Bill Siemering’s ‘National Public Radio Purposes’, 1970

Print More

Early in 1970, Bill Siemering — one of the organizers of National Public Radio and later its first program director — put together this “mission statement” for NPR. The statement supported NPR’s request for aid from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and went on to define the network’s first daily program, All Things Considered, which debuted May 3, 1971. 

Siemering in 1972

National Public Radio will serve the individual: it will promote personal growth; it will regard the individual differences among men 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.

National Public Radio, through live interconnection and other distribution systems, will be the primary national non-commercial program service. Public radio stations will be a source for programming input as well as program dissemination. The potentials of live interconnection will be exploited, the art and the enjoyment of the sound medium will be advanced.

In its cultural mode, National Public Radio will preserve and transmit the cultural past, will encourage and broadcast the work of contemporary artists and provide listeners with an aural esthetic experience which enriches and gives meaning to the human spirit.

In its journalistic mode, National Public Radio will actively explore, investigate and interpret issues of national and international import. The programs will enable the individual to better understand himself, his government, his institutions and his natural and social environment so he can intelligently participate in effecting the process of change.

The total service should be trustworthy, enhance intellectual development, expand knowledge, deepen aural esthetic enjoyment, increase the pleasure of living in a pluralistic society and result in a service to listeners which makes them more responsive, informed human beings and intelligent responsible citizens of their communities and the world.

Implementation of Goals

Such statements of purpose are only platitudes and good intentions unless there is the strong commitment, creative energy and specific strategy to implement them. The detailed implementation of National Public Radio is the responsibility of the President and his staff, but some priorities and suggested approaches are necessary to help answer the how and why of NPR.

The priorities of NPR program development:

1. Provide an identifiable daily product which is consistent and reflects the highest standards of broadcast journalism.

2. Provide extended coverage of public events, issues and ideas, and acquire and produce special public affairs programs.

3. Acquire and produce cultural programs which can be scheduled individually by stations.

4. Provide access to the intellectual and cultural resources of cities, universities and rural districts through a system of cooperative program development with member public radio stations.

5. Develop and distribute programs to specific groups (adult education, instructional, modular units for local productions) which meet needs of individual regions or groups.

6. Establish liaison with foreign broadcasters for a program exchange service.

7. Produce materials specifically intended to develop the art and technical potential of radio.


1. Provide an identifiable daily product which is consistent and reflects the highest standards of broadcast journalism.

Because National Public Radio begins with no identity of its own it is essential that a daily product of excellence be developed. This may contain some hard news, but the primary emphasis would be on interpretation, investigative reporting on public affairs, the world of ideas and the arts. The program would be well paced, flexible, and a service primarily for a general audience. It would not, however, substitute superficial blandness for genuine diversity of regions, values, and cultural and ethnic minorities which comprise American society; it would 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. The listener should come to rely upon it as a source of information of consequence; that having listened has made a difference in his attitude toward his environment and himself.

There may be regular features on consumer information, views of the world from poets, men and women of ideas and interpretive comments from scholars. Using inputs from affiliate stations, for the first time the intellectual resources of colleges and universities will be applied to daily affairs on a national scale.

Philosophically, time is measured by the intensity of experience. Waiting for a bus and walking through an art gallery may occupy the same time duration, but not the same time experience. 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. Represented in visual terms, the listener turning from a commercial station to National Public Radio should sense a difference as that between a shopper’s newspaper and Consumer Reports; Teen Magazine and Realites.

2. Provide extended coverage of public events, issues and ideas, and to acquire and produce special public affairs programs.

Broadcasting of public hearings and public affairs programs is not just a “good thing to do” but a necessity for citizens in a democratic society to be enlightened participants. The mechanistic instruction about government we all recall from civics classes ill prepares adults to know about the real legislative process and how to effect change. Political scientist Fred Newmann wrote:

By teaching that the constitutional system of the United States guarantees a benevolent government servicing the needs of all, the schools have fostered massive public apathy.

He believes the legalistic curriculum should be “balanced if not replaced by emphasis on the influence of personal motives and ambitions, emotions (envy, hate, love, pride), political debts, accidents and even honest mistakes in the formulation of public policy.” [Newmann, p. 545] This requires investigative reporting and citizen participation during the decision-making process. Broadcasts of public hearings are one of the best ways to hear the evidence presented on proposed legislation and public radio might develop some vehicle through local affiliates whereby citizens could indicate their judgment to the decision makers. This coverage need not be confined to Congressional Hearings but should apply to governmental regulatory agencies as well. If no government body is holding hearings on an important issue, National Public Radio could sponsor its own debate to help define the problem and suggest alternate solutions with the consequences of each explored.

Jack Gould, writing in the New York Times, testified that “radio retains the enormous virtue of complete unobtrusiveness.” In reviewing coverage of congressional hearings he wrote:

Television, commercial or noncommercial, says it can attend a hearing without causing any inconvenience; this is poppycock. The glaring lights needed by National Educational Television, . . . are a short cut to a raging headache when experienced morning and afternoon. The hearing room was bathed in artificial incandescence, little short of nuisance, and that some witnesses donned sun glasses more confirmed the annoyance.

Because the cost of radio coverage is one-tenth television coverage, Mr. Gould concluded “…it may well prove that radio will be the most economical and consistent means for uniting a citizen with his government in operation.”

National Public Radio, through public affairs programs, would not only call attention to a problem, but be an active agent in seeking solutions. Hiring of minorities in the construction trades, for example, is a complex social, racial problem. A thorough exposition by all sides would be instructive, but to enable persons struggling with this issue to speak on live radio with those who developed the Philadelphia Plan and Chicago Plan, could actually help solve the problem in many other communities and probably evolve a better solution.

Everyone is aware that stopping environmental pollution is critical for survival, but what can a single individual do to solve such a massive problem? Not use detergents? Picket the local steel plant? Organize — but for what, to do what? Obviously individuals and groups must solve this, and shared information and cross fertilization of ideas by live national radio could do much to speed the process.

3. Acquire and produce cultural programs which can be scheduled individually by stations.

Susan Sontag wrote, “Art today is a new kind of instrument, an instrument for modifying consciousness and organizing sensibility.” Art is no longer a pleasant pastime for a social elite, but at the core of contemporary life. Understanding is both more essential and more difficult. Without adequate background, the artist’s message is frequently unintelligible and we wander as one in the forest unfamiliar with trail markings, unable to “read” the environment. With the rapidity of change and decline of local theaters and orchestras there is an equal need to preserve and transmit the culture of the past. As the arts become less of a social occasion and more of a personal experience, the role of radio as a creator and transmitter should increase.

National Public Radio might use any of the following to make the arts understandable and engaging.

  • Listeners could gain a contemporary view of the world through the eyes of a sensitive writer. National competitions might be held to encourage new radio writers.
  • Encourage, and provide facilities for leading writers of fiction and dramatists to prepare new materials for radio.
  • Standards of the radio art could be improved by broadcasting regular criticisms of the medium.
  • Young people could be introduced to the beauty of the medium through materials prepared for in-school listening. Writers of children’s books could be commissioned to write for radio.
  • Work cooperatively with National, State and local councils on the arts and international agencies in developing greater understanding and appreciation of the arts. For example, reproductions collected from around the country of a period or school of art could be printed and distributed through local stations. Leading art historians could lead the listener viewer through the book in a broadcast series.
  • Stimulate local symphony orchestras, through national broadcasts. Rather than a series of the New York Philharmonic, there could be a concert series with a different local orchestra each week performing what it does best.
  • Compose and perform new works live across the country.
  • Use the products of the National Center for Audio Experimentation at the University of Wisconsin as a contemporary esthetic experience and to help give the service a unique identifiable sound.
  • A sense of the cultural diversity could be achieved by programs featuring the music of the different ethnic groups across the country.
  • Competitions could be sponsored to encourage new artistic uses of the medium and to improve the quality of the product.

4. Provide access to the intellectual and cultural resources of cities, universities and rural districts through a system of cooperative program development with member public radio stations.

One of the unique aspects of National Public Radio is that each member station will have the potential of being an originator of programs as well as a transmitter; it will be national in input as well as distribution. Since the majority of member stations are part of large universities or near urban areas, for the first time the best intellectual resources of the country will be able to he effectively used, quickly and easily, on a national scale. Many Americans probably know only of one anthropologist, Margaret Mead, and one historian, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. Individual stations may contribute short actualities, an interview of national interest, segments of a longer special program, a complete program or program series or help to arrange for a live discussion of one specialist with another in a distant city. Stations should receive appropriate compensation for their contributions.

Initially, many stations may lack the skilled personnel or experience for some of the tasks necessary to implement this goal. Workshops for production personnel should be provided so that standards of excellence can be established and maintained. A significant by-product of this goal will be the considerable upgrading of staff and service of many local public radio stations.

5. Develop and distribute programs for specific groups (adult education, instruction, modular units for local productions) which may meet needs of individual regions or groups, but may not have general national relevance.

The implementation of this priority will provide needed diversity of programming to audiences presently served by some but not all public radio stations. Through a tape distribution system, programs from the national production center could be supplied to the public radio stations without live interconnection service, as well as special interest programs to member stations. Even though some stations lack the staff and facilities to use the live network service, they should receive a program service from National Public Radio which can help strengthen their schedule and local service. The tape service could include special documentaries and cultural programs produced by member stations, the National Public Radio production center, off air recordings of network programs, and materials acquired from foreign sources.

Most public radio stations have developed several distinct program services for specific audiences: farmers, elderly, blind, low income, youth. These efforts could be furthered and supplemented by NPR production on a national basis.

The largest specialized audience programming has been instructional programs for in-school listening and continuing professional education. Hundreds of thousands of youngsters presently receive enrichment programs by radio and while many of these must be designed for local school district curricula, some live (a daily news background program for elementary pupils) and taped programs drawn from national resources could strengthen this important service. Similarly, the group of stations now providing in-service training for health related professions could be expanded and used to disseminate vital timely information to key health centers across the country. An increasing number of stations will be developing instructional programming on the side channel of FM (SCA) while broadcasting general audience programs on the main channel. With the unique technical versatility of radio two different program services can be offered simultaneously.

Programs in the “by and for” specific cultural, ethnic minorities category could be developed. For example, there could be a linkup of stations in urban areas with sizeable non-white audiences, or student groups studying ecology, or groups with distinct lifestyles and interests not now served by electronic media. As man pulls himself out of the mass society to develop his unique humanness, his minority identification (ethnic, cultural, value) becomes increasingly important. This diversity is partially reflected in print media, but has not been manifested in the electronic. A few of these growing interests are reflected in the comparative circulation figures for the periodicals listed below. The figures are taken from Ayer’s Directories based upon the previous year’s circulation.

American Home
Art in America
Better Nutrition
Business Week
Down Beat
High Fidelity
Home and Garden
National Geographic
New York Review of Books
Sierra Club (Conservation)
Village Voice

In order to provide minorities access to the medium, it is not only important to establish the identity of that group, but essential if the total population is to understand and appreciate the interdependence of pluralism. In addition to the cognitive information, these programs should help supply what Warren Bennis calls the “need for affective education — the cultivation of competence in the emotional and interpersonal.”

National Public Radio could also supply modular program units to network stations which could be used in local news and public affairs programs. For example, there may be congressional testimony on pollution problems in Lake Michigan which would be of interest to stations in that region. There may be interviews with persons from a specific region or about regional issues. Some of the material may be in rough form, outs of national productions or actualities for local newscasts.

6. Establish liaison with foreign broadcasters for a program exchange service.

Although presently overwhelmed by domestic problems, the individual’s role as a citizen of the world should not be overlooked. International programs can be a source of cultural enrichment and an effective means to further understanding among peoples around the world. The speed and volume of international travel, economic interdependence among nations makes this area of programming more important than ever. In time/space, New York now is closer to Asia than it was to Washington, D.C. at the turn of the century; a plane can travel from New York to London in the same time as an automobile or train travels across New York State. We not only learn more about other peoples through international programs, but also more about ourselves through the eyes of a distant observer.

Contact can be established with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, British Broadcasting Corporation, Australian Broadcasting Commission and other international sources for acquisition of programs of common interest.

In addition to the cultural fare usually associated with international programs, there could be live interconnected broadcasts on aspects of foreign policy and problems of common concern–development of the north country of Canada, ecology of Lakes Erie and Ontario, balance of payments, etc. National Public Radio could also be a primary resource for programs on U.S. life for distribution to foreign broadcasters.

7. Produce materials specifically intended to develop the art and technical potential of radio.

There should be a close working relationship with the National Center for Audio Experimentation at the University of Wisconsin to apply the principles discovered there to the art of broadcasting. Improving the art of the sound medium should be an on-going concern at the production center just as newspapers and magazines constantly improve the format and appearance of their medium. The technical staff will be concerned with new developments in studio and remote equipment and the transmission of material by satellite. National Public Radio should utilize the most advanced techniques of the medium, should introduce new concepts and have the highest technical standards in the field.

Godfrey Featherstone, writing in the British publication Anarchy suggests some of the potentials:

Using sounds alone, with no imposed pictures or rigid, linear print tending to fragment and narrow thought processes and imagination, can stimulate a habit of thinking in terms of dynamic complexes of ideas or far-reaching constellations or “fields” of imagery. Sound can tap the flow and structures of feelings of ordinary people if they speak directly for themselves about their lives’ central experiences in actuality is made fuller, complex, concrete through the tone, pace, rhythm, and stress of their speech … Skillfully, tactfully and simply relating actuality material to song, Charles Parker’s Radio Ballads … about the efforts, strengths, risks, hardships discriminating wisdom rooted inmost people’s working lives did this with an impact greater than a multitude of political propaganda efforts.

National Public Radio should not only improve the quality of public radio, but should lead in revitalizing the medium of radio so that it may become a first class citizen in the media community.

Document provided by Jack Mitchell, University of Wisconsin. Photo courtesy of

4 thoughts on “Bill Siemering’s ‘National Public Radio Purposes’, 1970

  1. Pingback: NPR Purposes : HearVox

  2. Pingback: Transom » A Brief History of Documentary Forms

  3. Pingback: [BLOCKED BY STBV] ANSWERS VERSUS WALNUT BRAINS . . . OCTOBER 31- NOVEMBER 6, 2014 - Climate Today

  4. Pingback: Sounding Like A Reporter — And A Real Person, Too – AKANews – Featured Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *