'It Was Just Thrilling': 2 NPR Founders Remember The First Days, 50 Years Ago

Apr 28, 2021

On May 3, 1971, 20,000 demonstrators came to Washington, D.C., stopping traffic in the streets in a protest against the war in Vietnam.

On that same day nearly 50 years ago, NPR, then a fledgling news organization, premiered a new afternoon show. In its first show, All Things Considered presented a 23-minute sound portrait of the day's protests and confrontations that was broadcast to stations across the country.

ATC creator Bill Siemering says he wanted that first broadcast — and the ones that would follow — to offer a different take on the news: "I wanted to hear voices that aren't heard generally on the air and to have first-person accounts of these things," he says.

Susan Stamberg, who co-anchored ATC from 1972 until 1986, was working as a production assistant when the show debuted. She says the initial broadcast felt like a "revelation."

"It's radio that I had never heard," Stamberg says. "Sounds that had never existed, that had never come out of a radio across the country at the same time. I mean, it was just thrilling."

A year later, Stamberg made history as the first woman to anchor a daily national news program in America. Siemering says her voice was perfect for ATC.

"It has rich tone [and] color," he says. "It's the sound I really wanted for NPR. It's the sound that I still think represents NPR the best: this insatiable curiosity."

From its inception, ATC has blended the hard news of the day with arts and general interest stories. Siemering describes it as a "variety of textures and intensity."

"One of the things that was in the [NPR] mission statement was: 'Listeners should feel that the time spent with NPR was among their most rewarding in media contact,' " he says. "I think that's been true."


Interview highlights

On the NPR mission statement, which he wrote in 1970, which promised programming that would allow listeners to "intelligently participate in affecting the process of change"

Siemering: Change is a given, and it's how those changes are made and what are the intentions of the changes that are really important. And by having the information to understand the context by which change decisions are made, we'll be more intelligent. We can't make the right decisions with the wrong information. And one of the problems now, I think, is public ignorance is a great threat to the country because people are believing things that are untrue and they can't make the right decisions based on that. ...

[The mission statement] was intentionally, to some extent, aspirational, but also, I thought, practical. It was to differentiate NPR from commercial broadcasting, from PBS and from the old educational radio.

On what she remembers from the first day of ATC

Stamberg: I was in the control room, as I remember. Many of us had crowded in there. We didn't have speakers outside that would allow us to listen to what we were broadcasting. We had to stay out of the way of the reporters, a handful of them, maybe five, who were sent out, scattered throughout different parts of this demonstration to pull in these sounds. I called it "guerrilla radio" because that's what it sounded like to me. But sitting in the control room and keeping out of the way of those reporters who would be running back into our office and racing into the control room and throwing their reels of tape — these were the days of tape, metallic tape that you edited with razor blades and then pieced together with sticky tape — staying out of their way so they could throw the reels across the control room to get them to the equipment that would carry them out to listeners. It was just an extraordinary day. I will never forget it. ...

I don't remember being a bit nervous, I remember being thrilled to pieces. ... So it was pressure, but I felt we could all do it.

On Siemering's advice to her when she started hosting ATC

Stamberg: The most valuable thing that he said at the time, as I was trying to be as "authoritative" as those men, was, "Be yourself." And I thought, what could he mean? ... Nobody says "Be yourself" except Mr. Rogers. Other people say, "Sit up straight. Cut your hair. Comb your hair. Lose five pounds. Make some correction." But not Bill. He said, "Be yourself," because that's what he wanted to hear on the radio. The natural sound of human beings talking to one another.

On finding her on-air personality

Stamberg: It was all sort of an accumulation. I mean, it certainly didn't happen all at once. I would listen carefully after we went off the air to what it sounded like and what struck my ear and changes that I thought I ought to make the next day. But again, I had tremendous guidance from Bill, as always, from a phrase from that mission statement ... and it was that one of the goals of National Public Radio would be to "celebrate life." And I sort of devoted myself to that.

Susan has "air presence," which is something that may be difficult to define, but you know it. It's like stage presence. And not all reporters have air presence like that, that can host the program. But when Susan comes on, you listen. - Bill Siemering

First of all, the arts were always so important to me from the time that I was a child and I loved music and I loved poetry and I loved visual arts. All of that, and being raised in New York, I was lucky enough to be able to be exposed to some of the best of that. And I carried that love with me into the broadcasting that I did. ... You never heard anything like that on formal news programs except when you turned to public radio. ... And that continues — not as much as I wish it would — but that continues into today.

Siemering: Susan has "air presence," which is something that may be difficult to define, but you know it. It's like stage presence. And not all reporters have air presence like that, that can host the program. But when Susan comes on, you listen. It's a quality that is important, that isn't talked about much. But it was really what I liked about her. And you can hear that every time she comes on the air now.

On why they both keep working into their 80s

Fifty years after working together on ATC, Susan Stamberg and Bill Siemering are still in public radio.
NPR

Stamberg: I don't know how to play golf. I don't know what I would do with myself, Terry. I'm a widow, so I don't have a partner to turn to or to travel with or [to] do the things that I would do if he were still alive. It's very important to me to keep a focus, to have a structure to my day, because that's all I've ever known since I first started working anywhere. And because I can get so involved in the things that I'm curious about and share them with readers and with listeners. And also, I need the IT people because I'm an idiot when it comes to technical stuff. So for all these reasons, I will never retire.

Siemering: My work with the Wyncote Foundation is ideal for me, because I'm dealing with ideas and I also give talks to university classes or radio stations about the history and also the impact of radio in developing countries. So this is my favorite thing to do. And I love my work. And I don't know how to golf either. And I just want to continue this as long as I can.

Phyllis Myers and Thea Chaloner produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Next Monday, May 3, will mark the 50th anniversary of NPR and All Things Considered. NPR would not be what it is today without my two guests, Bill Siemering, the creator of All Things Considered, and Susan Stamberg, the co-anchor of the show from 1972 to '86.

Bill hired Susan as a production assistant a month before All Things Considered - ATC - was first broadcast. When she became the co-host one year later, she was the first woman to become the anchor of a daily national news program in America. She disproved all the stereotypes about women's voices lacking authority. She had plenty of it. And she had warmth, a sense of humor and a personality listeners loved that helped define the identity of the show and the network. After leaving ATC, she became the founding host of Weekend Edition Sunday. She's now a special correspondent for NPR. In addition to her many radio awards, she has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Bill Siemering was the first director of programming at NPR. He created a philosophy and an aesthetic for NPR and ATC. He wrote the network's first mission statement, saying that NPR should reflect the diversity of America and let the country hear itself. The mission statement is so eloquent and remains so timely, it's still quoted today as a source of inspiration. I'll be quoting it during the course of our interview. Bill appointed Jack Mitchell to be the executive producer of ATC in 1972 and credits him with creating a structure and format for the show. Bill has spent his life in public media at NPR and managing several stations. He founded the NGO Developing Radio Partners to strengthen community radio in developing countries. He's continuing his public media work as a senior fellow with the Wyncote Foundation.

When I started in radio in the mid-'70s, when women were trying to break in, it was so inspiring to hear Susan hosting All Things Considered. Bill holds a special place in my life and in the life of our show. From 1978 to '87, he was the station manager at WHYY, where our show is produced. FRESH AIR began as a local show, and it would never have become a national show without him. But that's a story for another time. It is such a pleasure to present Susan and Bill together in this interview.

Before we talk, let's hear an excerpt of the first broadcast of All Things Considered from May 3, 1971. What a day to start. Over 20,000 demonstrators had stopped traffic in the streets of Washington, protesting the war in Vietnam. Thousands of protesters were arrested. All Things Considered presented a 23-minute sound portrait of the day's protests and confrontations with police. That broadcast has been inducted into the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress for its place in U.S. audio heritage. Here's an excerpt.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

JEFF KAMEN: Thousands of young people came to Washington willing to risk being arrested in order to end the war. They went into the streets this morning to stop the government from functioning by clogging many Washington roads during this morning's rush hour. For many demonstrators, the mobile street tactics of civil disobedience are an expected spring event. But before today, many other young people came to Washington had not been willing to oppose the state with their bodies. For these young Americans, today was a major test of their commitment to the ethical code of the young and the angry. It was their freedom ride, their Selma march, their May Day.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Stop the war now. Stop the war now. Stop the war now. Stop the war now. Stop the war now. Stop the war now. Stop the war now. Stop the war now. Stop the war now.

KAMEN: One, two, three Army helicopters flying surveillance over the small section of Washington's complicated highway system. A lot of young people has just come across the highway. Traffic has stopped. And here come the police. One, two, three, four police on motor scooters. One demonstrator knocked down by a motor scooter policeman. Anger now. Anger of the young people. Here come more police.

(CROSSTALK)

KAMEN: Demonstrators just told a motorcycle sergeant that one of his men did knock one of the demonstrators down.

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER #1: All right. Let me get an ambulance down here for you. Motor three onto Southwest Freeway. Have one injured down here. Could you send me an ambulance, please? It's right on Main Avenue.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: And he hit the kid, went right through the line.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Got past me and almost knocked me down.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Yeah, but it's a policeman we're talking about.

(CROSSTALK)

KAMEN: Sergeant, excuse me. Jeff Kamen, National Public Radio. Is that a technique where the men actually try to drive the bikes into the demonstrators?

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE SERGEANT: No. It's no technique. We're trying to go down the road, and if people get in front, what are you going to do? You don't stop on a dime.

KAMEN: What happened, officer?

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE SERGEANT: Bricks. That don't count.

KAMEN: Somebody threw a brick at you, officer?

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER #2: Yes, sir.

KAMEN: Right here, as you were driving through?

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER #2: Right.

KAMEN: One of the motorcycle police officers says someone threw a brick at him. I was here at the time. I didn't see anything thrown. Army helicopters coming in low, keeping constant surveillance, keeping the various command posts, military police, and obviously presidential - advised as to what's going on.

GROSS: Wow. That was, by the way, a 23-minute piece - we just heard the first three minutes of it - on the first broadcast of All Things Considered. BILL SIEMERING, Susan Stamberg, welcome to FRESH AIR. Happy anniversary (laughter). What an extraordinary day to start a new show. And I should also point out this is years before cable news. Reports didn't go on for 23 minutes like this. What a complicated day to start a new show. I mean, the goal of the demonstrators was in part to stop traffic, to stop things in Washington, D.C., the nation's capital, to protest the war, to try to stop the war. So between the thousands of demonstrators in the streets and the thousands of federal troops and police in the streets and the tear gas and the blocked traffic, Bill, how did reporters even get back to the studio to produce the tape and get it on the air?

BILL SIEMERING: This is really a wonderful demonstration of our staff, which were all green and had never worked together before to come together to do this. And they really did a remarkable job. I would say that this is still the best audio representation of that day, and to do it by 5 o'clock was a real accomplishment.

GROSS: Was it helpful to have covered student protests and anti-war protests when you were the station manager at WBFO in Buffalo, N.Y., just before you came to NPR to help start NPR? WBFO had covered the student protests. It had brought together for interviews all of the different sides in that - you know, like students, activists, police, university administrators - to be in a kind of neutral place where they could talk to each other. So was that experience helpful to you in trying to figure out, how do you cover a protest like this? What is the role of radio in a time like that?

SIEMERING: Very much so. And it was like a small out-of-town tryout, if you will. And Mike Waters, who played a key role in that demonstration in Buffalo, was also one of the key reporters and the editor for this documentary. I mean, in Buffalo, we had the police there. They teargassed the student union building where the station was located. So I thought, yeah, we've been through this. Of course, it was a much larger event in Washington, but the principle was the same of getting as many viewpoints as possible and bringing them together.

GROSS: On that first day, what reaction did you get from listeners, from the Nixon administration? Was anybody listening?

SIEMERING: I don't think so.

(LAUGHTER)

SIEMERING: And it was fine because we were really in kind of beta form in terms of trying new things and just being on the air. And the only way you could do this was by doing it.

GROSS: Yeah. It's so interesting that maybe very few people heard that report that we just heard at the time it was first broadcast, but it stands now as a really remarkable historical document that is available online if anybody wants to hear the whole thing. Susan, you were working at NPR on that day already. What are your memories of that day?

SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: Just listening to that first report, it's radio that I had never heard. I'd never heard radio like that before. Maybe on some of the Pacifica stations, listener-supported stations, a few handful of them scattered around the country - they're still going on. But here in Washington, D.C., where I've lived for all of these years, I'd never heard coverage like that. So to me, this was a revelation. I was in the control room, as I remember. Many of us had crowded in there. We didn't have speakers outside that would allow us to listen to what we were broadcasting. We had to stay out of the way of the reporters, a handful of them, maybe five, who were sent out, scattered throughout different parts of this demonstration to pull in these sounds.

I called it guerrilla radio because that's what it sounded like to me. It was just - extraordinary day. I will never forget it. And, you know, Terry, that those of us who were there that day and others who have heard it since can say by heart that moment in which Jeff Kamen says, tell me, Officer, is that a technique? And the officer says, nah (ph), that's no technique, but what are you going to do? (Laughter).

GROSS: I thought that's an amazing moment, too. So, Susan, what was your job that day, that first day that NPR signed on the air with All Things Considered? Were you editing tape? Were you actively involved with that first broadcast?

STAMBERG: Yeah. I - the title was production assistant. And it meant one of those - a handful of us, Linda Wertheimer was another - who had to deal with tape that the reporters were racing in with from the field. I mean, you know, if they came in with 20 minutes and hours' worth of tape, we had to cut it down and get it wedged together with that sticky tape and get it into the control room and on the air. So that was it, just being pelted with this raw tape that they had just gathered in the field.

GROSS: Were you nervous?

STAMBERG: I don't remember being a bit nervous. I remember being thrilled to pieces. It was all just so intense. And we had to be working so quickly and efficiently and sometimes mindlessly, just blading that tape and getting it to move along and racing it again into the control room. So it was pressure, but I felt we could all do it. You know, it wasn't nervous-making pressure particularly. It was exhilarating pressure. I mean, it was just thrilling.

GROSS: Do either of you remember any of the other pieces that were on the show, on that first edition of All Things Considered? We just heard an excerpt of an extraordinary piece. What was on the show that was maybe slightly less extraordinary?

SIEMERING: Yes. Well, it began with a tease of a nurse who was addicted to heroin describing that experience. And that was intentional on my part because I wanted to be talking with people, not about them. And I wanted to hear voices that aren't heard generally on the air and to have first-person accounts of these things. So that was very intentional. Actually, we didn't have the tape for the documentary in the control room when the program started. I was confident that Mike Waters would be able to get that in because he was an excellent tape editor as well as an excellent reporter and later co-host with Susan. And it did come in, but not - we didn't have it at the very top of the program.

GROSS: Wow. Talk about nervous. You needed nerves of steel for that.

STAMBERG: But, Bill, you're forgetting the piece that gets talked about from that first day as much as Jeff Kamen and that cop. And that's the one about the young woman going into a barbershop in I can't remember which town to get her legs shaved.

SIEMERING: (Laughter) Yeah. That was in Iowa.

GROSS: Susan, what made that piece so memorable? Not that I've ever heard of a woman going into a barber shop to have her legs shaved (laughter).

STAMBERG: Yes. Because...

GROSS: How did that get on the air?

(LAUGHTER)

STAMBERG: These were the days of beards, so the barbers were not particularly busy. At the same time, the women got the great idea that this might be a quick and easy way to take care of themselves and beautify themselves. And so in this town, they started that. Who knows? The four people who were our listeners that day may have started it in their town as well.

GROSS: (Laughter).

STAMBERG: But to me, what I love in the aftermath 50 years later is thinking how on that day, these were the two things that I remember the best, something so typically All Things Considered - that idea of a woman getting her legs shaved - and also delivering the news on the spot in that wonderful, rich sound.

GROSS: My guests are Susan Stamberg, who hosted All Things Considered from 1972 to '86, and Bill Siemering, who created the show and was the first head of programming for NPR. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is Fresh Air. We're celebrating NPR's 50th anniversary. It signed on with the first broadcast of All Things Considered on May 3, 1971. My guests are Bill Siemering, who was NPR's first director of programming and created All Things Considered, and Susan Stamberg, who hosted it from 1972 to '86.

Bill, I want to read an excerpt of your now-famous NPR mission statement that you wrote in 1970, the year before NPR actually signed on the air. And you wrote that the program, meaning All Things Considered, would be well-paced, flexible and a service primarily for a general audience. It would not, however, substitute superficial blandness for genuine diversity of regions, values and cultural and ethnic minorities which comprise American society. It would speak with many voices and many dialects. And it was also important for you to have the arts, literature, poetry represented on All Things Considered. You wanted the show to have an aesthetic, a sensibility, not just straight-up hard news coverage.

And then you also wrote in your mission statement, the programs will enable the individual, meaning the listener, to better understand himself, his government, his institutions and his natural and social environment so he can intelligently participate in affecting the process of change. What did you mean by affecting the process of change?

SIEMERING: Well, change is a given. And it's how those changes are made and what are the intentions of the changes that are really important. And by having the information to understand the context by which change - decisions are made, it'll be more intelligent. We can't make the right decisions with the wrong information. And one of the problems now, I think, is public ignorance is a great threat to the country because people are believing things that are untrue, and they can't make the right decisions based on that.

GROSS: Bill, you hired Susan Stamberg at NPR. What did you see in her when you hired her? You obviously made a brilliant choice.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: But you didn't know what she would become. That was all the future. So what did you see in her? Why did you want to hire her?

SIEMERING: Her curiosity and her energy. And she has this wonderful voice that is expressive, had rich tone color, and it's the sound I really wanted for NPR. It's the sound that I still think represents NPR the best, this insatiable curiosity. And Susan has a lot of fun, also. I didn't need to look at her resume, really. I just said - I was really quite blown away by Susan when she came in the office, and I knew that's what I wanted (laughter).

GROSS: Bill, it was suggested to you when you were first working on finding a host for All Things Considered - and Susan didn't start hosting until the second year the show was on the air - it was suggested to you that you hire an established network TV reporter who was experienced and can come in and people already had faith in and they'd have this, like, authoritative male voice. And that's not what you wanted to do. Why did you resist that, and what did you have to do to resist it?

SIEMERING: I didn't get a lot of pressure. Fortunately, Don Quayle, the president, was very good about this. And he also supported Susan. He was the one that recommended Susan come in to see me. Now, the stations were expecting the big voice. They were expecting us - finally, we've got our own network, and we'll sound just like CBS. And we had a meeting of station managers a few weeks after All Things started, and it was kind of a hostile audience.

(LAUGHTER)

SIEMERING: I mean, they were saying, who are these people? And I said, well, your listeners will get to know them; it's OK.

(LAUGHTER)

SIEMERING: And they, of course, did. But it took a while for people to get used to what we were doing and to accept it. But I remember even in September, the manager of WETA in Washington came to me and said, you know, if this doesn't get better, we're going to take it off the air.

GROSS: Wow.

SIEMERING: And actually, on the first day of the program, one of the board members said, our child has been born, and it is ugly.

GROSS: Oh, no.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Wow. How did that make you feel?

SIEMERING: I didn't know that till much later.

(LAUGHTER)

SIEMERING: But a year and a half after we started, the program won a Peabody Award. So it got pretty.

GROSS: My guests are Bill Siemering, NPR's first director of programming who created All Things Considered, and Susan Stamberg, who hosted the show from 1972 to '86. We'll talk more about the early days of NPR as we continue our celebration of its 50th anniversary after a break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We're celebrating the 50th anniversary of NPR, which signed on with All Things Considered on May 3, 1971. Let's get back to my interview with Bill Siemering and Susan Stamberg. Bill was NPR's first director of programming. He created All Things Considered and wrote NPR's inspiring mission statement. He hired Susan Stamberg to be a production assistant in 1971. In 1972, she was promoted to co-host All Things Considered, becoming the first woman in the U.S. to anchor a daily national news program. She left the show in 1986, became the founding host of Weekend Edition Sunday in '87 and is now an NPR special correspondent.

Susan, so you became co-anchor of All Things Considered about a year after it started. I would like to play your first broadcast hosting the show, and this was before you were the - you know, a full-time anchor. You were substituting for Mike Waters, who was on his way to Florida to cover the primary there. So this is the opening billboard of the first show that you hosted as a substitute host on All Things Considered. The date of this is March 1, 1972.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

STAMBERG: From National Public Radio in Washington, I'm Susan Stamberg with All Things Considered.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ART COHEN: This is Art Cohen (ph) in Manchester, N.H. And on tonight's All Things Considered, I'll be reporting on the significance of next Tuesday's primary.

STAMBERG: Primaries in New Hampshire will be followed by primaries in Florida, where one of the Democratic candidates has been winning much popular support.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: He speaks for the little people. He speaks for us. He always has. He always will. Wallace is the only one who speaks the truth, as far as I'm concerned.

STAMBERG: Tonight on All Things Considered, supporters of George Wallace discuss the reasons for their support.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

STAMBERG: Also tonight, a conversation with an electronic music virtuoso.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: OK, Susan, what...

STAMBERG: Oh, golly

GROSS: ...Do you think about when you hear that?

STAMBERG: Well, I'm hearing how carefully I was speaking. I'm a New Yorker, and I was working - and always have, through much of my broadcasting life in particular - against a pretty heavy New York accent that I had. So I hear myself - I would never today say that my name was Susan Stamberg. But - I'd say Stamberg.

(LAUGHTER)

STAMBERG: But I heard myself being really careful with it. On the other hand, I am the first woman who has anchored a national nightly news broadcast. And when I started, in my memory, I was far more deep-voiced than I sounded on that piece of tape because there had been no role models. The only thing I could think was to imitate the man. And I was doing exactly what Bill said he didn't want to hear on the air - that is, one of these voices from on top of the mountain, from some commercial network, you know, something that all - many of the station managers wanted to hear.

But I'll tell you the story - and it shows so much about Bill's leadership. He didn't tell me this story until something like 11 years later, the notion of complaints and criticism from station managers who said a woman's voice is not authoritative, she will not be taken seriously, she will not - should not be delivering the news. I never heard that till maybe 11 years after I'd been doing it because he had such confidence in me, and it turned out it was the voice that he wanted to hear. And he knew it would throw me, you know, if he had said anything to me at the time, and he also knew that people would get used to hearing me, to hearing a woman delivering the news.

But the most valuable thing that he said at the time, as I was trying to be as "authoritative" - in quotes - as those men was, be yourself. And I thought, what could he mean? What - oh, my goodness. I mean, Terry, nobody says that to you. Nobody says, be yourself, except Fred Rogers, Mr. Rogers. Everybody - other people say, sit up straight, cut your hair, comb your hair, lose five pounds - you know, make some correction. But not Bill. He said, be yourself, because that's what he wanted to hear on the radio - the natural sound of human beings talking to one another.

GROSS: Susan, you said that Bill encouraged you to be yourself, and that's what you became. And you showed, like, warmth and empathy, as well as having good news judgment and being really informed. But you talked to a lot of artists and just kind of people. And, yeah, there was warmth. You had a personality on the air, and people loved that. I mean, you were famous for that. That helped define what NPR stood for. How did you gradually let yourself come through and figure out, like, what was your on-air personality? Who were you on the air, being true to yourself but also being, you know, a radio professional?

STAMBERG: Thank you for all of that. It was all sort of an accumulation. I mean, it certainly didn't happen all at once. And I would listen carefully after we went off the air to what it sounded like and what struck my ear and changes that I thought I ought to make the next day. But, again, I had tremendous guidance from Bill, as always, from a phrase from that mission statement, and it was that one of the goals of National Public Radio would be to celebrate life. And I sort of devoted myself to that. First of all, the arts were always so important to me, from the time that I was a child. And I loved music, and I loved poetry, and I loved visual arts - all of that. And being raised in New York, I was lucky enough to be able to be exposed to some of the best of that.

And I carried that love with me into the broadcasting that I did and, very unusually for those early days and even today, brought it to the news broadcasts. As you were saying, you never heard anything like that on formal news programs, except when you turned to public radio and when you turned to the very first broadcast, which - of ours, which was the flagship program, All Things Considered. And that continues - not as much as I wish it would, but that continues into today.

SIEMERING: I just wanted to add, Susan has air presence, which is something that may be difficult to define, but you know it. It's like stage presence. And not all reporters have air presence like that, that can host a program. But when Susan comes on, you listen. It's a quality that is important, that isn't talked about much, but it was really what I liked about her, and you can hear that every time she comes on the air now.

GROSS: Can you each share a moment from the early days of NPR that you're particularly proud of? Susan, you want to start?

STAMBERG: It's not days from the very beginning, but it goes into around 19 - I guess - '73 and the whole Watergate story, Richard Nixon and the Nixon administration being exposed for having, essentially, as Bob Woodward said on our air once, tampered with the vote of every American by pressures that the administration exerted. And what I remember - we did daily broadcasts. It was the most sustained broadcasting that we did. It was the biggest story because the Vietnam War had ended fairly soon after we went on the air, the biggest story that we had to cover over a long period of time - the hearings in the Congress, et cetera, et cetera.

And I'm proud of having organized groups of citizens, that voice that Bill always wanted to hear, of ordinary people all over the country reacting to the news. That was new in those days and very unusual. And I had a banker in Kansas and a housewife in Wisconsin. I'm not going to remember all of them, but there were about five different ones, Democrats and Republicans. And I would call them every week and just say, so what do you think? You know, how did you react to what you heard this week on the hearings? Because we were broadcasting those hearings live as well.

And when the Republican, who had been the Nixon supporter all along, over months and months and months, turned and said, I really have started to have very big questions about what this administration has done and what their aims and what their goals were, that's when we knew that the tide had turned. We heard that on our air from someone who our listeners had gotten very familiar with because they had heard week after week. And I love that.

I called those features like that the village well because I had lived in India for some years before there was an NPR and before I came to it, and I would notice, passing wells in the small Indian villages, how the villagers - particularly the women because they did the hard work hauling the water and carrying it back - the women would gather and talk about the day and react to things that were happening in that village or in the country, to the extent that they knew it. And I wanted that sound on the radio. And we made those sounds with our Watergate coverage, as well as in other situations as well. And that is something that's being done to this day on all of our newsmagazines.

GROSS: Wow. That's a great story. Bill, do you have a memory you could share, something you're especially proud of from the early days of NPR?

SIEMERING: I can't top what Susan just described.

GROSS: (Laughter).

SIEMERING: This is not a heavy thing. I'd just like to mention, there was one piece that Susan did with Ira Flatow.

(LAUGHTER)

SIEMERING: It was an example of the fun kind of thing that we did on ATC. And that's when there was an idea that, if you bit into a Wint O Green LifeSaver there would be a little spark. Somebody wrote in about that, I guess. And so Susan and Ira went into the closet...

(LAUGHTER)

SIEMERING: ...And bit into a Wint O Green and saw the spark. But I just thought that was an example of the fun and the spirit that was on ATC at that time.

GROSS: Why don't we hear a short excerpt of that? So this is then-science reporter Ira Flatow, now host of Science Friday, and Susan Stamberg, when she was hosting All Things Considered, trying to see what happens when you bite into a Wint O Green LifeSaver and why are there sparks. And they're going into a dark closet so they could better see the sparks.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

STAMBERG: Where are we going? Oh, there's the storage closet around the corner from the studio.

IRA FLATOW: Mighty dark in here.

STAMBERG: It's extremely.

FLATOW: OK, now we have to get to where we can see each other crunching.

STAMBERG: Yes. Oh.

FLATOW: So I'll just stand here while our eyes get used to the darkness.

STAMBERG: Oh, yeah. OK, who's going to chew? Are we both chewing?

FLATOW: I'll chew one first.

STAMBERG: Yeah.

FLATOW: And then you watch and see what happens. I'll put it in my mouth.

(SOUNDBITE OF CANDY CRACKING)

STAMBERG: I saw it. I saw it (laughter).

FLATOW: What did you see?

STAMBERG: I saw a flash of kind of greenish light just for a fraction of a second.

FLATOW: Oh, yeah? Let me try it one more time.

STAMBERG: OK. Oh, I want to do this, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF CANDY CRACKING)

STAMBERG: I saw it again, Ira.

FLATOW: All right, you try it. You try it.

STAMBERG: This is very bad for your teeth, though. I hope we're not encouraging.

(SOUNDBITE OF CANDY CRACKING)

FLATOW: Yeah. Oh, goodness.

STAMBERG: Did you see? (Laughter).

FLATOW: It was like a little bit of lightning, a little sparkle of lightning.

STAMBERG: And nobody could explain this. Very hard to talk and chew at the same time.

FLATOW: Nobody could explain this. And they said they've done some research on it, but they really have no explanation. It's one of the mysteries of science that never gets explained.

STAMBERG: Can I have another LifeSaver? Do you think Walter Cronkite started like this?

FLATOW: (Laughter).

GROSS: So that was Susan Stamberg and Ira Flatow on All Things Considered back in - was it, like, 1979?

SIEMERING: Yes.

STAMBERG: I have to tell you that when my mother heard that, she called, and she said, Susan - I mean, I was a married woman, and I had a child who was maybe 9 years old. And my mother said, Susan, what are you doing going into dark closets with young men?

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: That's so funny.

We're listening to the interview I recorded with Susan Stamberg, who hosted All Things Considered from 1972 to 86, and Bill Siemering, who created the show and was NPR's first director of programming. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEEP BLUE ORGAN TRIO'S "TELL ME SOMETHING GOOD")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. We're celebrating the 50th anniversary of NPR and All Things Considered with Bill Siemering, who was NPR's first director of programming and created All Things Considered, and Susan Stamberg, who hosted the show from 1972 to '86.

Susan, I remember you telling me years ago that you were raised to be a, quote, "nice girl." What did that mean? And what did you have to overcome of that to be a good host and journalist and learn how to ask hard questions and to sometimes, in spite of all your empathy, you sometimes you really had to put somebody on the spot and insist on an answer to a difficult question?

STAMBERG: Yes. I must say, my dear, that I have - the ghost of that continues to haunt me.

GROSS: (Laughter).

STAMBERG: And it wasn't so much a nice girl. It was a good girl. And, you know, I'm a woman of the '50s. It's when I came up. It was before there was women's liberation. So we were expected to be married, good housewives and be homemakers. There are wonderful homemakers in this world, and many people listening to this were raised by them. But it didn't fascinate or interest me very much. I always knew that there was more I wanted to do. So I felt even when there were movements to make women more equal and more authoritative, I felt I always straddled those two worlds - the good girl world and the free and women's liberation girl. And to some extent, I still do. It was very often my impulse to almost talk to myself and say, toughen up, Susan. Don't be too soft on this. Put his feet to the fire. Get an answer that you really do need.

GROSS: So, Susan, you were a mother by the time you came to NPR. And your son, Josh, was how old when you started hosting All Things Considered?

STAMBERG: He was a year and a half. And when I started, I worked part time. I wanted to be home every afternoon with him and was able to do that. And I left him with a wonderful sitter in the morning and timed it so that I would be away from him for a big chunk of his nap time. I missed him terribly when I started work, but I knew that I needed to move my mind away a little bit from goo-goo-ga-ga (ph) into some real human conversation.

So that was a perfect solution to be able to have that part-time job. And the network was wonderful, so enlightened in permitting me to do it. But it was always - it was really tough as the parent. And any woman will tell you - or man - that you're always moving things around on the burners. That is, the family goes on the front burner when it needs to, and then you move it to the back when the job has to go - move up forward onto that front burner. You're always juggling. Life is never just a straight line.

GROSS: You're both in your 80s. Now, neither of you are fully retired. Susan, you're still special correspondent for NPR. You do pieces on the arts. You write for the NPR website about the arts. And, Bill, you're a fellow at the Wyncote Foundation giving talks about and being an adviser at large about public media issues. I'm interested in hearing from each of you why you want to continue, you know, working in some capacity in a decade of your life when a lot of people have retired.

STAMBERG: I'll answer first. I don't know how to play golf.

GROSS: (Laughter).

STAMBERG: I'll tell you what. I don't know what I would do with myself, Terry. I'm a widow, so I don't have a partner to turn to or to travel with or do the things that I would do if he were still alive. It's very important to me to keep a focus, to have a structure to my day, because that's all I've ever known since I first started working anywhere. And because I can get so involved in the things that I'm curious about and share them with readers and with listeners. And also, I need the IT people because I'm an absolute idiot when it comes to technical stuff. So for all these reasons, I will never retire.

GROSS: (Laughter) And, Bill, what about you?

SIEMERING: My work with the Wyncote Foundation is ideal for me because I'm dealing with ideas. And I also give talks to university classes or radio stations about the history and also the impact of radio in developing countries. So this is my favorite thing to do. And I love my work. And I just - you know, I can't - I don't know how to golf either.

(LAUGHTER)

SIEMERING: And I just want to continue this as long as I can. And I look at this time - as we were doing in this program, looking back and the beginnings, and they were rough. But, of course, we know that that's the way things begin. And yet I believed in what we were doing. And I believed in the staff. And I think I want to emphasize that so much. I believe what I did and I think one of my strengths was hiring good people and then managing as I would like to be managed. And my other colleagues had disdain when they saw who I was hiring because sometimes they didn't have broadcast experience. The point was that radio was really quite simple to learn the mechanics of using a microphone and recording and editing tape. But you can't teach curiosity and passion and compassion and empathy and things like that that I was looking for.

GROSS: My guests are Bill Siemering, NPR's first director of programming who created All Things Considered, and Susan Stamberg, who hosted the show from 1972 to '86. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. We're celebrating the 50th anniversary of NPR and All Things Considered with Bill Siemering, who was NPR's first director of programming and created All Things Considered, and Susan Stamberg, who hosted the show from 1972 to '86.

My congratulations and my gratitude to each of you. And I just want to end by asking you, what role did radio play in each of your lives before you started working in it, like when you were growing up?

SIEMERING: I went to a two-room country school outside of Madison. And that meant that two teachers taught sixth grades, three grades each. And so every day, they would turn on the radio. And we would have - I would learn about science, social studies, art, music, all by radio. So from first grade on, I learned that radio was a source of information and imagination. So that was my beginning. And then I worked on farms. And at noon, we'd go in, and they'd turn on the radio. And I realized that radio was used to improve the livelihoods of farmers. And so then I worked my way through the university at the radio station. So radio has been a part of my life all my life, if you will.

GROSS: And, Susan?

STAMBERG: Radio was the magic white Bakelite Emerson on the kitchen table of my youth. And I couldn't wait to sit down at that table every day after school and turn it on and draw and color and do watercolors and listen to it, especially on the weekends, when there were these fabulous "Lux Radio Theatre" and "Grand Central Station," the introduction of which I can still recite by heart. It was a place that transported me. It brought me magical worlds and voices from all over and stories and information. It took me away from a small apartment in New York City, which was the center of the universe as far as we New Yorkers felt.

But it took me to places that I couldn't have dreamt of and could begin to learn about, mostly through radio dramas, I must say. There was some quiz shows as well. But it was the dramas that I loved and the soap operas, too, when I got sick and had a cold and had to stay in bed. And my mother would carry that radio into the bedroom and plug it in and plump up my pillows and sit on a chair near the bed, and we would both listen to it. It was a source of joy for me and magic and inspiration.

GROSS: So I think now you need to recite the introduction to Grand Central Station. You walked me right into this, so you set yourself up here.

STAMBERG: I don't think so. I'll do my best.

As a bullet seeks its target, shining rails in every part of our great country are aimed at Grand Central Station, drawn by the magnetic force of the fantastic metropolis.

Do you believe writing like this?

Day and night, great trains rush toward the Hudson River, sweep down the eastern bank for 140 miles, flash briefly down the long red row of tenement houses south of 125th Street, dive with a roar into the 2 1/2-mile tunnel that burrows beneath the glitter and swank of Park Avenue, and then Grand Central Station, crossroads of a million private lives, gigantic stage on which are played a thousand dramas daily.

GROSS: Oh, my gosh.

STAMBERG: Woo-woo (ph).

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Wow. So this was like an anthology series of all these different people who pass through Grand Central Station?

STAMBERG: Yes. Oh, it was such a good program, great drama and great sound effects and truly live. It was probably an organ that somebody was playing live through it all. But sometimes there were full orchestras that played, punctuated with music on some of those other shows.

GROSS: I want to express my gratitude to both of you for all you've done to, you know, create what we know as NPR (laughter). And so happy anniversary. And congratulations. And on behalf of so many people, thank you so much.

STAMBERG: Thank you so much, Terry.

SIEMERING: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Bill Siemering was NPR's first director of programming and created All Things Considered. Susan Stamberg hosted the show from 1972 to '86. Our thanks to them for helping us celebrate the 50th anniversary of NPR and All Things Considered. The official anniversary is Monday, May 3.

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, our guest will be writer Imbolo Mbue. Her new novel, "How Beautiful We Were," is set in a fictional African village where the villagers are in conflict with the state and an oil company that's polluted the land. Her first novel, "Behold The Dreamers," was a New York Times bestseller and won the Pen Faulkner Award for fiction. I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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