Koppel, hosts draw groupies to ATC's 30th birthday bash

Originally published in Current, May 14, 2001
By Jacqueline Conciatore

Robert Siegel, Linda Wertheimer and Noah Adams absorbed the glow of universal affection at NPR's May 3 celebration of All Things Considered's 30th anniversary.

The nearly two-hour event included an on-stage conversation moderated by Ted Koppel, with sound and video presentations featuring some of the show's legendary highlights and glimpses of ATC staffers on a typical day, racing against the clock to put out a show.

Wertheimer, Siegel and Adams posing as if they're reading newspapers, of all thingsThe audience included a band of ATC staffers, other public radio employees, and ATC originators including Susan Stamberg, creator Bill Siemering and NPR's first president, Don Quayle. But mostly this was an event for public radio fans, who applauded enthusiastically as soon as the three co-hosts took center stage.

Siegel noted during the evening that news stories about the show and its 30th birthday had also been friendly. Over the years, ATC has been subject to a variety of sometimes contradictory criticism--that it's snooty-sounding, for example, or too staid, liberal or corporate. But "it's been the soft edge of journalism that has touched us this season," Siegel said.

Koppel had to gear down from his Nightline battle mode for this event, which he hosted gratis, according to NPR spokesperson Laura Gross. He interviewed the three hosts and ATC Executive Producer Ellen Weiss with an easy, informal manner, often cracking jokes. As a longtime listener, "I feel like you're family," he told the hosts. "You really have been with me in some of the most intimate places."

To Koppel's half-serious query about who writes his on-air questions, Siegel replied that he writes the vast majority. However, when he's about to talk on-air to an NPR reporter, "I use questions they've strongly suggested I ask."

"And no other questions," Wertheimer added.

Koppel acknowledged that television news operations, including his own, mine NPR's ranks for talent. "We at Nightline have been stealing from you for years," he said. When he asked the hosts why they stay in public radio when they could earn much larger salaries in TV, Adams responded that "the people who've left for television will tell you their most profound experience in journalism was All Things Considered." The three regularly get offers to do TV commercials, Adams said. "But we don't do them because it's insincere and will affect the product."

Taped highlights that kicked off the evening offered listeners a chance to remember events famous in either NPR's history or the world's. They included Susan Stamberg and Ira Flatow crunching Wint-O-Green LifeSavers in a closet to see if the candies really sparked when bitten. And the audience heard ATC Producer Peter Breslow's labored breathing as he climbed Mt. Everest during a three-month 1988 expedition. Also included was a reporter's brief account of Richard Nixon's victory salute from the airplane steps after his resignation.

One news story seemed to surface more than others during the discussion: Monica Lewinsky. Taped highlights from ATC, for example, included this choice bit from President Clinton: "I don't know anymore about her than you do." Siegel remembered that he and Mara Liasson were at the White House to interview Clinton about his state of the union message on the day the Lewinsky story broke. Though Siegel said he felt obligated to ask about Lewinsky, "I thought it would be perfectly appropriate for the president to say, 'That is none of the special prosecutor's business . . . and it is none of your business.'"

The behind-the-scenes videotape of ATC's operation revealed that the board which staff members use to map the day's show changes constantly right up until airtime. "We almost always start the show without everything being ready," Wertheimer said. Explained Adams: when the host sounds especially calm and measured, it indicates that he or she doesn't know what's coming next.

Though the audience of public radio fans was primed to laugh at every joke and use their question-and-answer period to gush, there were a few complaints. One man said he didn't like the show's increasing number of "commercials." Weiss responded that the underwriting announcements don't affect how the news is covered. "I actually have no idea at any given time who's giving money," she said. But she acknowledged the spots are a source of frustration. "Every time we're asked to give more time in the show for underwriting, it hurts."

The evening was an opportunity for people to discover or remember forgotten information about ATC, such as the fact CBC's As It Happens was one inspiration for the show, or that ATC has had in 30 years a variety of hosts, including Stamberg and Bob Edwards. During introductory comments, WAMU General Manager Susan Clampitt revived the memory of early station dissatisfaction with ATC. In 1971, she said, WAMU's program manager thought ATC was "not conceived as a professional show," was too long for busy listeners, and should in fact be called "Many Things Ill Considered."

But WAMU listeners saved ATC in the D.C. market, writing letters to say it offered desperately needed intelligent journalism. She said that letter after letter begged the show: "Please stay on the air."

NPR will continue the ATC celebration throughout the year, as Wertheimer, Siegel and Adams each go on the road to visit stations and meet with listeners.

'We almost always start the show without everything being ready,' Wertheimer said. Explained Adams: when the host sounds especially calm, it indicates that he or she doesn't know what's coming next.

Home To Current's home page

Document: Bill Siemering's 1970 essay on NPR's purposes described an ideal for ATC and for much of public radio.

Later news

Later news: Kern succeeds Weiss as executive producer of ATC, 2001.

Later news Later news: NPR brings in two new co-hosts, 2002.

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