Wilma Soss, Pioneer Financial Broadcast Journalist - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
Wilma Soss, Pioneer Financial Broadcast Journalist
by
Judy Holliday as Laura Partridge, the character based on Wilma Soss, in “The Solid Gold Cadillac,” 1956 (Klokline Cinema/YouTube)

Financial journalism has achieved something close to gender equity. For every Larry Kudlow, there is a Maria Bartiromo; for every Joe Weisenthal, a Frances Coppola; and for every Andrew Ross Sorkin, a Gretchen Morgenson. How did that happen? The full story is complex but incomplete without paying due attention to America’s first big-name financial broadcast journalist, Wilma Soss (1900–1986).

From 1957 until 1980, Soss hosted a weekly 10-minute radio show, nationally syndicated on the NBC network, called Pocketbook News and, later, Wilma Says. She wrote, read, and recorded the scripts herself, quoting experts from an extensive network of economic experts tied to her financial-literacy nonprofit FOWSAB, while adding her own analysis to the mix.

As its long run proves, the show was quite popular despite Soss’ unusual voice, which one listener likened to that of a strident mongoose. Excerpts from her show can be heard on the audio version of her new, and, alas, only, biography Fearless: Wilma Soss and America’s Forgotten Investor Movement (All Seasons Press, 2022). Tapes and scripts of her broadcasts can be found at the American Heritage Center in Laramie, Wyoming.

Listeners barraged NBC with comments via letters and postcards, so we know that they tuned in because they found her commentary accurate, nonpartisan, timely, and, most importantly of all, trustworthy. She didn’t pitch specific stocks but rather explained how the week’s news might impact small investors. Her predictions were not always accurate, but they were always disinterested. And as she gained experience, her analyses became increasingly trenchant. She picked up on economic forecasting quickly because her Columbia University journalism coursework included classes in economics and history as well as writing.

After graduating from Columbia in 1925, Soss worked as a movie critic for a Brooklyn paper for a few years before gaining entrée into the burgeoning public relations field. She excelled at that, making a small fortune during the Depression and World War II from clients as diverse as the International Silk Guild, a Detroit manufacturer, and opera singer Gladys Swarthout.

Soon after the war, Soss discovered while writing a piece for Forbes that female stockholders outnumbered men in many of America’s largest corporations. That got her interested in the stock market after she had sworn it off when she learned that a trustee had lost her entire small inheritance following the Great Crash in 1929. Emboldened by her successful PR consultancy, she decided to begin investing on her own. She bought a share in U.S. Steel and made the trek to Hoboken, New Jersey, for the annual stockholder meeting. As part owner of the enterprise, she found the tiny, short, meaningless affair insulting.

Instead of selling her share, as so many others did, Soss swore that she would make changes. And she did, by leveraging her PR experience to the hilt. She showed up at the 1949 meeting in a dress her mother had worn in the 1890s. Reporters flocked and cameras flashed, as she knew they would. Her attire, she explained, perfectly matched the antiquated thinking of U.S. Steel’s board of directors. Thanks to Wilma and a handful of other so-called gadflies, annual stockholder meetings within a few years became long, large, important affairs, held in important transportation hubs like New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles instead of backwaters like New Jersey and Delaware. Lunches were served and shareholder questions and comments addressed.

Soss even made traction on her top demand, the placement of qualified women on the board of directors of America’s largest corporations. It was mostly tokenism, but her placements proved that merely putting a woman on the board did not tank companies, as many claimed it would. Investors were rational, so they knew that qualifications trumped gender.

Within a few years, Soss was a household name. Broadway made a play loosely based on Soss’ life and exploits called The Solid Gold Cadillac. An equally successful Hollywood movie of the same name soon followed. Soss used the notoriety to pitch NBC on her radio show. A contract followed and then a corporate sponsorship. Soss did not like coming across as a shill for a pharmaceutical company, however, so she let the sponsorship lapse after a year. Her audience was big enough to justify keeping her on without it, and it grew as her show improved and listeners learned that they could trust that her judgments were sincere.

Soss’ show was serious stuff. An entire chapter of Fearless describes her prowess as a pop economist, especially when it came to core economic issues like taxes and inflation. But she had a sense of humor, too, so she larded each episode with puns, jokes, and funny anecdotes. There was no room for guests in the format, but she brought celebrities in through stories about her interactions with them. Many a CEO or board chairman came in for her derision, but public officials and even baseball legend Ty Cobb made virtual appearances too. But it was all to keep listeners interested so that she could improve their financial literacy and help them to make better investment decisions.

The next time you find yourself listening to or watching, say, Trish Regan or Farnoosh Turabi, remember that Wilma Soss smashed the broadcast financial journalism glass ceiling to pieces the same way that Sylvia F. Porter did on the print front.

Robert Wright is Senior Research Faculty at the American Institute for Economic Research.

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