Ray Suarez never wanted to be the center of the story. He’s been a journalist of one kind of another all of his adult life, on radio, on television, in books and newspapers. He was the host of NPR’s Talk of the Nation, he was a senior correspondent for PBS NewsHour, and he had his own daily news show on Al Jazeera America. When that last network ceased operations in 2016, he figured it might take a while to find work, but he had a reputation and good connections that would eventually land him a new gig.
He was in for a rude awakening: As he discovered, if you lose one job late in your career, the next one will both take longer to find, and not last as long as the ones earlier in your working life. For Ray, the endless job search was just the beginning of his troubles. On this episode of Going for Broke, Ray explains how he found himself in the kind of tough situations that he had spent a career reporting on.
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This series comes from a very basic idea, that in the United States when we talk about poverty, when we talk about economic struggle, poor people, people on the margins, people not succeeding in the modern economy, those people are talked about, but very rarely get the chance to talk for themselves.
Here on Going for Broke, they do. We bring you stories of Americans living on the edge. Followed by conversations about the issues they face, and the solutions that give us hope. Now, it’s my turn.
It feels funny saying it because reporters shy away from making themselves the story, and frankly, I never thought I would be telling a story of financial insecurity or job loss, but here I am. I’m going to tell you about how the wheels came off my career in my late 50s and why.
Talk about what we can do as a society to make sure older workers aren’t pushed into precariousness. I’ve been a journalist of one kind or another all of my adult life, radio, television, books, newspapers.
Audio of reporter: Ray Suarez has the second in our new series.
Another reporter: My guest Ray Suarez is the host of the NPR interview and phone-in program Talk of the Nation.
Ray Suarez archive audio: Friday morning brought a new barrage of shelling in the city of Homs.
Materially, we weren’t any great shakes. We did OK. I didn’t miss any meals, but it wasn’t great. Becoming a reporter seemed like one way of getting out and it worked. One fly in the ointment was that even in New York, when I was growing up in the ’60s and ’70s, very few Puerto Ricans made it into mainstream media. There were few people I could look to and say, “Well, see, there’s that guy so I could do this.” One exception, for three decades, as a street reporter, was J.J. Gonzales at WCBS.
J.J. Gonzalez: Let’s hope more of that enthusiasm and pride. We’ll keep the BedStuy Renaissance going full steam ahead. J.J. Gonzalez, Channel 20 News.
I went on and had my career. The other guy did not flourish and prosper in the news business. He ended up suing the network and getting a sizable settlement for failure to hire and promote. He used that money to go to law school and ended up doing labor law.
New York was in terrible economic decline during my formative years, and that built in a wariness about unemployment, about job insecurity. Whatever the market conditions, I figured, I needed to work. I needed to be sure I could support my family.
Long before it was the norm, I worked in multiple media simultaneously: TV, radio, print, so I could always have a job. For decades, it worked, and I steadily climbed the greasy pole.
Archive reporter audio: A new pressure on China to cooperate. Ray Suarez reports from the talks in Copenhagen, Denmark.
Archive Ray Suarez audio: When Secretary of State Clinton arrived in Copenhagen today, she said the US wanted to reach—
Archive reporter audio: With two top journalists, Ray Suarez host of Al Jazeera America’s daily news program—
Archive reporter audio: Pre-exposure prophylaxis and preventing the spread of HIV—
Making terrific money, working with a great crew on a great set, and hoping to be on the air for a long time. My employer, Al Jazeera America, went out of business, a calamitous collapse into an ocean of red ink.
Archive reporter audio: Al Jazeera America has announced that they’re shutting down in April. The news came rather abruptly at an all staff meeting. The channel—
But then came the reality of too many unaccepted phone calls, too many slammed doors, too much disingenuousness from too many people who said, “Ah, don’t worry. You’ll find something. What do you have to worry about?” Then wouldn’t talk to me. It was a tough year after that. In a funny way, I just thought, having covered workforce issues, having covered unemployment, one of the rules of thumb was the higher your salary, the longer it takes to find a new job. I was completely aware it was unlikely I would get a job at my old pay. I had lived below my means for a long time in order to prepare for retirement and get my kids through college, so it was second nature. The warning said it was going to take a long time, and that was OK. You’re not going to make the money you did before, and that’s OK too.
Even with my clear-eyed view of what to expect, nothing prepared me for what really happened. I couldn’t get arrested. In the grim and graphic saying of my childhood neighborhood, nobody would piss on me if I was on fire. I was stunned and slowly realized how much of a handicap age was going to be.
My experience didn’t matter. My knowledge didn’t matter. Even the good reputation I had built over decades didn’t matter. And it didn’t hit me all at once like a thunderbolt. It was more like a slow-motion collapse. Once you realize it, it’s a pretty profound shock.
Remember, this is at a time when everyone in journalism was saying, “We have to diversify. We have to find people of different backgrounds to work in our newsroom.” And probably, one of the best known in a Latino broadcasters working in English language in the United States was available for anything, open to new things. None of it mattered.
I realized a certain paternalism was built into the DNA of the newsrooms I was trying to break back into, and to the hiring managers I was dealing with, Latino means young. I beat the bushes, I freelanced. An unexpected lifeline came in the form of a visiting professor’s job at Amherst College.
It was a joy, but there was a problem. I started feeling terrible. I assumed it was the stress. I dragged myself through the year, sleepless, fatigued, low energy. The following summer—it’s now 2018—I was diagnosed with cancer.
Getting sick brought in a dark second front. You know when you’re walking along and you look at one’s side of the sky and it’s bright and the sun is up, and you can see blue, and then you turn around and it’s totally black in the other direction, you know something terrible is moving in. Well, getting sick on top of already struggling to find work meant that every part of the sky that I looked in was black.
It’s funny the way the two things, the career decline and the illness, spoke to each other. They affected me in different ways, and yet they were interrelated. They had a dialogue. The self and the body had a long conversation as I sat chemoed-out on the couch, unable to do very much.
I hardly told anybody. I was very selective about who I told I had cancer, because I was really afraid given the ageism and the dismissal I’d already encountered that employers would really steer clear. I was still years away from Medicare. I’m still years away from when I planned to take Social Security. I’m still years from when I wanted to tap into my retirement savings, and I couldn’t work. Thank God I paid off the house, we could still live a bit of our old lives, my wife and I, as we figured out what the next life was going to be like.
This is where I’d like to bring Alissa Quart, executive director of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, into the conversation. Alissa, you know a thing or two about this landscape the one I found myself in.
Then also, paying for their kids’ education. That’s something I saw a lot of. That’s why we have something like [$]1.7 trillion student loan debt with 17 percent of it belonging to people over 50 years old.
Now, it’s not that they’re impossible to acquire if you are self-employed. It’s not that they’re impossible to buy on the open market. It’s just that some of the market devices that we use to make the numbers work, to keep you solvent and keep you earning a living, and also keep you providing these protections for yourself come through regular employment for an employer.
Reporter archive audio: You’re listening to The Takeaway. I’m Sarah Gonzalez.… Earlier this month, Congressman Ted Lieu of California introduced a bill that would create a 21st century Federal Writer’s Project, inspired by the Federal Writer’s Project—
Financially is how we’re measuring that on our own, without any assistance from our government. I think, to me, one of the biggest solutions would be serious campaign against that to open people’s eyes to the way that we’ve been conditioned. To not think of our quality of life, to blame each other, to blame ourselves, and to not really help each other. What I’m hoping is the legacy of the pandemic will be more mutual aids and more workers cooperatives, and more assistants that when people are in trouble medically in their communities or need help, their neighbors will show up. At least they’ll be that, but that starts with people stopping blaming each other.
I’m Ray Suarez, thanks for listening. Please, tell your friends about us and subscribe wherever you get your podcast, or visit the nation.com/podcasts to learn more. Sign up for EHRP’s newsletter at economichardship.org.