Trader Talk

Happy 25th birthday, CNBC!


On April 17, 1989, a fledgling cable network called CNBC went on the air. It was the brainchild of several NBC executives, perhaps most importantly Tom Rogers and Bob Wright.

Hard to believe, but up 'til then cable TV really didn't matter much. It certainly wasn't on the radar of many TV execs.

But CNBC was not just going to be a general news competitor to CNN. The original acronym meant "Cablevision-NBC", but the title Consumer News and Business Channel was quickly adopted, indicating it was going to be a specialty station; though, in the early days the identity was a bit amorphous.

We did everything from stocks to cooking.

By sheer dumb luck, my father and I published a book the month CNBC went on the air. "Investing in Land: How to Be a Successful Developer" was loosely based on the course on Fundamentals of Real Estate Development we had been teaching at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. My father had been a real estate developer in Philadelphia since the 1960s.

My father had already been on with Bill Griffeth on the competing network, FNN. A friend of mine was a producer on CNBC when it went on the air; I made a few appearances in that first year, but wasn't hired for any position.

Here is where I owe a big "Thank you!" to the two men who took a risk and hired me: Bob Davis and David Zaslav.

Bob was the Executive Producer responsible for content development. At the end of 1990, I wrote Davis a letter: "The Top 22 Real Estate Stories of 1991" where I predicted what would happen in real estate in the following year.

Then as now, it was a tumultuous year for real estate. The Savings and Loan Industry was collapsing; a new government entity, the Resolution Trust Corporation (RTC) had been set up the prior year to liquidate massive portfolios of real estate. Prices for commercial and residential real estate were dropping.

Somebody needed to cover this for the fledgling network. Nobody was.

Bob called and thanked me for the letter, but said he was puzzled about why I wrote it.

"What am I supposed to do with this?," he asked. "Are you looking for a job?"

"Right," I said. "You should hire me as the Real Estate Correspondent."

During an afternoon meeting...which included discussions on the condo and co-op market in New York, a topic of great interest to everyone at CNBC...Bob agreed to hire me on a short-term contract to see if I would work out. It was fine with me, but he said there was one more hurdle: I had to meet with David Zaslav.

Zaslav was instrumental in launching CNBC and later MSNBC, along with all the other NBC cable properties, long before taking the helm of Discovery Communications in 2007. But on that summer day in 1991 he was pacing his office, staring suspiciously at me.

He was edgy, but not nervous. His pants were perfectly creased. There were no wrinkles on his shirt.

"I know Bob Davis likes you, but I'm not convinced. Why do I need a Real Estate Correspondent?," he asked.

This was a big moment for me.

"Because," I said, "Only forty percent of American households own stock, but sixty percent own a home. And you have no one to cover that business."

Zaslav stopped pacing, and said, "That was a good answer."

I got the job. And Zaslav still doesn't have any wrinkles on his shirt.

Bob Wright introduces CNBC in 1989

A few months later, we survived our first big test: The purchase of our rival, FNN, in May 1991 for $154 million against a Westinghouse-Dow Jones consortium. That's when we got three key players: Bill Griffeth, Ron Insana and Joe Kernen.

And with guys like that--along with Sue Herera (who had already come over from FNN), David Faber, Mark Haines and, in 1995, Maria Bartiromo, we rode the Great Bull Market of 1982-2000 all the way to the top.

It was a slow start. For the first five years, we had no ratings. I used to sneak into Peter Sturtevant's office to see the ratings (they came--by fax--at 4 p.m. ET). Nothing. Hash marks.

But it started changing in 1995 and into 1996. We started getting ratings. And as the volume at the NYSE and the NASDAQ began to climb, so did our ratings. It was almost a perfect match: Higher volume, higher ratings. Stock trading and us.

It wasn't just because of the excitement in stocks. We helped create that excitement. Before CNBC, Wall Street was a pretty opaque place. Stock brokers called clients and pitched stock-buying ideas. If you were lucky, if you were a big enough client, you got an analyst report.

We helped open up the Street. We reported on what the analysts were saying, on what was being reported in the Morning Call. And when the Merrill Lynchs and the Morgan Stanleys wouldn't tell us what they were telling their clients, we went to hedge funds that were in on their calls and asked them what they were saying.

And that ticker became an icon. The stock ticker at the bottom of the screen served notice that information was becoming more widely disseminated.

There was another factor that helped propel us to the top: Sex appeal.

I first came on the NYSE floor to coverstocks in the spring of 1996, as a sub for Maria Bartiromo. She had been on the floor for almost a year, the first person to report directly on the floor, and it's hard to describe how hot she was at that moment.

Her tenaciousness--she refused to budge, even with guys constantly jostling her--and her excellence as a reporter caught everyone's attention.

There were 5,000 people on the floor then--95 percent men--and half of them were furious that she had invaded their domain and the other half were in love with her.

And suddenly, we were the hottest things on television.

It was a shock to all of us. We were like all the guys who couldn't get a date in high school and, suddenly, all the girls wanted us.

In the summer of 1997, when Maria became an anchor, I quit the Real Estate Correspondent job and became Stocks Correspondent. Our ratings were up, up, up, and it was obvious to me the stock market was the motivating factor.

Stocks Correspondent was a core job at CNBC, and it was the job I wanted. I never regretted going after it.

I hope every one of you, sometime in your career, can experience something like what we experienced, when after years of working your butt off in obscurity, somebody takes notice and the wind is at your back, and total strangers stop and shake your hand in the street and ask you what you think is going to happen next.

No one stays the hottest thing in television forever. It changed in the summer of 2000, when the bust turned many off to trading, and then the 9/11 tragedy cost over 3,000 lives, most of them friends and family of those who worked on the floor. But through that awful fall, full of fear and bad air, not a single person I can recall at the NYSE failed to come to work.

The markets bottomed in the late summer of 2002, and with ultra-low interest rates from the Fed the stock market slowly began its crawl back.

CNBC changed as well...we spent a lot more time covering my old beat...real estate...than we did in the late 1990s. Lots of stories on second homes, and...sure signs of bubble behavior...stories of average people flipping real estate.

We also did a lot of coverage of "alternative" investing...everything from collectibles (comic books, art) to classic cars to legal judgments.

The 2008 Financial Crisis brought back our ratings almost to the levels of the late 1990s, but I could have done without it. As painful as the 2000-2002 drop was, the baby boomers were younger then. The 2008 crisis was a double whammy: Not only did many middle-aged investors feel they had to sell stocks when they were down, they also had to sell real estate.

It was a disaster that we are still addressing. Years when many felt stocks and real estate were not trustworthy.

Want to be in a frustrating job? Try being the Stocks Correspondent (by now, Senior Stocks Correspondent--yikes!) when the passed its old historic high in March 2013 and what happens is...nothing. The public shrugs.

Because they still see a weak job market, no one is in the mood to celebrate.

During this time, CNBC changed as well. Just like we busted open the closed world of Wall Street in the 1990s, the dissemination of information has changed radically...and we have had to change as well.

I don't just work for CNBC TV any more; though, I still consider it my main function. Since 1997, I've written a daily blog: Trader Talk. I write for radio and for I do taped pieces for Nightly Business Report. I do cut-ins for other radio networks or shows. I have a Twitter account.

Not just me. All of us at CNBC work across multiple platforms. It's what the modern newsroom demands.

Is CNBC still relevant? Hell, yes. Let me tell you why: The baby boomers are in terrible shape. I mean financially. The oldest baby boomer is now 67--the age of retirement. And they need our help, and the help of everyone in the financial journalism community.

The three "stools" of retirement--Social Security, personal savings, and pension--are all under attack. They are underfunded, and baby boomers have done a shockingly poor job of preparing for retirement.

It gets worse: We are all going to live to 85 years or older. We might, but a lot of us won't, have two dimes to rub together.

The result: Unless something radical happens soon, there will be hordes of impoverished 70- and 80-year-olds walking around in less than a decade. The Walking Dead on welfare.

That's where CNBC and other like-minded networks come in. We need to begin a Great Saving program. With baby boomers living another 25 years, we need to get people to start saving more now and to invest MORE in the stock market, not less.

I've spent years promoting exchange-traded funds (ETFs) as cheap, alternative investments. It's only one of many ways we need to look at our retirement options.

As for CNBC, I'm so very proud to be associated with a company that started with an idea and was so uncertain of its future that it was located in the backwater of Fort Lee, New Jersey, and which grew into a global powerhouse.

Loyalty to your company is a quaint, even archaic, idea, but long, long ago a small group of us made a nothing into something. And one of my core beliefs--please don't laugh--is: Be loyal to the people who are loyal to you.

You think I'm going to stay with some company that doesn't have a future? I may be old, but I'm not stupid.

The sons of Noah who came out of the ark were Shem, Ham and Japheth...thanks to the leadership of CNBC through the years, and especially to the following...

CNBC Presidents

  • Mike Eskridge, 1989-1990
  • Al Barber, 1990-1993
  • Roger Ailes, 1993-1996
  • Bill Bolster, 1996-2001
  • Pamela Thomas-Graham, 2001-2005
  • Mark Hoffman, 2005-present

CNBC Vice Presidents, News

  • Peter Sturtevant, 1989-1993
  • Jack Riley, 1993-1997
  • Bruno Cohen, 1997-2002
  • David Friend, 2002-2006
  • Jonathan Wald, 2006-2009
  • Jeremy Pink, 2009-2011
  • Nik Deogun, 2011-present

Finally, thanks to all the people who made CNBC what it was and what it will be, but especially to those who are still with us from the earliest days: Alex Crippen, Scott Cohn, Bill Griffeth, Angel Perez, Brigid Scire, Chris Maurer, Sue Herera, David Faber, Bob Fasbender, Joe Kernen, Peter Schacknow, Jim Forkin, Matt Quayle, Rob Contino, Debby Perry, John Schoen, Mario Schettino, Mary Duffy, Fritz Mott, Pat Bucci, Matt Cuddy, Victor Calderin, Jerry Frasier, Mike Vaughan and Rich Fisherman.

A small group, like Gary Schreier and Matt Belvedere, was with us in the very early days, went on to successful careers, and have now returned.

And thanks to those who were here in the early days and have moved on: Doreen Herbert; Kristen Strand; Dan Clark; Dean Shepherd; Alec Sirken; Alison Gibbs; Alison Tepper; Allan Chernoff; Andy Friendly; Sasha Salama; Art Benger; Bahman Samiian; Billy Toth; Bob Wright; Bobbi Rebell; Brian Donlon; Bridget Baker; Bruce Francis; Caroline Vanderlip; Cathy Stevens; Chuck Woodruff; Conway Cliff; Dana Creasy; Darby Mullaney Dunn; Dawn Schefler; Diane Petzke; Donald Van de Mark; Ed Caldwell; Ed Scanlon; Eileen O'Brien; Felicia Taylor; Gail Buckner; Gene Perone; Glen Rochkind; Glenn Ruppel; Hillary Johnson; Jack Abernethy; Jaime Avery; Janice Lieberman; Jeff Leshay, Jerry Cobb; Jim Donovan; Juliette Meeus; John Bollinger; John McLaughlin; John Metaxas; John Murphy; Jon Teall; Judy Kuriansky; Karen Gibbs; Ken & Daria Dolan; Kevin McCullough; Elizabeth Tilson Ailes, Kim Kennedy; Kira Potter; Larry Moscow; Leslie Linton; Lidj Lewis; Linda Tansey; Lynn Doyle; Lynn Keller; Mabel Jong; Marc Rosenweig; Mark Neschis; Marlene Dann; Mary Alice Williams; Mary VanHorn; Michael Eskridge; Michael O'Looney; Michael Salort; Michele Treacy; Mike Mammana; Mike Reitman; Mike Wheeler; Monica Orbe; Stacey Cahn, Bridget Foley; Karen Toulon and Ted David.

And special thanks to Mark Haines. The plaque is still by the stairs, old buddy.

A special thanks to my producers through the years: Bianna Golodryga, Nicole Petalides, Robert Hum, and Kristen Scholer, all of whom worked with me in a small room and were unfailingly cheerful despite my long silences and general weirdness.

One last thanks—and this really is the last thanks: good night, Wayne Shannon, wherever you are. I still have your dictionary. Come by and pick it up some time.