Surveillance: An Appreciation

If you have Sirius XM radio and have surfed the talk radio channels, you’ve come across Bloomberg Surveillance and Bloomberg on the Economy, two long-format talk shows hosted by Tom Keene, newish offshoots of the galloping Bloomberg Media empire. Michael Bloomberg — now known as Mayor Bloomberg, as in New York — started the company in the 1980s to give real time data to Wall Street, developing his own hardware and software to do so.

Forget Apple. The success of Bloomberg’s closed-system, sleek business-to-business computers is the untold tech story of the last twenty years.

And now Bloomberg is ubiquitous in media —Television, AM radio, online and on your Blackberry — providing not just prices but conversations. Intelligent, interesting conversations.

My favorite shows are Bloomberg on the Economy and Bloomberg Surveillance and they are about the most unlikely of subjects in this post-MTV, fast-cut media age … economics! They are lead by Tom Keene, a 50-something financial analyst. The producer that put Keene on the air was a visionary … and brave. Tom has no real history of media success and a reedy tenor voice with a sandpaper addiction. He has this quirky habit of calling his audience “folks,” like the hat-on-the-back-of-the-head, cigar chewing announcer in ’30s sports movies. (“I don’t believe what I am seeing, folks!”)

But what Tom Keene has is enthusiasm, and it is catching. He doesn’t talk about a subject, he “dives in,” and he does so in subjects as exciting to him, and therefore to us, as applied microeconomics and the political economics of banking. His guests are largely academic economists, and Keene ooh’s and ah’s over their textbooks as if they were best selling bodice-rippers. Then, as Keene says, they dive into the issues of the day, which it turns out academics have interesting things to say about. Their arguments with the Fed, and with each other, give the listeners the inside-baseball feeling that we, too have strong opinions on the liquidity trap and budget deficits.

Keene’s passion makes for great interviews and believe it or not, it also makes for very, very good radio. I say radio because that is my medium. I’m told by those who watch Bloomberg television that Tom Keene wears a bow tie. Even this can be forgiven.

Tom’s co-host in the morning is Ken Prewitt, a radio veteran with a beautiful baritone and a decidedly negative view of humanity. Between guests, the co-hosts chat, and believe it or not they are funny. In a kind of Weekend Update comedic style, Prewitt will bring up the foibles of a government program or the unlikely choices that mere mortals make. A recent Prewitt news item indicated that a Manhattan gentleman was paying $800 a month for a 55-square-foot apartment in Manhattan, which as Prewitt pointed out, is smaller than a cell on Riker’s Island Prison. He treats the uncollectible debt obligations of the Red Sea principalities and the sexual predilections of professional athletes with the same charming disdain.

The show emanates from New York and it is in many ways about New York. Prewitt will mention a water main break, say, or a shooting, or a luxury retailer’s display, all in a number of neighborhoods that he seems to know intimately … and we see it the way he sees it. Whether you are listening from the corner of Broadway and 86th Street or the corner of Broadway and Monona Drive, Bloomberg’s New York lives in the mind. Cops, waiters, cab drivers and working girls all inhabit the space, and we hear their effect on the world, just as we hear the Nobel laureates arguing over presumably higher human callings.

Good stories need good characters, and in addition to Keene and Prewitt there are plenty. I like Arthur Levitt, an old-fashioned wise man accomplished in business and government who passes judgment on the Fed, the banks and congress with easy reasoning and fluency. There are times I wish I had Arthur Levitt at home to reason with my kids.

And then there is Vonnie Quinn, a British subject with an incredible upper class accent that makes stock prices sexy. Often on radio, one wonders what the speaker looks like. When Vonnie Quinn speaks, one wonders what the speaker is wearing.

Sign up for the free IB Update — your weekly resource for local business news, analysis, voices and the names you need to know. Click here.