Volume 3/Issue 1
- Download this document in PDF
- About Bill Siemering
- Bill Siemering in Talk
Intro by Jay Allison
I recently had the pleasure of introducing Bill Siemering when he won the first Third Coast Festival Lifetime Achievement Award, but here I’d like to quote some people who wrote about him to mark his 50th anniversary in radio.
“We are the produce of seeds of thinking and action planted by Bill. We are disciples who extend his ideas. We cherish knowing him because he gives our lives focus and brings meaning to our work. Tune around the radio dial and I guarantee you will hear Bill Siemering talking to you.” -Dennis Hamilton
“He keeps the big questions in mind. He is–rare in radio, rare in any field–a serious person. Not solemn, thank God, just serious.” -Larry Massett
“To many of us in South Africa, radio represents the hope of new beginnings, of a new democracy in which all the voices are heard. Bill has helped nurture the seeds of this new generation.” -Sue Valentine
It’s not just coincidence that the “seed” metaphor runs through the life and work of Bill Siemering. As he says in his memoir below, “the only definition of ‘broadcast’ in 1901 was ‘to sow seeds.’ This is still my favorite metaphor for public radio.”
Bill’s words, and the example of his life, are his seeds.
It is our great pleasure to welcome Bill Siemering here at Transom, where we hope he will find himself very much at home.
Bill Siemering’s Manifesto
January 22, 2003
My First Fifty Years in Radio and What I Learned
Because I’d been driving straight ahead, it wasn’t until I passed the marker of my 50th high school reunion last year that I realized I’d also been working in radio for fifty years. The present is so full, I glance only occasionally in the rear-view mirror. So maybe this is a good time to pause and see where this life-long love affair with radio began, and to reflect on some of the places it has led.
As early as first grade, radio both educated me and spurred my imagination.
In a two-room country school near Madison, I learned from radio by listening to the Wisconsin School of the Air.
Twice a day the 20-minute programs were broadcast over WHA-AM, and included music, science, nature studies, social studies and art. One of the most popular programs was Let’s Draw! Sometimes we’d paint listening to a dramatization or reading of a story.
My family’s house was so close to the WHA transmitter that it was almost in the shadow of the towers. I was so full of radio waves that radio captured my mind. I didn’t have a chance.
Acting in a radio play at WHA. (1955-56)
How I Got Into Radio
My parents had been actors in the Chautauqua circuit putting on plays in the Midwest in tents in the summers. In high school I also found my place working on the stage crew and performing in plays.
Ruth McCarty was the speech teacher, head of the drama program and my mentor. Her husband was H.B. McCarty, director of WHA and an educational radio leader, and she suggested I see about working with him at the station.
So I began my vocation at WHA in June, 1952 and worked my way through the University of Wisconsin as a board operator, announcer, and newscaster. I also acted in some of the radio plays.
My previous summer jobs had including bailing hay and harvesting grain, working in a hotel laundry and sometimes cleaning the lavatories. WHA seemed like an improvement: it was air-conditioned and the job required no heavy lifting.
WHA is “the oldest station in the nation,” started in 1917 as 9XM, a project of the physics department. To start a radio station was natural for a university with the motto, “The boundaries of the campus are the boundaries of the state.” And it’s worth noting that it came out of an agricultural environment; the only definition of “broadcast” in 1901 was “to sow seeds.” This is still my favorite metaphor for public radio.
After serving as a guard and education specialist at Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas and teaching school in northern Wisconsin, I returned to WHA summers while I completed my Master’s in education.
In 1962 I had a phone call from Richard Siggelkow, formerly a professor of mine and now dean of students at the University of Buffalo in upstate New York. He was looking for someone with a background in radio/journalism and student personnel to supervise a newspaper and radio station, both student-run.
WBFO was a place to play with radio, a Petri dish for public radio and FRESH AIR
All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make the better.
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson
Like many other student stations in the early 60′s, WBFO signed on each day at 5:00 pm after classes were over, and went off the air entirely during vacations and summers. Programming was decided more or less by a consensus of the staff.
I realized I couldn’t use the WHA model in Buffalo. Dean Siggelkow said, “This is just a small bush now, but you can help it grow into a big tree someday.” I realize now, he unconsciously became a model boss: he supported me and left me alone.
I spent the first year learning about the city, conducting a porch-to-porch survey in the Black community and producing a program on what it was like “To Be Negro.” I also worked with Native Americans living at nearby Niagara Falls to produce a series of programs on the Iroquois Confederacy.
Over time WBFO became a professionally-managed station, acquiring a core of paid student staff and extending its programming day and year-round. I hired Mike Waters as news director from a commercial country and western station. He had also been a stringer for CBC, VOA and others. Mike later became a co-host of ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.
We used the station like an experimental laboratory and the results informed work with NPR and created the genesis of FRESH AIR. We broadcast live events from a major arts festival, meetings of the Common Council and readings by local and visiting writers.
For a program titled “Talking Painting,” we reproduced student paintings in the program guide and heard the artists tell of their creative process.
In another experiment, we brought in five live lines from around the city, and composer Maryanne Amacher altered and mixed the sounds into a 28-hour composition, “City Links WBFO,” that we broadcast non-stop.
Listeners became aware of the music in their environment, and checked the sound of the city as they might check the weather. You could hear a steel cutting-saw and guys changing shifts at the Bethlehem Steel factory, airplanes coming in, and a musical bell-like machine at General Mills.
Far out? Sure, and yet it also demonstrated how radio could be a creative medium in itself, a celebration of sound.
In an article for a professional magazine in 1969, I wrote:
“Public radio should be a concert hall where the old may be enjoyed and the new introduced. In our fine arts programming, we must regain that faculty, which as Hannah Arendt says, ‘is originally peculiar to all cultural things, the faculty of arresting our attention and moving us.”
Most importantly, in 1969-70, we established a storefront broadcast studio in the heart of the Black community. With guidelines drawn up with local residents, they produced 25 hours a week of programming on WBFO — essentially all weekend from Friday night to Sunday afternoon. I told them one of the key ideas in broadcasting in America is that “the airwaves belong to the people.”
We sponsored a Black Arts Festival and folks brought in paintings and photographs, read poems and performed live jazz. Although there were two commercial black-oriented stations, Ed Smith from the storefront center was the first to play Roberta Flack in Buffalo. Some of the broadcasters went on to successful careers in commercial radio and television.
Radio as a Voice of Calm and Reason – FRESH AIR
In March, 1970, a student strike erupted on campus and three hundred police were brought in to quell it over several nights. WBFO was housed in the student union, which was tear-gassed. Surrounded by chaos, we set out to capture as many points of view as we could.
We asked the leader of the protest how he came to this point in his life. He told of being arrested in a civil rights demonstration and going to jail, and of books and professors who influenced his thinking. We spoke to the acting university president, with moderate faculty members, and to anyone else with a point of view.
I went on the air and said, “You see, there isn’t a single truth here. There are different perceptions of reality and we’re bringing them all to you.”
WBFO later received praise from the local newspapers for being “a voice of calm and reason” amidst the turmoil. And we had learned about the power of radio in a crisis.
As events surrounding the disturbances gradually subsided, we started a program called THIS IS RADIO! to build on the sense of immediacy and provide a forum for ideas from the riot coverage.
It aired in the afternoon for three hours and was poised to respond quickly to any timely event. We did interviews with local and visiting writers, and with a range of other people of ideas. To the interviews we added a variety of music.
Later on, when some of the staff from WBFO moved to Philadelphia and Terry Gross joined as host and producer, THIS IS RADIO! became FRESH AIR.
As director of programming at NPR, 1972.
From “Educational” to “Public” Radio – Establishing NPR’s Identity
With the creation of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in 1967, non commercial radio stations across the country changed their names from “educational” to “public” broadcasters.
In 1969, I wrote an article titled “Public Broadcasting – Some Essential Ingredients,” laying out what I thought this change meant. I think it was because of this article and the programming we were doing at WBFO that I was elected to the founding board of National Public Radio and asked to write the original mission statement.
All of my experience in Buffalo was fresh as I was writing the original NPR Mission and Goals statement that said NPR:
“…will promote personal growth rather than corporate gains; 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…. The total service should be trustworthy, enhance intellectual development, expand knowledge, deepen aural esthetic enjoyment, increase the pleasure of living in a pluralistic society and result in a service to listeners which makes them more responsive, informed human beings and intelligent citizens of their communities and the world. “
The board appointed Don Quayle, who had worked in both public radio and television, to be the first president. Quayle then he hired me as the first director of programming to implement the mission.
A vision without a task is but a dream; a task without a vision
is drudgery; a vision with a task is the hope of the world.
~ An inscription written on a church in Sussex, England, 1730.
Many of those on the founding NPR Board and among the early program staff were passionate about reclaiming the imaginative power of radio as a sound medium. We wanted to create something authentic to contrast with the hype and artifice of so much in commercial media.
Public television was already ahead of us, and we were tired of having radio elbowed aside. (Initially, some public television leaders wanted to exclude radio from CPB.) We wanted to say, “Listen! This is what radio can do, damn it!!”
How would we be different from public television? Here are some things we decided:
- First of all, we wouldn’t have self-important titles like Masterpiece Theater. We wouldn’t look to Brits, with the BBC, for programs and inspiration, although we did identify with the radio revolution at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.
- In contrast to television, we wouldn’t schedule our news program after the network news, as a kind of follow-up. Instead we would provide the first national electronic record of the day’s events.
- We wouldn’t support a handful of producing stations without a center, but would instead create a single production center that gathered news and programs from all stations. I think this decision has made a profound difference between public radio and PBS.
Radio isn’t about masterpieces. Radio is a companion that makes the everyday elegant, like a Shaker chair or carved wooden spoons. It’s with you when you’re making breakfast, nursing the baby, fixing the car, sewing, or driving (even a tractor).
Radio is personal, for both the producer and listener. This is why it has such power and why we feel so passionate about it. Hearing a voice alone gives radio an intimacy unmatched by any other medium. And because public radio is non-commercial we establish a bond with our listeners through our art.
Lewis Hyde has written on the role of the artist in a commercial society and as well as the Trickster in myth and art. He writes in “The Gift”:
“That art that matters to us – which moves the heart, or revives the soul or delights the senses, or offers courage for living, however we choose to describe the experience – that work is received by us as a gift is received…It is the cardinal difference between gift and commodity exchange that a gift establishes a feeling bond between two people, while the sale of commodity leaves no necessary connection. “
In establishing a public radio sound, I thought we should be more out of the studio than in, and I was convinced that if we capitalized on radio’s unique strengths, we would create a broad audience. We would use a conversational style, treat sources with respect, and seek solutions. The Core Values Marcia Alvar developed for PRPD are a theme and variation of the original tune.
By early 1971 all the CPB-qualified stations were linked by live lines. May 3, 1971, the first broadcast of ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, coincidentally, saw the largest anti-war demonstration in Washington, DC. Seeking out multiple perspectives, we produced a 20:00+ documentary that stands as one on the best records of that event.
Every one of the staff contributed to the evolution of ATC. However, Jack Mitchell, the first producer and Cleve Mathews, the news director deserve special recognition that they have not received. Though we’d had a rocky start, ATC received a Peabody in the first year.
In its first year NPR also broadcast nearly a hundred hours of hearings held by the House and Senate. It contributed to the Senate investigation of health care legislation by sponsoring six forums across the country on the problems of health care.
By the first quarter of 1972, there were 125 members operating 148 stations, and 22 percent of program material distributed by NPR came from the local stations.
Just as the first brush strokes on a canvas set the style for a painting, so the early voices on NPR set the tone. Susan Stamberg, more than anyone else, became the voice of NPR. Listeners responded to her authenticity and genuine engagement with people. She listened. She asked the questions listeners would ask and more. She knew how to tell stories, skillfully using sound in the telling. Susan still has one of the most expressive voices on radio.
Although there were many growing pains starting a new enterprise like this, I thought things were smoothing out. Instead I was fired on December 10, 1972.
I applied for a job doing landscaping near Washington, D.C. but I needed a truck driver’s license and had no truck on which to learn. Then Bill Kling, president of Minnesota Public Radio, kindly offered me a job as manager/producer/reporter at KCCM, Moorhead Minnesota.
Reporting for KCCM in Moorhead, Minnesota. (1974-75)
From Washington to Moorhead, Minnesota; Back to the Basics
Moorhead is separated from Fargo, North Dakota by the Red River, the remnant of an old alluvial lakebed, flat as a tabletop. The winters are cold, windy and long, and I felt I was in a Siberian exile.
My marriage had ended and my daughters were living in northern Wisconsin. I felt my career in public radio was over. I felt shame about losing my job, and about my divorce. But over time, with grace and the care of friends, I moved through the depression and learned to find the gold in the deep mine of adversity.
I hired Marcia Alvar, who was working as an auto mechanic in the unheated Freedom House garage serving the poor in Minneapolis. She was smart, curious, and had a good voice and a refreshing sense of humor. We produced a Saturday thematic program called HOME FOR THE WEEKEND and fed news stories to St. Paul and NPR.
Dennis Hamilton, who became vice president of MPR and John Ydstie, who went on to NPR, started at KCCM right out of college. One year I set a goal for KCCM to contribute an average of one story per week to NPR and we made it. I figure if we could do that in Moorhead, it could be done anywhere.
Among the stories we contributed to NPR were a series of twenty-six half-hour sound portraits of six small towns in North Dakota. On the weekends, for the money and because I enjoyed it, I worked on farms in North Dakota helping with planting, cultivating corn and spreading manure.
After nearly a year as vice president for programming at MPR in St. Paul, I was ready for a new challenge. I decided to leave the stable, radio-only operation of MPR and accept the manager’s job at Philadelphia’s WHYY-FM (then known as WUHY-FM), an under-performing station with a joint TV licensee.
From Minnesota to Philadelphia – More FRESH AIR
In 1978, more people listened to public radio in Ames, Iowa than in Philadelphia. CPB offered grants for under-performing stations in major markets. We applied for one and received $1 million over five years. We met the income and audience goals every year. By the end, the audience had grown fourfold, the staff by three times and the annual budget from $350,000 to over $2 million.
We hired a news staff and produced a half-hour nightly news program. WHYY became the most frequent contributor to NPR news programs. We upgraded the music programming, including community concerts; provided more support for FRESH AIR; and smoothed out the program schedule.
Because I knew I would make lots of changes, I started a monthly Dialogue with Listeners call-in, usually on FRESH AIR, to explain the reasons behind our decisions and to get listener feedback. Radio is really quite simple and easy to explain and it was wise to include the listeners as partners in the programming.
When I arrived at the station, FRESH AIR was a local, three-hour daily program Terry Gross produced with the help of Liane Hanson as associate producer and Danny Miller as an intern. We created a position for Danny, added other staff and reduced it to two hours.
As guests left, they frequently told me, “You know, that’s the best interview I ever had.” I knew Terry was exceptional.
In 1985, FRESH AIR began producing a weekly half-hour program for national distribution, to test a larger audience. Around this time, some east coast station managers were agitating for ATC to start at 4:00 pm. I thought this would be too early for reporters to file their stories and it would dilute the quality of ATC.
I thought we could design FRESH AIR to be a lead-in to ATC as a kind of arts and culture section of a newspaper. We even had a live promo with the ATC host so it sounded like they were right next to each other, so the hand-off would be seamless.
In May, 1987, the national daily version of FRESH AIR was launched; it became the third most listened to program on public radio.
Once I worked with a choreographer who described a dance in a way that listeners could create it in the privacy of their own homes. “You are a gnarled, old tree, swaying in the wind.” We called it, DANCE ON YOUR RADIO. The narrator: Mumia Abu Jamal, who is now serving life in prison after a jury found him guilty of killing a policeman.
In moving to Philadelphia, I had wanted to prove my management abilities. After nine years, I was pleased by what the staff had achieved. I’d also come to some conclusions about what it meant to manage well:
- Have a clear vision, hire the best people possible, and stay close to the listeners.
- I manage as I would like to be managed: have an agreed upon job description, be left alone to do the work and get feedback.
- The skill that has served me best is to recognize bright, creative people and support them. Whatever success I’ve had is because of the people I’ve hired and worked with.
While WHYY had come a long way, after close to ten years I was getting weary with corporate battles in a joint licensee. The situation became untenable and I left in June, 1987.
Jay Allison and Larry Massett had come up with the idea for a national documentary series to showcase the work of independent producers. Dave Creagh decided to host it at WJHU in Baltimore and asked me to be the executive producer of what came to be SOUNDPRINT. After five years, although there was strong support from producers and many stations, CPB stopped the funding. I felt it an appropriate time for me to leave.
A New Career in New Countries
After my first trip overseas in 1991, I became interested in international possibilities. In May, 1993, at age 58, under a USIA program, I went to South Africa to meet with folks who were planning to move into positions in the state run SABC once it was reformed, and others interested in community radio.
When I returned, I realized there was much follow-up work to do but no one to support it. Just then, I received a fellowship from the MacArthur Foundation that enabled me to start a new career.
Community radio was part of the liberation struggle to empower the majority of people living in townships. The challenge was formidable: program for the poorest with a staff that had no experience in radio, using volunteers, with no state funds in a volatile political environment.
The Open Society Institute opened a foundation in South Africa and asked me to develop guidelines for supporting radio. OSI gave grants for planning and development, training, equipment and program production.
With a station manager at a workshop on the Healthy Station in Durban South Africa, 1995.
South Africa held its first elections in 1994, and established a broadcast licensing authority. They believed the interests of the new democracy could best be served by community radio and only licensed these stations in the first year.
Ten new South African station managers came to the U.S. for a study tour and when they returned, participated with many others in NFCB Healthy Station workshops. Most of the stations quickly developed engaging programming that spoke directly to the immediate community and carried plenty of pop music.
They were innovative and responsible. One of the most effective stations operated out of a truck container, which proved that it is people, ideas and dedication that matter most, and that radio is the most accessible, democratic and easy to learn of all media. Yes, some of the stations had management and financial problems. Not all succeeded, but the majority did.
Independent media monitors concluded that the community stations did the best job of covering the most recent elections; they covered more issues than events. The excellent training developed by the Open Society Institute of South Africa certainly contributed to this.
The issues are different in the countries of the former Soviet Union. For the most part the new private stations follow American commercial music radio formats so that until the back-announce you think it must be an American station. They do virtually no news or information programming and contribute little to the development of civil society.
Although parliamentarians talk about transforming state broadcasting into public service, they remain essentially state-controlled. People in Ukraine, for example, talked of a third way and found our system of being both listener and mission-driven appealing. But voluntary listener support is, at least for now, an idea that would not work there.
In Kosovo a number of commercial stations are also development-oriented, carry 60 percent information programming versus 40 percent music, and are self-supporting. In many counties the private newspapers and electronic media are controlled by oligarchs or political parties, so it is difficult to get a straight story.
What is News, Anyway?
Let the people know the facts and the country will be safe.
I am a firm believer in the people. If given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any crisis. The great point is to bring them the real facts.
~ Abraham Lincoln
This is the challenge in both new democracies and our old one. When millions of dollars are spent to misinform and distort, as is the case with political advertising, it is little wonder that voter turnout is so low.
John le Carre’ cites a poll that one in two Americans believe Saddam Hussein was responsible for the attack on the World Trade Center even though there has been no link ever established. People are still not getting the information they need to understand the world. The challenge is to make people want to hear what they need to know.
I was in Mongolia in September 2002 during the Earth Summit in Johannesburg, and I watched coverage of the summit on BBC World. They had a compelling piece profiling a wealthy family in Houston, the most polluted city in America, followed by a visit to the Alexandra Township in South Africa. The scientists then explained that it will simply be impossible to maintain that American life style and level of consumption in the future.
What were Americans talking about the same day? When I checked my hotmail, the question of the day on the MSN home page was, “Is Brittany’s restaurant mediocre?”
Let’s see, where’s the story on “life on earth may end if we don’t make some changes?”
Journalists are fond of quoting Thomas Jefferson, from 1787:
“Our liberty depends upon the freedom of the press and cannot be limited without being lost. When the press is free, and every man is able to read, all is safe….were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the later.”
You don’t often see what he said in 1807:
“Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle…I will add that the man who never looks into a newspaper is better informed than he who reads them; in as much as he who knows nothing is nearer to the truth than he whose mind is filled with falsehoods and errors.”
My point is that freedom of the press by itself is no guarantee that the interests of democracy will be served. Media must be independent and responsible. If they aren’t responsible, they undermine civil society.
In workshops overseas, we have discussions about What Is News? Once I was asked to speak on “News as True Fiction or True Lies.” When local television stations increase their coverage of crime when crime is decreasing, this is a true lie as it creates the impression that it is less safe than it is.
Art speaks a truth beyond facts and this is why we included arts and culture in ATC as one of the defining qualities of NPR. Abe Rosenthal of the New York Times wrote in 1981:
“I wish I were a poet, because poets are the best reporters. They tell you what counts and they do it with few words. They tell the truth so plainly that every reader is struck immediately by the reality of truth and doesn’t need facts and figures to back it up.”
Now we’re getting to the work of so many independent producers. Joseph Conrad wrote:
“The artist speaks to our capacity for delight and wonder, to the sense of mystery surrounding our lives; to our sense of pity and beauty and pain. “
There has always been a certain tension between the news and feature producers at NPR and probably always will be. It’s okay. However, when features generate such strong listener response, when everyone agrees they are memorable, why aren’t more run? Public radio is rich with independent producers who make engaging, evocative pieces.
“What’s past is prologue.” ~ Shakespeare
My staff position with the Open Society Institute ended in October because of a restructuring at the foundation. This has been a whole new career, more learning than teaching.
Now with these ten years of experience, I’m working independently to raise funds to be able to continue this kind of work with more flexibility. I will focus on countries where radio is the dominant medium, and with stations that can make a significant difference in the lives of the people.
Where can radio make such a difference? Here are a few examples.
Rwanda and the other countries in the Great Lakes of East Africa: Burundi, Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Never before was radio used so effectively – yet with such evil intent — as it was in Rwanda in 1994 where it was used to promote genocide.
Bill Berkeley describes listening to the radio in Rwanda in “The Graves Are Not Yet Full”:
From a crackling transistor radio behind me I could hear Radio-Television Libre Mille Collines, the state-allied broadcasting arm. “Defend your rights and rise up!” a voice was singing. There were drums and guitar in the background. A popular crooner named Simon Bikindi was beseeching his fellow Hutus – the bene sebahinzi, the sons of cultivators – to carry on the slaughter without delay… His voice was soft, gently cadenced, almost lyrical.
Then, as the violence escalated, they told listeners who to kill and how to kill them. They said:
You have missed some of the enemies. You must go back there and finish them off. The graves are not yet full. Who is going to do the good work and help us kill them completely?
In spite of warnings by the CIA and pleading by General Romeo Dallaire, commander of the UN Peacekeeping Force, the international community looked the other way as eight hundred thousand Tutsi and Hutu moderates were massacred in a hundred days in 1994.
Now there are few in places in the world where can radio be used more effectively to facilitate the peace process, reintegrate refugees and strengthen the fragile transitional democracy.
Last May I traveled to Burundi where radio is virtually the only medium. The Search for Common Ground Studio Ijambo produces programs on peace and reconciliation. I also visited the two private stations, Radio Bonesha and Radio Publique Africaine (RPA) that provide accurate news and investigative reporting and are hanging by a thread to stay on the air with pathetic equipment.
When I visited Sierra Leone in West Africa, I met Andrew Kromah, a remarkable, courageous station owner and manager. I saw the bullet holes in his home, fired by the rebels when they tried to get him. I organized a trip to the U. S. for him and he visited several public radio stations and was interviewed by Terry Gross on FRESH AIR. He wants to develop a national public radio in Sierra Leone.
He and his staff do investigative reporting under the name of Mr. Owl. He recently exposed a policeman who used his position to smuggle illegal diamond dealers on his motorcycle to evade checkpoints. Now he is in court to defend himself against three counts of criminal libel.
His and other stations in the region broadcast soap operas and other information about HIV/AIDS. In this case radio is literally saving lives. Now that the fighting has stopped, they are helping with peacemaking.
Elsewhere on transom.org you can read how radio is vital to Mongolian herders in the countryside in pieces by Corey Flintoff and me (with photos.)
Large USAID projects rarely offer support for small local stations. I hope we can raise enough funds to help some stations. Folks overseas are familiar with the BBC but not the U.S. public radio model.
We would give grants to stations that are free of government or other political control that provide significant information programming and adhere to professional standards of journalism. All of this is in a formative stage. I’ll keep you posted of developments on transom.org
At the same time, Americans need to listen to and understand they way the majority of the people of the world live, that is, on $2.00 a day or less. These are not sad stories. Even though I’ve traveled to some of the poorest countries in the world, I always come back inspired by their generous spirit and optimism. They have rich, ancient cultures. They do extraordinary work with little; three stations operate in Mongolia with annual budgets of $1,000.
Watercolors by Mongolian artists that they sell on the streets for $1.00.
A Sister Station relationship is one way to form a mutually beneficial link. Jay Allison and WCAI/WNAN have volunteered to pilot with Gobi Wave in Mongolia. North Country Public Radio in Canton, New York is also linking with another Mongolian station and WXXI in Rochester is planning a link with a station in Nigeria. There can be an exchange of information, mentoring, posting on Web sites, where it might be possible to raise funds. There might also be producer exchanges. It’s really up to each station to determine how the relationship evolves between the two.
As you can see, radio is improving the quality of life around the world. Radio is an extraordinarily democratic, personal and imaginative medium. In every country I’ve visited I’ve found dedicated broadcasters who share the essential values of public radio here.
I’ve been fortunate to have witnessed the way those ideals have taken root and grown into the vast public radio system here in the United States. My most important contribution to radio has been the people I’ve hired and encouraging others I worked with to believe in themselves and the mission of public radio.
Looking back, one of the themes has been the importance of experimenting, of trying something different. The two places I played with radio the most, WBFO and KCCM, Moorhead, I had the least money. The time of experimentation in each, prepared me for the next job. Some of the most recent fresh voices have come from the various youth radio projects. It is odd that with great success comes timidity. I’ve always just regarded our listeners as curious and believe they will go much further than we give them credit.
We all need revitalization, as individuals and organizations. It’s just the nature of life and institutions. Sometimes change was forced upon me, but good always came from it. During the last ten years, I’ve traveled half way around the world to places not recommended for tourists. Was I anxious? You bet. When I first read the guide for Mongolia, I broke out in a cold sweat. Even though I’ve been there eight times, travel in the countryside is still challenging. Mongolia is also my favorite country. Overcoming our greatest fears can bring the most rewards. That’s the beginning of adventure.
So, based on my experience, I invite you to go outside and play. You don’t need to travel overseas. Just step out of the familiar. If you like, link up with a sister station and be encouraged by new ways young people are using radio. Have some fun with radio. I’m starting my second fifty years in radio. Let’s sow some seeds.
In Conversation with Bill Siemering
Jim Feeley – January 23, 2003 – #15
Do you have any thoughts about the FCC’s Low Power FM initiative to allow for 10w and 100w noncommercial stations? And specifically, any thoughts about NPR’s opposition to LPFM?
But Could We Still Get Mugs?
Bill Siemering – January 24, 2003 – #17
I have no technical expertise on this nor do I know any background on NPR’s opposition to LPFM. What I find interesting is the idea of neighborhood radio stations. How would it be organized? What would the programming sound like? I’m a member of a food coop that has several thousand members and its value is that we always see friends there; it is a vital social institution. I imagine a low power radio station could be like this too. They could also be the kind of lab I mentioned where people can play with radio, of all ages. There are few places to do this now. But I’m also concerned about maintaining a program schedule with volunteers and ensuring broad outreach. All this is academic, of course, unless there can be licenses. In Macedonia, there are many pirate and small legal Roma stations run out of people’s homes. That’s the beauty of the low power idea, you can do a lot with little.
A Salute And Queries
SeanTubbs - January 28, 2003 – #26
Your founding document for NPR (National Public Radio Purposes) is one of those high standards that make me proud to be embarking on a career in public radio.
I want to know more about your exploits at the station in Moorhead, Minnesota…
Do all public radio networks have to be national in scope? … Do you think the young producers of today have the opportunity to create innovative pieces of radio? I feel that is the case at the national level, serving a national audience. But, what about at a regional, statewide, or national level?
A Catalyst For Discussion
Bill Siemering – January 30, 2003 – #29
Yes, there can be regional geographic networks and networks of communities of interest. You could at least exchange some audio files as a start. Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) is the largest state and regional network in the country.
Which brings me to KCCM in Moorhead as a station in the MPR network. Because we carried network programs nearly all the time, we were free to go out and gather news and features that we would send to both St. Paul and NPR in Washington. Marcia Alvar and I were both new to Fargo-Moorhead and focused a lot on the sense of place. We created a Saturday morning thematic program called, HOME FOR THE WEEKEND that began with the sound of the train rolling in to the station and people getting off, greeted by friends. Once we explored the American family over three weeks, talking separately with the mother, father and children. We talked a lot with the regional poets like Tom McGrath and Robert Bly. We did a weekly arts program. While the production was simple, in all I think we provided a good sense of the community. Once we sponsored an all day workshop on what it takes to create a caring community. So the station was a catalyst for discussion. We could do all this because we had the freedom and time. Somehow, small stations seem to be able to do this more easily than large ones.
Eclectic Formats Die In Tension
Julia Barton – January 30, 2003 – #28
…[O]ne of the main tensions in broadcasting…the assumption that people expect consistency out of a station. Ira Glass put it once this way, that people use radio like an appliance: they expect each station to perform a certain function whenever they turn it on. So formats have become more and more predictable…I know this logic dominates public radio more and more…in terms of sound–shows and voices start to all sound alike. Also eclectic formats and even music/talk formats are dying out. What I’m wondering is if that same tension existed in the early days, too, and if so, how you worked through it.
Stand Us Apart Together
Bill Siemering – January 30, 2003 – #30
This is a big topic. Many educational and community stations believed they should be all things to all people and had a patchwork of unrelated programs; you really needed a guide to follow it. Parallel to this was the idea that radio is a companion that kept the listener company throughout the day. After listening to the news, you’d also enjoy some classical music and maybe reading a story, a documentary, some jazz on Saturday nights and on Sunday afternoon a radio drama. While appealing to the same listener, you offered variety to keep their interest. Now we’ve evolved into narrower and narrower niches of interest…I still believe public radio can be a place where curious people can come together.
Consistency gives the station identity; you wouldn’t want it to be classical in the morning and country and western in the afternoon and jazz at night. However, within that you can build in a wider range of content. For example, if produced features were a daily part of ATC, it wouldn’t sound like they are breaking format to run a piece by David Isay or the Kitchen Sisters. You can build in surprise as an element of the format. Introduce new music, new writing, new ideas. [I wanted to do a program called THE NEW that would feature writers and artists telling what they worked on today.]
Public radio can be inclusive, reflecting the community with authentic personalities that are engaged; that will stand us apart.
Attack Of The Bitters
Robert Krulwich – January 31, 2003 – #31
…if I may ask, each time you got yanked or offed, did you have a small attack of the bitters? Had it been me, I might have wallowed for a while or gotten angry. In your narrative, it sounds like you were either a Zen master, or unusually focused on the long-term goal of spreading the seed of public radio. Didn’t you ever want to hit anyone with a brick?
Bright Green On Black Ash
Bill Siemering – February 3, 2003 – #32
Yes, I was angry; I was no Zen Buddhist. Like a divorce, often one of the parties has been thinking about it for some time and it’s a surprise to the other one. There had been some concern about my management style or skills earlier, but I thought that had improved. The surprise and losing a great job caused the anger.
“Fired” is a good word for this. I felt as if a fire had burned across my career. And, as after a prairie fire, new shoots push up, bright green against the black ash. The smoke clings, though…Getting fired prevents hubris. I never feel I can coast.
SeanTubbs – February 4, 2003 – #33
In Moorhead, you said the production at times was simple. What do you mean by that? Is simple always a bad thing?
Should interviewers add their own comments to the discussion? If they do, is there a code of ethics that they should observe?
When you were allowed to experiment in the past, how many different kinds of show were you able to try out? Is there anything that didn’t work?
Following The Grain
Bill Siemering – February 4, 2003 – #34
The simple answer is that effectiveness of a piece is determined by the producer having a clear central idea and drawing upon a range of techniques to achieve the desired response from the listeners. Format follows function. Thought comes first, then gathering and *listening* to the material, like a wood carver following the grain or stone-cutter seeing the image emerge. It’s a dialogue with the material.
In Moorhead we didn’t have sophisticated production equipment so we did simple mixes and editing. In the oral history series on small towns, it was all natural on location recording. For example, there was a wonderful grandfather clock ticking and striking as an old woman told of her childhood living in a sod hut on the North Dakota prairie. No way to improve on that. Her voice was rich and expressive. Hearing Studs Terkel’s oral history work in the ’60′s in Chicago has been an inspiration to me.
Yes, a single voice of someone who has something to say can be very compelling. When I was at SOUNDPRINT, a talk by theologian Mathew Fox generated the most listener response. I’m just saying you can produce good pieces even though you don’t have fancy equipment.
A good interview is an engaging conversation. The interviewer needs to be listening attentively and responding to the guest. Terry Gross on FRESH AIR is an excellent example of this. The guest is front and center but Terry will at times draw upon her experience too when appropriate. Even when you may disagree with the opinions of a guest, I think you should treat them with respect. That’s one of our core values.
I can’t say how many different shows we tried. The most common fault is not editing tightly enough. It’s easy to fall in love with the material and not hear it as the listener does for the first time.
On The Heart Of The Malaise
Ellen Rocco – February 5, 2003 – #35
When you don’t get fired–or change jobs for some other reason–it may be important to fire yourself. I think about this a lot these days–I think the most important thing I have left to do at North Country Public Radio is to pull together some resources so the next generation can do whatever it is they’re going to do at this station…In some way, I think this may be at the heart of the malaise that has infected public radio in the U.S.–too many middle-aged people coasting to the finish line…
Jay Allison – February 5, 2003 – #36
This may be a fundamental attribute — and even a useful one — of independent producers and artists and their ilk…living in a perpetual state of having been fired and looking for the next job.
Sydney Lewis – February 7, 2003 – #38
“People are still not getting the information they need to understand the world…”
Americans are absolutely not getting critical information, or information presented critically. It’s terrifying…How can radio consumers get the message to NPR that real news matters more than “acceptable” news. It makes me insane.
What Citizens Require To Be Free
Bill Siemering – February 9, 2003 – #39
Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenthiel write in “The Elements of Journalism”:
“Journalism provides something unique in a culture – independent, reliable, accurate and comprehensive information that citizens require to be free. A journalism that is asked to provide something other than that subverts democratic culture.”
If most people get their news from television, they don’t get much context or variety of opinions. We live with more complexity than ever and at the same time, commercial television simplifies, cuts actualities shorter and shorter and closes bureaus overseas. None of this serves the interests of democracy. Dumbing the news dumbs the viewers.
[B]efore President Nixon delivered his State of the Union Address in January, 1972, NPR produced a program that played excerpts of his 1971 speech and then reported on what had happened to these proposals. To then hear the President delivering the speech with the same tone and similar rhetoric placed it all in a different perspective. As far as I know, that was the only time NPR produced such a program.
On The Mission
Jay Allison – February 13, 2003 – #41
Much has changed since you wrote your original mission language for NPR. Does it still work?
Over the years at NPR one stated aspiration has been to be the New York Times of the air. Is this a fitting goal? Or does the mission of public media make it distinct from other journalism? Except for the arguable absence of advertising, how is our role different from anyone else’s? How well are we honoring it?
How should public radio respond to the pressure (and the desire?) to be a primary news source, reporting immediately from everywhere, a la CNN?
In a time of crisis, of war, does public media have a particular role and purpose?
Bill Siemering – February 15, 2003 – #47
The original mission was a set of values, principles and aspirations. They are part of the PRPD Core Values; that illustrates how they are embedded in the foundation of public radio…
Generally, such things are written when you begin an organization or when there is a crisis. Perhaps some of your readers of transom.org will write this here. V.S. Naipaul wrote: “We make ourselves according to the ideas we have of our possibilities.”
I don’t think there is a perfect analogy to other media. I think most journalists regard NPR as one of their most important, reliable sources of news…But radio, unlike print, is immediate and personal, we *hear* the voice. We have two-ways with reporters. I think public radio has a distinct mission from other media. This is why even with all the information on the Internet, millions of listeners rely on public radio and voluntarily send money to support it.
Although we don’t talk about it as often these days, we are *public service* broadcasting. We have reserved frequencies and receive federal money (though less and less), because we can offer programs that would not be feasible on commercial radio. At the same time, if the program serves just a small segment, it isn’t serving the public.
What is the public interest? What is public service broadcasting in 2003?
Public media has a particular role to bring accurate, complete reporting, placing the events in context and reflecting the full spectrum of opinion.
bill mckibben – February 13, 2003 – #43
lately i’ve been listening to npr run pieces that amount to op-ed pieces read into a microphone–dull, carefully balanced liberal against conservative, etc. how do you think opinion could be handled on shows like atc, so that the political debate can be engaged but in some way that makes real use of radio.
Balanced Not Boring
Bill Siemering – February 15, 2003 – #49
I think when Robert Siegel talks with a conservative and liberal on Fridays it is much more engaging than read op-ed pieces as you say. Of course NPR and public radio need to be balanced but that doesn’t mean dull.
I’d like to see local stations initiate discussions in neighborhoods, kind of an on-going state of the union and community. Out of these, they could find some impassioned, articulate speakers and not just the regulars. I’d like to see public radio be a catalyst for all kinds of discussion, the never- ending process of democracy.
Gregg McVicar – February 15, 2003 – #46
[M]any of us diehards believe noncommercial radio is more relevant than ever, especially in combination with the Web — but still I sometimes wonder where I’ll be in a couple more decades — after 50 years in radio. Will we be like those old guys with a passion for trains with their caps and walkie-talkies, anachronisms of a bygone era, or will our art and craft fuel even brighter fires?
My question…how you came to frame your radio life as, apparently, more than a career but rather some kind of lifelong mission or vocation? When others were retiring, you kicked into overdrive!
Bill Siemering – February 15, 2003 – #52
Because radio is so flexible and personal, it will be here, as long as we continue to make it essential. Danny Miller, of FRESH AIR, says radio is like a cockroach, it will always survive.
Our raw materials are ideas, culture, community, news and interesting people. We *do* affect the lives of our listeners. It’s a wonderful and challenging career.
I don’t know as I framed my life, but over time I did feel it was a vocation, a calling and not just a job. I don’t believe I could do my work overseas if I didn’t feel this was what I’m supposed to be doing now.
Jay Kernis – February 16, 2003 – #53
In the early days of NPR, there was a lot of experimentation with sound as a storytelling tool. Over the years, it seems that some of the sound became caricature, some became self-indulgent, some is more powerful than ever. From your vantage point, what has happened?
Framing And Cropping
Bill Siemering – February 17, 2003 – #54
In the early days we sometimes let the sound run on far too long, in part because we were trying to make a point, saying, “Listen to this!” Then it became formulaic, “the NPR sound” and done sometimes without thinking enough about it. Then it loses its effectiveness. Actualities are sometimes used too often when the source isn’t really saying anything special that couldn’t better be summarized by the narrator.
If we think of the sound as photojournalism for the ear, then we need to be very careful of what pictures we select, how we frame them and crop them so they have the most punch. It’s a matter of discernment and good editing. Whether it was writing this piece for transom or when I produced pieces for radio, having someone I can trust as an editor is invaluable.
Dancing in Mongolia
Bill Siemering – February 25, 2003 – #57
In writing a story with grass, I find a young horse deep inside it.
In the process of writing, I’ve revealed new things to both you and myself. This has been an extraordinary experience. This too, is a personal medium.
The passion you have about public radio is the best evidence of our vitality and that we’ll continue to grow. We care enough to offer constructive criticism. J. Montgomery Curtis, one time president of the American Press Institute, wrote, “Our job is to make tomorrow’s newspaper better than today’s. Daily discontent with the product has benefited every great newspaper.”
While we can always be better, we should never lose sight that public radio is an essential part of the lives of millions of listeners. I know of no other programming that generates such strong feelings. You hear it all the time. Think for a moment what your life would be like without public radio.
Amazing, isn’t it?
This connection between producers and listeners is unique. Let’s celebrate it. Let’s dance with our listeners.