One Saturday morning, when I was about sixteen, I was sitting on the couch watching That 70s Show when my doorbell rang. About a year and a half earlier, a close friend of mine had moved overseas when his dad changed jobs. I got up to answer the door, and when I was still a few steps away, it started to open. And there he was. For a split second, my brain felt physically uncomfortable as synapses twisted, broke, and reconnected as I tried to process something that seemed impossible. And then that passed and, just as quickly, I was filled with the warmth of old friendship and the jolt of delight.
Wednesday’s Planet Money was downloaded to my phone en masse with the rest of yesterday’s shows and added to a playlist that I listen to on my impossibly-long Wednesday commute. About an hour in to my drive, when “The Power of Free” came on and I heard Chana Joffe-Walt and Alex Blumberg at the helm, my mind ran through the same reactions: confusion, discomfort, warmth, delight. Joffe-Walt moved over to This American Life in March 2014 (she just wrapped up the incredible “The Problem We All Life With” two-parter), and Alex Blumberg, as you probably know, now runs Gimlet Media.
Turns out, Wednesday was a re-run from July 2012; this was my first time hearing it.
Joffe-Walt and Blumberg might be my two favorite folks in radio, which, I acknowledge, is sort of like saying that your favorite basketball players are Lebron James and Steph Curry. Neither are what you might call ‘hidden gems,’ but people love them for a reason—they’re damn good at their jobs.
“The Power of Free” is about what happens when some starts to charge money for something that was once free. It’s also about how “Greatest Generation” veterans don’t like the Red Cross. It’s also about doughnuts. Yes, these things are related.
In the 1940s, in the midst of World War II, the Red Cross set up care stations for the servicemen stationed overseas. At first, they could get coffee, doughnuts, and basic services, free of charge. That is until, at the behest of the US Secretary of War, the Red Cross began to charge for the doughnuts. Many Allied soldiers had been fighting for months by the time American GIs arrived in theater, and they had to pay for these sorts of goods and services at similar establishments. When the US entered the war, and its soldiers arrived fresh-faced and well-equipped to bat cleanup, the free doughnuts were the confectioneries that broke the camel’s back. To help salve discontent between the countries’ troops, the US Secretary of War asked that the Red Cross begin charging for the doughnuts, which, under duress, it did.
But no one told to soldiers all of this; all they knew is that they now had to pay for treats from the Red Cross. This misstep became a well-spring of other rumors: that the Red Cross also charged for sweaters knitted by volunteers, or for blood collected in stateside blood drives. Of course, none of these rumors were true. But nevertheless, seventy years later, the veterans are still upset. When Joffe-Walt asked if it would help for the Red Cross to bring free doughnuts to veterans’ events now, one sassy man replied that the treats would “probably be stale.”
The episode goes on to discuss the difference in perception between a simple price increase—say, when gas prices increase from $4.25 to $4.50—and when you begin to charge for something that was once free. 1 I’ll leave the analysis to the episode (worth a listen), to clear up space for me to talk about how much I loved hearing Joffe-Walt and Blumberg in the same place, and doing these kinds of stories.
Planet Money, if anything, is upbeat. In it’s description, it markets itself as fun. And, well, it is. To hear the characteristic joie de vivre of Joffe-Walt’s story-telling and Blumberg’s playful editing in the same place at the same time is a tremendous experience.
- Jeez, I almost forgot how much gas was in June 2012. ^
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