Read this shockingly prescient 1970 mission statement for the precursor to NPR’s ‘Fresh Air’

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Siemering's 1970 document, with his handwritten additions.

Picture an American public riven by ideological divide, tribalized within hyperpartisan media echo chambers, marching either behind or in opposition to a president who regards journalists among his greatest foes, and in desperate need of a universally trusted voice of reason to restore civil discourse and foster mutual understanding.

It sounds like a description of the United States in 2018, but it’s actually from the 1970 proposal for a then-new local radio show in Buffalo, N.Y., that would be the precursor to NPR’s Fresh Air. The document, authored by NPR founding father Bill Siemering, is the draft of a funding request he either submitted or intended to submit (he doesn’t remember if he actually sent it) to CPB, seeking a grant to support his vision for a program called, simply, This Is Radio. This is the first time his proposal has been published.

Charles Rice

Siemering at Mosi-oa-Tunya, Zimbabwe.

As is typical for a work by Siemering — who shortly before writing this had authored NPR’s legendary original mission statement — this document is a discursive, unabashedly sincere and idealistic philosophical treatise on the moral imperatives of media in society. Indeed, before he gets to the approximately 700-word proposal for what This Is Radio would be, he presents an 800-word–plus introduction arguing why it should be.

“[P]eople are becoming compartmentalized in their information inputs, selecting out those sources which reinforce their beliefs,” Siemering wrote, referencing the social divides of the Vietnam War and civil rights eras. “In the absence of any agreed upon objective truth, there are growing myths, rumors and fears.”

Siemering wrote this funding application while he was still managing WBFO, the campus radio station at SUNY Buffalo. He was hot off his experience directing and anchoring the station’s live coverage of campus riots in February 1970, when police responded to sometimes violent student demonstrations with tear gas.

“The newspapers often did not accurately report or comprehend the protests,” said Fresh Air host Terry Gross in a recent email exchange we had about this document, which Siemering unearthed, copied and mailed to both of us. Gross attended SUNY Buffalo at the time of the riots, she said, and while she didn’t yet work for WBFO at the time, her understanding is that This Is Radio was “a way of responding to that [poor newspaper coverage] with reporting and dialogue in a radio safe-space.”

Siemering’s approach worked, according to The Buffalo Courier-Express’ Jack Allen, who wrote in April of 1970 that WBFO’s coverage of the unrest was “a beacon of light and reason amid the passionate and intemperate voices which scream from all sides of the political spectrum.” (Thanks to SUNY Buffalo Special Collections Librarian Daniel DiLandro for turning up that clip.)

In describing WBFO’s interviews with the people involved in the demonstrations and the law enforcement response, Siemering wrote in this 1970 funding application that “our attitude was more like that of a counselor trying to have an individual share his perception of reality than an interrogating journalist.”

“After the disorders, for four hours each day, instead of the regular programs, we simply said THIS IS RADIO… and had interviews (recorded and live) press conferences, talks, news reports and a mixture of musical styles,” he wrote, proposing to apply the same freeform, inclusive approach to a new regular WBFO program that would air weekdays, 2–4 p.m.

“I thought this could be an opportunity to make real some of the values I wrote about in the NPR mission,” Siemering told me in a recent email exchange. Frustrated that radio was not getting its due respect compared to other media at the time, Siemering recalled, “I was saying, ‘This Is Radio! Damnit! Pay attention! This is what radio can do!’”

In his proposal to CPB, Siemering envisioned an ambitious production. As with his 1971 vision statement for NPR’s All Things Considered, much of what he hoped for did not immediately come to fruition, but seeds of his ideas would later sprout far and wide.

For example, he imagined that This Is Radio would make use of “at least one permanent and one portable listening post” — a physical box with instructions for how a passerby could request a conversation with a local government official, or perhaps a member of an unfamiliar social group, and how they could have an on-air conversation there; perhaps “someone trained in counselling might join the group to help both parties (and the listeners) develop greater sensitivity to interpersonal relationships.” This Is Radio never actually had listening posts, but in recent years strikingly similar initiatives have been tried at Mercer University’s Center for Collaborative Journalism (where I work), New Orleans Public Radio, KUOW and WNYC.

Siemering launched This Is Radio without CPB funding in March 1970. He departed WBFO a few months later to become NPR’s first program director. Terry Gross would eventually host This Is Radio.

By the time Gross started working at WBFO in 1974, Gross recalled, “This Is Radio had become more of a magazine format, with long-form and short interviews on every topic, and sets of music (jazz, rock, folk, country, blues) in between.”

David Karpoff, who was WBFO’s program director when Gross came aboard, left shortly thereafter to be the PD at WUHY in Philadelphia, later called WHYY. He started a program there modeled on This Is Radio’s format and values called Fresh Air, which he would eventually hire Gross to host.

“I’m certain there would be no Fresh Air without This Is Radio,” Gross said. “I think Bill’s proposal was remarkably foresighted.”

I asked Siemering about the fractious society he described in this 1970 document — was it as bad then as it is today?

“It’s much worse now,” Siemering replied. “The three major television networks were the primary source of news, I think, so most people were getting essentially the same information. No one was calling the journalists ‘the enemy of the people’ and saying ‘They hate you.’”

Today, Siemering said, “While there are more sources for information, there are more sources for lies.”

Siemering’s typewritten draft proposal for This Is Radio is reproduced below, typos and all, with my annotations.

Adam Ragusea is a journalist in residence and visiting assistant professor at Mercer University’s Center for Collaborative Journalism, and he was the founding host of Current’s podcast The Pub.

INTRODUCTION

In spite of, or perhaps more accurately, because of the economic basis of mass media in America today, people are becoming compartmentalized in their information inputs, selecting out those sources which reinforce their beliefs. Vice President Agnew has effectively articulated the suspicions of many about network television and mass print publications[1]; to many young these same media represent the quintessence of a value system they strongly reject.

The possibility of objectivity, for years an unquestioned ideal of journalism, is seriously questioned by both sides. There are decreasing sources of information in which diverse peoples have faith. Public broadcasting should emerge as one of those sources.

In the absence of any agreed upon objective truth, there are growing myths, rumors and fears. There is an increase in non verbal (frequently non rational[2]) forms of communication which, though personal statements, do not contribute to shared understandings. The increased display of the flag is almost a substitute for thoughtful discussion about the ideals of America and how we as a people can make a more perfect union. In the same way students marching down the main street[3], groomed and dressed in a manner which is blatantly offensive to many, chanting, “One, two, three, four, we don’t want your fucking war”, are issuing an open invitation to meaningful dialogue. Both sides are saying in effect, “If you don’t agree with me, you are a (commie slob) (fascist pig); it is easy to hate you because your (degenerate, hedonistic) (immoral, materialistic, hypocritical) life style. You can see where I stand; I don’t want to even talk to you.” Discourse would modify, or in the eyes of some, weaken or compromise a position which has all the righteousness of a fundamentalist religion. In the insect world, some have protective coloring to escape detection, but others are colored with warning coloration which the predator associates with a bad taste; the predator would not like this insect; in like manner excessive displays of the flag and repugnent [sic] personal appearance are warnings. (on another level, this colorful display is a form of communication because an individual feels his views don’t have access to the mass media.)

Between these poles are many persons searching for new life styles which are more human, personal, natural. These new groupings may well prove a valued antidote to the technological strain upon the human spirit. There is danger that as these new value groups drop out of society, their new knowledge will go unshared. The reader of Business Week and American Legionnaire will not read The Seed or The Village Voice, or hear the voices of groups who have no access to print media. There is a tendency for some young people to reject conventional society to the degree that the Amish have; but the survival of a people depends upon a certain degree of sharing of accumulated divergencies [sic]. All groups need more direct access to media for this fruitful diffusion of ideas.

We are describing here the need for a programming concept, not a thirteen week series. Translated into an on the air product, the concept would have the following elements as the matrix:

1. Direct access to the medium by distinct different value oriented groups in a context which allows for an exchange of ideas and points of view.

2. An opportunity for people to learn more about their institutions and make the institutions more responsive to the people.

3. Sharing of knowledge of the University in a context which will be meaningful to the people

4. A programming format which will be engaging, flexible, and unique enough to hold the interest and maintain the credibility of a significant number of diverse peoples.

During the lengthy campus disorders, WBFO learned about radio, listeners and credibility[4]. In spite of extremely high emotions, as long as listeners heard some guests on the air expressing views close to their own at some time, WBFO had high credibility, and they would also listen to opposing views (usually presented in same program). This was in marked contrast to the traditional journalistic filtering of ideas which many feel results in distortion. As responsible broadcasters, we didn’t just provide access to the airwaves for broad range of viewpoints, but also clarified issues by selecting articulate spokesmen, providing a quiet setting, and through good discussion leader techniques of defining problems, questioning, restatement, and summation. Fundamental to our approach was an attitude psychologist, Carl Rogers describes as “unconditional positive regard” toward the guests[5]. We assumed they had a respectable point of view; our attitude was more like that of a counselor trying to have an individual share his perception of reality than an interrogating journalist.

We also discovered that radio is best when it is true to the nature of the medium, when it has immediacy, variety, spontaneity, respects people and ideas. After the disorders, for four hours each day, instead of the regular programs, we simply said THIS IS RADIO… and had interviews (recorded and live) press conferences, talks, news reports and a mixture of musical styles. With this experience behind us, we propose to expand and improve this concept with a grant of $25,000 from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

PROPOSAL

We propose to develop an organic programming concept growing out of the need for cross-cultural communication and capitalizing on the unique characteristics of public radio. This program, called THIS IS RADIO… will initially occupy four hours, from 2 – 4 p.m. Monday through Friday with excerpts reprocessed for a half hour newscast at 6:00 and longer portions rebroadcast at an evening hour. The content would consist of reports of events as they happen; interviews with people in the news; a bringing together of persons and their institutions and of differing political life style patterns with discussion of points of tension, and music.

THIS IS RADIO staff will meet twice a day for planning and evaluation. The first meeting will form the day’s schedule of committed segments and times, always allowing for the flexibility to change as events change. The afternoon bloc is chosen because that is the time period when most news develops and allows for the collection of other segments in the morning. The second meeting will plan the events of the following day(s). With priorities established and techniques of coverage (live in studio, recorded on location, related follow-up material etc.) and evaluation of the days program elements. There will be an awareness of the total rhythm of this time bloc and of the interrelationship of the elements. As Frank Lloyd Wright said of the organic house, every part should be a “thing of beauty in itself as related to the whole.” Emphasis would be placed upon immediacy, comprehensiveness, relevance, affective, as well as cognitive aspects of daily events.

In addition to the usual techniques of reporters assigned to cover public events, we propose to establish at least one permanent and one portable listening post, as well as our satellite facility in the Black community as a vehicle for allowing for greater citizen access to the medium.

One of these Listening Posts will be located in the Broadway Market, an enclosed series of independently operated fruit, meat and bakery stands in the heart of the Polish-American community. We propose to have an area consisting of a colorful painted sound shell with a round table, chairs, and some park benches. There would be a box with instructions on how to request an opportunity to meet there with some city, government, or university person. In addition to this input, someone living in that community will be employed part time to learn of community concerns, line up appropriate guests, and conduct the discussion. Local musical groups could also perform in this area. When there was a controversial speech or discussion on the air, there could be a group listening in this location, and when it was concluded, go there for a reaction. The informal natural setting will also be conducive to conversation when not on the air.

The programming from this location would not be purely ethnic, and for limited audience, but would be an exchange of differing points of view at pivotal areas of difference. The people from this community, for example, talking with an urban renewal commissioner, a director of a controversial university program, a representative of an alien youth culture. The interest for a broader audience would be this interchange. In the effective area, someone trained in counselling might join the group to help both parties (and the listeners) develop greater sensitivity to interpersonal relationships.

The portable listening post would be used to go to other locations in the city where there were specific issues of a general interest. WBFO would work with the Citizens Advisory Committee to help identify some of the locations for this portable unit.

Music would be an important part of the total programming period. One might think of it as mortar holding the blocs (blocks) in place; mortar must be a careful mixture of cement, sand and water. This music must be a careful blend of different musical types (classical, folk, rock, jazz) to hold the interest of a diverse audience. Attention would be paid to the total tempo of the different segments and commentary around the music would lead people to listen to a different musical form.[6]

Universities are on a front of turbulent air masses; they can not avoid this position, and must be actively engaged in sharing its resources with the community and listening closely to what that outside community is saying. Other institutions must also show greater responsiveness to the people and that includes the institution of public radio.

Footnotes

1. ^ President Richard Nixon’s vice president, Spiro Agnew, began a public campaign in 1969 to discredit critics of the Vietnam War, particularly those in the news media. While Agnew had not yet given his famous “nattering nabobs of negativism” speech at the time Siemering wrote this document, he had recently delivered a barn burner to a Republican Party gathering in Iowa in which he criticized television news media. “Nowhere in our system are there fewer checks on such vast power,” Agnew said, before describing network TV journalists as members of an elite club who “live and work in the geographical and intellectual confines of Washington, D.C., or New York City.” In reference to network coverage of a recent speech by Nixon intended to rally public support for the war, Agnew said, “The people of this country have the right to make up their own minds and form their own opinions about a presidential address without having the President’s words and thoughts characterized through the prejudices of hostile critics before they can even be digested.”

2. ^ Siemering inserted the word “frequently” with a handwritten note.

3. ^ This is a reference to anti–Vietnam War protests, which had grown particularly intense at SUNY Buffalo, earning the university the nickname “The Berkeley of the East.”

4. ^ While anti–Vietnam War demonstrations had occurred at SUNY Buffalo for years, the February 1970 unrest that Siemering references in this document began with a sit-in to protest racial inequalities in the university’s athletics department. Antiwar student groups joined in and someone threw rocks through the university president’s office windows, leading to days of violent clashes between students and police. Source: UB Today Article on Campus Unrest and Reader Reaction, 1968-2005, University Archives, State University of New York at Buffalo.

5. ^ Carl Rogers was an influential psychologist of the mid–20th century whose approach to psychotherapy has been compared to that of Fred Rogers’ approach to children’s television. He does not succinctly define this concept of “unconditional positive regard” in any of his writings, but in a 1957 journal article, he gives examples of the kinds of statements that a therapist might make in reference to a patient if the therapist is exhibiting unconditional positive regard: “I feel no revulsion at anything the client says”; “I feel neither approval nor disapproval of the client and his statements—simply acceptance”; “I feel warmly toward the client—toward his weaknesses and problems as well as his potentialities”; “I am not inclined to pass judgment on what the client tells me”; “I like the client.”

6. ^ Siemering appears to have handwritten the word “stress” next to the end of this sentence, but he doesn’t remember what he meant by that.

Read the original document:



This Is Radio Original (Text)

2 thoughts on “Read this shockingly prescient 1970 mission statement for the precursor to NPR’s ‘Fresh Air’

  1. This is utterly fascinating, thanks so much for pulling it together, Adam!

    One thing I wonder: this, of course, led to Fresh Air, one of the best interview shows in all of radio. That by itself is a good thing and positive outcome. But I wonder if one could be said if it actually had any impact on society? In other words, did the creation of This Is Radio/Fresh Air actually contribute…even if only in a small way…to making the societal discourse more rational, civil and/or “better”?

    Or did it just exist to help chronicle the discourse and provide an outlet, but it didn’t actually change anything…society changed itself and the show reflected that as time went on.

    This is not to say that if TIR/FA did not influence the society discussion that it “failed”. Far from it. I’m more interesting in knowing that if it DID, then how can we learn from that to operate public radio TODAY in the hopes of again modifying the societal discourse for the better? Lord knows it needs it.

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