Skip to main content

Sam Walton and the Rise of Wal-Mart

Bob Ortega is an investigative journalist for The Wall Street Journal. He's the author of the new book, "In Sam We Trust: The Untold Story of Sam Walton and How Wal-Mart Is Devouring America" (Times Business/Random House). The book looks at how Wal-Mart went from a tiny variety store in backwater Arkansas to one of the world's largest corporations. In doing so, Wal-Mart's business practices have been imitated by other businesses and criticized for its impact on communities, and treatment of workers.


Other segments from the episode on November 19, 1998

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, November 19, 1998: Interview with Bob Ortega; Interview with John Stilgoe; Review of the Bobo Stenson Trio's album "War Orphans."


Date: NOVEMBER 19, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 111901np.217
Head: How Wal-Mart is Devouring America
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:06

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Wal-Mart is not just a big discount store. It's one the world's largest corporations of any kind, and is still growing. The discount empire includes over 1,850 Wal-Mart stores, 543 Super Centers, and 450 Sam's Clubs in the U.S. It has nearly 800,000 employees in the U.S.

Wal-Mart's retailing approach has been copied by other retail chains and by other fields of American business. And that's good news or bad news depending on your point of view. Wal-Mart is famous for its low prices, for conquering its competition, and for keeping out unions.

My guest, Bob Ortega, has written a new book about Wal-Mart and its founder Sam Walton called "In Sam We Trust."

Ortega covered retailing for "The Wall Street Journal," and now writes about the American West for the paper.

Ortega says that Sam Walton transformed retailing away Henry Ford revolutionized transportation.

BOB ORTEGA, INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALIST, "THE WALL STREET JOURNAL"; AUTHOR, "IN SAM WE TRUST: THE UNTOLD STORY OF SAM WALTON AND HOW WAL-MART IS DEVOURING AMERICA": What I mean by that is that Henry Ford didn't invent the car. He didn't invent the assembly-line. What he did was to make than the new paradigms, to make life without cars or life without assembly lines unimaginable.

And in the same way Sam Walton has completely changed the way that retailing operates; partly by developing very aggressive new technologies that are used by all retailers; and partly by changing the way that people operate; and in ways that reach far beyond retailing.

He, for example, was very aggressive about adopting the use of part-time and temporary labor, which is now the norm in our new service economy. Also, he was very aggressive about moving into small towns. He took mass merchandising practices into many communities that had never seen them before.

GROSS: Before Sam Walton started Wal-Mart, he bought a franchise store. It was a Ben Franklin store, which I guess is a five and dime. How did he did into that?

ORTEGA: Well, he was very interested -- actually, he was very interested, originally, in buying a department-store in St. Louis, but his wife, Helen Walton, vetoed that idea because she did not want to live in a big city; she wanted to live in a small town. That forced him to look at buying a Ben Franklin franchise, which was a five and dime store. And the way that he was able to do that was basically with his wife's money.

She came from a very wealthy family, and her father basically bankrolled Sam Walton through his first store to the tune of about $25,000; which today would be about, say, roughly $225,000 -- the equivalent value.

GROSS: What was the advantage for someone in Sam Walton's position at the time to start in business by buying a franchise?

ORTEGA: Well, the advantage of buying into a franchise, as opposed to doing it on your own, was that you could learn from the experience of the company. That is to say, if you were a small store owner operating on your own, you had to know how to do everything; accounting; how to buy goods; everything from sweeping the floors to merchandising and advertising and selling and buying everything.

On the other hand, if you were part of a franchise you would be given help with accounting. You would be given help with sales. You would be told how much to buy of different items, and how to merchandise them, how to sell them. Everything was laid out for you, so that you didn't have to have a great deal of experience to be able to operate in a pretty good fashion.

GROSS: Now, how did he parlay his Ben Franklin stores into Wal-Mart?

ORTEGA: Once he was in Benville and his first store there was successful, he opened a second store, and a third, and then a fourth. And he eventually became the largest Ben Franklin franchiser in the country. But he also became aware by the late 1950s that he faced the tremendous threat from these discount stores that were starting to spring up all over the place.

So he made a point of going East and visiting a lot of these discount store operations; seeing what they were doing; and then deciding that was what he needed to do. Now, the big difference between what Walton was doing and the other early discounters was that because he had operated five and dime stores in these very small communities, he knew that there was more business in these small towns than most other folks suspected.

So he started out by opening his Wal-Mart stores in very, very small towns that other discounters were ignoring. The advantage of doing that was that, of course, he faced less competition. He didn't have to compete with the big guys, because they were ignoring these small towns. He only had to face competition from these little merchants.

GROSS: Well, how did he find enough business in small towns to keep open large discount stores?

ORTEGA: Well, of course, the discount stores didn't start out anywhere the size -- anywhere near the size that they are today; they were much smaller. But they were just big compared to the other stores in that community.

But the reality in many of these towns was the folks were getting in their cars and driving into big cities every once awhile to buy a lot of stuff at a cheaper price. Walton knew that if he could offer than those same goods that they were driving into the city to get, they'd stay in town and by it at his place.

GROSS: How did he keep prices down?

ORTEGA: The first thing that he did was to start scouting out other places to buy goods that were cheaper. Most franchises, in those days, sold the goods -- the franchisee stores themselves -- and then took a certain markup on everything. But by going out and finding independent middlemen who would get stuff for him on the cheap, he could get things were much much lower markup, say five percent.

And he didn't really care too much in the early days about the quality of the goods. He just wanted to get the lowest priced that he could. So he'd hop in his truck and drive to Missouri, or drive to Oklahoma, or drive to wherever in the heck he needed to go to be able to get really cheap stuff. And he'd just by big truckloads of it and then haul it back.

GROSS: I think another way Walton kept prices down was to keep out union labor. What was his approach to keeping unions out of his stores?

ORTEGA: Well, in the early days, I suppose it was pretty simple. He threatened to fire anybody who unionized. At the same time, what he did once he realized that he faced a threat from the unions was to hire people who could help him keep the unions out.

In the first couple of stores they just, essentially, told the employees: look, if you vote for union we're going to fire everybody and closed doors. But this fellow that he hired as one of his early union busters, a guy by the name of John Tate, who later became an executive at the company, told Walton very early on: look, we can keep these workers from unionizing by kind of crushing them every time they try to do this; or you can make them think you're on their side. You can take steps to make the workers feel more faith in you and the company.

And Walton saw that this was an approach that would work. So he was one of the first retailers to institute profit-sharing, for example, which allow the regular workers -- not just executives -- but the regular worker to invest in the company stock and to share from the growth in the company's profits.

And that was a huge step. It was done in response to unionizing efforts, but it also made an enormous difference. Many of those early employees in Wal-Mart, even after working 20 years for $5 and $6 an hour were able to retire with hundreds of thousands of dollars.

GROSS: I think the tactics got more horrible both on Wal-Mart part and on the part of unions who wanted to unionize Wal-Mart workers as the years went by.

ORTEGA: Oh, sure, absolutely. It's interesting that on the Wal-Mart side, Walton himself had no compunctions whatsoever about violating National Labor Relations Act laws, in terms of anything that it took to keep the unions out. And at the same time the unions, seeing Walton and Wal-Mart as more of a threat as they moved into the Northeast and into California and into heavily unionized parts of the country, became very aggressive, as well.

They were worried that by offering competition to unionized grocery stores and unionized shops that Walton would force those shops to seek concessions from their workers so they could compete. So they responded by taking a very long-term deal. They knew that it would be very difficult to organize the Wal-Mart stores, because Walton would feel no compunction about firing workers who try to organize or about even shutting down a store if necessary.

So they adopted the approach of saying: well, let's do instead; let's try to attack the way that workers perceive the company. One of the things that certain unions like the United Food and Commercial Workers, and FAST -- which is part of the AFL-CIO -- it's the Food and Allied Service Trades. One of the things that they did was to do research on Wal-Mart to dig up as much dirt as they could about the company.

Back in 1992, when "Dateline NBC" did their first expose of Wal-Mart sale of goods made by child labor in Bangladesh, all of that information came from the unions who actually dug it up in the first place. It was all perfectly true, but it was provided to the reporters by the union.

GROSS: If you're just joining us my guest is Bob Ortega. He is a reporter for "The Wall Street Journal," and is the author of a new book about the history of Wal-Mart. It's called "In Sam We Trust."

Early on, I think, when Wal-Mart opened in a small town, probably a lot of the people were pretty glad to see that they could have discount goods without having to drive many miles into a city. But I think in recent years Wal-Mart -- a lot of Wal-Marts have met with a lot of resistance his they moved into the Northeast and moved into more urban areas.

People are often afraid that it's going to hurt the downtown area, that a lot of smaller stores will be put out of business. Unions often get angry if a Wal-Mart moves into town or near town. Would you talk about that change in attitude toward Wal-Marts?

ORTEGA: Well, sure. I think that part of the reason for that is that in the early days people didn't know what a Wal-Mart was like; they didn't know what it would be like what it came into town. But over the years, as we started to see stories about small town downtowns drying up, people began to see that when these giant retailers come into town, things change.

Now, of course, it's is true of other retailers -- the Kmarts, for example, as it is of Wal-Mart. But Wal-Mart became the poster child for sprawl because they are the biggest, they are the most aggressive, and they have a pattern of building into smaller communities.

So gradually over the years, we've seen -- there was resistance -- there was resistance and towns as long ago as 15 and 16 years ago -- but we've seen in growing and growing and growing.

The second reason that we've seen it growing quite a bit in recent years is that in the early days, if there was a group in some town that was fighting, say, to keep a Wal-Mart out, they were essentially operating on their own.

Nowadays, we have whole groups that communicate with each other, that maintain Internet sites, that provide information to other towns where there are fights going on so that they have the benefit of the experience of all these other fights that have gone before, which makes it easier to fight.

GROSS: How do the fears that some communities have about what will happen if a Wal-Mart opens near than compared to the reality of the impact of Wal-Mart on local business and local downtowns?

ORTEGA: Well, it's pretty clear that there really is a dramatic impact, particularly in small towns, but even in suburbs. There have been extensive studies that have been done, and there's really no question about it.

Wal-Mart will argue that merchants can compete by changing what they sell, for example, or opening longer hours. But the reality is, if you're Joe's Hardware Store and you're selling a ranch for more money -- I mean, you're buying ranches from your supplier for a higher price than Wal-Mart is putting it out at retail, there's no way you can compete. That's just the reality of the situation. So for a lot of these merchants, they're in big trouble once a Wal-Mart comes into town.

GROSS: So what's the difference between the techniques, say, that Wal-Mart used to establish itself when its competition was basically small businesses compared to in the later years when its competition was, you know, Kmart and other big discounters and other big hypermarts as they are called?

ORTEGA: Well, the difference is one of size. In the early days, because Wal-Mart was very small, Walton had to pick out small towns where the competition wasn't too tough. Now, by the time that he struck out on the big companies like Kmart and Sears -- because they never paid attention to him -- he was in these little towns that nobody knew about or nobody looked at.

And, suddenly, he was this huge company, and he was competing with Kmart and Sears. But he had developed this incredibly efficient operation. He could buy goods -- using his size -- he had the clout to buy goods for very little money -- but more importantly, because, obviously, Sears and Kmart were large, too -- the head a more efficient operation.

He could get the goods delivered and sell them and get them off the shelves far more cheaply than Kmart or Sears, because he had developed this incredibly sophisticated distribution system. This was one of the keys to Wal-Mart's success. Walton was always looking for better technology and for people who knew how to do things better than he did; so that he was one of the very first folks to be very aggressive about adopting computers.

He was very early to adopt satellite communications technology. And today, for example, when you walk into a Wal-Mart store and you buy something, that information is instantly transmitted not only back to headquarters, but to the supplier from whom Wal-Mart bought the goods and to that factory that makes the goods. And Wal-Mart can track that every step of the way so that they've always got the stuff arriving in the stores just when they need it.

And other retailers, even today, haven't really caught up. I mean, they all have the same computers and the same satellite communications technology, but they don't use it quite as efficiently. That's the big advantage.

GROSS: Kmart was, I guess, and still is one of Wal-Mart big competitors. But Wal-Mart seemed to come up from behind and lift Kmart, at least for a while. How did it do that?

ORTEGA: Well, interestingly enough, it was as much Kmart's failures as Wal-Mart's successes that were responsible for that. If you go back to the early 1970s and look at reports that analysts from Wall Street were writing at the time, they were all predicting that Kmart was going to be the dominant retailer of the latter part of the 20th century, because it was expected to just crush Sears and be number one for a long time to come.

And then Wal-Mart came up out of nowhere; two reasons for that. One, of course, was that Walton always was looking for a better way to do things. He was a was looking for a way to improve and to become more efficient, and he always figured that there must be improvements that could be made.

And Kmart, unfortunately, the company became very, very complacent. A lot of the executives thought they had got the formula down, and they didn't need to think about ever making changes or improving. So, for example, in the early '70s Wal-Mart -- Kmart, rather, had gone to selling a lot of polyester clothing. And when fashions changed, they didn't.

And they were identified as the polyester palace, and nobody -- and people just stopped buying clothes there, for example. And there were a lot of other areas in which the company just stop adapting to change. And they essentially -- nearly self-destructed, as a result.

GROSS: So how does Wal-Mart and Kmart compare with each other now?

ORTEGA: Well, Wal-Mart is now about four times larger than Kmart. In fact, if you were to go back to, say, 10 years ago, Kmart probably had about 30 percent of the -- of the discount retail market and Wal-Mart had about five or six percent. And now Wal-Mart has about 40 percent, 45 percent, and Kmart has maybe 12 percent. So, I mean, their positions have completely reversed.

GROSS: If you're just joining us my guest is Bob Ortega. He covers the West for "The Wall Street Journal." He used to cover retailing. His new book is called "In Sam We Trust," and it's a history of Wal-Mart.

Let's take a short break here, then we'll talk some more.

This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest is Bob Ortega, and he's written a new history of Wal-Mart. And it's also about the impact of Wal-Mart on retailing in America; and the book is called "In Sam We Trust" -- Sam, as in Sam Walton, the founder of Wal-Mart.

Now, if I remember correctly from your book, Wal-Mart is the largest retailer of toothpaste, soap -- what are the other items?

ORTEGA: Well, name it. They are the biggest seller of children's clothes, of underwear, CDs. They are one of the biggest retailers of books. Toiletries, they are the biggest seller of. There's dozens and dozens of items. I mean, we are talking about a company here that is not only the largest retailer in the world, but larger than numbers two, three and put together.

GROSS: That's a lot of power in determining what items are showcased best in the stores; what items are carried at all in stores. How has Wal-Mart used that power?

ORTEGA: One of the big impacts that Wal-Mart has had through use of its power is that by driving its vendors, its suppliers, to give it goods for the lowest possible price, they have actually pushed many American manufacturers to move their factories overseas.

They have been one of the leaders in that area. And the result has been that, in fact, we've seen in a lot of manufacturers shift out of the U.S. over the last 15, 20 years.

GROSS: In order to keep prices down for the big discounters.

ORTEGA: In order to keep prices down, yeah. It's a lot cheaper to hire a 12 year old in Guatemala for 19 cents an hour, obviously, then a union member in South Carolina for, say, $9.50 an hour.

GROSS: For awhile the big PR campaign for Wal-Mart stores was "buy American." You know, they had American-made goods, and so buy American, buy there. But this coincided with the period when a lot of the manufacturers were going to developing countries because of the cheap labor there. So how truthful was that "buy American" campaign?

ORTEGA: Not particularly. I mean, Walton was very smart in that in the late '70s and early '80s, because the manufacturing had already started moving overseas -- in fact, Wal-Mart had, as I said, been an engine of that. But there was a backlash building; unions, in particular, were very concerned, and that was why Walton, in fact, began the "buy American" campaign.

The "buy American" campaign was really from the start more about marketing than anything else. And I spoke to people who were involved in it right at the beginning, and that's very clear. Walton saw this as a way of both to position the company favorably in the eyes of consumers, and as a way to pressure his makers -- manufacturers, both in the U.S. and overseas to lower their prices.

The reality is that over the 10 years since Wal-Mart put that program into place, the percentage of imported goods they sell has gone up, not down.

GROSS: What impact did it have on Wal-Mart when the Kathie Lee Gifford clothing line that she did in conjunction with Kmart was revealed to be based on the labor -- I forget which country it was -- but I think there were like kids working...

ORTEGA: Honduras.

GROSS: Yeah, right. And they were employing like children for very low wages. Did that have any impact on Wal-Mart?

ORTEGA: Well, Wal-Mart likes to argue that it didn't, but I think that there is some evidence that it did. I mean, the reality is that in the case of Kathie, Lee it was very embarrassing because she advertised that she gave a percentage of her profits to children's charities.

So the idea, obviously, of children working in sweat shops to make clothes to benefit children is a little bit ironic, to say the least. But the other thing, of course, here is that for the people who were targeting groups like the National Labor Committee -- which is an organization that targets child labor sweat shops -- to them, Kathie Lee made the perfect target. Because it's one thing to say: oh, a faceless corporation, say, Wal-Mart is selling goods made by children. It's another thing to target a celebrity.

For someone like Kathie Lee Gifford, her celebrity is what she has to sell. And so for her it was imperative to address these issues once they were raised. And, in fact, Kathie Lee wound up going and meeting with Robert Reich, who was then the secretary of labor and getting involved in this anti-sweatshop issue.

Now, to give the woman credit, other celebrities, when these issues were raised, had done far less. I mean, Michael Jordan, for example, when folks were raising questions about the conditions under which Nikes were made, essentially said: look, it's not my problem. Go talk to Nike.

Of course, he has another talent to offer by playing basketball. In the case of Kathie Lee, she really had to address this. But to give her credit, she did take some steps. Now, I think, unfortunately, she was a bit hypocritical about this.

I happened to be in Bentonville at Wal-Mart's annual meeting on June 7 two years ago, and this was the day after she appeared in Washington talking about how she was really committed to addressing this sweatshop issue.

She then went and spoke in front of, essentially, what you could call the home crowd at the Wal-Mart annual meeting, and turned 180 degrees, saying that, you know, people were only after because she was successful and she knew that she had done anything wrong, and Wal-Mart hadn't done anything wrong, and going off on a really a kind of bizarre rampage, saying: you know, in this country people will forgive you for murder, and they'll forgive you for rape, but they won't forgive you for being a success -- and you know, to the cheers of the Wal-Mart crowd.

It was really a bit surprising, given what she had been saying only 24 hours earlier.

GROSS: Bob Ortega is a reporter for "The Wall Street Journal." His new book about Wal-Mart is called "In Sam We Trust." We'll talk more in the second half of the show.

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Back with Bob Ortega of "The Wall Street Journal." He's written a new book about Wal-Mart and its founder Sam Walton, called "In Sam We Trust."

This gets back to what we were talking about earlier, the amount of power Wal-Mart has by virtue of how much it sells and how much it buys from suppliers. Wal-Mart sells a lot of CDs and a lot of books. I believe there have been times when it has refused to sell certain records or books because of controversy or language or subject matter.

ORTEGA: Oh, yeah, that's absolutely the case. And, of course, as a retailer, it's perfectly within their power to say what do and don't want to carry. What's interesting about this, I think, is that a lot of record companies, in particular, have actually sanitized lyrics and censored their own albums in order to be carried in Wal-Mart stores.

So what you find is that a lot of these companies will actually -- without even Wal-Mart -- without Wal-Mart even asking them to, a lot of these companies will go and trim lyrics or rewrite, and essentially create a "Wal-Martized version" of a CD, so that they will be sold at the Wal-Mart stores.

GROSS: Why does Wal-Mart have that attitude? Is it because of their concerns for customers? Is there just a kind of conservative streak within the company itself?

ORTEGA: Well, it's both. I think there is a conservative streak within the company. And the guys who are at the top are small town Arkansas guys, basically. And they are pretty conservative in their outlook. And Wal-Mart positions itself as a family friendly kind of place. They like to say that they promote family values. And as a result, that means that they're very cautious about certain types of goods that they carry.

GROSS: What kind of books have not made it into Wal-Mart?

ORTEGA: Well, mine for one.


As far as other books, well, most books don't make it into a Wal-Mart. And the reason for that is purely commercial. The company is predicated on the idea of really high turnover. So they're only, for example, going to offer "The New York Times" bestsellers, or the books that are going to be bestsellers in a certain region.

They're not going to carry a big selection of books, because they want to have stuff that's going to shoot out the doors as quickly as possible. So this is a problem for bookstores, because in one sense, you can argue, that Wal-Mart is cannibalizing their sales, because they're taking all of the top sellers, but not carrying this other inventory that all the other bookstores have to carry. That's just part of the nature of competition these days.

GROSS: What directions in retail do you think Wal-Mart helped to lead the way on, directions that retail is still heading in?

ORTEGA: Well, one of them is the use of ever larger stores. One of them is also the appearance of what we call category killers. If you go out to the typical, say, shopping malls these days you'll see like an Office Max office supply store, Toys "R" Us toy store, or, you know, giant stores that specialize in certain kinds of items, including giant bookstores like Barnes & Noble and Borders, which are among that category.

And all of these so-called category killers really owe their origins to the same philosophy that created Wal-Mart. They're all imitators of Sam Walton, and, in fact, actually the way of thinking that Walton exemplifies goes well beyond retailing.

To give you a good example, Columbia HCA, which is the largest operator of hospitals in the country -- Richard Scott is the head honcho there -- says that Walton and Wal-Mart are his model for how he wants to operate.

Now, Columbia HCA has become a target for criticism in recent years for what folks refer to as drive-by operations; that is, the idea that, you know, you push people out of the hospital as quickly as possible so that you can get your revenues up and get your costs down. And this is one of the unfortunate impacts of this way of thinking.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Bob Ortega, and he covers the West for "The Wall Street Journal." He used to cover retailing for "The Wall Street Journal."

Did you find yourself shopping and Wal-Mart a lot while you were writing your Wal-Mart book?

ORTEGA: I found myself in a lot of Wal-Mart stores. I didn't really have an occasion to shop much. But I went into tons and tons of Wal-Mart stores when I was doing my research, because that was important for me to do; to see what they were doing, and to talk to workers, to get an idea of exactly what was going on.

GROSS: Any secrets you can share with us about the layout of stores and the philosophy behind that?

ORTEGA: Well, Wal-Mart is actually very ingenious about the way they approach this. They -- in some stores, they actually study where you go in the store and don't buy things. They track that, so that they can look at what objects they should have next to what other objects; so that, you know -- say, for example -- I mean, this is kind of obvious that you would have, say, the toothpaste next to the dental floss. But there are other things better not quite so obvious. I mean, maybe if you're going to go buy videos, you want to have the corn chips next to the videos, you know, so that people who are going to, you know, buy one might have the other if they're going to go home watch a video and snack. I mean, that's one example.

But they study what they call "adjacentcies" -- what they have next what -- very, very carefully. And so they're always looking at where people go in their stores, including where they go and don't buy things so they can figure out if they need to move stuff around to make it easier for shoppers to pick up whatever they need.

GROSS: What are the dead spots in the stores?

ORTEGA: The dead spots?

GROSS: Yeah, where people don't buy things.

ORTEGA: Well, I think it varies. Try the bottom part of each shelf. I mean, the stuff that is at eye level is the stuff that moves faster than the stuff that's two shelves down, for example.

GROSS: Bob Ortega, you have this new book about Wal-Mart. You covered retailing for several years for "The Wall Street Journal" -- did all of this reporting on retailing change your perceptions as a consumer, as a shopper?

ORTEGA: Oh, yeah. I would say absolutely. Now, you know, I won't say that I never buy anything that's made overseas, because that isn't true. But I'm certainly much more conscious about what I buy. When I go into a store, I looked at labels. I like to know where something is made.

In some cases, it's because I've been to, say, Guatemala and, I know what the factory conditions are like there. And it concerns me. And in some cases, I just like to, you know, get a good feel for it.

There are some -- which is not to say that everything made overseas is bad. Take Bangladesh, for example, because of some of the actions that certain companies -- Levi Strauss is one example -- that certain companies have taken to improve their conditions in their factories, and because UNICEF and other groups have become active, Bangladesh, not that long ago, signed an agreement to improve the conditions in all of its factories and to try to reduce and eliminate these child labor.

That hasn't happened entirely yet, but the country is moving very quickly in that direction, I think. And if this really comes through, then I would have no problem, personally, buying something made in Bangladesh, because I think it you could feel that at least those workers are working under reasonably good conditions.

But at the same time, if the workers are making so little that they can't even meet the cost of living, then I think that's a matter of concern. For example, when I was in Guatemala, there were workers -- one of the reasons that you have a lot of child workers there is that the wages are so low that the parents by themselves can't support the family. So they send the kids out to work. And instead of being in school you have 11 and 12 year old girls who are working as much as 90 hours a week in some of these factories making clothing.

GROSS: I think that there are some people who would like to make sure that the items that they're buying were not manufactured by people who are being exploited in sweatshops. But you know, it's hard to even look at a label and really know what the story is. Even if it says it's made in a country, you don't know what the conditions in that particular factory are. And most of us don't know what the conditions are in each country. And, I mean, you know, how much research is each of less willing to do before we go out and buy toothpaste or a shirt?

ORTEGA: Well, I don't think you have to. I mean, the reality is that although it a lot of people will argue that: well, gee this is just the way business is done. And, you know, most people don't care all they want is the low-price.

In fact, that's not the case. Just a couple of weeks ago, a number of their larger American companies, including Nike, Reebok, Liz Claiborne, Eddie Bauer, several others, all signed this sweatshop agreement allowing -- to allow independent monitors into their factories to check on conditions.

Now, they're not doing this out of the goodness of their heart. They're doing this because they're very concerned that Americans -- that at least enough Americans care about these issues that they need to address them. Wal-Mart, by the way, was unfortunately not a signatory to that agreement.

But I think that this is a situation where, really, it's not so much that you have to fret every time you go into a store about: oh, my God, how do I know? -- or: gee, this is overwhelming, I'd better not think about it -- as much as: if you really care about this issue, if you were to sit down and, say, write a letter, you know, to Wal-Mart and say: hey, I'm concerned about this -- or to whoever it might be -- then you're going to see a response; because that's the way that capitalism works. Because companies know that you're free to spend your money anywhere. And they're afraid that if something like this becomes an issue, that you may choose to spend your money at some other outfit. And that's why a lot of these corporations are now moving to respond to these concerns.

GROSS: Well, Bob Ortega, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

ORTEGA: Glad to be here.

GROSS: Bob Ortega is a reporter for "The Wall Street Journal." His new book about Wal-Mart is called "In Sam We Trust."

This is FRESH AIR.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.


Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Bob Ortega
High: Bob Ortega is an investigative journalist for "The Wall Street Journal." He is the author of the new book "In Sam We Trust: The Untold Story of Sam Walton and How Wal-Mart Is Devouring America." Ortega examines how Wal-Mart went from a tiny variety store in backwater Arkansas to one of the world's largest corporations. In doing so, Wal-Mart's business practices have been imitated by other businesses and criticized for its impact on communities and treatment of workers.
Spec: Wal-Mart; Business; Culture; Economy; Sam Walton

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: How Wal-Mart is Devouring America
Date: NOVEMBER 19, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 111902NP.217
Head: The Art of Exploration
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:40

TERRY GROSS, HOST: When I take a walk, I often ignore the things around me that I considered dull and boring, like telephone poles, parking meters and parking lots. Those are just the kind of details that John Stilgoe find fascinating. He thinks that by observing the ordinary things we take for granted in our surroundings, we can learn fascinating details about our environment.

Stilgoe is a professor of landscape history at Harvard. He teaches his students how to be mindful of their surroundings and the pleasures that mindfulness can bring. He's written a new book called "Outside Lies Magic: Regaining History and Awareness in Everyday Places."

Here's how he describes his approach to helping people observe the world around them.

JOHN STILGOE, ORCHARD PROFESSOR OF LANDSCAPE HISTORY, HARVARD UNIVERSITY: What I try to do is to first help people simply go for a walk not for the physical reasons, not, you know, to lose weight, improve one's heart rate, or something; but to go for the walk simply to look around them. And then later, after they start noticing stuff, to trust themselves to figure out what the patterns are.

The pattern can be anything from finally noticing that every utility pole in America has a number nailed on it, affixed to it somehow. And one can locate oneself in space by simply, you know, saying: well, I'm next to pole 371 on such a street or something.

One notices the patterns, one figures things out for oneself, and it's something one always has. It never devalues. To be an acute observer of the world around one, I think, pays tremendous dividends in all sorts of ways.

GROSS: I'm glad you mentioned telephone poles, because you have a fascinating chapter just all about them. I think we all grew up just taking them for granted that they're wooden poles with wires strung on them. When did they first come into being, and why wooden poles?

STILGOE: Well, wooden polls came into being much earlier than electric service. They came into being with the invention of the telegraph, and that reason they're wood -- they were wood -- they're still would -- is that we're still a developing nation. We have a tremendous expansive territory to carry wires across, and the utility companies don't have the money to put up steel or concrete poles all across rural America or even suburbs.

My interests in utility poles dates, actually, to not only my own curiosity about why we don't look up that them, why we don't really see them -- although they're almost everywhere. And they're very rarely vertical. They are usually out of plum by a little bit because of the stresses of the lines they carry.

The deeper issue is that in the 1910 to maybe 1940 period, a great many critical people, very thoughtful people, indeed, realized that this was a huge spider web being dropped down over the American public; that it trapped one into using something that was surely an advantage by almost everybody standards, but required a monthly payment. So the first real discussion of a web across the United States was in a much earlier period.

GROSS: You point out that cable TV wires are being strung on old polls that weren't designed for them, and that wire that goes into your home, if you live in a neighborhood, they are so sloppily hung often. And I just thought -- I never thought of that as like a national pattern, but I guess it is.

STILGOE: Well, it's the kind of thing one notices if one goes out for a walk, because, eventually, if one looks up with no knowledge of electrical engineering at all and simply looks up in the air for a few minutes, one begins to figure out which of the electric company wires, which are the phone company wires, and which are the cable TV wires.

And the cable TV wires are the ones lowest on the poll almost invariably. The cable invention came much later. And now what I'm noticing is the tremendous demand for Internet service; the phone companies are having to restring cables to bring more lines down streets. And all of this goes on slightly up above the level at which most Americans look.

And if one does look up there, one not only sees the wires; one sees the crowns of trees; one sees the birds flying among the wires, and the way on a winter morning lines of birds will sit on electric lines to warm their feet.

GROSS: Is that why they do that?

STILGOE: Yes, there is a certain amount of resistance to transmitting the electricity, and the resistance -- I don't know how to put it exactly -- manifests itself as heat. And the birds sit on the electric lines, warm their feet, their legs, I suppose their stomachs. But they just all line up, and they seemed to sit on different lines.

They don't -- I mean, they seem to sit on lines -- how should I put it? -- that they know about. When I go to work, I've noticed that there's one particular line that always has birds on it on a winter morning. And the lines all around it in the neighborhood never do.

GROSS: My guest is John Stilgoe. He's a Harvard professor, and author of the new book "Outside Lies Magic: Regaining History and Awareness in Everyday Places."

Well, I know one of the thinks that you recommend that we all try to do is to follow the tracks of abandoned railroads -- commuter lines. What is interesting about that?

STILGOE: Well, many of these lines have been made into pedestrian paths or bike paths, and I think they don't get nearly they use they should. But the significance for me is that if one walks down them with an open mind, not for physical exercise alone, but for a little bit of mental gymnastics, one begins to realize that these lines often are much more direct than highways that replace them.

And now what I find in many places in the United States, if I walk, is that -- on these abandoned lines -- is that they are the very first faint signs that they might be reactivated. And I began -- the only reason I stumbled into this is I walked along railroad lines and I began to notice every now and then maybe on the side of a line there would be an orange painted surveyor stake.

And I started to realize that, you know, deep money real estate investors have begun to realize that, you know, there was a station here once before -- it's long gone - but if this railroad track comes back, this is going to be a very valuable piece of property. They buy it. They pay taxes on the woods -- the half-abandoned vacant lot -- and they wait.

And now sometimes I've, you know, seen the first evidence of the surveyors stakes and so on being put out by people who have been hired by the various, you know, state and local governments to see about bringing the trains back. This is only an example of what I try to explain to my readers, that if they would go out that look around they'd often see the signs of things that are coming that haven't been reported in the newspaper; they haven't been reported by other news media at all. But the first little glimmerings are they are in the landscape of change.

GROSS: I wonder if you spent a lot of time observing the areas around airports. I think a typical experience that certainly people in the Northeast cities have, is that you come back from a vacation and a beautiful place, you land at the airport in your Northeast city, and you drive away from airport, and you're surrounded by gas tanks and sewage plants and automobile junkyards. And, suddenly, you're in this kind of industrial ugliness.

STILGOE: I have studied this. And the reason for that is, first, the noise of the airplanes, which causes the real estate to be poorly valued; and, secondly, the early 20th-century belief that you didn't want to locate a business near an airport because the flying machine was bound to land on it and, you know, destroy it.

So what we have now are areas of the typical American city, in which most of the urban residents don't go to, and they go through only, as you correctly point out, to get to the airport. The airplane traveler has a real jolt. I mean, as you point out, it's bad enough to come into the airport and see the industrial zone around it. It's much worse when one has been on vacation in a beautiful place.

And I do encourage people to balk or bicycle through these great industrial areas; first, because they are the public property -- it is often where the sewage disposal area is and so on. But if you don't know about them you don't know about the opportunities that exist in them.

If one goes and looks at these places one finds that very frequently there are struggling retail businesses in the middle of them where one can get a very good deal on anything from automobile tires to furniture imported from South America. But we tend not to think about ever going to one of these neighborhoods for pleasure.

GROSS: I have one last question for you. You were so keen in your observations about your environments. You've been in the studio of WBUR recording this interview. Do you notice anything that piques your curiosity?

STILGOE: Radio station engineers have frightful posture. I think it's because they are slouched over these controls all the time, and they are in chairs that are not very well-made chairs. I mean, if I were going to sit all day, I'd get a chair as comfortable as they provide the guest. But they don't provide a chair as comfortable for the engineer who is in it.

And that's where I'd make my first improvement here. I'd get these guys better chairs, and then they wouldn't be, I think, slouching. I see a thumb been raised behind the glass.

GROSS: Our engineer is smiling, too. OK, well, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

STILGOE: Thank you.

GROSS: John Stilgoe is the author of the book "Outside Lies Magic." He's a professor of landscape history at Harvard.

This is FRESH AIR.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.


Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: John Stilgoe
High: John Stilgoe is Orchard Professor of Landscape History at Harvard University. He's the author of the new book, "Outside Lies Magic: Regaining History and Awareness in Everyday Places." He's been teaching the "art of exploration" for over 20 years; that is, learning to really look at the world around us.
Spec: "Outside Lies Magic: Regaining History and Awareness in Everyday Places"; John Stilgoe; Art

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: The Art of Exploration
Date: NOVEMBER 19, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 111903NP.217
Head: "War Orphans"
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:55

TERRY GROSS, HOST: The Swedish pianist Bobo Stenson was born in 1944 and came up playing jazz around Scandinavia, where he developed enough of a reputation to get hired by Stan Getz for an African tour in 1968, and to work regularly with American bassist Red Mitchell.

From the '70s on, Stenson has worked with several bands mixing jazz and various world musics, often collaborating with musicians from Turkey and India. Stenson has also recorded for the ECM record label off and on for 27 years.

Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says Stenson's style and ECM's corporate tastes are a perfect fit.


KEVIN WHITEHEAD, JAZZ CRITIC: Pianist Bobo Stenson on ECM Records, playing what you might call typical ECM mode. Almost 30 years ago, ECM began documenting an airy style of improvised music full of pregnant silences, mood enhanced by lots of cavernous echo.

The ECM sound gets a bad rap for helping inspire New Age music, but the original usually had more bite. Bobo Stenson's new album, "War Orphans," includes two tunes by Ornette Coleman, whose raucous free jazz may seem an unlikely source for this music; but in a way, it's a wellspring.

It was hard for piano players to find a role in Coleman's quickly shifting music. The first one that figured out how to do it was Paul Bley (ph), who treated the piano like another horn, playing long lines more than background chords, and lagged a little behind the beat, as if waiting to year where everyone else was headed before committing himself.

That approach worked so well Bley stuck to it in any context. You can hear that line of development in Bobo Stenson's version of the tune "Sediment," written by his bass player Anders Jorman (ph).


WHITEHEAD: Thirty years ago, Scandinavian jazz musicians started developing what became their contribution to the ECM style; music which was restrained song-like and a little tentative. Bobo Stenson is so typical of the Scandinavian ECM school he stands as a representative figure.

You can hear parallels between his playing and that of ECM's breakout star Keith Jarrett, who is also inspired by Ornette Coleman and Paul Bley, and began recording for ECM in 1971. Soon after that, Jarrett had a quartet with three Scandinavians who'd already been playing with Stenson, including Norway's tasteful drummer Jan Christiansen (ph); he also plays on Stenson's new CD.

It was a critic's cliche to compare ECM music to icy echoes resounding across a fjord. Fjords are actually too wide to echo, but few of us critics had ever seen one. Stenson's wholesome improvised melodies can resemble Swedish folk music more than the blues. That's why this stuff doesn't even sound like jazz to some people.

Bill Evans' introspective piano jazz is somewhere behind it, but Stenson's work with musicians from India also left the mark. There are odd similarities between his jazz and Indian traditional music: an emphasis on a meandering line improvised from some basic motifs; music which may start slow and out of tempo and gradually build in intensity.


WHITEHEAD: Duke Ellington's "Melancholia," played by Bobo Stenson's trio. Like a lot of "typical ECM music," the CD "War Orphans" seesaws between the touchingly lyrical and the slightly precious. Whether jazz fans like it or hate it or don't care, ECM style long since established itself as an important wing of modern jazz. Even other labels imitate it.

But as with other well-defined styles, its development has often been haphazard; a matter of individual musicians, like Bobo Stenson, groping along and picking up ideas here and there, just putting together what works for them.

GROSS: Kevin Whitehead is the author of "New Dutch Swing."

I'm Terry Gross.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.


Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Kevin Whitehead
High: Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews "War Orphans," the new release by Swedish pianist Bobo Stenson.
Spec: Bobo Stenson; Music Industry; Entertainment; Art

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Duke Ellington's "Melancholia," played by Bobo Stenson's trio. Like a lot of "typical ECM music," the CD "War Orphans" seesaws between the touchingly lyrical and the slightly precious. Whether jazz fans like it or hate it or don't care, ECM style long since established itself as an important wing of modern jazz. Even other labels imitate it.

But as with other well-defined styles, its development has often been haphazard; a matter of individual musicians, like Bobo Stenson, groping along and picking up ideas here and there, just putting together what works for them.

GROSS: Kevin Whitehead is the author of "New Dutch Swing."

I'm Terry Gross.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.


Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?


Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR


Daughter of Warhol star looks back on a bohemian childhood in the Chelsea Hotel

Alexandra Auder's mother, Viva, was one of Andy Warhol's muses. Growing up in Warhol's orbit meant Auder's childhood was an unusual one. For several years, Viva, Auder and Auder's younger half-sister, Gaby Hoffmann, lived in the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan. It was was famous for having been home to Leonard Cohen, Dylan Thomas, Virgil Thomson, and Bob Dylan, among others.


This fake 'Jury Duty' really put James Marsden's improv chops on trial

In the series Jury Duty, a solar contractor named Ronald Gladden has agreed to participate in what he believes is a documentary about the experience of being a juror--but what Ronald doesn't know is that the whole thing is fake.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.
Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue