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Radio Pioneer Explains Origins of "All Things Considered"

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Ever wonder who invented public radio? The man who created "All Things Considered" and wrote National Public Radio's mission statement is Bill Siemering. He sat down with KPCC's Special Correspondent Kitty Felde recently to talk about the early days of public radio.

Kitty Felde: Bill Siemering says, as National Public Radio's first Director of Programming, he had clear goals for NPR's first news magazine.

Bill Siemering: It was very important that we have solid news, and so that's why I wanted "All Things Considered" to start at 5 o'clock eastern time, to be the very first record of the day's events in electronic journalism, and make it 90 minutes so it was, you know, accessible as people were driving home or preparing meals, and that it would mix the integration of culture and the world of regular news, and politics, and government, and stuff of that nature.

Felde: Now, in the very early days, I mean in my imagination, I'm seeing a handful of people sitting in a dumpy warehouse throwing ideas against the wall and seeing what sticks. I mean, paint me a picture of what it was like those very first few meetings.

Siemering: I'm always attracted to a blank canvas, and I told this initial staff at NPR that there will be a lot of brushstrokes on this canvas over the period of time, but the very first ones are very important, because that establishes the style. And those qualities were conversational style, having sound to tell the stories when possible and appropriate, getting out of the studio as much as possible rather than having a story of just everything in the sterile studio, hearing real people, having voices that reflect the pluralism that is America, and not just a few voices of authority that we always go to for the expert opinion.

Before we started "All Things Considered" on May 3rd of 1971, we only had about two weeks of lead time to be in a studio. The studios weren't finished before then. So, it was kind of rough. Sometimes it was very rough, sometimes it was very good, 'cause there was a shortage of good pieces. Initially, I thought we would get about a third of the program content from member stations. Use the stations as a resource for gathering as well as distributing the programs, but they weren't really able to produce.

I wrote to Ira Flatow, who was in at WBFO in Buffalo where I had come from, and I had hired him as a student there. He had been an engineering student. And I said, "Ira, I want you to come and edit tape. We need a tape editor. I don't want you on the air."

Felde: What a waste that would have been.

Siemering: (laughs) So, of course, he came, and about two weeks later, he was on the air. He has that letter, he says, in his office. I don't know if it's framed, but it's probably tacked on the wall.

And Linda Wertheimer was hired as an associate producer or something, and was the director for ATC for a while. And then, of course, she got on the air.

Felde: Well now, who were the very first hosts chosen to do what we think of today as "All Things Considered?"

Siemering: The very first host was Robert Conley.

Robert Conley: From National Public Radio in Washington, I'm Robert Conley with "All Things Considered."

Siemering: Who had come from NBC News, and he had a wonderful voice, and he could write beautifully descriptive copy. We had Mike Waters, who was a very inventive guy, very creative. He co-hosted then with Susan Sandberg. She was the first woman host of a national electronic broadcast.

Felde: Now, you got a little heat for having so many female voices on the air.

Siemering: This is true. And that time, in 1971, there weren't many females on the air, and some station managers said, "Well you know, Bill, women's voices on FM, you know, the high frequencies get accented, and you should see the meter on our, you know." And that was one complaint. The other was that they lacked authority to do the hard news. I ignored that, of course. (laughs)

I did envision that it would be regarded as a serious source of information. I mean, I wrote in the mission statement that it would be regarded, "People should regard it as their most important time they spend on getting information."

Felde: And it took a few years, but that does seem to have come true.

Siemering: Right. I just think it's the most wonderful medium, and it still is.

Felde: Siemering is still helping to create radio from scratch. Tomorrow, we'll talk to him about developing radio partners around the world.