by Lou Mancinelli
“The radio revolution starts at 5: NPR.” That was the ad that ran in the New York Times before National Public Radio (NPR) launched “All Things Considered,” its first program, on May 3, 1971.
“All Things Considered” and “Fresh Air” too, were largely modeled after radio programs Bill Siemering, a long-time Wyndmoor resident, had been running in the early 1960s at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Buffalo, such as “To be Negro,” when he worked as manager of the school’s radio station, WBFO.
Years later, he would be a member of NPR’s first board of directors and its first programming director. More than 40 years ago Siemering wrote the NPR mission statement, still given to new employees today.
“National Public Radio will serve the individual,” it began. “It will promote personal growth; it will regard the 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.”
If you’ve ever listened to either of those first two shows or maybe “This American Life,” you know NPR has grown to be as American as baseball in October, chronicling the American story from its seediest underbelly to its racism and greed to its homely grassroots movements, giving a voice to everyone, from the bottom to the top.
Siemering recognized the power of radio when he was very young, listening to the University of Wisconsin’s (UW) student radio station, WHA, as an elementary school student in a two-room country school outside Madison. In the early 50s, while a student at UW, he worked as an engineer at WHA.
The Local sat down last week with Siemering, who turns 80 this month, at his home to discuss Developing Radio Partners (DRP), his latest venture in bringing community radio to struggling communities around the world, and his path to NPR. He has lived in Wyndmoor for 27 years with his wife, artist Lucretia Robbins, whose garden was recently rewarded first-place in the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society competition for Flower Garden category.
“I thought [radio] was really a good source for information and imagination,” Siemering said about the potential of radio as an agent of empowerment and change. “I’ve always thought of it as an educational tool.”
“Siemering is one of the most important innovators in the history of American radio,” said the Huffington Post, in a 2012 interview. As president of DRP, Siemering seeks to spread that innovation around the world. At DRP Siemering is essentially using the model he and others used to create NPR, to help broadcasters build healthy stations that strengthen communities in places like, most recently, Malawi, in southeast Africa.
In Rwanda, local stations were doing things even NPR doesn’t do; in one year they broadcasted 40 political debates. In Kenya, DRP made recommendations about how to establish community radio.
When Siemering went to Sierra Leone for the first time in 2002, a rebel told him, ‘We can’t have peace without a radio station.” Later, in 2007, DRP helped train journalists in Sierra Leone to cover elections and helped facilitate a network of 22 stations.
In Late January of this year, DRP began its mission in Malawi to help young people empower themselves with technology with the overall objective of creating stable communities. It began with two five-day workshops.
Nearly 30 kids ages 11 to 20 were trained in basic computer skills, journalism, interviewing techniques, storytelling and digital editing. In Malawi, 46 percent of the population is younger than 15, according to DRP. Fifty percent of girls ages 20 to 24 are married before 18.
Since DRP helped launch the broadcast of the youth program “Let’s Talk for Change,” Malawi youths who listen can send text messages to the radio station asking questions. During its second broadcast on March 8, the station received 24 messages.
Maybe it’s a group of people huddled around the phone, as they would have been at a tiny TV screen 65 years before. By May, the program averaged 100 texts per program and sent out agricultural tips to 1,000 farmers three times a week.
DRP was founded by Siemering in 2004. After leaving NPR in 1972, Siemering spent 20 years in public radio management and programming in the U.S. Then he turned to the world. In 1993 he received a MacArthur Foundation fellowship, and from 1994 until 2004, Siemering worked with the Open Society Institute (OSI) helping to establish independent media in new democracies. That experience in Mozambique, Moldova and Macedonia showed Siemering the need was there to bring community radio, the NPR model, elsewhere.
“Ideas come from culture; they don’t come from Congress,” Siemering said. If Nixon was listening to the popular music of the time, Siemering explained, he wouldn’t have been so surprised when there were 5,000 people protesting in the streets outside the White House.
“I was making the case for a more engaging programming than educational radio and at the same time to differentiate from commercial radio and public television,” Siemering said about his early experiments in programming.
Buffalo was much more diverse than the Wisconsin he was raised in. The budget was small, but Siemering’s imagination was big. “I was aware of the fact that white people weren’t very aware of what life was like in the black community,” he said about starting the “To Be Negro” series.
A journalist would go door-to-door, interviewing blacks about everyday life. The community needed a voice, Siemering thought. “We need to write our essays in the streets.” In 1970 Siemering moved from Buffalo to Washington D.C., where NPR would air its first show.
When it started, about 90 stations broadcast NPR; now the number is over 500. “Few social investments have a broader reach and affect more people than an engaging local radio station,” Siemering said. Establishing a trustworthy source is “just as important as water.”
In Malawi, DRP’s current project is helping to do just that with relevant programming. “In any society people have to feel they have a voice,” Siemering said. Like the voice of a young girl in an arranged marriage, the voice hardly ever heard, the voice that has been silenced through history, that may now have a mouthpiece. “I think we’re trying to reach the hardest to reach people with the most important topics.”
For more information about DRP, visit developingradiopartners.org.