Too good to be true? Hit podcast 'The Dream' takes journalistic look at pyramid schemes and multilevel marketing

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A part of Jane Marie's family never used Tupperware.

That sealed-in plastic wonder by Earl Tupper was a rival multilevel marketing product to the home goods and cosmetic items sold by members of her family in Michigan.

The host of the hit journalistic podcast "The Dream" has been fascinated by the broken promises of multilevel marketing schemes — the "flexible hours," the stuff you have to buy to sell to your friends and the "easy recruitment" of others for your own network, from which you could profit.

The biggest broken promise, Marie finds, may be the money. A childhood friend of Marie's, the top seller in Michigan and near the highest rung of her Christian tote-bag company, says she only makes $42,000 a year, much of that from recruiting others into the business.

Marie, a veteran of "This American Life," is surprised by the popularity of "The Dream" and its first four episodes. Part of it could be the universality of experience of so many people who are sucked into MLMs and pyramid schemes. Part of it could be the overvaluing of "belief" over "facts" in our current political environment, she said.

“The way of thinking that the people who invest and sign up for MLMs have has a great deal in common with the people who run our country right now,” Marie said in an interview from Los Angeles. President Trump, Ben Carson and Amway family member Betsy DeVos all have MLM experience. On an early show, "The Dream" described MLMs as transfers of wealth from the 99 percent to the 1 percent at the top of the ladder.

With most people failing, the key of MLMs is to put the shame on the sales recruit — and not on the company, even though inferior product or insufficient supply of new recruits could have doomed new salespeople from the start. 

"There’s so much shame in failing in these businesses,” she said. "They tell you everything’s inside you to attain success. If you don’t attain success, you didn’t work hard enough."

And if you go public, she said, you're still out money and everybody in town knows that you're a sucker.

Marie, sometimes painfully, has had to "mine" her family and friends for stories, including an Avon-selling matriarch and an aunt who was a veteran of a half-dozen MLMs. At the same time producer, co-host and musician Dann Gallucci (a former member of Modest Mouse) combs the history of these businesses and has befriended FTC officials who spent decades tracking down these companies and trying to limit their ability to prey upon others.

The podcast finds participants in giddy pyramid schemes such as "The Airplane Game," a get-rich-quick effort that infected New York, California and South Florida in the 1980s. It recounts high-pressure recruiting sessions, where "leader" in one case asks participants to believe him rather than a mathematically sound recruitee with a calculator. 

Asked what tips Marie would have for public radio, newspaper or digital-only local newsrooms, she didn't miss a beat: Start knocking on doors, find someone posting on Instagram in their community about their wonderful life and Christian makeup. Or find someone who is an "end user" who doesn't like the product and never wanted to sell.

The comments have been heart-wrenching and cautionary, and Marie hopes they inspire others to ask hard questions and be critical before they sign up to sell a MLM product.

The podcast, by Little Everywhere and Stitcher, has the best description of any I've seen. "What if we told you," its promotional text begins, "that with zero experience and only a few hundred dollars down, this podcast could change your life? Well, we'd be lying."

Quick hits

‘FINE, MY DARLING’: Those were the last words Jamal Khashoggi spoke to his fiancee when he entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last week for paperwork ahead of their wedding. She said she would be waiting for him. He never emerged from the building, and Turkey is investigating the disappearance of the prominent Saudi journalist as a murder. “I no longer feel like I am really alive,” said Hatice Cengiz, who is protected by two plainclothes Turkish police. The Washington Post, citing a U.S. source and Turkish security sources, reported Khashoggi’s body was dismembered and flown out of the country.

SET ON FIRE: The Russian "troll factory," run by a Putin associate, at the center of the disinformation campaign seeking to persuade Americans to vote for Russia-friendly Donald Trump and against Hillary Clinton in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections. Via The Moscow Times.

ROCKIN’ THE GULAG: A Washington journalist has deleted her Twitter account after sharing memes praising Stalin’s gulags, the Soviet prisons where millions of people were killed or starved to death. Sameera Khan, of Kremlin-funded RT, apologized for the tweets and for any offense they may have caused. RT condemned the posts and said Khan will face a disciplinary review, reported TheWrap’s John Levine.

THE READ: Two women, co-workers, friends. Two wildly divergent views on President Trump and Christine Blasey Ford. How do they keep a friendship going in the Mississippi town where Trump mocked Ford and her wrenching testimony against Brett Kavanaugh? Said one of the women: “How can we both hear the same thing and get something totally different out of it?” By Susan Chira and writer-director-historian Ellen Ann Fentress, who I profiled here in April.

#MeToo: Prashant Jha has stepped down as political editor of The Hindustan Times, part of mushrooming #MeToo allegations in India, NDTV reports.

JOBS: The Washington Post is looking for six reporters and an editor for what it calls “once-in-a-lifetime jobs” — covering the 2020 elections.

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