50 and Forward: An Anniversary Celebration of NPR
It's been a turbulent time, with a deadly pandemic and a chaotic — sometimes violent — political climate. In the midst of all this, NPR is marking a milestone; on May 3, 2021, the network turns 50 years old.
On the same day, in 1971, we started holding up our microphone to America. Just outside our doors, on the streets of Washington, DC, one of the biggest antiwar protests in American history was taking place. NPR's story is that of a ragtag network — born in the era of the Vietnam War and Watergate — one that came of age during the explosion of the 24/7 news cycle.
In the 50 years that NPR has been around, the news and journalism have changed. The network has been shaped by its talented reporters, producers and hosts.
NPR has also had to reckon with the ways it has not lived up to its mission of diversity and inclusion, a mission it continues to strive for today. But, as stories go, NPR's is quite a memorable one.
NPR's beginning was improbable. The network barely made it on air.
Linda Wertheimer, who directed the first broadcast of All Things Considered, thought they would never survive another week. Given the chaotic nature of that first day, her sense of NPR's future was grim. "[It] was just going to be beyond awful," Wertheimer says.
But from the start, NPR's blueprint was infused with the chance to do something different, something extraordinary. "We were creating it from scratch. There was no template for it," says Susan Stamberg, NPR's Founding Mother.
To understand the media world from which NPR sprang, you need to look at what was going on — not in radio, but on television, in the late 1960s. At the time, concern that public television was not adequately serving the public was growing. In a now famous speech before the National Association of Broadcasters, FCC Chair Newt Minow challenged broadcasters to do better: "I invite you to sit down at your television set when your station goes on the air, and stay there for a day," he says. "Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland." Minow and others felt that the public was not receiving the benefits that the airways owned.
In 1967, President Lyndon B. Johnson articulated the mission of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a nonprofit corporation funded by American taxpayers. Originally named the Public Television Act, the bill's purpose was to fix TV's problems. Radio wasn't even on the docket; in fact, the words "And radio" were taped on — literally — at the last minute. According to On the Media host Brooke Gladstone, there wasn't much, if any, news happening in radio. "NPR was able to walk into an open field and start playing," she said. "That was one of the reasons it was able to set the rules of the game, the sound of the air." NPR's sound was an open question: What would it be? Who would they sound like?
Bill Siemering, NPR's first director of programming, recognized the lack of structure as something exciting. "I remember, maybe at the first staff program — staff meeting — I said 'We have a blank canvas here, and there'll be thousands of brush strokes on this,' " Siemering recalls. " 'But the very first brush strokes that we put on this are very important because that will set a tone and value.' " Siemering remembers being aspirational, offering a few core values for the network to follow, as he wrote the first paragraph of what would become NPR's mission statement:
National Public Radio will serve the individual. It will promote personal growth. It will regard individual differences with respect and joy rather than derision and hate. It will celebrate the human experience as infinitely varied rather than vacuous and banal. It will encourage a sense of active, constructive participation, rather than apathetic helplessness.
NPR's mission statement has worked its way into the network's DNA. Even today, many staff members can recite parts of it, and a newer version is displayed in large letters on the wall of NPR's lobby.
Few things represent NPR's growth more than our headquarters in Washington, DC. It stands seven stories high, almost a city block long. The day's headlines scroll across the building on a giant, black news ticker; you can see them from across town. When you walk in, the lobby is a sleek, cavernous space. You'll notice right away that there's a timeline of our history, how the network grew from a staff of just 65 people, to what is now a thriving news network with over 1,000 employees around the country and the world. Radio is the medium that launched us, and to this day, our success still comes back to the singular, human voice in your ear. So, it's fitting that when you visit the newsroom, Susan Stamberg's voice escorts you upstairs.
Stamberg helped shape the sound of NPR as the first woman to anchor a national nightly news program. "When I went on, there were no role models. There were no women doing this. All there were — were men," Stamberg recalls. "So, I started lowering my voice and talking like this. And that really wasn't washing very well, and I couldn't keep it up for an hour and a half which was as long as the program was." Bill Siemering, who hired Stamberg, had a conversation with her that changed the way she spoke on air. "He said, 'Be yourself.' And that was like, such a gift. I didn't have to be ... that man-sounding voice," Stamberg recalls. "I could just speak as I spoke in real life, just like this ... It was what he heard. It was the voice he heard in his head, and he found it in me."
Not everyone embraced Stamberg's voice right away. Jack Mitchell remembers that certain board members in the midwest felt that she was "too New York." What it came down to was Siemering, who heard the sound he wanted for NPR in Stamberg's voice. Her voice was " ... curious, authentic, [and had a] rich tone color, and just this insatiable curiosity that kind of bubbles over."
Hers wasn't the only voice to define the NPR sound — Cokie Roberts would become a legendary congressional and political reporter; Linda Wertheimer, a longtime host of All Things Considered. Finally, Nina Totenberg, who defines our Supreme Court coverage. Nina, Linda, Cokie, and Susan: a roster of female talent affectionately referred to as "The Founding Mothers."
NPR was still nascent when Ira Glass — a young intern who had never heard of NPR — arrived in 1978. "And I'm going to say this, and it doesn't sound like it's true, but it's totally true," Glass says. "NPR didn't get a satellite till 1980." Glass explains that if you were listening to NPR in Los Angeles, what it sounded like was if "somebody in Washington was listening to All Things Considered on the radio, and they were holding their phone up to the radio."
The arrival of the satellite coincided with the launch of Morning Edition, which debuted in 1979. The show was almost cancelled before it even started. "It was absolutely a disaster," former Morning Edition host Bob Edwards said. Jay Kernis, a former producer who helped get the program off the ground, agrees: "There were many pilots. They were all pretty bad." Edwards took leave from All Things Considered and a week later, Morning Edition went on air.
NPR continued to expand. In 1979, the network opened its first foreign bureau, sending Robert Siegel to London. Slowly, the network was able to hire new correspondents and freelancers stationed around the globe. Now, NPR has 17 official foreign bureaus and numerous stringers providing coverage around the world. "I mean, when I first came [to NPR]," Siegel says. "We were a little spice in the public radio system." Decades on, NPR has become an institution — in some regards, a cliche — the subject of jokes, Siegel suggests.
By the time Michele Norris arrived in 2002 to host All Things Considered, which she did for nearly a decade, she remembers "NPR ... as the gold standard in journalism [due to] their foreign coverage, political coverage, their depth, and the pristine sound." Yet NPR has had to reckon with many of the ways it still needs to change. "I will admit that for a time as a journalist, I did not want to cover the race beat." Norris said. "As a person of color. I always covered matters of race, perhaps more than my white colleagues did, because that's what happens in a newsroom." Norris says that her views changed when she became a host. Part of the issue comes down to who NPR thinks its audience is. "I think there was a false perception that NPR had a Chardonnay-drinking, Volvo-driving, fuzzy sweater wearing, Birkenstock-walking audience. Our audience was much more diverse than that," Norris says. "I knew that when I went out in the world. I knew that from the listeners that I heard from. Our job is to hold a mirror up to the world."
50 years later, we fill a digital space that goes beyond the wildest dreams of our founders. "I've never thought of it as something that was exclusively radio," NPR's Vice President of Programming, Anya Grundmann, says. "It's about creating experiences that will enhance people's lives." NPR serves on every platform imaginable. Every week, 60 million people consume some form of NPR across a full range of experiences, including radio, smart speakers, NPR.org, video streaming, live events, mobile apps — and of course, podcasts.
NPR has been one of the top publishers in the US since podcasting began. In fact, in January of 2000, NPR created an online show that didn't exist on the radio at all: All Songs Considered — our first podcast before the term even existed. Today, NPR publishes more than a dozen of them every week and partners with stations and independent producers as well. In fact, one-third of all daily podcast listening is attributed to NPR and our public radio partners.
NPR continues adding podcasts at a fast clip, thinking about whose stories matter. Code Switch, one about race and identity, is a good example of this. Shereen Marisol Meraji, one of the show's co-hosts, shares the story she's most proud of telling — one that got listeners to think more deeply about a statistic: "16 million people live in a household where one or more of the people in [their] household is undocumented." For this story, Meraji reported on a family of three siblings: one who was was a citizen, one who was completely undocumented, and one who had DACA — which granted her temporary relief from deportation. Meraji asked the siblings what it was like to live together, knowing that their futures looked very different. "And I think that that's what we do so well at Code Switch," Meraji says. "... We will take a faceless statistic, and we will make it real and human for our listeners." Last year, Code Switch was named Apple Podcasts' first-ever "Show of the Year" in the US.
Another NPR innovation that surprised even the people who invented it was the Tiny Desk Concert. It started with NPR Music's Bob Boilen and Stephen Thompson taking an annual trip to music festival South by Southwest, where they often come across emerging musical talent. As Boilen tells it, he and Thompson went to see the artist Laura Gibson perform at a noisy bar. "We introduced ourselves to Laura, and Stephen jokingly said to her, 'We couldn't hear you. You ought to just come play a private concert in our office,' " he recalls. "All three of us laughed. And before we knew it, three weeks later, she came to NPR ... And I put her behind my desk with a microphone and a couple of cameras and took it home and edited it, put it up online."
No one at NPR music imagined that this chance meeting would, in time, produce the phenomenon known as the Tiny Desk, a video series that features musicians performing short 15-minute concerts. It would eventually become NPR's biggest digital program. Another turning point was rapper T-Pain's performance who played, for the first time in public, without autotune. The concert went viral; within a few days, 7 million people had watched it. Soon, the Tiny Desk series was featuring a wide range of musical genres on a regular basis. Just last year, the Tiny Desk series had nearly a half a billion views on youtube.
Across the audio landscape, there's been an explosion in creativity, especially in storytelling — much of it sharing our DNA. Take Ira Glass, for instance, who started his career as an intern at NPR. 17 years later, after learning the ropes as a producer, reporter and sometimes host, Glass came up with the idea for a show that would feature a new kind of storytelling. Naturally, he turned to NPR to see if they would distribute it. "NPR just did not want to pick up the show," Glass recalls. "The management, they just didn't like it. They didn't get ... even, that it was journalism." But Glass doesn't necessarily see NPR's rejection of what would become This American Life as a missed opportunity: "In the end, I feel like that's one of those things that just doesn't matter at all. We were on all the same stations. We reached all the same audience, you know what I mean?"
This American Life took off in spectacular fashion and remains one of the most popular shows today. It has what could be described as a kind of "public radio style" — conversational, low-key, intimate. The creativity of the show rippled out and helped shape some of the podcasts that would come to define NPR, like Planet Money and Invisibilia. This American Life made more than a splash even though NPR didn't see anything in it at first. Glass attributes this to the unique public radio format in the United States. "There's no big boss at the top who decides what all the stations should run, and there's a radical decentralization in public broadcasting," he says. "And that has made for a lot of creativity and openness than would otherwise happen."
The decentralized network has been there from the beginning; it exists as NPR's member stations. "I think one of the best parts of public radio, its secret sauce, if you will, is its member station network," Emily Kwong says. "They are the eyes and the ears of their community." Kwong, who works at NPR's Science Desk, says no other station embodies that better than where she got her start — KCAW, known by locals in Sitka, Alaska, as Raven radio. "Working in a tiny town, I didn't know if a big story would ever come our way, one that would necessarily result in the airing on NPR," Kwong says. "Until January 2018. A 7.9 [magnitude] earthquake had struck off the coast of Alaska in the middle of the night, and it prompted a tsunami warning for the entire state of Alaska and parts of Canada." Kwong remembers crawling out of her bed, bleary eyed, thinking, "I have to start doing my job, which is to report the local news."
As part of her job, Kwong spoke to Rachel Martin on Morning Edition. The wave thankfully never came, but the conversation helped her appreciate the relationship between NPR and its member stations. "The level of caring and concern in [Martin's] voice — knowing that there were eyes on Sitka, that people outside of Sitka were paying attention to us and that kind of connection is something I won't forget," she says. "And it made NPR real to me. It made it a place I knew I can call up and share the news of what was happening in my area and share that with the country because that's how it's structured to be."
Kwong now works at headquarters in Washington, DC as a reporter for NPR's Science Podcast, Short Wave. "What it really is, is a show that's looking at science from a lens of equity," she explains. Kwong believes that NPR is in a unique position to help listeners have a deeper understanding of America "because we have [the platform, the power, the ability] and the time to research all of this, and interview people who understand it."
Having power and a platform means we can experiment with new shows and ask the kind of questions that give us a deeper understanding of America. NPR Music's Louder Than a Riot looks at the interconnected rise of hip-hop and mass incarceration. "With Louder than a Riot, we really wanted to tell the story that we've lived," co-host Rodney Carmichael says. "You know, as two people from the hip-hop culture, of the hip-hop culture, who've been fans of it, you know, from day one. And we knew that there was a story there, that there were voices there, that you have never heard on NPR." Co-host Sidney Madden agrees, noting that "it is very serendipitous that the rollout of this show came on the [dovetails] of the summer we just lived through in 2020" — referring to the protests for racial justice, after the death of George Floyd. "But at the same time, the whole point of the show is that hip-hop has been saying it for 40 years," Madden says. "And so many people didn't listen and they just casually consume it, but don't consider the deeper meaning ... between the lines and between the lyrics."
Carmichael says that he would love to see NPR get to the point where it's not just creating specialty shows to go after a certain kind of audience. "We need to be, in all of our main broadcast shows, telling the kind of stories that we feel like aren't being heard or told enough on the [other] bigger outlets." Madden agrees. "It's like, don't wait to play, catch up on something you know you can be a leader in. [NPR has] the talent, the resources and the drive and the vision to do it," she says. Carmichael suggests that we shouldn't have to wait another 40 years to tell the story of what's happening this year. "Let's start telling those stories right now."
Right now and for the years to come, we'll continue to ask ourselves what we can do better, where we can improve and how we can innovate. NPR has worked for 50 years to get it right: to Hear Every Voice and to connect with you — and we're grateful for the chance to do it all again. In the words of Susan Stamberg: "Hang on to that sense of mission and the idealism with which we began. We're hurtling towards the next phase. We have passed through it and there's gonna be something beyond that, too."
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