Bill Siemering on his legacy: “Everything that I intended really has come true”

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Siemering at Mosi-oa-Tunya, Zimbabwe (photo: Charles Rice)

Siemering at Mosi-oa-Tunya, Zimbabwe (Photo: Charles Rice)

Bill Siemering, NPR’s first program director, is renowned for writing a mission statement for the fledgling network that now reads like the constitution of some utopian collective farm colony. After a brief stint at NPR, Siemering later went on to help support media organizations in developing countries. Recently, NPR’s new top news executive, Michael Oreskes, invited Siemering back to NPR for a day visit. Siemering appeared on our podcast The Pub to discuss the visit and how today’s public radio measures up to his original vision.

Bill Siemering: Mike Oreskes had invited me to come and talk with senior staff about a mission statement. I had run into him a little while earlier, and he told me how they had found this and felt that it was really more relevant today than when I wrote it 45 years ago. As they are exploring how to deal with new platforms and podcasts and things like this that, they found core principles in the mission statement useful. He asked me to come in and talk about it, what my thinking was behind it, how I happened to come up with it and some of those things.

Adam Ragusea, Current: How would you describe the visit? What was it like for you?

Siemering: For me it was the happiest day I ever had at NPR, and one of the happiest days of my life. “Happy” doesn’t quite capture it, because it was so moving for me to meet with so many new staff people, and to find that something I’d written that long ago still had relevance for them. I so admire the NPR staff for what they do and produce, so for them to appreciate what I’ve done was very moving for me.

Current: I want to get into the substance of what you talked about, but first let me ask you: Just as a workplace, how does NPR feel today compared to how it did 40 years ago?

Siemering: It really can’t be compared. When we started, the studio was at 1625 I Street in Washington, and we only had really one studio to begin with, and we only had access to that — or it was finished — about a month before All Things Considered started on May 3, 1971. The new facility is just so open and facilitates or promotes much more conversation and interaction with the staff. That atrium kind of makes your ideas soar; there’s no limitation of working in a space that has that much openness.

Current: It has been criticized as being somewhat palatial. I am kind of partial to the idea that public media workplaces should be kind of miserable holes that embody the material modesty with which any kind of nonprofit should be pursued. Did it feel a little wrong to you?

Siemering: It felt like it was thoughtfully designed for maximum productivity. I’m used to seeing stations in developing countries, so I’ve seen them in truck containers and under a staircase and things like that.

Current: That’s kind of awesome, don’t you think?

Siemering: Yeah, it is, and those stations produce some great programs.

Current: If I were to ask you to read one paragraph from the original mission statement, one that is emblematic of what you had hoped to communicate with the whole thing, what would it be?

Siemering: Can I frame this a little bit? Because I was tasked with writing this as a member of the founding board of directors of NPR, and I wanted to differentiate NPR from the old educational radio — which could be a little stodgy — and from commercial radio, and from PBS, and to catalyze on the strengths of radio as a medium, and to take into account what would be the unique niche that public radio would fill in the whole media landscape. And to make it aspirational, because this is the first time that the old educational radio stations were linked together with a live interconnection.

So it begins, “National Public Radio will serve the individual. It will promote personal growth. It will regard individual differences with respect and joy, rather than derision and hate. It will celebrate the human experience as infinitely varied, rather than vacuous and banal. It will encourage a sense of active constructive participation, rather than apathetic helplessness.”

Then I was describing what became All Things Considered, I said, “It should not substitute superficial blandness for genuine diversity of regions, values, and cultural and ethnic minorities which comprise American society. It will speak with many voices and many dialects. The editorial attitude would be that of inquiry, curiosity, concern for the quality of life, critical problem-solving and life-loving.”

And then I concluded with saying, “Listeners should feel that the time spent with NPR was among their most rewarding in media contact. National Public Radio will not regard its audience as a market or in terms of its disposable income, but as curious, complex individuals who are looking for some understanding, meaning and joy in the human experience.”

Current: That’s my favorite sentence in the entire document; it’s just gorgeous. But at the same time I’m very conscious of the fact that in every public media shop in the country, there are at least some people whose job it is to absolutely to think of the audience as a market in various terms. So I wonder, when you look at NPR, and in fact the entire public broadcasting system today, to what extent does it meet the very lofty description that you laid out four decades ago?

Siemering: Programmatically, I think it really does it. Sometimes we need to just pause and appreciate this wonderful public radio system we have in this country. When you consider the depth of experience of the reporting and the producers, the whole independent producer community that’s there and variety in the range of programming, it’s just extraordinary. I think that sometimes we’ve come to take it for granted too much.

Now your question about the financing and so on — I think that’s a real issue. When we started, we got a grant from CPB directly, and then later it was channeled through the stations — which I think is good because it forces the network to be worth supporting by listeners and stations. If a product isn’t good, they’re not going to support it. Now getting to the other part, I think the funding credits now are quite long. I understand the need for this, but at the same time sometimes listening to some stations it just seems like a series of random robotic messages that come down about fundraising and credits and all the carefully crafted taglines that went through committees and everything else. Sounds commercial-like, certainly. Some listeners have said to me that they feel, “They don’t need me so much because they got all these other outfits that are supporting them, commercial companies.”

Current: The idea that public radio will regard its audience not as a market but as people is something that Jay Allison at Transom has been very, very articulate in describing. The way that he puts it, he’ll say, “Listen, we wanted to have one place, one damned place in the entire media ecosystem where no one was trying to sell you anything.” That’s so righteous, but at the same time I’ve sort of come to the conclusion that being sold to is actually not the worst thing. There are worse things than being sold to; there is being manipulated, both politically or ideologically, and I fear that the cost of the government funding and the foundation funding or large institutional funding like university funding, can actually be greater than the detrimental effects of the advertising — even though we don’t call it that.

Siemering: I agree. It’s just the reality we need to live with. There’s no question that there’s a firewall between underwriters and the editorial, and the most important thing is you have a reliable source of information. And, increasingly, it’s harder to find that.

Current: I suppose that when you were when you were visiting NPR in November, you talked about the mission statement, and then I imagine the people wanted to talk to you about how does this make sense. How do these values apply in the 21st-century content marketplace where it’s gradually more about on-demand? Does that change the calculus at all? Certainly it changes the calculus in terms of the relationship between the network and stations.

Siemering: I would say that the broadcast is still the most important by far, and the opportunity for different platforms and so on is really very wonderful, to have that added variety to the whole mix of public broadcast.

Current: And when I look at what’s being offered in podcasts, I see programming that is in many respects much closer to what you guys had originally set out to do in the beginning. The clock for All Things Considered has gotten so tight and segments are so short now; back in the day you guys used to do 20-, 30-, 50-minute segments in All Things Considered, and now online we can stretch out again.

Siemering: Yes, I had initially in a message I sent out to the stations said that there wouldn’t be any arbitrary clocks, that the content would cover the length of the piece. But of course that changed.

Current: So as you look at the future of public radio in particular, how do you feel? Are you hopeful?

Siemering: Oh, yeah. This is something that we could talk about because I think that just as you’re a musician and a composer and so on, you know the evocative effect of music, the sound. And I think people’s media experience has an affect to it, if you will. For example, when you listen to a certain blog you have an affective feeling toward it. There’s a culture of public radio in this country. People gravitated because of the way they feel about it and the way it makes them feel. Now I think some of the podcasts are more intimate, and you’re perhaps listening on buds or earphones so that that makes it a more intimate listening experience. So there’s that we need to factor in.

At the same time, the newsmagazines have such a heavy load to carry now. There’s so much going on, so much that’s complicated and needs explanation that there’s perhaps less opportunity for some of those other things. And yet Tamara Keith in 2011 did a series on the road back to work, where she followed six people in St. Louis who had been unemployed and how they were searching for a job. Just recently Lourdes Garcia-Navarro was down in the Amazon and did these wonderful sound pieces on how to save the trees there. And David Greene went out to Wahpeton, North Dakota, a small town that I happened to have visited myself when I was working out there, and talked with a family about marriage with gays and lesbians and so on. Very personal storytelling. And, of course, Terry Gross on Fresh Air has had this amazing time with Maurice Sendak, her last interview with him as he was dying.

Current: Another show that you helped start, by the way.

Siemering: It was two friends saying goodbye. How much more intimate and personal and moving can you get? So those things happen on broadcast as well, but I think the podcast, because it’s just one person often, can be even more personal sometimes.

Current: You went to an NPR Generation Listen event recently. These are these live, meetup events that NPR has been doing to reach out to younger listeners or potential listeners. They tend to be very music-heavy. What did you make of it?

Siemering: I enjoyed it a lot. I think the oldest in the group is 34, and many of them were with NGOs and some foundations. It was sponsored by the Case Foundation. It was a lively discussion about those issues faced with raising funds, and they listened to a TED Talk about overhead and the problems of funding nonprofits, so it was appropriate for them. It was a joy for me to be with them.

Current: You seem very gratified by what you have wrought.

Siemering: The point is that I don’t feel like I own this much because, in point of fact, it was all the producers and reporters and all the wonderful people that have worked in public radio who have made it what it is. I was there at the beginning and helped set some guidelines and principles, and I knew what I wanted it to sound like. But, for example, Jack Mitchell was the first producer of All Things Considered; he doesn’t get enough credit for of all the work he did in shaping it, making it what it is. So I try to have a realistic idea of my limits.

Current: I think the mission statement matters, and that memo that you sent to stations — that really matters. Those are sort of constitutional documents; you’re a founder. And in many of the ways in which I think that the modern public media system does not live up to your vision, it’s striking to me, looking at those documents, how in some ways NPR in particular actually more resembles what you had hoped it would be today than it did back then, even in some very simple ways. For instance, you said that you would hope that All Things Considered would take very heavily from local stations, that maybe a third of the material would be drawn from local stations, and that was just not possible 40 years ago; the reporting capacity was not there. Now their reporting capacity is there, and a lot of the show does come from local stations, and that’s something to be celebrated.

Siemering: Yes, I think everything that I intended really has come true, in ways that, of course, you can never envision. But I never from the start thought it would be like an alternative kind of operation, like Pacifica, for example. That’s one reason that I wanted to start at five in the afternoon to be the very first broadcast record of the day’s events. I didn’t want to concede anything to others. And it was drive time and people would tune in and out, but I thought that by using sound to help tell the stories in a conversational style, and speaking with many voices in many dialects, you’ll get an audience that’s diverse and that you would make the program appealing to more people because you’d be capitalizing on the unique strengths of radio as a storytelling personal medium.

Current: What is Bill Siemering’s favorite radio show these days?

Siemering: [laughing] That’s like, What’s your favorite child?

Current: Most people usually do have one, even if they don’t admit it.

Siemering: [laughs] Things that I listen to are, of course, Fresh Air in addition to Morning Edition and All Things Considered. On the Media I think does an extraordinary job. This American Life and The Takeaway. I think those are some of the ones that I really enjoy a lot. Not to diminish any of the others.

Current: Got a favorite podcast?

Siemering: I don’t right now.

Current: You’re supposed to say this one, Bill!

Siemering: [Laughs] Sorry to disappoint you.

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