Passionate Quest

Love him or hate him, CNN's Richard Quest is no staid business reporter.

richard quest 298.88 (photo credit: courtesy)
richard quest 298.88
(photo credit: courtesy)
Love it or hate it, Richard Quest's unique reporting style gets people's attention. A leading CNN business and news presenter, Quest is arguably one of the more interesting personalities in news broadcasting today. CNN refers to his style as "dynamic and distinctive." Others are less diplomatic. Comments on the Web range from respect and admiration ("love his style of presenting... it's original and upbeat...") to annoyance and dislike ("his voice is terrible..." and "he seems to have only one volume - yell"). In person, Quest seems every bit as lively as on the television screen. Warm and friendly, his voice moves from pensive to excited at top speed. Asked whether the persona we see on CNN is really him, he says it is, and explains: "I passionately believe if you put on an act, the audience will be able to tell. That does not mean that I am going to be talking in top volume all the time in private conversations... Clearly, broadcasting has to be an extension of yourself, it's an exaggerated version of you." Pointing to the television in the lounge where we are seated, he adds: "Look at that television over there. You have to project yourself out of that box into a room of real live people... I want the audience to realize I am enthusiastic about something I am doing. I may have hated the idea [for a certain news item], I may have fought against doing it, but when the editor says 'You're doing this story,' you might as well do it with good humor and energy." But don't be misled by that bubbly passion and trademark laugh. Quest has a very serious side, and is frequently concerned that his unusual presenting style may hamper his being taken seriously as a business journalist. "It's a double-edged sword, no question about it," he says. He worries that as he moves into "personality-driven broadcasting," it could harm his credibility. To keep this in check, he tries to temper his shows' special tone, making certain that there is a strong editorial reason for exercising his more creative moments. "I think as long as my producers are vigilant, I am vigilant and the network is vigilant, the audience is mature enough to be able to recognize when Quest is doing something silly, and when Quest is reading the news about some disaster." Meanwhile, that balancing act has him covering an impressively wide range of topics: from a magic show with David Copperfield to a one-on-one interview with the Dalai Lama; from a Rolling Stones concert in China to an interview with Britain's Prince Andrew. And the list goes on and on, to incredible lengths, though his clear favorite subject is business travel and everything related to airlines, airplanes and air travel. He travels extensively, spending about 40 percent of each year on the road. This year he had an unusually heavy travel schedule, keeping him away from home for a whopping 70% of the year. Quest visited Israel in the first half of 2006, to do a special CNN Business Traveller report on the country. The show rarely focuses on a single country, but Quest says that following Warren Buffet's four-billion-dollar investment in Iscar, they felt compelled to investigate "what does Mr. Buffet know that the rest of us are missing" about the Israeli economy. Speaking at the Globes Israel Business Conference during a return visit in mid-December, Quest told an audience of some 2,000 leading Israeli business-people that there are good reasons to have a closer look at this country's economy and business climate. He admits he had actually hoped for a vacation in Eilat at the end of his Israel trip, but for reasons beyond his control he had to cancel those plans for some more business travel. BORN to a jewish family in Liverpool, Quest says he developed his unique presentation style very early on, and that even as a boy he was "loud, noisy, boisterous." In fact, his school report read: "Richard would do well to listen more than he speaks." In his youth, Quest worked in hospital radio and local radio, and says he thinks his family always knew "that Richard would be walking around with a tape recorder." He recalls a time when his father, a doctor and a lawyer, brought home a dictation machine for young Richard to play with. He remembers that as a child he was "absolutely entranced by this machine, that I could not only talk into it and play it back, I could do sound effects, I could do plays." Quest studied law, but later decided he would try to be a career correspondent. His first professional break was a BBC internship in radio and TV news that taught him "everything you need to know about broadcasting." He spent 13 years with the BBC, and then moved on to CNN. When he worked in the BBC, Quest had a much more defined role, serving as the Wall Street correspondent. However, he stresses that the BBC gave him much latitude - "if they hadn't, I would not have been able to prove to CNN what I could do." So why did he leave BBC and join CNN? "A lot of people want to know why did I leave the BBC, did I have an argument with them? No!! I had 13 wonderful years. But it was time. Since I left university, I'd only ever worked for the BBC. It was simply time." Quest says he feels that CNN has allowed him to broaden what he does. "I'm given an enormous amount of freedom, within the constraints of the editorial policies of the network. One of the Quest shows started off with me doing the cancan kicking... you know, the high kick, with dancing girls. We never thought CNN would agree to that. What CNN has basically said to me is - you do what you want, and we'll tell you when you've gone too far... The very day I joined CNN, I said to the man who hired me, 'You do know what you're getting?' He said, 'Of course I do.' He said, 'Sometimes you will go too far and we'll pull you back, and sometimes you'll pull CNN farther than we would otherwise have gone.' We constantly are, I would say, in tension about what I'm allowed to do..." QUEST SAYS the Israeli economic and business landscape is extremely vibrant. "I was much taken by the Globes editor's description: 'If you look at merely the numbers and statistics, you are left with a vision of paradise. If you put it into the geo-political context of Israel and its neighbors, you are left with a very different kind of picture.' And he described it, [asking] is it hell or paradise, or is it both sides of the same coin. "For a business journalist coming to Israel, to this region, that is the fascinating part about covering it, because you're left constantly trying to fathom out the unfathomable: What is it about the Israeli economy that gives it a resilience at a time when it suffers war, external shocks, crises of confidence, periodically and spasmodically - but the economy roars ahead? "I don't know the answer, I've heard a thousand and one different reasons. Some people say it's the nature of the Israeli psyche, or the survival instinct of the Israeli mentality. Some people suggest that it is innate, that it's just part of the culture of newcomers and of a thriving young country. But the fact is it works, there is a drive to succeed in business in this country. And crucially, innovation. It's not just making money or doing business on existing ideas. There is a healthy dose of innovation, and that of course you see clearly in the software industry here." Quest says he was particularly fascinated with Lev Levayev, chairman of Africa-Israel. "The rest of us are all observers, whether you're a professor of economics or an economics journalist; this one is a player, this one actually goes out there and invests money. I was fascinated to hear him talk about how they'd invested money in property in New York after 9/11, and the sort of rates of return. I went a funny color of green, as I realized the enormous amount of money he must have made in those circumstances." Despite his impressive knowledge of international markets, Quest proclaims he will never make a fortune. "I couldn't sell water in a desert. I have no business acumen. I can tell you why you have no business acumen, and I can tell you why your project may or may not work, but I have no ability to make money." He has huge admiration for those who can make money, but says he himself cannot spot a deal. It is interesting, he says, to meet people who do spot deals. "They have a completely different mindset. They see risk as a challenge, whereas I see business risk as something to run in the opposite direction, in case I lose the bus fare home. Successful business people have a single-mindedness, a drive. It is not a drive to make money, but rather a drive to make a successful deal. "I asked Donald Trump, what happens inside you when you spot a deal? He just looked at me and said, 'It churns, and it churns, like a caged animal.' And I knew what he meant, because I see that in my own work. If I see a good story that I want to do, if I have an idea what will make a good bit of television. But these people, they can spot a deal, they go after it. They are a unique breed. The posh way you can call them is entrepreneur."