Bill Siemering

photo of Bill Siemering

Intro from 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." -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.

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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.

How I Got Into Radio

WHA Radio Play
Acting in a radio play at WHA. (1955-56)

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.

From “Educational” to “Public” Radio – Establishing NPR’s Identity

Bill Siemering
As director of programming at NPR. 1972

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.

From Washington to Moorhead, Minnesota; Back to the Basics

Bill Siemering
Reporting for KCCM in Moorhead, Minnesota. (1974-75)

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.

Bill Siemering
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 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


Mongolia PostcardsAt 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.

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.

Mongolia Postcards
Watercolors by Mongolian artists that they sell on the streets for $1.00.

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.

Bill Siemering

Bill Siemering

Bill Siemering, is founder and president of Developing Radio Partners dedicated to bringing information on the most important topics in development—population, climate change, health and governance—to those who are hardest to reach, using the most effective media: local radio and text messaging. Bill wrote the original mission for National Public Radio and was then the first director of programming at NPR and, with the staff, developed All Things Considered. While vice president at WHYY-FM, Philadelphia, he helped bring Terry Gross and Fresh Air from a local to a national audience. In the 1960’s to 1970 he was manager of WBFO-FM at SUNY- Buffalo where he established a storefront studio in the heart of the African-American community, an early example of public media. He was an adviser and on the staff of the Open Society Foundation for ten years, working in Eastern Europe, Africa and Mongolia. He received a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, and Lifetime Achievement Award from National Public Radio and an honorary doctorate from State University of New York at Buffalo.


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  • Lester Graham


    Siemering in South Africa

    In 1999 I spent a brief time in four countries in southern Africa, training journalists on ways to cover environmental issues. In Durban, South Africa, the first and most frequent question I was asked was "Do you know Bill Siemering?" This was always followed by high praise for a man who both independent broadcasters and people who worked for the SABC had come to admire and respect. I’m right there with them in their admiration and respect for Mr. Siemering.

    Lester Graham
    Great Lakes Radio Consortium

  • Jim Feeley


    Thoughts on NPR’s opposition to LPFM?

    Mr. Siemering, 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? Kevin Klose says NPR’s sole concern is potential interference problems. But I’ve heard NPR has other concerns. What do you think about all this? Thanks, Jim

  • Jim Russell


    Our "genius"

    I have always believed there are many very talented people in public radio, but only one true genius. What else could you call the person who invented ATC, Fresh Air, Soundprint and who has reinvented himself so many times that he seems a magician? The only mistake in Siemering’s long career wasn’t his, but NPR’s. When he had created ATC, nobody at NPR had the vision to realize he was a genius. If they had, they’d have told him to put his feet up on his desk and think for a few years, and invent another ATC as good as the first.

  • Bill Siemering


    Reply to NPR’s Opposition to LPFM


    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 it’s 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.

  • Bill Siemering


    No Genius

    Jim, as one of the key original staff memebers, you know developing ATC was a collaborative effort, so in the interest of accuracy, I don’t think I ‘invented’ any of those programs but hired people who could expand upon and make real some ideas. Your solid experience as a wire service reporter in Viet Nam was invaluable to ATC in those unsteady early days, plus your leadership for many years and creaitng lots of other programs after NPR. The most difficult part of early ATC was we were trying our experiments live on-air and some failed and were embarrassing.
    Actually, Bill Kling did say I could put my feet up in Moorhead at KCCM and it was a place to experiment again; one of the virtues of a small station. If I was so smart, I wouldn’t have had to reinvent myself so often.

  • helen woodward


    "If I was so smart, I wouldn’t have had to reinvent myself so often"

    I think reinvention has to be good for the soul, it stops old, bad habits taking hold, it also helps keep your perspective fresh. I think the same can be said for travel; so I was interested that you mentioned your first trip abroad in ’91. I wonder if you might talk about how it affected you? where did you go? why etc? it certainly seems to have changed your life in the last decade or so.

  • helen woodward


    If I was so smart, I wouldn’t have had to reinvent myself so often.

    And besides, if you hadn’t reinvented yourself so often, you wouldn/t have crossed paths with and influenced so many of the people who are today shaping public radio!

  • Julia Barton


    reinvention is good for the world, too

    As someone who just got to travel across Russia and Ukraine thanks partly to Bill’s work, I can say that his latest career path is doing great things for radio around the world. Most people in media assistance don’t really seem to think about radio. TV is high profile and so obviously requires a lot of training and investment. Newspapers fit the American ideal of "free press" (whether or not in reality anyone reads them). Radio is kind of seen as just music and banter–and at least in the former Soviet Union, it’s such a financial mess as to make help seem daunting. But thanks to Bill, someone out there is thinking about it and looking for ways it can be supported. I saw ripple effects everywhere. We never know how these efforts will turn out, but as Bill pointed out with the case of Rwanda/Burundi, we ignore the power of radio at our own peril.

  • Smokey Baer



    I started in this business at WBFO with Bill and Mike and quite a few other people who wanted to make what was happening on the radio bear at least a passing resemblance to what was happening in our lives and the lives of our listeners. I’m still at it with varying degrees of sucess. But I still have my ideals and I was incredibly lucky to have those ideals formed and guided by Bill. There is no one with a better sense of what we can and should be doing than Bill and I’m grateful, every day, for the values he’s demonstrated and allowed others to learn from thoughout his career.

  • Bill Siemering



    Yes, being forced out of jobs enabled reinvention which is good. My first trip abroad was to attend the International Public Television (INPUT) conference in Ireland, thanks to David Stewart, then head of international activities at CPB. Then in September of that year, he sent me to Italy to be a juror for the Prix Italia. These were just introductory trips.

    To describe the changes from the travel to South Africa, Mozambique and other countries is really another essay. My time in Mongolia has changed my perceptions more than any other because they regard time differently – you don’t manage time, you are managed by time; things unfold in their own time. They believe in destiny so everything is happening for a reason. They live in the present, let go of the past and so you pay attention to what is happening. I’ve also spent much time there so have a deeper understanding of the culture. I’ve learned so much from each country I’ve visited; it is seeing the world freshly through other eyes.

  • Bill Siemering


    Reply to Julia

    For those like Julia who may be interested in training abroad, I suggest you check out the Knight International Press Fellowships at

    This is the way Julia traveled through Russia and Ukraine and I had one to South Africa. They are administered by the International Center for Journalists in Washington, DC. (202) 737-3700. Julia did a great job because she listened, was culturally sensitive and knows how to effectively share her skills.

  • Julia Barton



    and Corey Flintoff went on a Knight to Mongolia (which sounds very nice right now) and Mandelit del Barco to Peru. They have a new website now, I think new applications are due soon.

  • SeanTubbs


    "it will encourage a sense of active constructive participation, rather than apathetic helplessness"

    Your founding document for NPR (National Public Radio Purposes) is one of those high standards that makes me proud to be embarking on a career in public radio. Just reading this document, there’s several ideas in here that have sadly fallen by the wayside.

    I’ve spent today reading through your topic. I want to know more about your exploits at the station in Moorhead, Minnesota. I love the idea of meeting your goal of one submission to NPR each week.

    Which brings me to my idea. Do all public radio networks have to be national in scope? I’m a resident of Virginia, and sometimes I feel like I don’t know enough about what’s going on in my fellow states. These borders seem fairly arbitrary, but yet they help make up so many people’s conceptions of what constitutes their surroundings.

    Your first fifty years in radio are a fascinating story. Have you written a memoir? Again, I’m particularly keen to hear about your days experimenting. 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, state-wide, or national level? And, how do you ensure quality?

  • Bruce Drake


    On "Growing"


    Your passage on "Growing" was particularly eloquent and I have shared it with my colleagues here.

  • Julia Barton


    format vs. content

    Hi Bill,

    I was wondering if you could talk about what seems to be one of the main tensions in broadcasting, as I see it, which is 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, and program directors shy away from anything that might break the surface and disturb people into touching the dial. I know this logic dominates public radio more and more, maybe not so much in the area of political content (that’s another issue) but 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.

  • Bill Siemering


    Reply to Sean

    I’m glad you are engaged with public radio, Sean. You are not alone; there are now more opportunities for young people in public radio than ever. The Open Society Institute funds many youth media projects; for more information go to To name just two: Radio Rookies at WNYC in New York and Youth Radio in Berkeley [], you’ll find some innovative work. Closer to Virginia, is Appalshop in Whitesburg, Kentucky [] These projects are important to bring young people to public radio and to hear young people’s perspectives. The Internet enables a virtual radio station for young people. UNICEF is also fostering young people’s media, particularly in south-east Europe. For more on this, go to:

    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.

    You are right to be concerned about quality. Listeners have a right to expect that they can hear worthwhile material and we have a responsibility to provide it. Programs need to meet professional standards, and I don’t mean they should be slick. The listener today has many ways of to be engaged with media; we want the time spent with public radio to be regarded as most valuable and rewarding.

    This is the closest thing to a memoir I’ve ever written.

  • Bill Siemering


    Format and contet

    This is a big topic, Julia. 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. On commercial radio there were also well known DJs with personalities rather than just voices that don’t even live in the city where they are heard. I still believe public radio can be a place where curious people can come together. We’ve lost the general interest commercial radio that would dominate a market. Now some of the talk radio stations sound like we’re eaves dropping on a meeting of the conservative wing of Republican party.

    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.]

    There is a middle place between the free form idiosyncratic DJs who would pay whatever struck their fancy to the focused group tested, safe homogenized playlist with the personality of Jennifer who answers the phone at Amtrak.

    Public radio can be inclusive, reflecting the community with authentic personalities that are engaged; that will stand us apart.

  • Robert Krulwich


    May I ask….

    I remember one of the first news editors at NPR, Bob Zelnick, was fired by NPR for being too aggressive in his Watergate coverage (the folks in charge had a slightly nervous feeling about the first amendment)But I had no idea they fired you too. If I may ask, what happened?
    And, 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?

  • Bill Siemering


    Reply to Robert on Getting Fired

    Yes, Robert, 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.

    Much of the anger was directed inward. Even though I rationalized that it was the result of different management styles or different goals or personalities, the fact is I failed at least to "manage up", to please the boss or to see it coming. Much of my identity was in the work. I missed it; I felt like a pianist who no longer had a piano. I missed the people who were friends and colleagues. I felt lost and sad. Who would hire someone whose work was unsatisfactory?, I thought.

    "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, so I’ve had trouble reconciling the image some have of me (expressed above) with my own identity as someone who has failed in some critical ways. Getting fired prevents hubris. I never feel I can coast.

    Since this has happened more than once, I’ve learned that good things always come from these experiences, as the the Mongolians taught me. For example, if I hadn’t been forced to leave WHYY, I may not have received A MacArthur Fellowship or gone overseas.

    Now I can thank the bosses who fired me. Over the years, maybe I have come to see it all as a Buddhist after all.

  • SeanTubbs


    Simple radio questions

    In Moorhead, you said the production at times was simple. What do you mean by that? Is simple always a bad thing?

    Sometimes I think that the interview sounds like the most simple sounding piece of production. It’s just two voices in a room, having a conversation. But, obviously it just doesn’t happen. What’s your philosophy on this?

    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?

  • Bill Siemering


    Reply to Simple Radio Questions

    Sean, 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. There are excellent examples of different techniques here on transom, some richly layered sound pieces and others more simple.

    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 Turkel’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.

  • Ellen Rocco


    firing yourself…

    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…I plan to fire myself…sooner rather than later. 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…
    Ellen Rocco
    North Country Public Radio

  • Jay Allison


    always fired, never hired

    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.

  • Barrett Golding


    scorned as the one who ran…

    "She said that I had led her to believe that I was a professional, but that no professional would behave in such a manner. She said this twice, the subtext being that the Friendly Man can only use professional producers, and therefore I was fired — unless, maybe, I went back to Kansas City to re-interview the mayor. My job was to do what I was told, just as their job was to do what they were told, because the audience, the twelve million listeners, had something they wanted to be told: that America is a good place with decent people, never mind the screaming coming from the basement.

    So I got in my car and drove two hundred and fifty miles west to Kansas City. I went back because I didn’t want to be fired by the Friendly Man. I had been fired by other, less well-known "friendly men," and it was always like being branded, scorned as the one who ran. I was tired of that, tired of being broke and not having any work. My wife, my family — they were tired of it too. I decided that I wanted to be a professional, that I wanted to be a team player, that I wanted to take responsibility for my life, my community, and my country and get ahead and go someplace with my career and be happy."
    –Scott Carrier, "The Friendly Man" (from his book Running After Antelope)

  • Sydney Lewis



    "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. "

    Bill, I was thinking about your statement this morning as I heard some poll report on the number of people who bought Powell’s U. N. presentation. Were it not for the internet and reports from newspapers in England, France, Canada, etc., I too might be buying Powell’s presentation. Americans are absolutely not getting critical information, or information presented critically. It’s terrifying. And whatever individual critical thinking skills exist are discouraged in ways both blatant and subtle. I remember hearing an interview on labor unions last year. I forget which ATC voice was conducting the interview, but the person’s tone spoke volumes — the labor activist was handled with gentle distance, as though he were delusional and slightly tiresome. The tone told you not to take him seriously.

    How can radio consumers get the message to NPR that real news matters more than "acceptable" news. It makes me insane. We’re about a week away from going to war to satisfy a bunch of insane oil gluttons, the press is owned lock, stock and barrel by corporate interests, and our one relatively "responsible" radio news outlet feels very lame and middle-aged comfy. My guess is none of the announcers have kids on their way to Kuwait.

  • Bill Siemering


    Reply to Sidney on Inadequate Information

    Perhaps you should direct your question about NPR to Jeffrey Dvorkin, the ombudsman, Sidney. NPR did analyze Sec. of State Powell’s speech to the UN point by point. And I’ve certainly heard lots of views opposing the war on NPR. Nonetheless, there is a gap between what you can read on Web sites like or see on BBC World and what you see on U.S. television. I undersand your emotion.

    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."

    They’ve formed a Committee of Concerned Journalists:

    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, commerical 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.

    If you’ll pardon an historic footnote, before 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.

    When we are awash with information from more sources than ever, it is dismaying that so many people don’t have an accurate understanding of the issues of war and peace. Public radio journalism is certainly better than commercial radio, though.

  • Julia Barton


    view from Azerbaijan

    I’m just doing a little 2-week training session in this part of the world. It’s interesting that this topic (inadequate and/or pro-governmental reporting) came up in our class today, though in a very different way. The wealthiest "private" tv station here is owned by the son of President Haidar Aliev. Another one is owned by the daughter. The news director at the daughter-station says their news was fairly objective until this year, but now they’re pressured to be pro-presidential because elections are coming up in the fall. And as a result of that, their ratings have gone down. People here are very sensitive to feeling manipulated, and I don’t think the powers-that-be know what to do about that. Or maybe they just don’t care.

    That doesn’t seem to be as much of an issue in the United States–but then again, I know a lot of people who can’t stand to watch network television anymore. Meanwhile, the difference in coverage between CNN and BBC television (I watch both in my hotel here) is remarkable.

    I guess the key is just getting your information from many different sources.

  • Jay Allison


    public media

    Bill, these may seem like basic questions, but I’d be interested in your thoughts.

    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?

  • Melissa Block



    Hi, Bill,

    Following up on Jay’s question… let’s say you were a new ATC host, about to debut on the show – oh, let’s say next Tuesday, for the sake of argument. What voice would you want to bring to the show? What sensibility reflected in your original mission statement that may be lacking now? Are you hearing on ATC now the things you envisioned when you created the program?


  • bill mckibben


    opinion on radio

    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. (as, one must admit, rush limbaugh is able to do).

  • Sydney Lewis



    "Public radio journalism is certainly better than commercial radio, though." Yes, you are so right. I was away from all news for a bit and missed the state of the union blow-by-blow. glad to know they did it, and thanks for the NIxon anecdote. I am completely unhinged by what is going on in this country on so many levels, no ombudsman can appease me, but I will bang on his door nonetheless. I’m interested to know what your response to McKibbon will be. It seems like Talk of the Nation is NPR’s main vehicle for political debate. Carefully balanced op-eds are better than nothing, but sometimes it feels like there isn’t enough new oxygen in the room to keep a heart beating.

  • larry massett


    Internet question

    Bill, I’m wondering how much you see people using internet cafes to get information in the countries where you’ve been travelling? Local information still comes from radio or tv, but in a lot of countries I’ve seen the cafes are a tremendousus source of outside news. Though, come to think of it, a lot of the computers seem to be occupied by 10-year-old boys playing video games…. Larry.

  • Gregg McVicar



    We all lived through the exhausting and exhilarating 90’s — a time when radio was kind of pushed aside by "Generation D" as supposedly old technology with old broadcast conventions — as if we just didn’t "get it." Of course many 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?

    Every time these worries appear, Bill Siemering come instantly to mind, and other role models — Leo Lee and Thom Ohair — who unleashed some of their most important innovations in later years.

    My question then is to ask you 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! Do you experience age discrimination as you seek to undertake new projects?

  • Bill Siemering


    Reply to Jay on Public Media

    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.

    Regarding the language, in an excellent essay, "Envision a Larger Success" written in 1999, Tom Thomas of the Station Resource Group, called for the "…the need to find new voices within public radio to tell us of our ambitions." He wrote that the original NPR mission and the E.B White quote from the first Carnegie report, though inspiring, "But they’re not the words for the now…Powerful stuff, but of a then, not of the now. We must listen for the inspiring rhetoric, the passion, the vision and the ambition that speaks to what we are as public radio of the moment-and the future."

    Generally, such things are written when you begin an organization or when there is a crisis. Perhaps some of you readers of 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. I’m told it’s frequently cited in editorial discussions at the New York Times. Public radio has qualities similar to publications such as The New Yorker. (And we can learn from them as well.)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. We need to balance our obligation to serve in the public interest with
    the need to reach a significant audience to support us.

    What is the public interest? What is public service broadcasting in 2003? These are questions that could be discussed at the PRC or here on transom.

    I think the way NPR and public radio covered the September 11 tragedy was exemplary from accurate reporting to Scott Simon reading poetry to the Sonic Memorial Project. The reporting on the recent shuttle explosion was fine. NPR and PRI on THE WORLD bring many first hand reports from around the world. It doesn’t have to be like CNN or anyone else.

    Public media has a particular role to bring accurate, complete reporting, placing the events in context and reflect the full spectrum of opinion.

  • Bill Siemering


    Reply to Melissa Block

    I look forward to hearing *your* voice as a host on ATC next Tuesday, Melissa. Your voice has good energy and you sound engaged with the material, not just reading copy. The most important quality for a journalist is curiosity and that is also reflected in your voice. I hope you can also get out of the studio and pursue your own story ideas. I’d rather hear well produced features than commentaries that don’t have much to say. ATC was intended to evolve and grow and it has.

    I hope you’ll have some fun, too, and play with radio and bring us some surprises.

    Best wishes, Melissa.


  • Bill Siemering


    Reply to Bill McKibben on Opinion on Radio

    Mr. McKibben,

    I think when Robert Siegel talks with a conservative and liberal on Fridays 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.

    Rush Limbaugh is a very effective broadcaster. He uses his voice and humor well. Although at times he says he considers himself and entertainer, he has serious influence. I don’t believe the answer is a progressive Rush Limbaugh, though. [I was pained to hear him mock Nelson Mandela.]

    A Mongolian expression is, "No person has ten fingers the same." I’m sure readers here have some good thoughts on this topic and invite them to join the discussion.


  • Bill Siemering


    Reply to Sydney on More Oxegen


    It is inceasingly difficult to just get the facts in a context to be able to make an informed opinion so NPR performs a great service to do this. I also value the contrasting informed opinions.

    What I hear is the disparity between the anger you and your friends feel and the calm, reasoned discussion in the studio. As noted above in my reply to Bill McKibben, we need to get out of the studio where there is more oxegen. It’s the kind of discussion I hear at my food co-op and you can hear at places of worship and barbershops and beauty shops.


  • Bill Siemering


    Reply to Larry on Internet Cafes

    Larry, I don’t know of any study on the uses of the Internet in cafes, and without eavesdropping on people’s screens, I think most are using the Internet for e-mail, maybe some shopping and, yes, probably kids playing games.

    Thanks to the Mongolian Soros foundation there are now Internet centers in many provincial capitals, such as in the south Gobi, where I used it for e-mail. Some at the Gobi Wave radio station are learning English so they can use it to gather international news.

    Independent online news agencies are springing up providing an important service for media in Kosovo and Ukraine, for example. This is especially important where press freedom is limited as it is in Ukraine. Go to: You can find discussion of media issues at: These are both supported in part by donors.

    There is an acitve interest in Internet in all the countries I’ve visited.


  • Bill Siemering


    Reply to Gregg McVicar on Un-Retired

    You won’t be a guide in the Museum of Broadcasting telling about the good old days of radio, Gregg. 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.

    Like most of us in public radio, I believed what we were doing made a difference. 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. Most of the people I work with are in their 20’s and 30’s and since I’ve just been in this kind of second career for 10 years, that’s about my professional age too. It is a gift to be able to be learning so much. I doubt if I could get a job as a station manager in the U.S. because of my age.

    Overseas, generally, elders are regarded with respect. In Mongolia I get to ride in the front seat of the jeep or car because I’m the eldest. No one has raised my age as an issue here either as I start new projects.


  • Jay Kernis



    Bill, as usual, your perspective and thoughts are wonderful. A question: 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?

  • Bill Siemering


    Reply to Jay Kernis on Sound as Storytelling Tool

    Yes, Jay all this has happened. 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 it’s effectiveness. Actualities are sometimes used too often when the source isn’t rally 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. I think a good editor could correct those shortcomings you cite.

    I just heard an excellent piece by Mary Beth Kirchner on ATC today about a pawn broker in Las Vagas. The charater had a strong personality and expressive voice and she used it very sparingly to great effect; she was at the side of the scene but in it too. Every cut was strong. She did this in the SOUNDPRINT "The Roof of Thunder" too that I often use as an example of effective audio storytelling. I mention this just because I heard it right now.

    I’m sure Jay Allison and many others have thoughts on this as well and hope they will add their ideas too.


  • Sydney Lewis



    It’s great to hear that you’re the recipient of elder respect in Mongolia. Just, I’m sure, one of many things we here could learn from those there…
    And great to see your thoughtful and thought provoking responses. I wouldn’t wish it on you because what you’re doing sounds so fully rewarding, but ah, if only you ran NPR…
    Meanwhile, I’ll appreciate what NPR does, agitate for more, and listen to…. Patti Smith’s "People Have the Power" REAL LOUD to keep my spirits up.

  • Julia Barton


    NY Times

    People are starting to notice how bad things have gotten in commercial radio. It’s interesting that this article mentions Bill Siemering’s former state of N. Dakota.

  • Bill Siemering



    In writing a story with grass,
    I find a young horse
    deep inside it.

    -James Dickey

    I thank Jay and the staff for inviting me to be a guest here. 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.

    Thanks for all of you who have written and contributed to the discussion. Many of you raised important, tough questions. I hope these will continue to be raised both here and at professional meetings.

    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.

    Thanks to all of you who have made it what it is.


  • Jay Allison


    "all of you who have made it what it is."

    There is evidence of the heart of public radio here in this topic where one of the founding fathers is convening with the newest national host and the current head of NPR programming and a gang of veteran producers and a bunch brand new ones, and, of course, with listeners. All of this, public. Would you find this open conversation at the New York Times or The New Yorker or ABC News?

    There’s a clue in this very discussion, I think, to the unique values of public radio and the relevance of the Internet to its future.

    Thank you, Bill, for being here, and for all you are doing and have done.

  • Jay Allison



    This link was just sent to us by Gardner Allen at Studio 360. Check it out.

    Bill Siemering & Oljoo

    "Bill Siemering has traveled all over the world to help people to create their own radio stations — in places such as South Africa and the Czech Republic. Over the past 5 years he’s made a number of trips to Mongolia for the Open Society Institute to help develop local radio there. One of the places he visited was the Southern Gobi Province. Produced by Gardner Allen. Photo: Oljoo (Oljmedekh) works for the Gobi Economic Initiative, translates, and sings."



    For Bill–maybe the best friend I’ve never met.

    Hello, Bill. This is long overdue–just to say I’d love to conspire with you. I have loved your postings on Transom. We share a lot of prejudices–in favor, for example, of R. W. Emerson, Lewis Hyde, and Africa. I wonder if you ever saw my report to Transom on our talk radio adventure in Ghana a year ago. We could start a conversation around my notion (maybe yours as well) that Emerson could be the inspiration of our efforts in this 21st Century. He is for me most definitely a modern. Like the ant biologist E. O. Wilson, Emerson had an instinct for Consilience: the convergence of spiritual, scientific and artistic understandings. He grasped intutitively the Genome idea–that we are one consistent species the world around–each and all with the mind of Aristotle. And he anticipated the possibilities in the Internet of an open democratic interaction of cultures. Furthermore and quite practically, I’d like to talk with you and (who knows?) be ready for the moment when our paths actually cross. Thanks, Chris Lydon

  • Jay Allison


    Mongolian Sister Station

    At last, we at WCAI and WNAN on the Cape and Islands in Massachusetts are about to start up our Sister Station relationship with Gobi Wave in Mongolia. You can read more at the link below. If you have ideas, questions, or stories you want to share, call us up! The number and email are at the link:

  • Dari J



    Dear Bill,

    This is to say hello and thank for nice photos and memories about Mongolia. I am in the US now, arrived last month. Please, contact me at the email Look forward to hearing from you. With best regards, Dari

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