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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FULL TRANSCRIPT

Ray Suarez: From the Economic Hardship Reporting Project and The Nation, this is Going for Broke. I’m Ray Suarez.

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.

Ray Suarez: I wanted to be a reporter since I was a kid. I grew up in an aging, and not very well-maintained apartment building in Brooklyn. The heat was dodgy in the winter. The windows were crap. We had a great, intact, nurturing, wonderful family.

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.

Ray Suarez: As I got older, and began to understand what breaking in would be like, I realized with talent or not, it would require a certain amount of struggle having to prove that I belong. When I was a desk assistant at one of the networks in the 1970s, and I looked across the newsroom, it was just a sea of white guys, in white shirts, named Dick and Bob. We were in one of the capitals of Latino America, New York. Outside our door on the Upper West Side, there were millions, but inside, working in any capacity, there were just two Puerto Ricans, and we were at the lowest rung on the ladder. I wonder in retrospect whether anybody thought anything was going to become of us.

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—

Ray Suarez: By 2016 in my late 50s, I was finally hosting my own TV show.

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—

Ray Suarez: For the first time in over 30 years, I was out of work. I wasn’t worried. I’d been at the PBS NewsHour for 14 years. I’d hosted a hit national radio show for six and a half years before that. I’d written three critically acclaimed books. I thought, “Well, I’ll find something.”

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.

Alissa Quart: Yes, absolutely. If it can happen to you—you’re obviously a legendary public broadcaster—it can happen to anyone, any journalist. Let’s parse out what happened to you, because there’s several interlocking strands or paradigms that made this happened. One of them is what we call nowadays in some circles, the media extinction event, which is just the reduction of independent reporters and staff reporters in this country, starting in the late ’90s, early naughts, and accelerating now in the pandemic.

Ray Suarez: Just like the dinosaurs when we looked up and saw the comet, we just didn’t know that it was coming for us. Newspapers go to the graveyard monthly. More and more magazines have actually reincorporated as not-for-profit entities. When you think about this massive ever-flowing river of content. It’s actually made by fewer full-time employees that worked in the business 20 years ago. We’re doing more with fewer people. There is more built-in precarity. There is a greater built-in expectation that you won’t be able to do this as a way of life, as a living from the beginning of your career all the way to the end. It’s a tough time. Especially, a tough time to hang on when bosses are looking every moment at the bottom line.

Alissa Quart: There are something like 27,000 journalists lost their jobs. These are people who actually had jobs during the pandemic period. There’s something like a 45 percent shrinkage of newsrooms between 2005 and 2014. This is just layer upon layer. Before you start saying, “We’re media types mooning about other media types.” Some of this is also just about age in general. I reported that in my book, Squeezed, I found that older folks who are being pushed out of the job market, often middle class, older folks, trying to retrain, spending a lot on certificate programs, colleges, graduate schools, and still not making more or not getting another job.

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.

Ray Suarez: The numbers are shocking and when college has gone up, both on the public side and on the private side, something like 1,000 percent over the last 30 years, you’re in that generational squeeze where you are also looking out for elderly parents trying to prepare for your own retirement, and now, on the hook for your own kids’ college debt, if not, as you mentioned for the retraining and upskilling that you paid out of your own pocket to do, and right now isn’t paying much in the way of dividends. It’s a terrible situation for older workers.

Alissa Quart: People lose jobs; they’re furloughed. They lose what I call, they lose the narrative of their lives as well. Like, there’s an existential dimension. Then, you can add illness onto it. You can add disability onto it—in your case, you got sick.

Ray Suarez: That was one of those moments where you really start to think the compounding of my troubles, “Well, maybe I really am done, I mean, done for my career, but also done in a much more existential way.” I’m fine now. I’m doing well physically and in very good shape. But those moments dent you, scratch you up, beat you up in ways that are hard to assess once it’s all over.

Alissa Quart: OK, so you’re still looking for work. This is a moment, this is a juncture that we could start thinking, what are real solutions?

Ray Suarez: Well, Alissa, if you think about it, so many of the protections that we say we build around the individual citizen are either directly tied to employment or in practice heavily embedded in employment. Whether it’s going on disability or collecting unemployment insurance, or paying into a company health insurance plan. Many employee benefits packages, even include life insurance that often operates as a multiple of your annual income, so at least there’s some cushion for your family if you die. But all of these things are associated with employment.

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.

Alissa Quart: In our field, in journalism, one thing I think that would be great that’s coming back into vogue is the Federal Writers’ Project. Originally, that was a program of the WPA in 1935, part of the New Deal response to the Great Depression.

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—

Alissa Quart: The original Federal Writer’s Project supported something like 7,000 writers, editors, researchers, and they did oral histories. In our field, this is how we might do a bailout of the journalism industry.

Ray Suarez: More shops are unionizing. I don’t go more than a couple of weeks at a time without seeing a new newsroom that has formed an association, is now affiliating with a larger union, sometimes in a different industry altogether. Now, this isn’t some shabby regional production of Waiting for Lefty. This is people getting together to speak to their employers with a unified voice, but also to be able to acquire some of these benefits that I’ve been talking about in an organized, pooled way, which as an individual contractor, it’s just really hard. It makes all the sense in the world if you are a journalist to join one of these new unions.

Alissa Quart: So how does this change you, how you think about being a middle-class person and about being American, about the stories you wrote, did people write back to you? Ray wrote a very searing first person piece in The Washington Post about what happened to him after he lost his job and what’s happening to journalists in general, and it went very viral. I wonder did people you knew come out of the woodwork and say, this is me or what was the response?

Ray Suarez: The response was fascinating. It was like a macro Rorschach blot where I got back sympathetic responses. I got back lovely notes from people who had enjoyed my work and valued my work over the years on radio, television. People who have read my books. Angry, invective-filled, judgmental letters from people who were clearly some of the walking wounded. Some of the fellow disappointed, some of the people who were suffering some of these same downdrafts who couldn’t find it in themselves to be at all sympathetic, and instead assumed that a lot of this was a problem of my own making.

Alissa Quart: This is part of the culture of blame and if we’re trying to find a solution, Ray, that’s not just policy, but is around messaging, and the ways that people think about themselves and narratives they tell about themselves in this country. I think one of the most toxic ones, the one that we need to [make] PSAs and whole campaigns about is against bootstrapping, against this idea that everybody’s to blame for their own economic condition. This is towns and cities in this country don’t have garbage pickup unless you hire a company. The infrastructure is so tattered and yet there’s this narrative that we’re also supposed to be doing very well.

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.

Ray Suarez: Well, thank you. It’s really been a privilege and a joy to be associated with the Economic Hardship Reporting Project because it’s multiple missions, right on time. They answer some of the existing problems, not only in the news business but in the wider society, so thank you for that.

Alissa Quart: Thank you so much, Ray.

Ray Suarez: Going for Broke comes to you from the Economic Hardship Reporting Project and The Nation. Our producer is Jeb Sharp, mixing and sound design by Tina Tobey Mack. Our executive producers are Alissa Quart and David Wallace. Frank Reynolds is multimedia editor at The Nation. The Nation’s editor is D.D. Guttenplan.

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.