Above: Nick Fountain studio portrait (Photo by Mamadi Doumbouya/NPR)
Nick Fountain’s big break into radio broadcasting was kind of a wipeout.
He was interning at KUSP, then Santa Cruz’s local NPR station, on March 11, 2011, when he got a deadline call from an editor who said a deadly offshore earthquake near Töhoku, Japan, had set off a tsunami that was headed toward Santa Cruz’s Small Craft Harbor.
Fountain hopped on his bike and sped to the harbor only to crash on a set of railroad tracks on the way, smashing his face on the asphalt.
“I had blood all over my face and I was interviewing people and they were asking me, ‘Are you OK?’” he remembers.
His reporting on the approximately $26 million in damage done to Santa Cruz’s harbor by powerful tidal surges got him on NPR that day and also won him a summer internship at public radio station KQED in San Francisco.
Today, Fountain, 33, is the newest cohost of NPR’s Planet Money, where he covers smart and sometimes quirky stories that, nevertheless, offer some truth about the larger economy or the world. The show has a regular audience of several million people.
Listen to one of Fountain’s stories and his talent for finding an interesting angle to what could be an eye-glazing economics report is apparent.
In one 2016 piece, for instance, Fountain, then a producer for the show, headed to the famous Fenway Park in Boston where he brought listeners to “the pick.” It’s a ritual where, based on a seniority system, ballpark vendors decide what product they want to hawk that night. The vendors consider weather (beer vs. hot chocolate) and what section might spend more that night (bleachers vs. near home plate) before making their “pick” of what to sell.
What listeners might not realize until they’re thoroughly caught up in the story is that it’s also a lesson on distributed decision making and the fundamental nature of competition.
Fountain says the idea for that episode came because he once worked as a ballpark vendor at Fenway but, more often, Fountain’s stories are born from research, paying attention to the world around him and a honed curiosity.
“Basically, I read the entire internet and talk to people on the phone all day long,” Fountain says. Then, when something strikes his fancy or suggests a larger question, he digs in.
A mention of the invention of the supermarket self-checkout machine in a reference book led Fountain to the emergency room psychiatrist who invented the machines, a man who said he didn’t much like the darned things either. For another story, a farmer friend told him about the country’s largest Christmas tree auction, sending Fountain to Pennsylvania where he bought 19 trees, strapped them in his pickup, and tried—rather unsuccessfully—to sell them on the streets of Brooklyn. The story illustrated auction economics and how the Great Recession led to a shortage in Christmas trees.
“I try to insert delight and surprise into my shows,” says Fountain, who is married and a new father. “We’re really competing for people’s attention. They’re in their car and the kids are yelling in the back seat and the light is turning green. Adding delight, humor, and surprise to our shows is the way to keep people coming back. People don’t like getting told something is important, so we just sneak it in there.”
Yet, Fountain is also serious about his subjects, with upcoming projects about tariff loopholes and credit card fraud.
“Nick pushes himself to come up with a surprising way to tell a story,” says Alex Goldmark, executive producer of Planet Money. “You can tell he holds himself to a high standard for both his ideas and their execution. His episode on Christmas tree economics is a perfect example.”
Fountain’s curiosity was sharpened at UC Santa Cruz and at his internship at KUSP with mentors like “Genial” Johnny Simmons; J. D. Hillard (Porter ’99, history), now associate director for stewardship, UCSC University Relations; and Vox podcaster Sean Rameswaram.
“They really took me under their wings and taught me how to make entertaining but informative stories,” he says.
Peggy Townsend is a freelance writer and author based in Santa Cruz.