Less than a month before NPR’s All Things Considered made its May 3, 1971, debut, then–Director of Programming Bill Siemering figured he should give the 90 public radio stations that had agreed to air the program some idea of what they were about to get.
“We only had a studio a month before we went live,” Siemering told me in a recent interview, thus there was no opportunity to create a pilot program for stations to hear ahead of time. Instead, he wrote and sent out a 13-page memo. “That was the closest thing to a pilot, I guess.”
The typewritten memo — which has not been digitized until now — consisted of a characteristically (for Siemering) grandiose and idealistic vision for the show, followed by three sample show rundowns and a sample form with which stations could pitch stories.
In the memo, Siemering devotes many sentences to talking up the people he’d hired from The New York Times and the show’s planned editorial relationship with The Christian Science Monitor. In retrospect, he said, the effusiveness of his praise for these newspaper journalists was in response to concerns raised by Siemering’s colleagues. Some didn’t understand why he was bringing in print people instead of radio people.
Siemering wanted ATC to have serious journalistic credibility, he said, “and for the most part, a lot of the radio journalists didn’t have that kind of depth — in all fairness — at that time.” Disagreements about this hiring strategy may have played a role in then-NPR President Don Quayle’s decision to fire Siemering in December 1972 (despite the fact that ATC had just won a Peabody Award).
The show that Siemering described in the memo turned out to be rather different from the one that ultimately aired and evolved over the years. For example, Siemering promised that the show would have no regular segments and no standardized clock other than one optional cutaway. He also envisioned a much greater role for local station journalists than was initially feasible.
“We thought we would have a lot more stuff from stations, and some of that that came in was really bad,” he said. “Sometimes we’d rework it and put it on, but it wasn’t really exemplary, shall we say?”
In all, though, Siemering’s memo crystallized much of the philosophical and creative impulse behind the birth of American public broadcasting, and its spirit can arguably still be felt in ATC today.
NATIONAL PUBLIC RADIO
TO: Member Stations DATE: April 8, 1971
FROM: William H. Siemering
SUBJECT: Some Things To Consider About ALL THINGS CONSIDERED…
Public broadcasting has always, as Robert Frost wrote, taken the road “less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.” Even though that is understood in developing the NPR program service, it is only natural to try to anticipate that it will sould [sic] like something familiar (the first automobiles were referred to as horse-less carriages). This memo is designed to help define the nature of the difference and give a more specific idea of the kinds of materials you might expect on the initial service. “ALL THINGS CONSIDERED…” will be different not for the sake of being different, but because events of recent years and vacuums left by other media have helped to define the kind of alternate service which the NPR board has articulated and endorsed. Philosophically, there is no need to repeat an existing service. Defining media roles is not comparable to merchandising identical consumer products, though all too often it is thought of in these terms. We do not look to MacDonalds [sic] for the quintessence of fine food just because they have sold 7 billion hamburgers. In practical journalistic terms, there is also a need for a different approach to broadcast journalism. Harry Ashmore, the award-winning editor of the Atlanta Constitution expressed it well:
“The volume of what purports to be information and commentary available to the public has been steadily increasing as a result of the communications revolution. Yet perhaps the most conspicuous aspect of the contemporary media is their massive redundancy. In print and on the air reporters and commentators march in lockstep as they overblow each issue as it arises, and treat the most complex matters in terms of a personality cult — a process that can only result in anesthetizing the public through overexposure.
In the underlying philosopy [sic], the program service has been articulated in the purposes and goals of NPR. Translated into practical program terms, this means:
- Giving the individual a more human view of his environment.
- Going to primary sources whenever possible.
- Plowing new ground of investigative broadcast journalism.
- Use the medium in a natural way which will give public radio an identity in its own right.
We have talked about the need for having program sources come from various states of the union, but, of equal importance, is the state of mind or consciousness of the people. One of the values of multiple sources of origination is that there are multiple perspectives of a given event. A story on the life of a lumberjack can much more accurately be presented from KWSU talking with lumberjacks in their community, rather than having someone from New York or Washington spending the day in Pullman. One of the problems of following the personality cult that Ashmore refers to is that these people are frequently far removed from primary experience. It does not mean that we would ignore “names” because they are names, but we would use them selectively because of their own particular expertise.
None of us can possibly have all the kinds of primary experiences we need to do our job sensitively, and each of our perceptions of reality are limited by our own primary experiences, but the fidelity of other realities in society is severly [sic] compromised as it goes through the various filtering processes to a general audience. I was reminded of this recently when I heard a university psychiatrist describe changes in student culture to a group of alumni. How much better it would have been for the alumni to listen to three or four students instead of having their life interpreted.
We want to capitalize on the flexibility of the radio medium, and, therefore, will not have regular features aside from the element of international and national news. No two programs will be alike, because each will be responding to a fresh set of circumstances and events.
The program will have, then, these elements as the matrix:
- a unity of people, events, ideas, natural to the unique characteristics of the medium, growing out of the need to present a reality which is believable to all segments of the total population.
- people will be valued and treated with respect and positive regard and not as adversaries by program staff.
- the listener will have a sense of reality, of authentic people sharing the human experience with emotional openness.
- each unit will be related to the whole, with form following function, division of time growing out of content rather than arbitrary walls evenly spaced between units.
If we are to come up with a new sound and have a new approach to media, it is necessary to have a different mix of people involved in the programming. On the one hand, it is essential that we have the highest standards of broadcast journalism, and, on the other hand, to have fresh perspectives and new sources of program ideas. I believe one of the most serious handicaps to radio journalism in the past, and, unfortunately, public radio is not exempt from this, has been the absence of first-rate journalists in critical roles of editors. Very rarely is there any guidance in developing stories and in making sure that they are fleshed out properly, that the right questions are asked, and the right people are contacted. This is a discipline common to newspapers, but uncommon to broadcasters. Robert Conley, the managing editor and host has had ten years experience in this environment on The New York Times, and three years with NBC as foreign correspondent for Huntley/Brinkley. The news editor is Cleve Mathews who has had experience as a reporter on The St. Louis Post Dispatch and editor in the Washington bureau of The New York Times. I am confident these two men will be able to provide this solid journalistic base and guarantee the integrity of the news operation.
The rest of the staff, who’s [sic] biographies will be sent to you shortly, are a combination of those who have had broadcast experience or bring a fresh perspective to broadcasting from another field closely related to the content areas of our concern. We will also have a variety of free lance reporters, since our Washington staff will be relatively small in relation to the volume of material to be processed. For example, the daybook on February 24 in Washington showed about 38 reasonable assignments. These included 15 congressional hearings, two White House briefings, a John Mitchell conference on drugs, a Laird conference on Vietnam, and conferences with Ralph Abernathy and the president of the National Farmers Union. There also was the opening session of the National Governors Conference.
We have made arrangements with the overseas department of the BBC to supply us with a fifteen minute weekday feed on the cable, of stories that may be of interest to us using their correspondents and commentators. We will send them a telex of the major areas we are interested in and indicate what segments of their feed we used and so we will gradually develop a fruitful working relationship. They will include items of science and the arts, as well as analysis and comment. In addition, they will supply us with their TOPICAL Tapes, some of which we can distribute on line, and the rest through the library service. [Editor’s note: BBC “TOPICAL Tapes” were evergreen programs that the BBC distributed via cassette to supplement its live feeds. By “on line,” Siemering was referring to realtime distribution via NPR’s telephone-based connection to stations, not the Internet.]
We have established a working arrangement with The Christian Science Monitor to use their stringers and reporters around the world. The Monitor is a highly regarded independent national newspaper, which also has regional editions. Their editorial staff is willing to provide substantial assistance in identifying their best reporters, briefing them on what we would need, and having them get in touch with us, as well as being available to provide editorial background to stories we may be working on. Since WGBH has a direct line to their editorial offices, this is a further convenience. Their deadlines also mesh perfectly with ours, since their reporters are free to make contributions to NPR after 2:00 p.m.
To help give you a further idea of the way in which the program may flow, we are enclosing three mock-ups of “ALL THINGS CONSIDERED…” It should be born [sic] in mind that these are intended as exercises that were done before we had our wire services installed (Associated Press, Reuters, Agence France-Presse), before our full compliment of staff was on the ground and before we were receiving regular inputs from you. So, to some extent, it had to be based on a number of assumptions and dependent on commercial news sources. They are intended to illustrate how the program may sould [sic] on a heavy news day and on days that are less tied to conventional hard news. At the suggestion of a manager, we are providing a national, international news portion lead-in to the optional local cutaway at 53 minutes into the program. The continuation of this material will not be of an inferior nature in any way, but may consist more of commentary so that stations could give local news and still feel that the main national and internation [sic] stories were given mention earlier. This is the only fixed portion of the program.
Your letters about your communities and stations are superb. Copies are made of them and distributed to all staff who are concerned with program development. We encourage those of you who have not written to do so.
As you and your staff have story ideas, just write it up like the attached sample and send it in. For something faster breaking, call the News Desk. Please mail all story ideas to Cleve Mathews in the News Desk.
The program will have a life unto itself, and, as such, will always be in a state of growth and a state of becoming. It will depend upon you for nourishment, but will give the listener a quality of life.
Related stories from Current:
- The Pub #49: Bill Siemering, author of NPR’s 1970 mission statement
- Personal stories “are not there anymore” on NPR newsmags, Siemering says
- Bill Siemering on radio, “a source of information and imagination”