How digging through archives brought the story of NPR’s ‘Founding Mothers’ to life

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Nina Totenberg, Linda Wertheimer and Cokie Roberts, around 1979.

Fall, 2019. The manuscript of my third book had just gone into production. Up All Night, about Ted Turner and the untold backstory of the founding of the first all-news cable channel, would be published by Abrams in May 2020, in time for CNN’s 40th anniversary June 1. I was eager to find (or more likely create) my next gig when the editor with whom I’d just worked asked me what I was up to. Acclaimed broadcaster Cokie Roberts had just passed away, he noted sadly; would I as a longtime journalist be interested in writing a biography?

Yes, I said, and as I dug around a bit, I realized that NPR’s 50th anniversary was another upcoming media milestone — and one in which Cokie played a key part. What about telling the story of the founding of the network through the lens of her and her friends, the founding mothers?

Publishers usually don’t buy ideas unless they’re accompanied by a detailed outline and chapter samples that take months or years to craft. Luckily, the editor trusted me enough to plow in without this formality. Time was of the essence in order to get the book out by spring of 2021.

Now came the tough part: determining the arc of the story — as with my CNN book, I was more interested in the creation and early years, not an all-encompassing tome — and researching and writing the book. Down the rabbit hole I went in search of material.

After firing off letters to the three living founding mothers to ask them to speak with me, I amassed the books Susan Stamberg, Linda Wertheimer and Cokie Roberts had written. (Nina Totenberg had been too busy breaking stories on the justice beat to have written a book, though publishers had been clamoring for her to do so for years.) From my previous books, I’d learned how essential the “back matter” — the oft-overlooked footnotes and bibliographies — in these books could be.

Then, I scoured for the historians who came before me. Michael McCauley had written a doctoral dissertation later published in 2005 as NPR: The Trials and Triumphs of National Public Radio, and for it he’d interviewed dozens of people, including some who were now deceased. Original NPR producer Jack Mitchell’s book, Listener Supported: The Culture and History of Public Radio, offered parallel insights. And then there was dynamo business reporter James Ledbetter’s important work from 1998 about the economics of public broadcasting, Made Possible By…: The Death of Public Broadcasting. All three proved key reads I returned to again and again, in a growing stack of materials.

Next, I went in search of primary sources. I’d discovered the joys of research libraries while researching my previous books, unearthing gems neatly catalogued in musty boxes like the handwritten contract Daniel Schorr had hastily written in a Las Vegas Hotel in 1979 after agreeing in Ted Turner’s suite to be CNN’s first star on-air hire. (That, I found in his papers at the Library of Congress.) For my second book about philanthropist Joan Kroc, I ventured to the campus of UC-Santa Barbara, where I discovered more than I ever imagined about the now-forgotten Kroc Foundation, run by Ray Kroc’s scientist brother and the precursor to Joan’s jaw-dropping and shoot-from-the-hip beneficence. Plowing through archives like these had been unimaginable to me when I had worked as a deadline journalist; this kind of digging and sifting was a thrill.

Susan, it turned out, had left her personal and professional papers to the University of Maryland’s Special Collections, a sublime repository of archival broadcasting material that included other collections documenting the creation of NPR. Susan’s papers predated her hire at NPR in 1971 and included her previous work at WAMU, when public broadcasting was still educational broadcasting, and even some papers from college. Staffers at the library warmly welcomed and assisted me during the frosty week in December 2019 when I arrived to mine these riches, sitting each day from opening till closing time, devouring every morsel I could.

Susan’s exhaustive repository — had she not become the first woman to host a national nightly newscast, she could have been an archivist — brought her vividly alive. The adoration and enthusiasm for her radiated from the abundant fan mail that she received in those earliest years of the network, capturing the sensation both she and the early All Things Considered broadcasts caused for anyone who heard it.

Not that the audience was so grand then, as I found reading through early memos and other papers of long-ago NPR figures like first president Donald Quayle, key programming executive Sam Holt and third president Frank Mankiewicz — who, as it turned out, played an essential role in the story I ultimately told. (Spoiler alert: He nearly killed the network.)

Add to the mix the vast repository of decades-old conversations, readily available on C-SPAN; oral histories at the Archive of American Television; hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles; and more. I also talked with as many people as I could who were part of NPR in the first dozen years I chronicle. Years before, I’d been fortunate to have met and befriended “founding father” Bill Siemering, the revered first program director who’d written the network’s crucial mission statement. Bob Edwards, not an original but present during the creation of Morning Edition by Mankiewicz, was both patient and gracious, as were many others.

The biggest delight when you research a book like this is when you call someone up who did something interesting or notable decades ago that they forgot. When I was asked to guest-host the Larry Mantle show on KPCC here in southern California, we booked Susan on the show. The news hook? She was days from receiving her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Having literally read her mail and other detailed ephemera from her life, my questions were unlike what other interviewers might ask. I delighted in her reaction.

Writing a biography of a person or place, much less four people and a place as storied as NPR, is not for the faint of heart. Digging and reading and watching and talking and distilling and synthesizing all the information you amass (only a fraction of which I’ve mentioned here) is a monumental task, as well as a huge responsibility. Writing about journalists and journalism history can be even more daunting. Some days I felt overwhelmed by the volumes of material, and crafting the essence of the story.

But I had one supreme ally as I worked toward my deadline: COVID-19. This pernicious force shut down the world just around the time Susan got her star, and I had to hunker down virtually nonstop. I’d never say there was anything positive about this horrible scourge. But having to produce a book like this on deadline during this time was a wonderful gift, the ultimate consuming distraction. It also made talking to people a bit easier. Not only was everyone in quarantine — just like writers perpetually have to be — they were also bored. A nosy person dredging up the past became a welcome distraction.

Lisa Napoli is the author of Susan, Linda, Nina & Cokie: The Extraordinary Story of the Founding Mothers of NPR, which will be reissued in paperback in March.

This essay appears as part of Rewind: The Roots of Public Media, Current’s series of commentaries about the history of public media. The series is created in partnership with the Radio Preservation Task Force, an initiative of the Library of Congress. Josh Shepperd, assistant professor of media studies at the University of Colorado Boulder, director of the LOC’s Sound Submissions Project and chair of the RPTF, is Faculty Curator of the Rewind series. Email: josh7759@colorado.edu

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