving China altogether.

“I see a big differentiation in views between portfolio investors and then the multinational companies," says  Nicholas Consonery, director of the Asia practice at Eurasia Group. "There tends to be a much more negative sentiment in Wall Street than in the corporate world today.”

Consonery says Wall Street is used to double-digit growth in the Chinese economy. Now he figures it’s growing about 5 percent, slightly less than official growth statistics from the Chinese government. Still, that’s nothing to sneeze at. U.S. companies just have to get used to a more mature, slower- growing Chinese economy.

“In the past, the biggest restraint on growth was maybe not having the capacity," says John Frisbie, president of the U.S.-China Business Council. "For many companies, that era is behind them, and now it’s more like you would see in other markets around the globe.”

Frisbie says consumer demand in China is holding up, so companies like Starbucks are doing OK. But things are tougher if you’re U.S. business catering to, say, the fickle housing market.

Exit Grexit, enter Brexit. Could the UK quit the EU?

Marketplace - American Public Media - Thu, 2015-07-23 13:00

A Greek exit from the eurozone has been averted – for now at least-  but another , even bigger crisis for the European Union  is still waiting in the wings:  not Grexit  but Brexit,  a British exit from the EU.

Graham Stringer

Stephen Beard/Marketplace

Over  the next 18 months the United Kingdom will attempt to negotiate an even looser arrangement with the EU than Britain currently enjoys   and then to hold a referendum asking the British people, “Do you want in or out?" 

"Out" campaigners believe that the treatment of Greece has given their cause a major boost.   

“The events in Greece have shown what the EU is doing to its member states, how badly it’s treating them and why it is important for nations to control their own destiny,” says Rory Broomfield of the Better Off Out campaign.

Broomfield directs the campaign from his headquarters on a former British warship moored in the Thames. He believes it’s an entirely appropriate headquarters. “Churchill  once said that if Britain faced a choice between Europe and the open sea, Britain would always choose the open sea,” says Broomfield. “And he was right. We want to face outwards, towards the United States and the rest of the world and not get bogged down in a stagnant, failing Europe.”

Opposition in Britain to EU membership stems traditionally from a conservative concern about the loss of national sovereignty. But after the turmoil over Greece, the British left is also beginning to voice skepticism about Europe on the grounds of social policy.

Rory Broomfield

Stephen Beard/Marketplace

“The EU is supposed to be a caring, compassionate organization, but its treatment of the Greeks has been brutal,” says Graham Stringer, an opposition Labour member of Parliament. “The EU is dictatorial and deeply unpleasant, and many of my friends and colleagues in Parliament are now telling me they will vote against EU membership in the U.K. referendum.”

Stringer argues that the “harsh” treatment of the Greeks could help drive Britain towards an "out" vote. 

But that’s not the message from the opinion polls. The "in" campaign still retains a clear lead, with a majority of Brits still believing that the benefits of being part of a large single European market outweigh the disadvantages. In reality – since Britain is not part of the eurozone and has opted out of a number of EU measures – many Brits seem to believe they are Better Off Half In and Half Out.

Better off with the best of both worlds: Europe and the open sea.


Jobless claims reach 40-year low. Is wage growth next?

Marketplace - American Public Media - Thu, 2015-07-23 13:00

New jobless claims fell to 255,000, their lowest weekly level since November of 1973, the U.S. Department of Labor said Thursday.   

One would expect that this is an indication of labor market tightening. Fewer people getting laid off, fewer people in line to do your job, possibly for less than you. There should, theoretically, be less restraint on workers’ demands for a raise.

“It’s all about supply and demand,” explains Harry Holzer, professor of public policy at Georgetown. 

“The tighter the labor market, the harder it is for employers to attract or retain the workers they want or need, so they have to raise wages.”

But hourly wage growth data don’t seem to be bearing that out yet. 

Wage growth has sat at around 2 percent for the past five years, says Elise Gould, senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute. 

“That’s pretty slow,” she says. “That’s far below any sort of reasonable wage target that would be consistent with the [Federal Reserve’s] inflation target of 2 percent and productivity growth we’ve seen. That should put wage growth more like 3.5 to 4 percent.”

The monthly wage data may not be telling the whole story, however. Gad Levanon, managing director of macroeconomic and labor market research at the Conference Board, says the average hourly earnings number can be skewed by changes in the composition of the labor market. 

“If there are more low paid occupations joining the labor market or if employment is growing faster in low paid positions, that would pull down the average paycheck increase,” he says.

Levanon looks at something known as the employment cost index, which looks at compensation while weighting the value of specific industries so it’s more of an “apples to apples comparison.” 

The most recent increase by that measure is 2.7 percent, and it has been growing faster than average hourly earnings since 2014. 

Levanon also points to the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta's Wage Growth Tracker, which looks at wage growth among a consistent group of individuals over time. That measure of growth is 3.2 percent.   

Will health insurance mergers help or hurt consumers?

Marketplace - American Public Media - Thu, 2015-07-23 13:00

Health insurer Anthem appears ready to throw down nearly $50 billion to purchase rival Cigna. This would be the second proposed mega-merger in the industry in less than a month.

Welcome to healthcare’s version of an arms race, where hospitals and insurers vie for supremacy. As these titans battle it out, the threat is that consumers end up losing no matter who winds up on top.

Carnegie Mellon economist Martin Gaynor says there’s a simple question we shouldn’t lose sight of in this new wave of potential deals.

“Are these mergers going to make us better off?” he asks.

Will a merged Humana and Aetna be able to do things more cheaply? Will a merged Anthem and Cigna be able to do something new?

University of Minnesota economist Steve Parente says the answer is probably yes. If these deals go through, companies will expand their business into different types of insurance, giving them better intelligence about what hospitals are willing to take.

“You now get to see in a sense exactly what providers are willing to take for a Medicaid patient that’s low income, and a commercial insurance patient that is basically the best reimbursement you are going to see,” he says.

That leverage may be why Anthem’s CEO Joe Swedish says this deal would bring in $2 billion in “annual synergies,” business speak for cost savings. Companies say that could get passed on to consumers.

But professor Leemore Dafny with Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management says if past is prologue, when insurers merge, premiums go up.

“This is a highly consolidated industry that has not delivered a lot of innovation historically,” she says. “And to believe that more consolidation is going to serve us is to put a lot of faith that increased scale will bring us improvements.”

What really troubles Dafny is that it’s hard to enter the insurance business. So if insurers fail to deliver on these merger promises, it’s not clear if anyone can step up and provide consumers with another choice.  

For background on the proposed merger, check out Mitchell Hartman’s story here.

Army Warns Of 'Armed Citizens' Trying To Protect Recruiting Stations

NPR News - Thu, 2015-07-23 12:56

Vigilante guards — some associated with militia groups — have begun appeared outside recruiting stations around the country, ostensibly to protect them in the wake of the Chattanooga shootings.

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An 80-Year-Old Looks Into The Eyes Of Her Teenage Self

NPR News - Thu, 2015-07-23 12:51

In 1950, a teenage girl in Nigeria put on her mother's fancy clothes and posed for a photo. In 2015, she had her first encounter with the original, hand-colored portrait.

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In Hot Pursuit Of Public Safety, Police Consider Fewer Car Chases

NPR News - Thu, 2015-07-23 12:39

Each year, 300 to 400 people are killed in high-speed police pursuits in the U.S. Some solutions to create safer chases have emerged — such a Batman-like dart that tracks fleeing cars.

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Obama Thinks Solar Power Will Boost Kenya. Kenyans Aren't So Sure

NPR News - Thu, 2015-07-23 12:39

Are solar panels the best way to connect millions of Africans to electricity? That's the plan President Obama will tout on his visit to Kenya. Critics ask: What about tapping into power lines?

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Even If You're Lean, 1 Soda Per Day Ups Your Risk Of Diabetes

NPR News - Thu, 2015-07-23 12:26

A daily habit of sugary-sweetened drinks can boost your risk of developing the disease — even if you're not overweight. And diet soda might not be doing you any favors, either.

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Obama's First Trip To Kenya As President Is Less About His Roots This Time

NPR News - Thu, 2015-07-23 11:53

President Obama is heading to Kenya, where his father was born. He'll meet with relatives, but the trip is not strictly personal. There's plenty of official business on the agenda.

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Why Disability And Poverty Still Go Hand In Hand 25 Years After Landmark Law

NPR News - Thu, 2015-07-23 11:38

Disabled Americans are twice as likely to be poor as those without disabilities. They continue to face many financial and physical barriers, despite the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.

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Everyone's getting the music streaming business wrong

Marketplace - American Public Media - Thu, 2015-07-23 11:19

Taylor Swift picked a pretty big fight this summer. No, not that one.

The pop megastar took on Apple over allegedly skimping on royalties during Apple Music's free trial period, and got the company to change its tune. This wasn't the first time Swift and others had spoken out about low royalty payments from music streaming services like Spotify, from which she pulled her catalog last year. Meanwhile, Spotify argues it has paid out over $2 billion in royalties.

But a new report from the Berklee Institute for Creative Entrepreneurship says these squabbles miss the point. In fact, there are a bunch of other players, complex accounting and backroom deals that stand between the royalties services pay out and the artists' paychecks.

"We were trying to figure out what exactly happens in the value chain from the minute I [listen] to music, to the minute the creator on the other end gets paid," says Allen Bargfrede, Berklee associate professor and one of the authors of the report.

Berklee has launched a new initiative, Rethink Music, to untangle all the streams of money, dispel misconceptions about the business and propose more transparency. Let's do the numbers:

70 percent

That's the portion of revenue the iTunes store and streaming services pay out in royalties. It's tempting to think of per-stream royalties — often a fraction of a cent — as piddly contrasted with a 99 cent song or $9.99 album, but you can't really compare the two business models. The report notes someone could easily stream a song enough times to generate far more in royalties than they would have ever paid to own it. As streaming grows, what's more important is the way businesses split revenue, Bargfrede says.

"They're still paying 70 percent of their revenue, so what do you expect them to do? Do you expect them to pay 140 percent of their revenue, so you're getting twice as much? Twice as much would still be a fraction, maybe a penny or two," he says. "What exactly can a digital service do beyond what they're already doing, and waiting for the market to grow?"


That's about how many streams of royalty revenue a single song can have, according to music data company Kobalt. That's all the internet and terrestrial radio stations, streaming services, digital music stores, physical sales, licencing and so on. As more music becomes available online and services start paying royalties by-the-stream instead of by-the-sale, the amount of micro-transactions increases exponentially, Bargfrede says, and it's harder for the existing technology to keep up with all that information.

68 cents

That's the portion of a $9.99 monthly subscription to a streaming service actually makes it to artists, according to the Berklee report, and all told, labels keep about 73 percent of royalties from streaming. But that doesn't even tell the whole story.

Here's the rub: those royalties are passed down a line of rights groups, publishers or third-party distributors before they make it to the label and then the artist. These players are supposed to divvy up the royalties companies like Spotify are paying out, which is complicated; the composition and recording are usually two separate copyrights, or there might be several co-writers or publishers. All the agreements dictating those payments are secret, and researchers found that royalty statements were difficult to parse.

Bargfrede says Rethink Music got a hold of one statement from a "platinum-selling artist" signed to a major label and traced back the average royalty rate per stream, but it's difficult to know how accurate those numbers are if a sizable chunk of royalty payments don't make it to artists at all.

$42.5 million

That's the advance royalty payment stipulated by a 2011 contract between Sony and Spotify that leaked this spring. According to the Berklee report, if royalty payouts add up to less than an advance, it's typical for labels to pocket the remainder. And that's not the only way royalties get stuck in between services and artists.

When streaming services or rights organizations don't know where to distribute royalties, they're put in a "black box" account that's eventually paid out to labels according to market share. 

How could rights groups not know whom to give royalties to? Songs are often not registered in a consistent way, and sometimes titles are incorrectly translated, Bargfrede says. The disconnect could come down to a simple spelling issue — the difference between "Beyonce" and "Beyoncé."

Some have pushed for standardizing codes assigned to each composition and recording to more easily distribute royalties, but the report notes these standards — along with better technology for tracking royalties — haven't been widely adopted yet.

"There are a lot of things that could be fixed here, and there's a lot of foot-dragging," he says. "You're looking at a legacy business that's decades old, and it takes time to adopt new technology. But it's time to say, 'OK lets march forward, we need to do this,'" Bargfrede says.

Jury Confirms That Holmes Is Eligible For Death Over Aurora Theater Shootings

NPR News - Thu, 2015-07-23 11:07

A jury still needs to determine how to punish James Holmes. Convicted of first-degree murder, he faces either a lifetime prison sentence or execution.

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Administration Prods States To Scrutinize Insurers' Rate Hikes

NPR News - Thu, 2015-07-23 10:56

As health insurers propose their rates for 2016, state agencies are So far only a handful of states have finalized rates for 2016.

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How Democratic-Leaning Detroit Helped Shape Ben Carson's Conservative Views

NPR News - Thu, 2015-07-23 10:48

Detroit is not exactly known as a haven of conservatism, especially in the black community, but a look at where Carson grew up reveals a young man determined to carve his own path.

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Surprise: America's Roads Are Improving

NPR News - Thu, 2015-07-23 10:40

A common talking point in the Highway Trust Fund fight is that roads are crumbling. So it may surprise you to know that the country's roads and bridges actually have been looking better lately.

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