Marketplace - American Public Media

A history of telecom mergers, charted

Tue, 2014-05-13 20:17

AT&T is reportedly close to making an offer to buy DirecTV in a deal that would value the satellite dish TV operator at nearly $50 billion.

According to the Wall Street Journal: 

"A deal could boost the flow of cash that AT&T could use to pay its dividend and fund a build out of its broadband Internet infrastructure, analysts have said. It also comes as AT&T increasingly views video—whether via pay TV service or delivered over the Web or its wireless network—as central to its future.

Adding satellite TV capabilities also could allow AT&T to free up valuable bandwidth on its Internet connections to customer homes."

The possible merger has us thinking about the history of media consolidation:

Sorry, former Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner

Tue, 2014-05-13 14:29

Former Treasury secretary Timothy Geithner has a new book out, as you may have heard. 

As part of the publicity campaign, the website Charitybuzz auctioned off lunch with Mr. Geithner today, with proceeds to benefit the RFK Center for Justice and Human Rights.

$50,000 was the winning bid.

Nice and all, but a good deal shy of the 2013 record holder... a $610,000 lunch with Apple CEO Tim Cook.

 

 

The high-tech shop teacher of the future

Tue, 2014-05-13 12:28

Now that much of the grunt work in American manufacturing is done by machines, we need skilled, high-paid workers to run those machines. Specifically, workers with more math and engineering knowledge than in the past. And the manufacturing industry worries that schools aren't teaching future workers what they'll need to know.

Educators are working with industry to change that; in some cases by combining cutting-edge technology with an old-school educational concept. Some of this thinking is in action in upstate New York, on the tech-focused campus of Hudson Valley Community College. A group of high school students is huddled around teacher Darrel Ackroyd, who is showing them a 3-D printer. As the machine whirs and slices out patterns, one student wants to know if it could print out a person.

"In a plastic form, yes," Ackroyd answers.

This cracks the students up and they immediately start joking about the possibilities of "3-D selfies." But they take their tech seriously, and they pepper the teacher with thoughtful questions about speed, cost and potential uses of the technology.

Ackroyd is young, with a hipster beard and man bun. Despite his techie image, he's also a kind of a throwback to a character these students' grandparents would recognize: the high school shop teacher.

Schools are bringing back this tradition of showing students how to work with their hands, this time with a high-tech twist. Now, instead of a crappy birdhouse and a mouthful of sawdust, students get hands-on technology experience that could help them land well-paying jobs.

"We're preparing our students for jobs that don't exist yet," says Laurel Logan-King, assistant superintendent at Ballston Spa Central School District.

Ballston Spa runs the program, but students in districts from around the region are eligible. They can get college credit studying here, which saves them (and their parents) money. But the big draw is the chance to get their hands on some of the latest technology, from nanotechnology to green energy.

The program, a partnership between high school, higher education and industry, is new, so educators often have to explain the benefits of working with technology that some find strange, maybe even scary.

"It's really about creating that awareness, not only for the students, but also for the parents, so that they can have an understanding about what are these new opportunities that are going to be available for my children," Logan-King explains.

Bringing students from around the region to a well-equipped college campus gives them the chance to have experiences like the realization student Morgan Pakatar had when she first suited up to enter a nanotech lab.

"I'm just, like, I feel cool, this is awesome, this is what I wanna do," she remembers.

That's what educators and tech companies hope for from programs like this: a new generation of workers excited about the jobs of the future, with marketable skills that only hands-on learning can provide.

Taking the retail sales number too seriously

Tue, 2014-05-13 12:02

The Commerce Department released monthly sales data for the month of April. The number is $434 billion, which means sales are up one tenth of a percent from March. But what does 0.1 percent really represent?

Marlene Morris Towns, a professor of marketing at the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University, says the uptick from the previous month's data -- sales for March were about three times as much -- could be explained by spring. Because who wants to shop in bad weather?  

But interpreting a tiny number like the April over March sales increase isn't so easy, or even useful.

“I don’t know that a small trend like that would really say anything major about consumers,” Morris Towns says. “I think it gets tricky when you start looking at small differences from month to month rather than bigger trends.”

Like, year over year. She says comparing monthly numbers can be like finding a picture of Elvis in our toast -- we could be searching for non-existent patterns. And then trying to explain them away with weather, job numbers or holidays. 

"So when you look from month to month," she says "we’re looking for patterns that a lot of times aren’t necessarily patterns, they’re just kind of blips, or small shifts, but don’t really represent a change in consumer attitudes or comfort level with their income or economic status."

Barbara Kahn, director of the Baker Retailing Center at the Wharton School, says that's why many retailers, like JCPenney and Macy's, have stopped reporting their own month-to -month same-store sales.

“It used to be, I don’t know, how many stores reported? Maybe 20 to 30? It’s down to very, very few stores report now, precisely for that reason, because it doesn’t give a clear picture.”

But Kahn notes, the month to month data can be useful. “One of the reasons it’s been looked at so much in the last three, four, five years was to see the signs of the economy. Because retail sales was a very good indicator of whether or not we’re fully out of the recession, and if the economy is rebounding.”

 Kahn says, if you look at April’s sales compared to last year – the numbers are better. The Commerce Department says they're up by 4 percent.

Fannie and Freddie are easing up. Carefully.

Tue, 2014-05-13 11:56

The new head of the government agency that oversees Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac laid out a new game plan Tuesday -- a change in direction, designed to get banks to lend more. The way it works now, Fannie and Freddie buy mortgages from banks and guarantee them. But Fannie and Freddie make banks buy them back if there’s a problem, even if it’s just a minor paperwork glitch. 

Now, Fannie and Freddie will ease up. Carefully.

“Since any stumbles along the way could have ripple effects in the $10 trillion housing finance market, there’s a lot at stake in getting this right," says Mel Watt, the new director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency.

If Watt gets it right, analysts say banks will be more willing to lend to first time or low-income homebuyers. That's because they won’t be so worried about having to buy their loans back. Will Watt’s plan be enough to rev up the housing market, which has been limping along in second gear?

“Well I think it’s going to stop us from going in reverse,” says Tim Rood, a former executive at Fannie Mae, now chairman of the Collingwood Group. 

But if the housing market speeds up too fast, will it overheat? Not a chance, says Guy Cecala, publisher of Inside Mortgage Finance. 

“We’re still nowhere near the speed limit," he says. "If the speed limit is 65, we’re still going along at 45, but it’s better than 30 or wherever we were at before." 

Cecala says, even with Watt’s changes, banks will still be cautious.

In North Dakota, making ribs for roughnecks

Tue, 2014-05-13 11:52

North Dakota's the land of opportunity for people looking for jobs in the oil and gas industry.

The fracking boom has transformed the western part of the state -- often overwhelming the small towns that dot the prairie. Todd Melby's been keeping track of the comings and goings of workers in the oil field.

Recently, he talked to a Razorback who moved there to make ribs for roughnecks, a guy named Oscar Everetts. You can take Oscar out of Arkansas, but you can't take Arkansas out of.... You know how it goes.

Todd Melby's series, "Black Gold Boom," is an initiative of Prairie Public and the Association for Independents in Radio.

Google vs. the 'Right to be Forgotten'

Tue, 2014-05-13 11:49

If you’ve ever Googled yourself and discovered some not-so-flattering photos from, say, the 2001 office Christmas party, or a break-up poem you published in the college online magazine, you’ll likely find this of interest: Today the European Union’s highest court ruled that individuals can ask Google, Bing, Yahoo, or any other major search engine to remove links that come up when their name is searched.

It's the so-called "right to be forgotten."

The European court said because search results have such a major impact on people’s lives, people should have the right to have certain material removed.

"You talked about your credit report, this is your Google report," says Danny Sullivan, founding editor of Search Engine Land. "On a personal basis, that’s a big impact for some people. There are cases where many people would be sympathetic to the idea that there’s something unflattering about them that’s also old or perhaps outdated."

One of the plaintiffs in the EU case is a surgeon, who requested the removal of a 1991 article, about an operation he’d performed that had gone badly. "There are a number of gray areas here that pit the right of the individuals to control his or her reputation against the public’s right to know," says Greg Sterling, an analyst with Opus Research in San Francisco.

What about this country? Can Americans expect to request the removal of bad haircuts and DUIs?

"No, not at all," says Sterling. "In the U.S., the First Amendment would prevent such an outcome. They [the EU] see any data associated with an individual as personal, private information and the view in the U.S. is more skewed toward making that information not the property of an individual, but something that can be utilized by other parties."

Search engine companies would not have to comply with every request, and it's so far unclear how exactly the ruling will play out.

Google told Marketplace that it was disappointed in the decision, but needed time to analyze the implications.

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