by Pete Mazzaccaro
Wyndmoor resident Bill Siemering’s ideas about how radio interviews should work have become commonplace in today’s world of podcast conversations. It was not so obvious, however, when he wrote the mission statement for NPR in 1969 and went on to help develop the conversational radio interview that is so well-represented today by “Fresh Air,” which he turned into a national program as the station manager of WHYY.
Siemering’s role in the creation of NPR and his work to develop the sort of hallmark programming that still makes the network home to the most listened news programing were recognized last month when he was announced as a winner of the prestigious George Polk Award.
The George Polk award was created in 1949 and named for a journalist who was killed while covering the Greek Civil War in 1948. Recent winners of the award include cartoonist Gary Trudeau, writer Ta-Nehisi Coates and New York Times columnist Gail Collins.
“I’m really quite overwhelmed by it because I never thought of myself as, you know, even in consideration for that award,” Siemering, 85, told the Local last week. “It’s really wonderful. And, you know, as I’ve said, it really should be shared by all the people I’ve worked with, because it’s nothing that I could have done on my own.”
Siemering got into radio as an engineer at the University of Wisconsin, which served a rural and agrarian population with regular news about farm markets and weather mixed in with broadcasts of university lectures and classical music. In addition to sound engineering, he also read the news on air.
After graduation, he was hired to be a station director of WBFO, the student radio station of the State University of New York at Buffalo in 1962. It was an optimum place for him to learn to run a public radio station.
“The station was off the air in the summers and would go on the air at five in the afternoon, after classes, so it wasn’t a full-blown professional station,” Siemering said. “The man who hired me said, ‘You know, [this station] is just a little bush now; you can develop this into a tree.’ And so that’s what I did. I kind of grew into management as the station grew. It was a very wonderful opportunity and a great way to do it.”
At WBFO, Siemering experimented and grew the station’s audience and its stature. He covered civil unrest in Buffalo following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. He developed a satellite station to serve African Americans in Buffalo. He also went on to start a news magazine show called “This is Radio!” which would later be hosted by a young Terry Gross. It has been called the first contemporary talk show.
Siemering said that the basis of his ideas for radio programming had much to do with the foundations of the public radio he would go on to spearhead on the national level. He wanted to democratize radio and remove it from being a bloodless set of facts read at audiences.
“I wanted that sense of authenticity and more conversational style,” he said. “I was living in Buffalo, so I listened to CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) and they had a little more relaxed sound than the networks here. And I wanted to get out of the studio, you know, to use sound to help tell the story to capitalize on the unique strengths of radio. I wanted to differentiate us from commercial radio from the white male voice of authority.”
After an act of Congress created the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in 1967, Siemering joined the board of National Public Radio, was hired as its first program director and created “All Things Considered,” which is still one of the most popular radio shows in the country. He also hired Susan Stamberg at a time when it was unheard of to have a female host of a news show. Stamberg, of course, is still with NPR.
Siemering is still a big fan of NPR and said his favorites include “The Takeaway” and “On the Media.” He still holds “All Things Considered” in high regard, too.
Siemering thinks the role of NPR is still as vital today as it ever has been and marvels at the rising popularity of podcasts, which are built in no small part on the model he pioneered.
“It’s a more intimate form,” Siemering says, comparing radio to TV and video. “I think we’re living in the age of audio now.”
It’s an age he helped create, though he insists none of it would be possible without the remarkable people he worked with over the course of his long career.
“I think one of my gifts has been that I hire good people and I try to manage as I would like to be managed,” he said. “It’s really the people I’ve hired and the people who work continuously now to make NPR what it is. I’m not claiming that kind of credit.”
The George Polk Award will be presented to Bill Siemering on April 5 at a luncheon at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York City.
Pete Mazzaccaro can be reached at 215-248-8802 or at email@example.com