‘Celebrate the human experience as infinitely varied:’ Back to NPR’s beginnings with Bill Siemering

Feb 28, 2017
Originally published on March 1, 2017 4:46 pm

National Public Radio will serve the individual: it will promote personal growth; it will regard the individual differences among men 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.

That’s an excerpt from a 1970 mission statement that Bill Siemering wrote at the outset of National Public Radio, of which he was one of the original organizers and its first program director.

On Wednesday’s St. Louis on the Air, we had the chance to speak with Siemering about the important roles he played in the founding of NPR and the creation of “All Things Considered,” as he visits town for a talk at Principia College on Thursday night.

A MacArthur Genius Grant recipient, Siemering is now the president of a non-profit called Developing Radio Partners, an organization that facilitates radio stations in developing countries.

“I thought by speaking with many voices and many dialects, as I wrote in the mission statement, that we would have a varied audience and by using sound to tell the stories, it would be more engaging and we’d attract a large audience,” Siemering said of his vision for NPR. “My intention was that it would not be second-rate but it would be a serious form of journalism.”

This belief in the power of radio had its roots in the medium’s beginnings, which mark 100 years this year.

“From the very beginning, there was a social concern: using radio for social good,” Siemering said.

The first radio broadcasts were meant for farmers, only 60 percent of whom were literate in the early 1900s. Radio was meant for educational purposes to help people who could not read.

“The actual term for broadcasting came from agriculture, actually: scattering seeds,” Siemering said. “That’s really what we’re doing, scattering seeds, distributing ideas that people might be nourished by.”

Siemering said at the outset of NPR, he wanted the network to be different from the forms of radio already available in the ‘70s.

“I wanted to differentiate us from educational radio, which was stuffy, and from commercial radio, which was slick and from New York, and to differentiate us from PBS, to capitalize on issues of the time, to capitalize on strengths of audio and to get out of the studio, to get out from the studios in New York,” Siemering said.

Listen as Siemering discusses how he conceptualized early programs at NPR, what the network was like nearly 50 years ago, and how he views radio’s place in journalism today:

Related Event

What: Principia College Presents Bill Siemering

When: Thursday, March 2 at 7:30 p.m.

Where: Wanamaker Hall at Principia College, Elsah, Illinois

More information.

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