Bill Siemering: ‘We are living in the new age of audio’

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Bill Siemering, a founding board member of NPR and celebrated author of its mission statement, was honored as Career laureate during the 70th annual George Polk Awards in journalism, presented Friday by Long Island University in New York City.

The award recognized Siemering as a “pioneering force in public radio,” citing his roles in defining goals for NPR’s radio service and bringing them to life in programs such as Fresh Air, which originated at WBFO in Buffalo, N.Y., when Siemering led the station; and NPR’s All Things Considered. While serving as NPR’s first program director in 1971, Siemering steered development and launch of the newsmagazine.

Later in his career, Siemering worked to establish independent radio stations internationally through Developing Radio Partners, a U.S.-based nonprofit media group he founded in the early 1990s.

Siemering gave these remarks upon receiving the George Polk Career Award. They have been edited for publication.

Thank you to the Polk Award committee for selecting me to receive this extraordinary honor. I share this with all the talented staff with whom I’ve had the pleasure of working over my career.  

Siemering displays his George Polk Career Award, presented Friday in New York City.

It is an honor to be included with you outstanding and courageous journalists here today. At this time when public ignorance threatens our democracy, when journalism is maligned, it is more important than ever to celebrate the best in journalism that you represent. 

I also thank David Haas of the Wyncote Foundation for his support over many years; without it, there never would have been Developing Radio Partners, which has brought vital health and farming information to those hardest to reach in Africa.

The colorful threads that run through my career are my love for radio and doing what I could to make it recognized as a first-class member of the media community.  I became fascinated by radio when I was in first grade in a two-room country school. Twice a day my teacher turned on the radio to have us listen to the Wisconsin School of the Air. I learned subjects such as science, art, music and nature.

Later, I started my radio career working my way through the University of Wisconsin at WHA, the station that originated those educational programs. It has now been on air for 101 years.

Now with podcasting and The New Yorker and the New York Times producing radio programs, we are living in a new age of audio. 

That was not the case in 1967 when radio fought to be included in the Public Broadcasting Act. Some regarded radio as an embarrassment, unworthy of support.

Now, NPR’s Morning Edition is the most–listened-to radio program in America, and All Things Considered comes in second.

When I was a member of the founding board of directors of NPR, I was asked to write the mission statement. I wanted to differentiate public radio from other media and lay the foundation of core values. I wrote:

The total service should be trustworthy, expand knowledge, 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.

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.

So every time you listen to public radio, you hear how this aspiration has been brought to life and made real by the ranks of dedicated producers and reporters. That’s why I share this award with them.

For you students here, discover your unique gifts and talents, then use them with passion. Don’t hesitate to aim high; you may even exceed your expectations. 

I did.

5 thoughts on “Bill Siemering: ‘We are living in the new age of audio’

  1. Bill Siemering has more to be proud of than most individuals can even imagine. I have been listening to NPR for 45 years and I worked there for a glorious seven years. Siemering was and still is my hero.

  2. Amen, Bill. You were and remain an inspiration to those of us fortunate to be touched by you. Whatever paths we took afterward…in radio or another endeavor…you continue to serve as a model of integrity and ingenuity. Thank you.

  3. what an apt encapsulation of how your vision was informed and used to shape new standards for radio broadcast journalists and how those might now be applied to new media and new purposes in service of a still compelling mission. I hope you continue to be provided opportunities to guide and inspire journalists in the USA and other nations needing support to present truthful accounts of events and circumstances with impunity on an ongoing basis. And I hope those who have benefited from the space you cleared for public radio broadcasting continue to find ways to honor you for your ongoing work through grants and donations to cover its costs.

  4. Congratulations, Bill! It’s wonderful to see your outstanding contributions to public radio continue to receive much-deserved recognition. I hope this finds you well, engaged and creative as ever. In 2017 I moved to Seattle to provide care for a cousin with Alzheimer’s. Hence no more chance meetings at Weavers Way. All best, Deborah

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