How public radio has ‘far exceeded’ Bill Siemering’s vision

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Siemering discusses public broadcasting at a 1987 House oversight hearing.

Siemering discusses public broadcasting at a 1987 House oversight hearing.

Bill Siemering is perhaps best known as the founding program director of NPR and the author of its Walt Whitman–esque mission statement, still a source of inspiration for public media today. But Siemering’s career in public radio and community media extends well beyond his time at NPR. He discussed the arc of his career in an April interview on WFIU in Bloomington, Ind., with Adam Ragusea, host of Current’s podcast The Pub. In this second of two parts, Siemering looks back at his time at WHYY in Philadelphia and his transition into fostering community media outside the U.S. (Read the first part.)

Ragusea: Your next stop, you eventually landed at WHYY in Philadelphia in a top leadership position. And did you hire Terry Gross?

Siemering: Terry was [there] when I came. She had been in Buffalo, but we hadn’t worked together. When I came to Philadelphia, Terry Gross was doing Fresh Air as a three-hour live program. And often the person that was being interviewed would say, “You know, that’s one of the best interviews I’ve ever had.” And I’d say, yeah, she’s really good.

So over time, we evolved into creating a national program, with different elements, of course, and tightening it up and getting a larger staff. And the idea was, at that time there was some unrest about stations saying they wanted All Things Considered to start at 4 instead of 5. We were starting it at 5, which is early enough for reporters to file stories, and some of the staff at NPR weren’t keen about moving a deadline up even earlier. So I said, well, why don’t we make Fresh Air as a national program, kind of like the arts section or the magazine section of the newspaper, where you deal with arts and interviews, book reviews, leading up to All Things Considered.

So we designed it that way, with the longer interviews in the first half hour, the second half hour, the shorter interviews, so you could jump from one program to the other, if you will, without any feeling that there was a shift. In fact we had built in a live two-way conversation with the host of All Things Considered, so Terry about 50 minutes into the program would say, “So, Robert Siegel, what do you have on All Things Considered tonight?” And he’d give the rundown. So it sounded like it was seamless, like he was just in the next studio and dropped by, even though he was in Washington and she was in Philadelphia.

Anyway, so that worked quite well that way, and Fresh Air had an excellent audience. Then it was moved back, and there was still more pressure and NPR did move the start of All Things Considered to 4 o’clock Eastern time.

Ragusea: This is the late ’70s?

Siemering: This is more early ’80s. I came to Philadelphia in ’78.

Ragusea: You have been banished from NPR after helping to give birth to it. Your creation has fired you and you’ve put yourself back together again, and here you are in Philadelphia, and you launch Fresh Air. And it is arguably the most important national show on public radio stations that’s not produced by National Public Radio in Washington. Was this sort of a personal victory for you? Was it almost a vengeance?

Siemering: [laughs] No, no, I didn’t carry that around with me. I did want to prove that I could run a radio station and be a good administrator and develop a good program. I should say, you know, you were very generous in your introduction, Adam, and so on, but really I think whatever talent I have is mainly just hiring good people, trying to see their gifts, and managing as I would like to be managed, which means being left alone as much as possible and, you know, have a clear job description, know what I’m supposed to do, be left alone to do it and bring as much as I can to it. But I wasn’t creating something by myself. I created, with the staff, All Things Considered. Created with Terry Gross and Danny Miller Fresh Air as a national program. It’s all a collaboration, you know.

Ragusea: … You then kind of had a wilderness period. You found yourself unemployed in midlife. What happened?

Siemering: I was [laughs] forced out of my job at WHYY. I had just started Fresh Air as a national program and a local program called Radio Times, which is also very popular, to kind of replace what Fresh Air was doing locally. And I wanted to stay in the area. So I did take a job — there wasn’t anything right in Philadelphia, so I took a job at WJHU at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore to be the executive producer of a new documentary series called Soundprint. And so I did that for about five years.

Siemering, then e.p. of Soundprint, and producer Larry Massett work on a program in the studios at Baltimore’s WJHU.

Siemering, then e.p. of Soundprint, and producer Larry Massett work on a program in the studios at Baltimore’s WJHU.

And then that job ended. And I was looking for work and not succeeding very well. So I did get a gig to go over to South Africa in 1993 to talk to folks that were interested in reforming the state broadcasting, SABC, the year prior to the election so there would be fair coverage leading up to the election. And there was also a group of people that wanted to talk about community radio because it was part of the liberation struggle, giving a voice to the voiceless.

So I went over to do that and came back, and I was really quite taken with South Africa and this opportunity there, and it was very familiar, in a way, with what I had done in Buffalo in a small way — giving a voice to the voiceless again.

So I wasn’t getting any money for anything I was doing, so I signed up to be a driver for a car service from the airport …

Ragusea: You’re kidding.

Siemering: … and was waiting for my assignment, and I got a call from the MacArthur Foundation. And they said that I had this fellowship. So I didn’t need to drive a car service.

Ragusea: The fellowship you’re referring to is known commonly as the MacArthur “genius” grant, and it’s one of the most prestigious things that anyone can get.

Siemering: I must correct you — I’m not a genius. … The foundation never calls it that.

Ragusea: Oh, I know. It is commonly known as the genius grant, and I’m going to call you a genius whether you want to be a genius or not. And this was a big chunk of change that you could use however you saw fit. That’s one of the things about these grants, they just give it to you. There’s no strings attached like a normal grant. But you chose to invest it into the creation of this nonprofit.

Siemering: This enabled me to work overseas and make the transition from U.S. to international work, and I worked then with the Soros Foundation, or the Open Society Foundation, in South Africa. They were just starting there, and I said, well, if you’re interested in community radio as one of your priorities, let me know. And they said, yeah, we are, actually. So I set up the guidelines for them in organized training programs and things like that with the foundation and worked in Southern Africa. Then I was hired as a consultant and then full-time staff. After my foundation grant ran out, I was working in Eastern Europe and even Mongolia to help develop independent media.

And then when that job ended, I wasn’t fired, but the job, the position ended. I felt that in my work overseas, I realized how important radio was and undervalued. And so I thought we need to focus on radio as this wonderful medium of not only information but of discussion. It’s not only the vertical, bringing information to people, but it is the discussion where people change their ideas or they get information to change their behavior, things like that. And it’s the dominant medium in Africa and in developing countries.

Ragusea: It’s the most affordable medium there is.

Siemering: Yes, it’s the most accessible. Both accessible to hear and to participate in. You don’t even have to be literate, you know. If you have something to say and say it well, you can be on the radio. And so it’s just another example of my love affair with radio, and to see it being used, I have to go halfway around the world where it’s still the most important medium, in Mongolia or Southern Africa.

So then I created Developing Radio Partners in response to this need to capitalize on the unique strengths of radio as a tool for development.

Ragusea: And you’re still doing that today.

Siemering: Absolutely. … Basically, our case is that we bring the most important information and development to those hardest to reach, using the most effective medium. And that’s radio, along with SMS …

Ragusea: Text messaging.

Siemering: Yeah. We enrich the programming of local radio stations by giving them, first, a workshop on the science and background of content. It might be women’s health, or climate change. And we send them weekly bulletins on these topics that they can use in their own programming. We give them money for community activity. We send a mentor around to help improve their skills. And that’s kind of the basic template that we use. We’re now working in Zambia, Cape Verde, Rwanda and Cameroon, basically on climate change. And the case there is simply that while climate change is global, the solutions really are often local, and they begin with knowledge, which is best transferred by the most effective medium, radio. So it’s a simple case.

Ragusea: … How old are you as we speak? You’re in your early ’80s?

Siemering: I’m 81.

Ragusea: Are you slowing down at all?

Siemering: Not really. I mean, I work out of my home, so I’m always at home and always at work, you know. But … I have a succession plan, so within the next year I will have a lesser role in the organization.

Ragusea: You had a very happy day a few months ago where the current editorial leadership of NPR in Washington invited you back to this organization that you’ve helped create, this organization that cast you off rather cruelly soon after you helped create it. And they brought you back because they wanted to hear you talk about your original vision for NPR, so that NPR could reconnect with its original vision, and you read from a little bit of that wonderful mission statement that you wrote, that beautiful, idealistic vision for what public radio could be. And it was a wonderful recognition, I think, of your role in our field.

But as you look at NPR and public radio, public broadcasting writ large, today in the United States at least, do you think that it lives up to your original vision? … This is the first paragraph from that mission statement: “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.” And I’m choking up as I’m reading this because it’s so beautiful. Has it lived up to that expectation?

Siemering: Oh yes, I mean, it’s just a marvelous thing that we have in this country, public radio as a whole, and with these new platforms, it’s a golden age, if you will, for independent producers to get their work out and their voices heard. Because as the world has become more complex, the news has pretty much elbowed out those more reflective pieces that we might have included in the early days of All Things Considered. And so from that point of view, you just stop and think of the marvelous reporting that you hear on NPR. It’s just extraordinary. It’s really the best in broadcast, and it’s acknowledged that way.

Ragusea: And one of your visions early on was that NPR would rely heavily on its local stations to get a local perspective on the news. And the sad reality was that back in the early days, in the ’70s, the reporting capacity at the local stations was just very weak. And there weren’t strong pieces for you to air when you were running All Things Considered in the beginning. Now wonderful stations like WFIU submit an enormous amount of incredibly high-quality, on-the-ground reporting from across the country that makes up a big percentage of Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and that really is something to be celebrated.

Siemering: Yes. And I think that NPR developed this style — the people that I hired did this, I didn’t do it — they developed the style of reporting that became kind of known as a public radio style, the sound to enrich the programming. My idea was that if you capitalize on the unique strengths of radio, which is a sound medium, storytelling medium, you’ll get a larger audience, you know, and if you have diverse voices on the air, you’ll have a diverse audience listening to it. So what happened was, I think that then the stations could hear examples of really good broadcast journalism, and they could emulate that and say, yeah, we can do that locally.

Ragusea: Yeah, I think that’s exactly how it is. I’ve been at many a station where we are editing a piece and we hit an impasse, and we think, well, how would NPR handle that? It continues to set the standard, and then that standard is reflected back at NPR by the stations and advanced in many ways by the stations. The stations have a little bit more freedom to advance the form, and many crucial changes to the public radio sound have come from stations, most notably with This American Life at WBEZ in Chicago, something that completely changed the way that public radio sounds and shook it up and made it more of that conversational, intimate voice that you were hoping for back in the beginning, in the ’70s, and I think maybe got away from NPR a little bit. It became very formal, very top-down, relatively speaking, until Ira Glass got a hold of the model and shook it up a bit.

Siemering: And he did work at NPR.

Ragusea: Are there any disappointments for you as you look at the last 40 years of NPR? Any times where you feel like it hasn’t risen to your lofty vision for it?

Siemering: It’s so far exceeded what I envisioned, really, in so many ways. Sure, it would be nice to have more sound portraits or whatever within All Things Considered, Morning Edition, but it’s harder to do that with the pressure of the news, although there are wonderful examples of storytelling. So there is a lot of that kind of storytelling, and I want to give credit where credit is due on that.

There’s certainly no disappointment, but it’s only really gratitude for the way in which it works. I think everyone should be grateful that there is National Public Radio in this country, because it has this combination of different sources of revenue. Many public radio stations depend on over half their income from listeners. And that’s remarkable. Because you need programming that is significantly different and more meaningful in people’s lives than any other source for them to voluntarily give you money.

In Great Britain, you’re taxed for the BBC, you don’t have a choice. Here people have a choice. And it is by that free-will giving, if you will, of this gift that people receive that is so wonderful. And the far-reaching effect of programming is impossible to measure just by numbers.

But for example, I know, in Washington the few times I take a cab, it’s generally somebody from Africa, Ethiopian often, and they’re listening to public radio. And the cab drivers say, public radio’s our station. And NPR had an appreciation for the taxi drivers once. I had an immigrant from India say, you have no idea how important public radio is to the immigrant community, because that’s where we learn about American life. And so it’s not an elite service. It’s just extraordinary how varied it is, and the storytelling is just so fine.

Ragusea: Did you have any idea when you guys were in that office in 1970 that you were creating something that was going to be this big?

Siemering: You can’t foresee that, you know. But I did have this little kernel of a notion that I didn’t want it to be regarded as some alternative little side thing. That’s why I wanted to start at 5. I mean, the network news started later. I wanted it to be the very first broadcast record of the day’s events. And to reflect the culture of the time as well, so it wasn’t just hard news, if you will. It was really the new as well as the news. And we hear about that through the music, through the arts — the path by which we find the new.

So I never wanted to concede anything to the other broadcasts, because at that time the NewsHour on PBS came after the network news, as if to say, you’ve heard the big guys … but now we’ll give you the back story and put it all in a context so you can understand it. I didn’t want to have that role. I wanted to be first.

Ragusea: As you look to the future, and we see that media has been tremendously disrupted from the days that you first got into the business — print media most notably, but it’s starting to happen to radio. Ratings for terrestrial radio, over-the-air radio have been sinking. Even public radio has seen its ratings diminish a little bit. Competition from primarily online, on-demand audio. Audio is as popular as it’s ever been. These developments, how do you see them affecting your lifelong goals for public broadcasting? … Do you think that these new platforms are going to make it easier to realize that vision that you set in the mission statement long ago or harder?

Siemering: I think in the long run, it’ll be easier. It already is, because there are, as you pointed out, This American Life is celebrating the human experience with great emotional authenticity that I talked about. I think it’s a wonderful opportunity. There’s so much creativity with independent producers now. I think it’s an opportunity for it to really blossom in new ways. I think there’s always a place for broadcast, but I know many, many people your age or younger are also listening to it on streaming and not at the time it’s fed. But that’s fine. But they all are familiar with Fresh Air

Ragusea: Always one of the top 10 on iTunes, always. And that’s you, Bill, that’s you!

Siemering: That’s Terry, and Danny, and the wonderful staff.

Ragusea: They are wonderful, but I know for a fact that they give you a lot of credit. So last question. When Bill Siemering is is at home and wants to listen to something, what does he listen to?

Siemering: I’m listening to public radio.

Ragusea: Favorite shows?

Siemering: Oh, I better not say that. It’s like trying to single out a favorite child or something. Of course I listen to Fresh Air. Morning Edition. All Things Considered. This American Life. On the Media is a wonderful program. And I enjoyed Tell Me More. And The Takeaway with John Hockenberry.

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