Measured words, sharp instincts propelled Robert Siegel’s NPR career

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Stephen Voss/NPR


In a bid to direct my attention away from the radio, my preschool-aged son once yelled from his car seat, “Dad, I’m Robert Siegel!”

When I relate this story to Robert Siegel himself, he chuckles gamely and allows that he has “a Big Bird thing working with 3-year-olds.” Or more precisely, he says — eyes twinkling behind glasses and lowering his voice — “I think I’ve got a special rapport with young people.”

At 70, Siegel is compact, fit, with just the bare trace of stoop in his posture. As I set up my audio recorder in his office at NPR headquarters in Washington, D.C., Siegel swivels his chair away from his desk to face me, knees to knees, in the small office. He confronts the prospect of an hour with me, talking about himself, with the resigned air of a good sport.

The precision with which Siegel measures and remeasures his words is perhaps the most striking thing about talking with him in person. He speaks in complete sentences, with dependent clauses and thoughtful ellipses — broadcast-ready, except for the occasional pause to ensure the syntax and sense haven’t gotten away from him. Siegel has a voice for radio, a virtuoso baritone full of the music of curiosity. But his editorial instincts are what make listening to him speak so compelling.

Siegel’s last three-year contract as senior co-anchor of All Things Considered came to an end last summer. After it became clear that co-anchor Audie Cornish would be on maternity leave last fall, he agreed to work until Jan. 6, 2018. The decision not to pursue an additional contract, made in 2014 by Siegel and news VP Margaret Low Smith, was mutual, Siegel says. It will soon bring to an end his record 30-year tenure in the position and marks a pause, if not an end, to his 40-year tenure at the network.

Siegel admits that he feels “fairly uncomfortable” talking about himself. Still, his mark on American culture is evident in surprising places, such as a 2014 cameo appearance on The Simpsons. He especially cherishes a moment of recognition that his parents lived to see in 2004 when contestants on Jeopardy! were given the clue, “It seems like all things under the sun are considered on this radio program with Robert Siegel.” In a special tribute to his departure, Jeopardy! recently challenged contestants to answer a whole column of clues featuring Siegel’s voice.

Siegel will exit at a particularly difficult moment for NPR. Two senior newsroom leaders departed in November following investigations of sexual harassment claims. People inside and outside the network questioned how President Jarl Mohn responded to complaints about Mike Oreskes, the ousted news chief. As a committee of the NPR board oversees an investigation by an outside law firm, the list of high-profile men in public media accused of inappropriate behavior has continued to grow.

Art Silverman / NPR

Siegel talks with Xiaoyu Xie, NPR’s interpreter and guide, during a 2008 reporting trip to China’s Sichuan province.

Siegel’s contributions to NPR and to journalism — both in his work and as a role model for those he leaves behind — are quite substantial. Legal Affairs Correspondent Nina Totenberg calls her longtime colleague “the quintessential newsman, with all the critical elements, including humor, wrapped up into one. Reporter, editor, fact-checker, everything-er — that you want to have in a news organization.”

Scott Simon, host of Weekend Edition Saturday, says his sadness about Siegel’s departure is tempered by recognition that Siegel set an ideal that NPR will continue to follow. “The loss is incalculable, but his influence is so deep and lasting.”

Newscaster with bigger ambitions

Siegel joined NPR in 1976 as a newscaster, a position he thought he’d hold for two years before relocating to “a real city — meaning New York” and getting a job in a “real medium — meaning television.”

Instead, he climbed the ranks at NPR and played a significant role in its transformation into one of the country’s most successful broadcast news organization. Simon credits Siegel for much of the network’s growth over the past 40 years.

“His contributions as an executive and a host helped drive NPR from being an ancillary source of news, information and perspective to what it is now, for 39 million Americans, the news,” Simon says.

After graduating from newscasting, Siegel became an editor for All Things Considered. He saw that role in musical terms, as setting the bass line and adding some grace notes, according to NPR’s 2008 style guide Sound Reporting. In 1979 he opened NPR’s first foreign bureau in London. The network now boasts 17 international bureaus.

Siegel during his days as director of news and information programming.

After returning to Washington, in 1983, Siegel led NPR’s news division as director of news and information programming. During his four-year tenure, the network confronted enormous challenges and built new capacity.

The financial crisis of 1983, precipitated by cuts in federal funding and overly ambitious spending under NPR President Frank Mankiewicz, hit that year, an event that propelled Siegel’s move into management. The network faced a $6 million budget shortfall and was on the brink of bankruptcy.

A three-day “drive to survive” in July 1983 raised enough money directly from listeners and member stations to keep NPR alive and leverage a $9 million loan from CPB. Network brass had been leery of the listener-supported bailout, Siegel told me, but he persuaded them to agree to it.

During that time, he built the network’s portfolio of news programs, picking up Fresh Air, the arts and culture show hosted by Terry Gross and produced by Philadelphia’s WHYY, for national distribution. He also oversaw the creation of Weekend Edition, which debuted in 1985 as a slightly softer version of Morning Edition — news-based but with “an appeal to weekend listeners,” recalls Jay Kernis, former NPR programming VP who is now a producer at CBS Sunday Morning. In 1987, Siegel persuaded Susan Stamberg to host Weekend Edition Sunday, and Kernis credits Siegel for proposing to add a segment featuring car-repair advice by two brothers from Cambridge, Mass. A year after Weekend Edition Sunday introduced Tom and Ray Magliozzi to NPR’s audience, Car Talk spun off as a national program, attracting millions of new listeners to public radio.

Rebecca Hammel

ATC co-hosts Siegel and Renee Montagne in 1988.

In 1987 Siegel started hosting All Things Considered, a job he has held more or less continuously ever since, in that capacity reporting on the biggest stories of the last 30 years. Judy Woodruff of PBS Newshour told me she most admires Siegel’s talent for “keeping things in perspective … [He] doesn’t fly off the handle in either direction.”

Siegel happened to be on a reporting trip in Manhattan on Sept. 11, 2001, when two airliners hijacked by terrorists crashed into the World Trade Center towers. Siegel stayed in New York City for the rest of the week, hosting ATC from NPR’s New York bureau and reporting from the site of the attack, now known as Ground Zero.

Kernis describes a 2005 interview about the federal response to Hurricane Katrina as “classic Robert Siegel.” His dogged “lawyer-like” questioning of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff about chaotic conditions in the New Orleans convention center produced a stunning admission that Chertoff “has not heard a report of thousands of people … who don’t have food and water.” When Chertoff questioned the credibility of reports from the convention center, Siegel turned to a reporter who was on another line and insisted, “These aren’t rumors. [Reporters] are seeing thousands of people there.”

The exchange marked a pivotal moment in the growing crisis of confidence in the government’s response to the disaster. Jonathan Kern featured it in his NPR guidebook Sound Reporting, as an illustration of Siegel’s “number one rule of reporting: ‘Listen very carefully to what the person you’re interviewing is saying.’”

Siegel has drawn criticism, however, for being too responsive to criticism from the right. When Reagan-era State Department officials complained about the network’s coverage of Nicaragua, he invited them to lunch with NPR reporters. In response to criticism from Mother Jones, Siegel told one of their reporters, “I have never been terribly concerned about left-wing magazines painting NPR as turning right.”

Given this attitude, NPR’s move rightward since the 1980s — which even Newt Gingrich acknowledged to The Nation — should come as no surprise. Still, the network’s reputation for liberalism continues to spark existential threats whenever Congress or the White House threaten to eliminate CPB.

I asked Siegel if reporting on Donald Trump has strained his capacity for equanimity, and his measured response suggests not. “It has been perhaps more than a little bit difficult,” he says, to report on public statements by the Trump administration that require the caveat, “there’s no basis for that in fact.”

Yet, as he sees it, nothing that Trump has done so far matches President Nixon’s directive to the FBI to investigate the late Daniel Schorr, a longtime colleague and news analyst. Siegel compares Trump, an outsider with a mandate to shake up Washington, to President Carter, who tried and failed to do the same thing 40 years earlier.

It’s a fascinating analogy, framing his own career chronologically, temperamentally and ideologically with remarkable economy.

Hidden qualities

It occurs to Kernis that ATC listeners might not realize Siegel’s “remarkably wicked sense of humor.” Totenberg made much the same point in an interview that was punctuated by guffaws as she recalled how well her colleague’s sharp wit has served him and NPR’s journalists.

It enabled him to “do union negotiations without blowing up the building,” Totenberg says. In one such case, “We were having a stupid fight about if NPR would pay for laundry for foreign correspondents in combat zones like Lebanon,” Totenberg said. Siegel was trying to explain that going out to do laundry could put a reporter in a dangerous situation, she recalls. Then he added, “Until recently, the most dangerous thing anyone at NPR did was get in a car with Nina Totenberg.”

Colleagues praise another characteristic that’s also less apparent to listeners — Siegel’s on-air vocal performance. In his voice, they seem to hear a metonym for what they cherish about NPR itself.

Simon describes it as “dulcet without being dull” and “authoritative without being pompous.” He adds — his own voice lowering as if relating a confidence — “You don’t get that voice unless you know what you’re talking about.”

It’s not the beauty of Siegel’s voice, according to Kernis. “It’s what he represents: that you could be welcoming and intelligent, and occupy that very intimate space in people’s homes and cars and lives all at the same time,” he says.

Totenberg admires his commitment to “using regular language” and “common sense” usage practices “so that everyone can understand.”

While generally not eager to talk about himself, Siegel warms to the topic of describing the influence of his family and upbringing in shaping his distinctive voice. “I was raised in a household that was nearly obsessive about speech,” he tells me.

His parents were first-generation Americans who worked as educators in the New York City public schools, an institution notorious for its discrimination against those with foreign accents and dialects. They both worked hard to remove any trace of their Eastern European Jewish origins from their speech. “My father, in order to advance in the school system, had to pass a speech exam. I remember him with a Wollensak tape recorder practicing diphthongs at the dining room table, preparing to become a department chair or assistant principal.”

Siegel says public broadcasters have a duty “to translate out of various private languages and jargons into a common spoken English … a vocabulary that is accessible to everybody. It is very often considered quite cool to lapse into various types of slang and I don’t feel comfortable with that.”

When I ask Siegel how his philosophy squares with William Siemering’s founding principles for NPR, which include the mandate to “speak with many voices and in many dialects,” Siegel assures me that “it squares.”

He acknowledges the significance of the shift from the formal, authoritative style of the Cronkite-era CBS News correspondent to the more conversational style encouraged by Siemering and pioneered by NPR. But he can’t resist a bit of editing. “I think we speak with many accents; that’s fair. Dialects are different.”

Here at the hinge between accent and dialect, origins and identity, NPR seems to still be finding its way, with an old guard calling for the importance of “unifying voices,” in Siegel’s words, and a newer cadre making the case for hewing more closely to Siemering’s original vision, dialects, and all, typified by some of the pieces produced by NPR’s Code Switch team.

‘No desire to tweet’

By the end of the hour, Siegel seems more comfortable. Our conversation had been interrupted by a scheduled fire drill, which meant part of the interview took place while we walked down two flights of stairs, up the street to a central gathering spot and then back again. Seeing Siegel on the crowded plaza in front of the NPR building, surrounded by scores of coworkers, provided a helpful sense of scale for measuring what he leaves behind: a major media organization, a fixture in Washington, D.C., and far beyond.

Kernis tells me he is not worried about the transition confronting the network with so many senior-level departures, including Siegel’s upcoming signoff.

“NPR is in remarkable shape, and I can say that by listening to the radio. The journalism just gets better and better,” Kernis says.

Siegel demurred when I asked about his plans for life after All Things Considered. “I haven’t figured that out yet,” he said.

He has “no desire to tweet,” eschews the Big Talk circuit that lures many media figures, including those in public radio. He “never had the great idea or discipline to write a book,” as many of his colleagues have. “Maybe I’ll do that now,” he added, without conviction.

“If you had told me when I first started here,” he concludes, finally getting comfortable with the valedictory idiom appropriate to the moment, “that I would be here 40 years later, it just would’ve struck me as ridiculous. “But” — a final edit — “you’ll find me a contented lifer.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article mistakenly said that Siegel negotiated his final contract as ATC host with Christopher Turpin. The contract was negotiated with Margaret Low Smith, VP of news in 2014. The article also mistakenly said that Siegel moved into a management job before NPR’s 1983 budget crisis. He moved into a management job during the crisis.

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