Marketplace - American Public Media

Why "landmen" don't benefit from low gas prices

Mon, 2015-05-04 02:00

The price of crude oil is up from its lows of the last year, but at $59 a barrel this morning, that still about half what it was 11 months ago. This is great for consumers of oil, drivers, businesses and beyond. But it's a challenge for many who work in the oil industry, including what are called "landmen," people paid by oil companies to get rights to drill. We visit one land person, in Eddy County, New Mexico.

Click on the multimedia player above to hear more. 

McDonald's wants to serve up a giant turnaround

Mon, 2015-05-04 02:00

McDonald's is sharing details of a major turnaround plan. The company recently said it plans to reassert itself as a "modern, progressive burger company." This at a time the fast-food giant's global sales were down 2.3 percent in the first quarter.

But can a fast-food chain with 36,000 restaurants worldwide adapt to changing consumer tastes without confusing people? McDonald's wants to be a place you can get a double cheeseburger for a dollar, or an artisanal antibiotic-free chicken sandwich. And for a company that big, it's not an easy switch.

"It's a little bit like the difference between trying to redirect a huge freighter with a barge or whatever, and a sailboat," University of Oregon marketing professor T. Bettina Cornwell says. "It's a large brand with a long history."

Because McDonald's is such a household name, she says it feels more pressure to offer healthier items.

Meantime, "you get company's like Shake Shack or Smashburger or Five Guys come along, and they just focus on those hamburgers and fries, Maverick Consulting founder John Knight says. He says healthier items also take longer to make. And with as much traffic as McDonald's has, every extra second costs money.

Obama's plan to keep up with My Brother's Keeper

Mon, 2015-05-04 02:00

President Obama is scheduled to speak Monday at the launch of a new nonprofit organization — the My Brother's Keeper Alliance. 

If that sounds familiar, it's because it's a spinoff of the My Brother's Keeper Initiative, launched by the President in 2014, as a White House program aimed at helping minority boys and young men stay in school and graduate prepared for college. 

Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools and one of the Initiative's first partners, says "The fact that he is setting this up now is important in signalling what a major priority this is for him personally."

And perhaps the President will continue to be involved after he leaves office in January 2017. Last week, he told a group of school children that he will "go back to doing the kinds of work I was doing before," leading some to speculate he may return to community organizing.

Meeting with the EU Commissioner for Competition

Mon, 2015-05-04 02:00

The European Union Commissioner for Competition against Google,  Margrethe Vestager, joins us from her home country of Denmark. The high-profile official has taken on some high-profile companies since stepping in her role last year. The internet search and advertising giant Google has its hands full in Europe, where antitrust regulators have accused it of abusing its power to, among other things, favor its business partners in Google results. Google denies wrongdoing. Gazprom, the largest energy provider for eastern Europe, is also under investigation for overcharging in the regional market. 

Click the multimedia player above to hear more on Commissioner Vestager's take on Google, Gazprom, and her television portrayal.


The changing role of Advanced Placement classes

Mon, 2015-05-04 01:36
Luis Romero has taken so many Advanced Placement courses, he can barely remember them all. AP Computer Science, Human Geography, U.S. Government, World History...

He may sound like a “typical” teenager in a “typical” high-achieving high school, but not that long ago, Romero would have stood out at North County High School in Glen Burnie, Maryland — a diverse school in a working-class suburb of Baltimore.

If annual growth rates hold true, during the next two weeks, more than two million high school students across the country are expected to take AP exams during the next few weeks. A passing score could mean earning college credit while still in high school. Research shows that students who take rigorous courses in high school are more likely to get into, and succeed, in college.

For a lot of students though, especially low-income and minority students, AP courses haven’t always been an option. North County principal Julie Cares says five years ago, only 10 percent of the school's 2,000 students took any Advanced Placement classes. Less than one-fourth of seniors planned to attend a four-year college.

“When I first came, there was a sense of, just low expectations,” she says. “A lot of kids not only didn’t believe it was possible, but it didn’t even occur to them that was something they might do."

Should all students be accepted into AP classes?

To build a college-going culture, the school added more AP courses, eliminated all of the requirements to get in and pushed every student to take at least one. In five years, the number of AP students has tripled, from about 200 to 600.

“We decided to open the gates, basically,” Cares says. “Then it just became something that we do here: when you come to North County, you take an AP class.”

There are more students in classes like AP English Language and Composition, where a class of juniors recently wrestled with concepts like “polysyndeton” and “metonomy.” In an assignment designed to help prepare them for the upcoming exam, students are asked to identify the rhetorical strategy in a passage from literature or popular music.

Student Tyler Beynard says he might not have considered taking a class this challenging before the shift.

“I didn't even know what AP was,” he says. “The middle school I went to, I feel like it didn’t really prepare me for high school, so AP classes was kind of a shock.”

The transition was sort of a shock for North County, too.

“The original intent was like, we’re going to help more kids, this is going to be awesome, bring us more kids,” says Jennifer Mermod, another AP English teacher. “And it did. But, then there were those kids that we thought, ‘Wow, this may not have been the best push for them.’”

Source: The College Board (Dan Hill for LearningCurve)

So, some gatekeeping has returned. Mermod says students who might do better in an honors-level class, typically used as the prerequisite for some AP courses, are encouraged to stay there and get a higher grade.

“I want them to get into college — that’s the point of the program, so I really don’t want a kid that’s going to come into the class and not at least get a C,” she says.

The high school also added more tutoring, and expanded a college prep program called AVID, which provides support for students taking AP courses. Students like Luis Romero, who will be the first in his family to attend college, also take a separate class where they learn note-taking and study skills.

“It gives me a time period where I can just focus on whatever I need to do, as well as give me a couple of tips that will help me do better in my classes and get to college,” he says. Romero has passed all but one of the many AP exams he’s taken.

North County High School senior Luis Romero gets support for college applications and AP classes from teacher Brian Whitley, through a program called AVID. (Mary Wiltenburg/Marketplace)

Teachers also have had to make adjustments. They no longer get just the brightest or most-motivated students. To keep classes challenging for those students, Mermod says she breaks her class into small groups. Sometimes the better-prepared students serve as leaders.

“Other times you cohort them up, so they can have their little, ‘You came prepared, you deserve to be rewarded with a better discussion,’” Mermod says.

But, as more high schools push less-prepared kids into AP, there is the risk the whole class might suffer, says Denise Pope, co-founder of Challenge Success, a project at Stanford University.

“You may have to water it down so much that it’s not going to be considered a college-level course,” she says.

The original purpose of AP courses was to give talented students a chance to earn college credit — aka advanced placement — by taking college-level work while still in high school.

Today, many school leaders see AP as, “the solution to having kids prepared for college,” says Kristin Klopfenstein, director of the University of Northern Colorado’s Education Innovation Institute.

Adding AP classes can boost a school’s standing, Klopfenstein says. She questions the value of putting students into those classes if they aren’t likely to pass the official — though most times optional — AP exams at the end of the year.

“The research is pretty clear that that confers no advantage to them in terms of their postsecondary enrollment and outcomes,” she says.

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At North County High, more than two-thirds of students generally do not pass the exams, meaning no college credit. Principal Cares says they’re working to improve that rate. Even without the college credit, she says students develop skills like writing and critical thinking that will serve them in college.

“They’re still learning those skills that are pushing them forward,” Cares says.

Junior Nevay Archuleta didn’t pass her first AP test last year in Government. But, she says taking the class still changed how she thinks about herself and her future. She’s taking two more AP classes this year.

“Before AP, I thought I was definitely like too average for college,” she says. “But I think now that they see that I’ve challenged myself, they’re going to be more impressed.”

AP by the numbers

$91 Total fee per AP exam

$53 Cost per exam for students with financial need*

13 Number of states where some students can take exams for free

$795,817,602 Total College Board — which distributes the AP — revenue 2012-13

$28,483,000 Amount of grants awarded by the Department of Education to states in August 2014, to defray the costs of taking Advanced Placement tests for low-income students

*The College Board provides a $29 fee reduction per exam for students with financial need. For each AP exam taken with a fee reduction, the school forgoes its $9 rebate, resulting in a cost of $53 per exam for the student. Many states use federal and state funding to further reduce the exam fee for these students.

McDonald's happy plan

Mon, 2015-05-04 01:00
$6.4 billion

This is how much fine Google would have to pay if it was found violating anti-trust laws in Europe. Today, we speak with the European Commissioner for Competition Margrethe Vestager . The high-profile official is leading the probe into the tech giant. Google is accused of using its dominate position in Europe (90 percent of market share) to promote its own services in searches. Google denies any wrongdoing. 


That's the median expected retirement age. A new Gallup poll found 37 percent of people expected to retire after 65, a portion that has been growing for decades, especially after 2009. In contrast, about two thirds of retired people surveyed sad they stopped working before turning 65.


This is how many outlets McDonald's have around the world. A big turnaround plan is due today from the fast food giant. Representative says it will reassert itself in a quote "modern, progressive burger company." This comes at a time that the fast-food giant's global sales were down 2.3 percent in the first quarter.

87 percent

The portion of ads in iTune's top 100 podcasts that advertised for web-based services, according to an analysis by FiveThirtyEight. We looked into the niche-but-growing business of podcast advertising, where giving a host that latitude to curse when talking about your product could lead to great return on investment.

81 percent

The portion of The Onion's revenue that comes from Onion Labs, the satirical news organization's sponsored content arm. The Atlantic notes, the satirical newspaper is in the pretty much the exact same predicament as the news organizations it mimics; The Onion hasn't actually been in print for years, instead it's building verticals and selling branded content as it tries to stay afloat, even profitable, online.


This is reportedly how much Floyd Mayweather made per second over the weekend. The historic boxing match between Floyd "Money" Mayweather and Manny "Pac Man" Pacquiao brought in millions for the boxers and their sponsors. It also made the most expensive pay per view episode yet, at a hefty $99.99 for a single episode. 


McDonald's happy plan

Mon, 2015-05-04 01:00
$6.4 billion

This is how much fine Google would have to pay if it was found guilty. Today, we spoke with the European Commissioner for Competition Margrethe Vestager . The high-profile official is leading the probe into the tech giant. Google is accused of using its dominate position in Europe (90 percent of market share) to promote its own services in searches. Google denies any wrongdoing. 


That's the median expected retirement age. A new Gallup poll found 37 percent of people expected to retire after 65, a portion that has been growing for decades, especially after 2009. In contrast, about two thirds of retired people surveyed sad they stopped working before turning 65.


This is how many outlets McDonald's have around the world. A big turnaround plan is due today from the fast food giant. Representative says it will reassert itself a quote "modern, progressive burger company." This at a time the fast-food giant's global sales were down 2.3 percent in the first quarter.

87 percent

The portion of ads in iTune's top 100 podcasts that advertised for web-based services, according to an analysis by FiveThirtyEight. We looked into the niche-but-growing business of podcast advertising, where giving a host that latitude to curse when talking about your product could lead to great return on investment.

81 percent

The portion of The Onion's revenue that comes from Onion Labs, the satirical news organization's sponsored content arm. The Atlantic notes, the satirical newspaper is in the pretty much the exact same predicament as the news organizations it mimics; The Onion hasn't actually been in print for years, instead it's building verticals and selling branded content as it tries to stay afloat, even profitable, online.


This is reported how much Floyd Mayweather made per second over the weekend. The boxing match between Floyd "Money" Mayweather and Manny "Pac Man" Pacquiao brought in millions for the boxers. It also made the most expensive pay per view episode in history. 


Floyd Mayweather will likely earn $120 million Saturday

Fri, 2015-05-01 13:00

I will preface this by saying I am not gonna be one of those shelling out $89.95 to watch the Floyd Mayweather-Manny Pacquiao fight on Saturday. But millions of other people will, which gets us to this tidbit that CNBC has put together. 

Assuming Floyd Mayweather makes — as has been predicted — $120 million or more, that means he will make in just one night more than the following companies had in profits all of last year: Sotheby's, the auction house, Cheesecake Factory, GoPro, Smith & Wesson and Kate Spade.

Weekly wrap: GDP, the Federal Reserve and Greece

Fri, 2015-05-01 13:00

Joining Kai to talk about the week's business and economic news are Sudeep Reddy  from the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post's Catherine Rampell. The big topics this week: the U.S. gross domestic product experiences a slowdown during the year's first quarter, the Federal Reserve holds a two-day meeting and Greece continues to have tenuous relationship with the eurozone. 



Tesla's Powerwall isn't for everyone ... yet

Fri, 2015-05-01 13:00

Tech-entrepreneur Elon Musk made a big splash last night in California. His company, Tesla, introduced the Powerwall, a big battery for your home. There’s a lot of hype around the battery, but is it practical for the average person?

The Powerwall will work by storing energy that comes from solar panels on your roof. This will allow for 24-hour energy, rather than only when the sun is out. In theory, this should save you money — but a few factors may stand in the way.

Analyst Brian Warshay says even with an aggressively priced Tesla battery, it doesn’t make sense today, for the home.

“The residential market will be limited, one because most people don’t have solar power. Two, most people that do have solar power are already saving money on their electricity bill without any storage. And in the U.S., for the most part, the power grid is quite reliable and quite cheap. So it does make sense for people to remain grid connected.”

Marketplace’s Scott Tong believes that a more likely scenario is for homeowners to partially defect from the grid with solar panels, battery, and a small utility bill. However, total grid defection could be in the future.

“This could be the big original cellphone that took two hands to hold. Technology costs have absolutely come down,” says Tong.

And a fun fact – the power grid that this battery will defect from evolved largely because of technology developed more than a century ago by a man named Nikola Tesla.

My First Job: Pet grave digger

Fri, 2015-05-01 13:00

Jesse Kovalcik got his first job because he wanted to spend time with his dad.

When the family moved to South Florida, Kovalcik’s dad got a job at the Tri-County Humane Society. When his father was tasked with managing the pet cemetery, Kovalcik decided he wanted to help out.

“Mostly I was responsible for digging the pet graves,” Kovalcik says.

It was hard work, but, for every grave he dug, his dad must have dug half a dozen, Kovalcik says. His father would hold a funeral service for the pets too.

“I always thought it was a little bit strange to have a funeral for your pet,” Kovalcik says, “but what always struck me was how helpful he was to them and how supportive he was.”

But for Kovalcik, his first job at the pet cemetery was more than just a macabre after school activity. Seeing how compassionately his dad dealt with people whose pets had died sparked something in Kovalcik.

“Definitely it gave me a sense that I should try to do something that helps people,” Kovalcik says. “It gave me a sense of what was important and what I should be doing with my life.”

Kovalcik now lives in Oakland, CA and is a licensed marriage and family therapist and a school counselor. 

Body cameras spread, changing how cops do their job

Fri, 2015-05-01 11:59

Attorney General Loretta Lynch has announced a $20 million Justice Department pilot project to provide body cameras to selected police departments nationwide, to help encourage and study their use.

While dash cams that record from inside a police car are now widely deployed nationwide, body cams are currently in use in a small minority of police departments. The systems are expensive—with an initial investment for cameras, and ongoing costs for data storage and technology management.

The police department in Rialto, California, has been using body cams since 2012. They're small, cigarette-lighter-sized video cameras mounted to a helmet or uniform, with built-in data storage for videos, connected to a small battery pack. The cameras — Rialto’s are supplied by Taser International — are supposed to be turned on by the officer before any significant encounter with a member of the public, a witness or a suspect. That means everything from a routine traffic stop, to a domestic dispute, to a robbery in progress.

Rialto was the subject of one of the first controlled academic studies of the impact of body cams on policing.

Rialto police chief Tony Farrar was studying for a master’s degree at the Cambridge University Institute of Criminology in the U.K. in 2012. He worked with several of his professors to craft a study on the roll out of body cams in his police department. Farrar obtained approximately $100,000 in state and federal grants to purchase cameras (at about $1,000 each, plus the hardware and software necessary to upload and store video from each officer’s shift).

Farrar says the results of that initial study were impressive—so impressive, he outfitted the entire department, all 106 sworn officers in the small Southern California city of 100,000, in 2013.

“We’ve got less officer complaints, less times that we have to use force,” says Farrar. Complaints against police by civilians declined by 88 percent in the first year body cams were being worn, according to the Cambridge study; use-of-force by police declined by 60 percent. Violent incidents against the police also declined — the Cambridge researchers speculate that people interacting with police know they’re being videotaped, and moderate their behavior as a result. Farrar says the department’s rate of successful prosecution improved, because of better evidence being gathered on the body cams.

Farrar’s conclusion: “Hopefully, we have an increase in public trust and credibility and the overall legitimacy of policing.”

Still, not everyone in the department was on board to hit the streets “packing video.” Farrar says, “some of the more seasoned officers had a few more questions.” A young patrol officer in the department, Randall Peterson, who is a former Marine with two and a half years on the force, agrees. He says there was “controversy” when the body cams were rolled out.

But he himself quickly came to accept them as a valuable addition to his standard procedure and gear when he goes out patrolling his beat. On a recent day shift, he was looking for witnesses and a suspect in an alleged assault. If he found them, he planned to videotape everything that transpired. For the suspect in particular, he says, “there’s a huge potential for him to either make a spontaneous statement that he did commit the offense, or, say he decides he wants to run or fight, then it’s going to catch any offense that he commits after the fact during my contact.”

“A big part of my job is protecting myself from civil liability,” says Peterson. “And why not help myself? That’s how I see it.”

Chief Farrar says all the videotaping hasn’t crimped his veteran officers’ style—on patrol or at headquarters.

“Officers sometimes have a very unique way of relieving stress and tension, and pulling pranks on each other,” says Farrar. “I went downstairs to briefing the other day and they kind of ripped me apart. We don’t arbitrarily search videos looking for officers that did something wrong or may have said something wrong.”

Police departments grapple with body camera costs

Officer Peterson feels comfortable in his privacy while on the job. He says he videotapes what’s required, and is careful to control his mode of expression in front of civilians. But, “I have the ability to turn the camera off when I want to tell a joke to my partner. And I honestly should have the professionalism to realize that if I’m in front of the public, I should probably keep my inappropriate jokes to myself.”

Chief Farrar says he absolutely does want his officers to be conscious that they’re being recorded, to temper their behavior in stressful law enforcement situations.

“If you have a long foot chase, or a long car chase, or you make a very good arrest, the officers want to congratulate each other or whatever,” says Farrar. “But I don’t think it’s appropriate to be high-fiving at the end of a car chase.”

However, inhibiting police officers from acting as they otherwise would, absent a camera recording their every word and move, is seen as a problem by law enforcement officers who oppose mandatory use of body cams. And it’s also a concern shared by some criminal justice experts.

Professor Maki Haberfeld chairs the program in law, police science and criminal justice administration at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. Haberfeld predicts that increasingly ubiquitous video-monitoring of police, plus police officials, prosecutors and civil rights lawyers scrutinizing all that video for evidence of misconduct, will make officers on the beat afraid to use adequate force when they need to.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that they will second-guess themselves, they will hesitate, and it can potentially create a danger,” she says.

Haberfeld is also skeptical as to whether more videotaping will really help good cops defend their use of force, or protect the public when bad cops go over the line.

“Things can be understood out of context even if they’re recorded,” says Haberfeld. “This is going to be scrutinized against standards that are totally unrealistic, by people who do not understand how police work is done properly. Certain situations appear to be abusive when they’re not.”

Of course, police could just turn off their video recorders when they’re in a dangerous situation, or if a situation has the potential to make them look bad. But that would violate police policy in most jurisdictions where body cams are in use.

And, in response to the potential for police to fail to record incidents or attempt to manipulate what has been recorded, some critics of police behavior are already calling for body cams to be set or designed to record all the time, throughout an officer’s shift. Then officers wouldn’t have to turn the cameras on to record an incident; in fact, they wouldn’t be able to turn the body cams off.

“It’s oppressive to have to work on-camera every minute of the day,” says Lewis Maltby, president of the National Workrights Institute, a public-interest legal group formerly affiliated with the ACLU. “It should only be done where it’s really necessary. But there are cases where it may be necessary, like police officers. It’s literally a matter of life and death, and experience has shown that we can’t detect police abuse any other way.”

Your Wallet: What are you chasing?

Fri, 2015-05-01 10:21

What are you chasing in your financial life? Retirement? Savings?

Will you catch it? Tell us about your race.

You can write to us here

Or on Marketplace's Facebook page.

Or on twitter ... We're at @MarketplaceWKND


Building a more accessible home, no matter your budget

Fri, 2015-05-01 10:02

When Staff Sergeant Matt Dewitt came home from Iraq, what he wanted most was to be able to take care of his family — to live comfortably at home with his wife and two young children, taking care of them as he always had. But the war left him wounded — both of his arms were amputated below the elbow.

Staff Sergeant Matt Dewitt. 

Courtesy This Old House

In his former home, day-to-day tasks became harder than usual. Simple things, like giving his kids a bath, were impossible; Dewitt couldn't independently use the spigots or change the water temperature. 

Dewitt's story echoes that of many people who, after an injury, illness or onset of disability changes their life, find themselves seeking a more accessibly designed home. 

In Dewitt's case, the solution was a new home, built through a joint effort by the nonprofit Homes For Our Troops and PBS's "This Old House."

Armed with about $400,000 from Homes For Our Troops, the "This Old House" team built the Dewitt family a new home from the ground up. The entire house was designed with accessibility in mind: keyless entry, touchless faucets, temperature sensors, and rooms and showers without thresholds. Building this way uses a principal called Universal Design, and includes modifications meant to meet a wide variety of needs. 

The Dewitt home. 

Courtesy This Old House

"This Old House" host Kevin O'Connor says building or modifying a home to meet the needs of a person with a disability is a complex process.

"The first thing that really should happen with any renovation is to do an assessment," he says. "You want to actually figure out: what are their needs? Are they in a wheelchair? If they're not now, will they be in the future? Are they an amputee? Do they have a caregiver with them, and is that caregiver there part-time, or full-time?"

O'Connor says the best assessments are done alongside a healthcare provider — a doctor or therapist who can speak to their patient's specific needs and make sure they're being met, with the goal that someone can live in their home "comfortably and independently."

For people adapting their home without help from outside groups or grants, modifications can be expensive. O'Connor says that there's a wide range of costs for renovations, the most expensive of which involves making a two-story house wheelchair accessible with an elevator or lift. 

Fernando Hernandez, who was paralyzed at 19 by a tumor on his spine, has dealt with a broad spectrum of adaptations with varying costs.

When he first started using his wheelchair, Hernandez was attending USC, and he moved from his apartment into an accessible dorm. His family moved into a more accessible house, but it still had two stories, so they spent about $17,000 on a lift. Other modifications to that home brought the grand total closer to $30,000. 

When Hernandez moved into his own home three years ago, he was working with a much different budget.

"I wanted to do very little modification to the house," he says. "I definitely was looking for a one story house, and wide door openings, and an open concept house."

Hernandez modified his home by adding a few short plywood ramps his friend built to help him go more smoothly over thresholds and small steps. Instead of widening his doorways — something O'Connor says can cost about $450 per door — he bought special hinges for about $5 each. They pull the door outside of the frame, allowing a few inches of extra space to get through in a wheelchair, something that Hernandez says is important to him, since he's six-foot-six. 

Hernandez made his home more accessible with aesthetics in mind, and some of his favorite accessible furniture wasn't made especially for people in wheelchairs, but serves two purposes. His headboard, for example, includes a bar to help him transfer in and out of bed, and his dining table is pedestal style, so he can roll right up to any spot. As accessible design becomes more mainstream, people designing and furnishing homes with accessibility in mind have more options, and lower costs.

One exception? The bathroom.

"The bathroom is one of the big areas that does require quite a bit of expense," Hernandez says, "and definitely money well spent if you do all the safety things that you need to."

In his bathroom, Hernandez has a shower bench, a couple grab bars for stability and a wheelchair bathroom bench, which sits over the toilet. Hernandez says that even the bathroom renovations were doable on a DIY budget: grab bars cost about $25 to $100, depending on size and type, and his shower bench was about $100. 

O'Connor says even for people without disabilities, renovating accessibly is important, and is becoming more so as people purchase homes with plans to stay there as they age.

"Right now in this country, there are well over 40 million people who are 65 or older, and in my experience, that is the population that is driving these changes." O'Connor says. "It's making people think 'Hey, if we're going to renovate, maybe we should get rid of the bathtub, and maybe we should put in a curb-less shower'...and we are seeing that from perfectly able-bodied young people thinking forward. These changes are coming to the American home."

As accessibility in the present and the future becomes more important to people, universal design becomes more prevalent in buildings and houses. Universal design is the reason behind the increase in the number of homes with master bed and bathroom suites on the ground floor. It includes touches as obvious as open floor plans and as small as paddle door handles, which may be easier on arthritic hands than round knobs. 

O'Connor says that big building companies are already taking note, and that accessible options are out there for people who want them.

"There's no doubt about it that this is already there," O'Connor says. "People probably don't even know that they are buying features that would be considered universal design."

To learn more about the Dewitt home and the "This Old House" veterans project, tune in to "This Old House" on PBS starting May 14. 

Land a job with help from virtual reality

Fri, 2015-05-01 10:01

Albert "Skip" Rizzo is a pioneer in virtual technology. His newest program is the the Virtual Interactive Training Agent, or VITA.

It was developed by the USC Institute for Creative Technologies, in partnership with the Dan Marino Foundation. The interactive aims to help people navigate a job interview. For people on the autism spectrum, Rizzo says, job interviews can be particularly daunting.

VITA helps people practice questions with a virtual interviewer.

"We can set them to have three different behavioral dispositions. They can be that really nice, light-touch job interviewer, the neutral interviewer or the real stress interviewer — the real son-of-a-B," Rizzo says. "We can have people practice how they will respond to these types of characters under a range of conditions."

Aaron Brown-Coats went through the VITA program as part of the curriculum at the Dan Marino Foundation, and says working with the virtual characters helped change the way he interacts at his own job.

Inside the weird world of podcast advertising

Fri, 2015-05-01 07:10

This story was produced in collaboration with FiveThirtyEight. Audio for this story is forthcoming.

The most listened-to podcasts come mostly from public radio: Serial, Invisibilia, This American Life. But the ads? 

"Many of our advertisers are the same ones that you hear on Howard Stern," says Lex Friedman, who heads up ad sales at Midroll. "Literally, you hear Casper mattresses and Audible and Squarespace and ZipRecruiter." 

But this is something people like Friedman are trying to change. Ask about his dream advertisers, and he talks about categories like major movie studios, car companies, clothing companies — household name brands that you'll find on prime-time TV.


"Here's the crass answer: they have deeper pockets, right?" says Friedman. "So, if you can get Coca-Cola or car companies or studios...they have big budgets."

Big budgets that let those advertisers buy in bulk — spending less per ad, but buying more ads overall. 

To see why that's desirable, you can look at the data set put together by FiveThirtyEight data reporter intern Hayley Munguia. She spent two entire days listening to the latest episode of every single podcast in the iTunes top 100—and writing down all the ads. There were 186.

But more than a third of the shows she listened to had no ads. And on the other two thirds, the median number of ads was just two. That's a relatively low "sell-through" (as the percentage of ads sold is called) for shows that have the six ad slots. Lex Friedman says  is common on Midroll's shows. 

“If a show gets 50 or 60 percent sell-through, we’re happy with that,” he says. “But we’re not satisfied with that." 

The FiveThirtyEight databsase reveals that the vast majority of today's podcast ads are, indeed the "Howard Stern" ads: host-read scripts for mid-sized companies selling online.

"For the most part I would say they all blended together, but yeah," says Munguia. "There were a few that stood out for being particularly ... terrible."

For instance: Bill Burr's pre-Valentine's Day endorsement of Sharri's Berries—chocolate-dipped berries you can order online. 

"Show her you thought of something unique and different this year, and get her the gift she is sure to love: Sharri's Berries," Burr says near the beginning of the ad on his Monday Morning Podcast. "Yeah, get her something unique. Get her something you and f**king four million other people are going to get."

When Munguia heard this ad, she wondered: has anyone from Sharri's Berries ever heard this ad?

The answer is yes. I played the ad over the phone to Sharri's Berries' acquisition marketing director, Nick Fairbairn. 

"I mean, does that fall within our brand standards? Probably not," he says. "Is it authentic to Bill Burr the comedian in a podcast space that's not nationally regulated for language? Yeah, it's right on brand for him. And gosh it was ROI positive, too."

ROI as in "Return On Investment" — as in, that ad actually sold a lot of berries. Fairbairn credits the ability of the endorsement (or endorsement-style) "native ads" that are typical on podcasts to blur the line between content and commerce.

"Keep it authentic, don't force it," says Fairbairn. "I think that's the key to doing this stuff."

And they know the ads work, because of a different part of the ad — something Bill Burr repeated at least three times: 

"Go to, click on the microphone and type Burr," he says.

These coupon codes are the norm for today's podcast advertisers. They give listeners an incentive to become customers, and they also give advertisers a handy way to track ads' effectiveness. (Especially useful, because data on podcast listening is less than solid.)

But the question is: by proving that podcast ads can move berries, do they also prove their value for companies that don't count coupons — like, say, Coca-Cola?

"By no means is it perfect for anybody," says Derek Lu, a senior strategist at the Media Kitchen, which buys ads for companies including Goldman Sachs. 

"It's hard to measure engagement; it's hard to measure and track the user journey," he says. And advertisers get relatively limited reach in exchange. "[Companies that advertise on podcasts are] there because they can reach a very niche audience where they couldn't otherwise have reached them," he says.

One possibility, according to Sherrill Mane, SVP of industry services for the Interactive Advertising Bureau, is that they will remain niche. 

"It's a craft, almost," she says. "And in the craft business sometimes if you get a high enough unit price you don't need to sell mass."

In other words, as long as the top podcasts can charge high rates—for host-read ads with coupon codes; selling berries, websites and stamps—they may be just fine without Coca-Cola.


PODCAST: Off to the races

Fri, 2015-05-01 03:04

April was a decidedly mixed month for the economy. We take a look back. Plus, if luck is a lady then some ladies may get lucky at the racetrack this season. Traditionally, horse racing is a field dominated by men: male owners, male trainers, male jockeys. But now, ladies want in.

Uber helps spring clean for free ... if you're patient

Fri, 2015-05-01 02:00

Uber, the ride-share private car company, is known for occasionally using its fleet of cars and drivers to make unusual deliveries: puppies, kittens, ice cream and roses, to name a few. 

This Saturday it will roll out its "spring cleaning" service again. The service connects users with a driver who will whisk bags of clothing to a Goodwill donation center for free. 

Zuhairah Washington, general manager of Uber D.C., says "surprise and delight campaigns" like these allow "people to experience Uber in a different way."

Users who want to clean out their closets need only pack their clothing into bags, fire up Uber, select the "give" option, and then ... wait.

Whitney Johnson, an actor in New York, is a regular Uber user. But when she tried to use the spring cleaning service last year, she waited for four hours. Her advice? "Start early, keep trying, don't give up."

Silicon Tally: the deal...with Hulu?

Fri, 2015-05-01 02:00

It's time for Silicon Tally! How well have you kept up with the week in tech news?

This week, we're joined by Casey Johnston, who writes about technology and is an editor at The Wirecutter.

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Between derby and boxing, a big betting weekend

Fri, 2015-05-01 02:00

For sports gamblers, this Saturday will be like Christmas come early. Between the Kentucky Derby in the afternoon and the Mayweather—Pacquiao fight that evening, hundreds of millions of dollars will be wagered across the country.

In Nevada, the welterweight match between Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao could generate upwards of $50 million in bets, which would be a Nevada record.

Michael Grodsky is director of marketing for William Hill U.S., which operates more than 100 sports books in that state. He says, "80 percent of the bets that have been made are on Manny Pacquiao, and that's also 65 percent of the money that's in bet. So, we'll be rooting for Floyd Mayweather."

The Kentucky Derby also stands a chance of breaking betting records, but if you want to bet legally on other sports this weekend, Vegas is king.

Johnny Avello is known as the “Wizard of Odds” on the Vegas strip. His official title: executive director of race and sports operations at the Wynn Las Vegas.

"Well, if you like horse racing, boxing, NBA, NHL and baseball ... I guess it’s a gambler's delight," Avello says.

However, it’s still just a drop in the bucket in terms of total betting. I always estimate that Nevada's probably 3-4 percent of everything that's wagered in the U.S.”

Outside of horse racing, which is legal in other states, Avello says most sports betting in the U.S. is underground.