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.
In part two of this interview with 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,” Siemering explains his move from NPR to South African radio and beyond. Read part one of the interview here.
The Daily Gazette (DG): What made you turn from doing US programming at NPR to developing DRP?
Bill Siemering (BS): I was producing sound for a documentary series in Baltimore, and I felt that I had done what I could there for about five years. So I left that position and was looking for work in the Philadelphia area, because my daughter was young. I was asked to go over to South Africa in 1993 to talk to folks who were interested in reforming the South African Broadcasting Corporation, and who were interested in community radio because they thought of that as, again, giving a voice to the voiceless and as part of the liberation struggle.
I went over and talked to those people, and I came back and was still unemployed. I realized I could get paid when I was over there doing work, but there wasn’t any work at that time. So I went to a car service down at the airport to see if I could get a job doing that. I took the training and I was waiting for a call for my assignment, and I got a call from the MacArthur Foundation and they said I had a fellowship. So I didn’t have to drive a car [laughs].
Then, the following year, 1994, the Open Society Foundation for South Africa opened, which is part of the Soros Foundation. So I contacted them and I said, “If community radio is one of your priorities, let me know and maybe I can help you.” They said, “Yeah, it is!” So I set up the guidelines for supporting community radio, organized trainings, and so on. I did that for ten years, working with the Solis Foundation, first as a consultant then as a full time staff person. I worked in Eastern Europe as well, and Mongolia, and so on. That’s where I got started in international work.
And then that job with the Soros Foundaiton ended. They eliminated the position. So, again, I was out of work. I realized, in all my travels, that radio was not regarded well. It wasn’t valued as it should have been. I thought, I ought to have an organization that focuses on radio then. That’s how [DRP] came about.
DG: Do you think radio is regarded well now?
BS: That’s a very good question. Of course, your generation, perhaps, doesn’t tune into a regular radio so much, but you hear it online or streaming or podcasts, which is fine. But radio, is, I think, still important. The audience for public radio has been growing as it’s been declining for other media, and for PBS. So I think it’s still vital.
I was at the the Merriam Theater on Saturday night — Ira Glass, from This American Life, made a presentation there, and the place was filled. And many young people were there. The week before I was at a presentation by Terry Gross at the Keswick Theatre. And, again, it was filled to capacity. And it had a very diverse audience. I loved to see an audience, a public radio audience, like that.
[Public radio] is still being regarded […] as one of the sources for impartial information these days. For first rate journalism. So, yes, I think it still has this unique role and it’s important to know that people may be listening to it in different ways. On the telephone, or the smart phone. When radio is true to its unique strengths, it will always be a powerful tool, a powerful medium.
DG: Swarthmore is a school that’s really focused on civic and social responsibility — do you have any words of advice for students who want to make an impact?
BS: I think one of the most inspiring things for me is to see your generation interested in this. Many of the people I work with are in their 20s and 30s, so I would say, “go do it,” you know? Sometimes you can intern at some agency you’re interested in, or do time abroad and go overseas with an organization over the summer to see that experience. I think it’s the future. If I was your age, I would live overseas for a few years, I think, because it’s such a wonderful experience. I didn’t go overseas until I was 56 […] Maybe for the first time, getting an experience overseas is really invaluable.
Bill Siemering will be on campus today, November 19. He will be in Sharples Room 208 from 12:30pm to 1:30pm; The Lang Center for Civic and Social Responsibility from 2:00pm to 3:30pm; and War News Radio from 4:00pm to 5:00pm.
Featured image courtesy of The Huffington Post.
Correction, 11/19/14: The Soros Foundation was initially misidentified.