“This is Radio, Dammit, Pay Attention”: An Interview with Bill Siemering — Part One

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Bill Siemering, National Public Radio’s first Director of Programming, President of Developing Radio Partners, and a recipient of the MacArthur Foundation’s “genius grant,” will be visiting campus this Wednesday to speak with students about his career. The Daily Gazette sat down with Bill to discuss how he got his start in radio, how he came to write NPR’s original mission statement, and his service work abroad. In part one of this interview, Siemering speaks about his early interest in radio and how shaped what would later become NPR.

The Daily Gazette (DG): Tell me about your radio work in college. Is that when you knew it was what you wanted to do?

Bill Siemering (BS): Yes [laughs]. Yes, in a word. […] In fact, I happened to have a birthday recently, and I was back in Madison, Wisconsin […] and we had a little gathering in the very room in Radio Hall where I began. I went to the University and started working as an engineer at WHA, which is called the oldest station in the nation because radio started there in 1917, and I learned all my basic training at the radio station.

Stepping back, if I may, my first experience with radio was in first grade, going to a two-room country schoolhouse outside of Madison. Twice a day, we’d listen to the Wisconsin School of the Air, where there were instructional programs. So I learned science, art, social studies, nature, music by radio. From first grade on, I regarded radio as a source of information and imagination and storytelling.

DG: And how did those early experiences in radio help you shape what would become NPR?

BS: That’s a longer story. […] “Where do ideas come from?” is what you’re asking, in a way, right?

DG: Yes.

BS: Well, I went from University of Wisconsin — I was a school teacher for a few years — and then I went to SUNY Buffalo. […] And there was a student radio station, WBFO […] and it was a student activity. So, it would go off the air on vacations. They started the broadcast day at five in the afternoon, after classes. […] Whereas in Wisconsin, it was thought of as a natural extension of their land grant university. Their model was “the boundaries of the campus are the boundaries of the state.” And so the radio was a natural way of doing that. Farming information, education programming, music and so on.

In Buffalo, where it was framed as a student activity, that was a little different context. So it wasn’t all that well organized, frankly, because they were thinking of it that way. They would say, “Okay, so Jim has a good classical repertoire, so he can do the classic music at 8. But then Mary would need to leave by 10 to catch the bus home.” In fact, I think that’s the way they developed a program schedule. So when I went there, I was curious, naturally, so I did a porch-to-porch survey in the black community and found what people there were interested in.

Now we’re talking about 1962, when there were no people of color in the media to speak of. There was a white-owned, black-oriented station, but that’s different. So out of that, I established a studio in the black community, in a storefront. All the weekend programming came from there. So they had their jazz discussion programs, you know, that kind of thing. That was really, at that time, giving a voice to folks [who] didn’t have a voice. And that really came out of covering [local service organizations]. They would call a press conference and have prepared a statement about schools. When they finished, the TV cameras would go off and they’d say, “You know, we can only use 45 seconds. Do you want to do that again?” And I thought, these problems have been in the making for three hundred years, so maybe three minutes isn’t expecting too much to talk about them.

And then in the spring, around March of 1970, there was a demonstration, a large movement on the campus, and the Student Union was tear gassed. It went on over several nights. A TV cruiser was trashed. And we were broadcasting as it was happening. I would talk to the leader of the movement, and say “Terry […] what made you become a leader of this movement?” And he said, “Well, I was in a civil rights demonstration, and I was arrested and put in jail. I read these books, and I had this professor,” and so on. Then I talked to the acting president and asked “Where were you when you decided it was alright to tear gas the Student Union building? What information were you getting?” And he explained, and then I said, “How are your decisions influenced by the fact that you’re a candidate to be named permanent president?” And he said, “Well, I decided not to be a candidate for that, because I need to act independently of any consideration of that.”

I went on air and said, “You see, there is no right or wrong in this. There are just different perceptions of reality. Different ways of seeing the same thing. And we’re trying to understand, to see the world through these different eyes.”

Out of all this, I evolved a program that I called This is Radio!, exclamation point. I would have liked to say, “This is radio, dammit, pay attention.” At that time, PBS was just starting. There wasn’t an NPR. And it was always hard to make a case for radio, somehow. People just wouldn’t pay attention to it. […] I was just showing that radio is live, it’s curious, it’s dealing with both arts and news. And so those are some of the elements that went into All Things Considered later. And that program, This is Radio!, the producers of that came over to Philadelphia and renamed it Fresh Air with Terry Gross.

As far as writing the mission statement [for NPR], I was trying to differentiate […] from the kind of stodgy educational radio, from commercial radio, and from public television. What was our unique niche, how would we define that? So that’s where that mission statement came from. […] Have you ever seen a copy of that?

DG: Yes, I have.

BS: So you know, it talks about promoting personal growth regarding individual differences with respect and joy, rather than derision and hate. Celebrate that the human experience is infinitely varied, and encourage active, constructive participation rather than apathetic helplessness. Also that it would not substitute superficial blandness for genuine diversity of region, values, and cultural and ethnic minorities which comprise American society. It would speak with many voices and many dialects. The editorial attitude will be that of inquiry, curiosity, concern for quality of life, critical, problem solving, and life-loving.

It was aspirational, granted, but it was not something that would come out of corporate organizations now. Nonetheless, I’m told by the HR person at NPR that they still give this to new employees, even though they have a regular, corporate-sounding mission statement as well. That’s where all those things came from, the kind of history of the idea. It came from my primary experiences, you see, not from an imagining of something.

DG: You said you wanted to differentiate between kind of stodgy, educational radio and public radio. What’s the importance of having a public radio, that belongs to the people?

BS: Why public radio? […] I liked the idea of it being public, for the whole public, for everyone. And if there are more diverse voices on air, there would be diverse listeners. So the idea of being inclusive is very important. And the way it’s supported by the combination of different sources — there’s money from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and there’s money from individual donors — is important, because you’re really putting the programming to a vote, in a way. It must be significantly different from commercial radio, and from television, and of a high enough quality that people will voluntarily give their money. This is different than the BBC or CBC model, which is all top down, where [the government] owns and operates the station. […] This is saying, well, you like this or not? How much is it worth to you? I think that’s a high test you have to meet to get support.

We think of radio, oftentimes, as information coming to people vertically. But the unique strength of radio is the horizontal — the discussion that goes on amongst people. That’s what really is most important, in a way. For the public to have a place to discuss things live, as it happens. You can’t duplicate that on the internet. You can have chat rooms or blogs with comments, but to have a live discussion is unique to radio.

It’s also a storytelling medium, an intimate medium. It’s very personal sometimes. That’s why I wanted to have a conversational style, not the voice of authority from New York.

In part two of this interview, Siemering and The Daily Gazette will speak about how he went from NPR to developing community radio in Africa, and his advice to Swarthmore students looking to make a difference.

Featured image courtesy of http://transom.org

Allison Hrabar

Allison is double major in Political Science (Honors) and Film and Media Studies. When not working for The Daily Gazette, she cajoles people into watching the The Americans (Wednesdays at 10:00p.m. on FX).

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