John Seigenthaler, the legendary newspaper editor and Kennedy family confidante who died July 11 at the age of 86 due to complications from colon cancer, was also a venerable presence on public TV.
Concurrent with his decades as editor and publisher of the Tennessean and founding editorial director of USA Today, the Nashville resident hosted the Nashville Public Television book-interview program A Word on Words with John Seigenthaler as a volunteer for 42 years. From the show’s inception in 1972 until his death, he talked to a diverse array of authors on NPT for the half-hour show.
Seigenthaler developed the idea for the show after visiting NPT’s studios for an interview about his 1971 book, A Search for Justice. A voracious reader and veteran interviewer, Seigenthaler wanted to sit in the host’s chair himself.
Every year, Seigenthaler taped episodes in advance to air weekly on NPT. He often concluded his interviews with authors by telling them to return after writing their next books. For the 2012-13 season, Seigenthaler recorded 48 episodes, more than NPT had slots for. Before his death, he recorded enough interviews to keep the show airing new episodes until the end of September.
“I would advise authors to reread their own books in preparation for John’s interview,” said Greta Requierme, who has produced the program for NPT since 2009. “He would typically have three or four pages of very small notes [per book], so that would make each guest kind of sit forward in their chair.”
“He read every book, much to the surprise of the authors, who were not used to that much attention and respect,” said Kevin Crane, v.p. of content and technology at NPT and e.p. of A Word on Words, in a statement from the station.
In addition to A Word on Words, Seigenthaler also intermittently hosted a local public-affairs program, One on One with John Seigenthaler, for NPT. His front-row seat to many historical events, including the Freedom Riders bus protests supporting racial integration in the South, made him a natural interview subject for PBS documentaries, including Eyes on the Prize and American Experience’s documentary about the Freedom Riders.
Outside of pubTV, Seigenthaler built up a sizeable reputation in journalism. During his time at the Tennessean, he pushed the paper to become one of the first to cover the civil-rights movement, encouraged a young Al Gore to enter politics and took leaves of absence to pursue his own work in politics as a member of the Kennedy family’s trusted inner circle.
When I arrived in Nashville at what was then WDCN (a long suffering school board station that became independent in 1999), John Seigenthaler was one of the first people I sought out for advice. Wise, connected, and always willing to help, he became an important friend, supporter and mentor. He’s one of those people with whom many disagree but almost no one had anything but respect and admiration for him and what he did for Nashville (and beyond). When we first met, he was about 70 and told me that he wanted to “slow down” a bit. For John, this evidently meant cutting back the number of 30 minute programs he would host from 20 to 16 during the weekend when the Southern Festival of Books was occurring. An incredible man whom I was fortunate to know, and I’m appreciative for this article that highlights the contributions he made for so long on WDCN and then Nashville Public Television.