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CoastLine: NPR Founding Mother Susan Stamberg on the changing rules of journalism, understanding modern art, and Mama Stamberg's cranberry relish

Apr 10, 2023

Susan Stamberg: You report the best truth you know at this time. You can't do it for the ages. You know, you certainly always have that lofty ambition, but it's very hard to achieve it on a daily basis. But it has to be your ambition to do. And I think that's fair.

Susan Stamberg is a Founding Mother of NPR:

SS: Well, you know, we had plenty of founding fathers.

And I was almost born a feminist, and I didn't want them to get all the credit from the creation and the doing.

[laughter / applause]

Rachel Lewis Hilburn: The first to be hired by NPR's first Program Manager, Bill Siemering. The other three Founding Mothers came along soon after: Linda Wertheimer, Nina Totenberg, and the late Cokie Roberts. As the OGs shaping the NPR mission, approach to journalism, and even the sound, Susan Stamberg and her colleagues are the reason we hear NPR as it is today.

SS: And it was that kind of task. I mean, we were, we were creating something that had never existed before and we were creating something that we wanted to hear. And that wasn't out there then in ‘71. It really wasn't, there weren't people speaking the way we do or being as thoughtful about it and being as really careful about being objective, which is certainly a life's mission for us. But it was also thrilling and terrifying, as you can imagine. Some brand new thing.

SS: By the way, you don't look 40.

RLH: She's talking to an audience of more than 400 people at the Hotel Ballast in downtown Wilmington. It's a sunny afternoon in late May. And it takes us all a moment to get the reference. She's talking about WHQR's upcoming 40th birthday. This is routine for her: she drops a truth, a sharp observation, a punch line – and just waits for the audience to catch up. They get there.


SS: But happy anniversary, anyway. I love hearing origin stories when I go to stations because they're always full of passion and excitement. People just love telling how that station got on the air and how they went about it. And, I feel that about we Founding Mothers too, you know, starting with the clay and sort of shaping it and it stays that way. It keeps on and on. It changes and goes through stages.

RLH: This beginning stage is important: Susan Stamberg was the first woman to anchor a national nightly newscast – not just for NPR – but across the news broadcasting landscape. She also mentored many women, including long-time All Things Considered Host Melissa Block, and she put Car Talk on the air. And she has a star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame.

But back to shaping the NPR clay:

RLH: The vocal tone of NPR was deliberate and people were meant to sound--

SS: Yes.

RLH: --Just the way they sound.

SS: All the credit, so much of it goes to, he was our program manager at the time, a man named Bill Siemering. And he was the one charged with getting All Things Considered on the air, which was our flagship program. He was a visionary and I call him, to this day, and he doesn't like it at all, our philosopher king.

He was also the one who was in on the decision to make me the first woman to anchor a national nightly news broadcast. And in starting to do it, there were absolutely no role models. I mean, it was all men, so there was no woman to listen to really, and get some sense of what I might do in that role.

So all I could do and think to do was imitate the men.

So when I went on the air, I was very <laugh>. This is true. I spoke like this every day.

Well, I didn't get around to days as clear, plural. It was pretty much singular in a half day because Bill Siemering came up to me and he didn't say, you sound terrible, <laugh>. He said, a much better thing. He said, be yourself. Now. Who in the world, apart from Mr. Rogers, <laugh> tells you to be yourself?

They tell you, stand up straight, comb your hair. You know, there's a million suggestions that you get. But there was Bill and in me, apparently, he heard the voice that was in his head when I wasn't doing this. You know, he wanted that over the back fence sort of approach, down to earth and not the voice from the top of the mountain. And that's how we started with that permission, which was so key.

RLH: Why is that more than cosmetic? Why is that tone, the voice at the back fence and not at the top of the mountain, so much a part of the ethos of NPR?

SS: That's lovely. I wonder if this is still true. I think it is. I mean, I think of all the generations of broadcasters that I've seen since I started as a Founding Mother. We share so many values. We share deep curiosity, a sense of following our instincts, our sense of deep respect for our listeners and wanting to be at the level of our listeners and meet the needs of our listeners.

But yeah, that's a very good observation.

RLH: Going back to the idea of the first NPR mission statement, I think, today, it's to create a more informed public, one challenged and invigorated by a deeper understanding and appreciation of events, ideas, and cultures. But you've talked about the importance of NPR's -- this component of NPR's first mission statement -- that said, you are here to celebrate life.

SS: Ah, yes.

RLH: What does that mean?

SS: Well, it was the voice of Bill Siemering, again, that visionary. He felt that it can't just be all the disasters in the world, but it needs to be some of the wonders, as well. And we need to be balanced in that too. And that's hard to do. Certainly there are periods of news making, news breaking, where it's just too hard to do it. But it's such a wonderful relief not to have to do that every day.

And again, this just shows you how important he was to what we carried out and how much we welcomed that kind of guidance and reaction from him. And worked hard to get it. Because it doesn't come particularly naturally. And as I said, there wasn't much of it in the broadcasting atmosphere when we went on the air. But that, I think that's the answer, is celebrating life.

RLH: Those early days of All Things Considered were challenging, to say the least. The very first live broadcast, according to Lisa Napoli, author of Susan, Linda, Nina, and Cokie, was a scramble. They ran out of material five minutes before the end of the broadcast. So they signed off – leaving member stations to figure out their own five-minute-long – an eternity in radio time -- tap dance.

RLH: Right. So this was live and you were trying to fill 90 minutes.

SS: Yeah.

RLH: Do you remember the urgency of that and how difficult that was? And getting the reel-to-reel tape into the studio?

SS: Yeah. Yeah. <laugh>. Okay. <laugh>. It was only 90 minutes. Some days it felt like 10 hours that we had to fill. And one of those days, you know, I was a producer and I was only working half-time then. I had a young, my son was young, 16 months old when I went to work. And it was very important to me to not cut in too much to that time with him. So it was part-time.

I was a producer, so my job was to cut tape. Would anybody in the world in this room remember tape and -- Oh, good, three of you <laugh>!

Yeah. Well, I was very good at it, by the way, a whole lot better than I am with this digital stuff. But, to fill that 90 minutes was a chore.

One day they thought they'd found it and they put it on the air. And I came racing into the control room and I said, no, no, no, you're playing that tape backward <laugh>. And the director took the two reels of tape, flipped them, and continued playing. And someone else came running into the control room and said, that's Russian! Flip it again!


SS: But that's how desperate we were, you know. It was great work because you were inventing this thing that had never been, but it was terrifying at the same time.

RLH: You’re listening to CL. NPR Special Correspondent Susan Stamberg is my guest. When we come back from this short break, her first brush with fake news and the lesson she learned.


RLH: Before she landed at NPR, Special Correspondent Susan Stamberg learned radio at WAMU, when it was just starting out in Washington, D.C., mostly staffed by students.

There was a point when funding got redirected away from the station to public television.

SS: Yes.

RLH: And so you were doing your show.

SS: Yes.

RLH: And you had to figure out how to fill time. Is it, is it true that you launched a jazz show called Sues Blues?

SS: I did.

RLH: And you played the piano?

SS: Yes, I did. I played the theme <laugh> and I tried to talk with it. You know how hard that is. You're playing some music in a certain tempo, but you're speaking in a completely different tempo. But I've always loved jazz. I loved it from the beginning. This was not a network program, God forbid. This was a student station. And I had the chance to do it. And I had some records. Who remembers records, right?


So I would come in, it was in the basement somewhere at the station. I'd come in with my sheet music, I'd put it on the piano and I'd start playing the theme. And then very distracted, say, welcome to Sue's Blues and then we just, it was a disc jockey show.

So this was very rudimentary. I wouldn't call it sophisticated at all. Best thing about it was the music, of course. But anyway, that's how it happened. <laugh>.

Luckily it wasn't network. Nobody else heard it. <laugh> only our three listeners in Washington DC


RLH: you have shifted, of course we all know from doing hard news to covering arts and culture. And your title now is Special Correspondent. Why has arts always been so deeply important to you? Because this isn't just a fun gig. Like there's, this is, this is a part of your purpose, in a way.

SS: Absolutely. Absolutely. It is. I'm a New Yorker, although I'm sure you'd think I'm a southern belle from my -- I love these accents that I hear among you.


We're losing accents in this country. You know, that is all getting flattened out, but we need to hold on to them.

RLH: That's that NPR basic value bubbling up again…She's acknowledging her own regionalism and affirming that NPR wants to sound like its listeners – the real people of this world – not aliens from the top of the mountain on the fictional island of Trans Atlantis.

SS: So since I was a kid, I was the one who sat at the kitchen table next to the Emerson Bakelite Radio, because that was the medium of my life in my childhood, with a paint box or crayons, or a sketch pad of some sort and just doodling away. And I went to, in Manhattan, a wonderful public high school, the high school of music and art these days, it's called LaGuardia after the mayor of New York, who launched it and encouraged it. It was very rigorous.

You had to have a certain grade average to get in. The music students came and had to audition. And we art students had to come with portfolios that they could look at and then spend the day drawing in rooms and being watched by the teachers and given assignments like a cathedral in the woods. Okay. You know, you start drawing that, whatever it meant. So it was competitive to get in -- in New York. And we had every day, three classes in our major. And then we had a really serious academic preparation as well.

My classmates were Billy D. Williams. Do you know him? The actor?

[Billy Dee Williams as Lando Calrissian in Star Wars:

Hello, what have we here?

Welcome, I’m Lando Calrissian. I’m the administrator of this facility. And who might you be?


Welcome, Leia.

Alright, alright.]

…and his twin sister, Loretta was in the same class.


A dear friend of mine, Ed Kleban, who was the lyricist for A Chorus Line…

[Yes, everything was beautiful at the ballet…]

SS: Well, anyway, there, there we all were, in love with the arts and in love with knowledge and information and we got nurtured for it. I always felt in any other school, we'd be the weird ones who loved poetry.

We had no football team because the musician, the pianists, well, the violinists, anybody couldn't hurt their hands. So we had very good relay racers and relay runners and all that just for protection.

And a lot of us went into arts of one sort or another. So that really was a shaping for me. And when it came time to radio, I never thought about being able to work in radio because it was the glamor medium of my youth.

I thought, oh my goodness, not radio, fell into doing it, and once doing it, being obliged to do the news, I got through really heavy news days by knowing that at four o'clock, John Irving would come in and I could talk to an artist.

RLH: The author of The Cider House Rules, The World According to Garp, A Prayer for Owen Meany – yes, that John Irving.

SS: I could talk to somebody really creative. Joan Didion, somebody like that. And it sort of was the icing on the news cake for me. And it was wonderful motivation.

And when the time came to stop doing ATC and going on to put Weekend Edition Sunday on the air and then leaving that to become a correspondent -- that's all I do now.

And I do a lot of visual arts on the radio because you can't, you know, it's so impossible to do that. Hold it up so that you'll see it through your radio. It's a great challenge. It's really tough to do. And I love doing it. And someday I'll succeed at it. We'll see. <laugh>

RLH: One of her features, an essay with pictures only for the website, takes the reader into her own way of understanding art – specifically modern art that, at first blush, can seem inaccessible or even ridiculous.

She describes a John Chamberlain sculpture that looks to her, at first, anyway, as if the artist shredded an automobile and welded the pieces back together.

Same reaction to Andy Warhol's soup cans. How is this art, she asks?

And you talk about your sort of delayed reactions to things.

SS: Yes. That it has to sit with you – with me, anyway -- for a while with me. Anyway, that was very unusual. I'm so glad you mentioned that. It was, in fact, not broadcast, not a radio piece. I’ve been writing essays for the NPR website as well which is such a relief, it's amazing because I don't have to hold the painting up to the radio, it's a whole lot easier. I can show it online.

That was kind of for me, because I've been at it for a while, quite a rule breaker because I really don't believe in being personal -- I think you have to earn the "I"s, the "I" as a reporter, you have to have a reason to be able to speak.

This is a very old-fashioned theme, and it's gone out the window now these days.

But I always felt a little reluctant to speak personally. I didn't think -- you didn't care about that. You wanted to hear about what was happening in the world. And that was certainly more important.

But, you know, a lot has changed since I started and a lot has changed with those rules in particular.

And I felt it might be just helpful. It was, it's an unusual thing I did with it, lingering that much on my own reaction to something. You know, we tend to be far more objective than that. It's not at all about us, it's about that. But in this case, I think it was helpful because I said I've seen a lot of very modern, very contemporary art that I can't make any sense out of and I don't know why it's on walls in museums.

But I explained as you said, that if I percolate, if I let it stay in my mind a lot, and somebody says to me something interesting like a Warhol soup can, you know, you look at it, you think, what in the world? You know, and why is that on a wall of any museum?

But someone said those were the still lifes of the 20th century, and that was such an enormous help. Okay, I get it now. And I could think about it that way. So I like talking with curators too as a result, because they always give you wonderful, wonderful insights.

Jackson Pollock, it was the same thing. I thought well you know – I probably did that at the kitchen table listening to the Emerson Bakelite. But as a matter of fact, I began to understand it and really interestingly I am in Los Angeles in the winter, to be near my family and get warm as well.

And at one of the local museums there, they had a conservationist in the public sitting in front of a Pollock but available to the public, anybody who wanted to walk past him working on it, restoring it, caring for it. And that was fascinating.

It was such a good idea on the part of the museum to keep that open so people could see the process. And I think I started, I don't know, I can't give you, it's not as good as, as still lifes. I can't give you quite as good an explanation. But watching the process was very enlightening to me.

And seeing the range of blacks, for instance that he used in any one thing and every now and then, a fabulous dot of gold that he would just, you felt he was just, you know, he put his canvases on the floor and he sprinkled them with paint and color. And every now and then, just this little dot that made the whole thing come alive.

So I've learned to, in the course of doing this, because I'm certainly not, I'm not a good artist and I'm not really an expert, but I find it very helpful, Rachel, to go into it as an amateur, you know, and ask questions that others, anybody would want to raise and try to find and shape not only the answers, but some way to look at it myself. And maybe they'll get the listeners to look at it too.

RLH: So that's your thought process with what you're covering. How do you approach the writing process of -- you did a profile on Chita Rivera recently --

SS: Yeah.

RLH: She'd written a memoir.

SS: Yeah.

RLH: And you started with, okay, why don't you introduce yourself with those 10 names and pronounce it for us.

[Chita Rivera: Dolores Conchita Figueroa del Rivero. Now, the rest of it is Montestuco Florentino Carnemacaral del Fuentef.

Susan Stamberg: Or you could just call her "legend".]

RLH: And it was just, I mean, it was clever and it was useful. And it was also a great way to have her voice at the top of the piece.

SS: Mm-hmm.

RLH: But how do you, all your pieces are so different and so creatively written. How do you approach the blank--

SS: The blank spots? With terror <laugh> still, do you believe it after all these years?

I love that though. She's a good Catholic girl, and her name went on for 12 seconds. That's major time in broadcasting these days. You can't do more than three minutes for anything. We used to do seven minutes, half an hour, got used to full half hours on all things.

But now the end of the world would come in 30 seconds. You know, you'd announce that and you'd give people warning and you'd cram everything in. So the blank spots I write, and I always have in radio because I find you have to, like haiku, that is, I rarely write, I never write long sentences.

RLH: Until she started writing her first book. That's when a colleague told her she had permission to write long sentences for the book. It was a revelation to her.

SS: Really? Do I know how to? But I learned to go back to the long sentences. Because for radio, when time is such an issue -- I do today writing haiku. I don't write full sentences. I write sometimes a whole long list, tall, brown eyes, bumba bum, you know, brown suit, red tie -- like that. But it gives you a quick picture of it. And it collapses it, but it gets your ear, because it makes you have to fill in those blanks for me, so I don't have to.

But really short is the secret. And to try to use good words too. I used to love putting difficult words in my pieces to make people go to dictionaries, <laugh>. But I got highly criticized for that. What are you talking about? Speak English.

RLH: You’re listening to CoastLine. NPR Special Correspondent Susan Stamberg is my guest. During a trip to Wilmington, she spoke to a group of more than 400 people at a downtown hotel before joining me in the CoastLine studio.

In front of the group, I ask her for pointers on news consumption education. How do you help people understand the differences in so-called news content when there's a range – from editorial rants to outright propaganda to do-it-yourself YouTubers – and all of these forms may be called "news"?

SS: Well, it's really tough. Of course, I'd say listen to public radio and listen to your station because you'll get a solid picture there. You know, you'll get all the colors and you'll get the balance, which is so crucial.

We've become Opinion Nation these days. And so many of the things that you tune into are only somebody hammering away on their side of an opinion. So to find the place where you get the wide image, the big picture, becomes harder and harder.

What I'm sad about is that the whole idea of critical thinking has disappeared from our schools. And you really have to have it. You have to start young with it. Parents need to obviously offer it to their children and think, why are they saying that? And is that the truth?

It took us an awfully long time to decide on the air that this was -- the facts said this, you know, someone would express something, say something, and to actually say on the air, the facts tell you, or that was incorrect, or to call, you know, the old way of being balanced was to let an outrageous statement be made.

And then maybe fair use or fair balance was to let the other person present their side. But, it has become in recent years, our obligation really to point it out right away, right away. If it's wrong, if it's a lie, if it's something, just put it right next to an outrageous statement to clarify. Because I just fear listeners just don't have that anymore, as you are suggesting the society doesn't have it anymore.

RLH: Well, when it comes to the idea of fake news, did, I might have misheard this, but in the early days, a weather person didn't show up and you had to hop on the air.

SS: I did.

RLH: And you had all your news content together, but you forgot to check the weather.

SS: Yeah,


RLH: And so what happened?

SS: Well, I made it up.


SS: Oh Lord.

I was the producer of the program, and the weather girl got sick. And the format called for two minutes of weather. I thought, it's up to me <laugh>.

So, and what you do, you dialed w-e one, two, 4 1 2, 1 2. You had your pencil and paper. Next year you wrote down what the person on the phone told, and then you carry that into the studio and you just read off it. But absolutely, I did not carry it into the studio. <laugh>, I forgot because I was so nervous and sat down and thought, oh my Lord, what do I do? So I made it up because I had to, I was the producer. I was obliged to fill the two minutes, you know, I had to have something. And in a studio where there was, you could, there was no window you could see out of either. It's not like I could look up and see what the weather was. So I made up, and the format called <laugh>, but that you had to repeat it


And I was so nervous, I forgot what I'd said in the first place. So I made it up again.

<laugh> <laugh>

This was very early in my broadcasting career.

That was actually, it was my radio debut. Oh, Lord.

Imagine that first time.

RLH: So just for the students in the room, what would you do, knowing what you know now? Were you confronted with that same situation and you had no idea?

SS: I'd open the window!


No. Maybe I'd remember, or maybe I'd bring in the meteorologist. I mean, we're now an organization of expertise. So I'd bring in somebody, gee, I don't know, but it taught me a great lesson. You'd never go on there unprepared, and you never lie to your listeners!


So I never made those mistakes again, as far as I know.

RLH: You, you discovered that you were a public figure. I mean, reporters are used to being the frame for the picture.

SS: Mm-hmm. <affirmative>

RLH: not the picture itself.

SS: Mm-hmm. <affirmative>.

RLH: But you discovered that you were the picture, you were a public figure at the most perhaps inopportune moment. Yes. What, what happened?

SS: Well, I was at a candy machine or maybe a cigarette machine in my glorious days of much too heavy smoking. But it gave me this voice, <laugh>.

And it got stuck. A cigarette dropped, but didn't come out. And I kicked the machine with a not very pleasant word that I would never use in public and someone next to me said, you're Susan Stamberg.


SS: Oh Lord. I said, no, I'm not!


I lied again to a listener.


You’re listening to CoastLine. It's a conversation with NPR Founding Mother and Special Correspondent Susan Stamberg. When we return from this break, how – and WHY – she put Car Talk on the air – creating a national hit for NPR.


You’re listening to CoastLine. I’m Rachel Lewis Hilburn.

Susan Stamberg is one of four Founding Mothers of NPR. She's the first woman to anchor a national nightly news broadcast in the United States. Today, she serves as NPR's Special Correspondent.

She's just spoken to a group of more than 400 people at a hotel in downtown Wilmington, but I have a few more questions – and well, the truth is, we have more time to fill for this episode – so we walk into Studio 5 at WHQR to finish our interview.

Susan Stamberg: Oh, do I get to wear headsets?

RLH: Yes, you do.

SS: You know, I have to say, it came to me and I was very – I got all emotional about it. Lately, when I’ve been away a long time, and put on those headsets and I thought, that's the gesture of my life. It's speaking into it and getting out the word.

Oh, I’m really – again, it's getting to me. It just felt so automatic. It's a thing I’ve done – got to be a hundred thousand – more than that – times in my life. And I just thought – ah – what this is – what this means.

RLH: Putting on headphones. The gesture of her life.

Once we’re settled, I ask her why she deserves the credit for getting Car Talk into the NPR canon.

SS: So there are several versions of this story, but I like mine the best. So I'll tell it to you now. We were putting Weekend Edition Sunday on the air, and we asked stations, do you have anything that's on locally that might work on this new network program? We got lots of cassettes in those days and audition tapes.

And one of them was in Boston, and it was WBUR, and it had these two brothers who talked about cars. That's, that was the description to me. And I thought, what, I don't know anything about cars, and this is a program mostly about the arts and what business would it have on our air? But I listened to it and I loved it.

It came first to -- I'm trying to remember at NPR, it must have been the news director who was Robert Siegel. He tells a different version of this story, and he said, oh, I don't think so for your program. I mean, these two guys, they laugh and that's it. And there's no content. There's no real -- no.

And my producer, Kitty Ferguson, and she said, no, this doesn't feel right for the program. You're gonna have a live piano in the studio, and you're gonna do the arts, and what are you doing? Then I played it for my husband, and he said, I don't think so, Susan. What can you be thinking?

And I said, everybody likes cars. Everybody likes laughing. Everybody likes good information. They take Sunday drives. We're a Sunday program. Of course, we'll put them on the radio. And I was the savior of this.

So they started with us for five minutes. They had a little slot, and the format was that I would do it with them. They didn't like that at all, especially Tom. Ray was always a little more amenable to me. But Tom had more rules. He wasn't -- because they'd been doing this for 10 years on the local station.

RLH: So they had their rhythm--

SS: Exactly. And they didn't want some pushy New Yorker coming in and stepping all over it. But when Tom heard that I had a 1974 Dodge Dart with a slant six engine -- I have no idea what I've just said, but that is what I had -- I won his heart. It was his favorite car in the world.

I liked the car, but I mean, I didn't think it would convert these two brothers. And so I got to appear with them on a regular basis.

Eventually Susan left to become a correspondent, and the Car Talk brothers went on to have their own hour-long program each week.

SS: Oh, it was so wonderful to listen to them. They were wonderful men and so much fun to hear. It really perked up your morning.

RLH: As a news correspondent, she reported on issues that are memorialized now in history books: women's rights, Watergate, abortion.

SS: Washington, D.C. where our headquarters are and where I live to this day, was very early in doing legal abortions. And I went down with my tape recorder then, and spent a day at a local clinic. And it was very, it was really powerful, a very moving day. And there was one woman, the people, the doctors who were working there were marvelous, very compassionate and all, but there was one woman who had come, I think she came from St. Louis who wasn't sure. And yes, she's gonna go ahead with this. And she wouldn't.

And they very gently and beautifully sat down with her and said, you seem, you're too ambivalent about this. You need to take a break and go and really think hard about what it is you want to do. And she left.

I never checked up to find out if she came back, but I remember that I had a very hard time editing the tape. Finally, I turned it over to somebody else and asked them to do it because being a witness that way, you know, putting it in that amount of time really got me celebrating the fact that this was now available to women, but also, you know, understanding the realities of what abortion meant as well.

So when I hear that issue raised, it stirs a lot of that up for me. I'll never forget that day. And in a way, I felt a failure. It was one thing to go and collect the tape, but it was another to not edit it myself, not prepare it myself, turn it over to somebody else. I don't know. To this day, I'm not sure why I did that -- apart from it being so much tape to have to deal with and finding people who were better editors at that point than I was, maybe. But it was a very powerful day.

RLH: One of the hallmarks of NPR journalism is not taking someone who's already been victimized by the news that you're covering and turning them into a victim again--

SS: Exactly.

RLH: --By exposing them or in some sort of exhibitionist or sensationalistic way.

SS: Absolutely, Rachel.

RLH: How do you, and it sounds like maybe that was coming into play a little bit for you, you felt –

SS: Maybe a little, just a kind of protection for her as the people in the clinic were trying to protect her as well.

But, I have to tell you, this shows how things have changed. If someone started crying as I was doing an interview because telling about a painful, painful thing that was going on their lives, I turned the recorder off.

I felt that I didn't wanna make my money, my salary off somebody else's miseries. And I was very serious about that. But look what's happened now. The first thing that, you know, it's like saying, holding a microphone up to how do you like the theater, Mrs. Lincoln? It just seems such a violation. And now there's so much of it. There's so much of it everywhere.

One of the most moving things I ever heard, because we're pretty careful about not crying on the air, but many of us do it from time to time. But it was when Melissa Block, who was then hosting All Things Considered, went to China and was in the middle of a major earthquake there.

And I love the first thing she said in the course of it, because she kept her, her tape recorder running.

[Melissa Block: The ground is undulating under my feet.

The cross on the top of the church is waving wildly and bricks are falling off of the ceiling, falling off of the roof.]

SS: As the ground shook under her, she stayed with it, and she stayed with parents, I think, who had, she had been interviewing that day looking for their child several days later, desperate and not finding…

[Melissa Block: There are dozens and dozens of bodies of middle school children that have been brought out. They have been laid on the ground without any covering until parents can identify them. And when they identify them, understandably, the parents collapse in waves of grief.

The bodies are then wrapped in shrouds and brought under plastic sheeting. It's raining here. It's the middle of the night. Um…

They’re brought under plastic tarps and the families just – have set up little altars. They’re burning candles and lighting incense and burning paper money and --]

SS: and Melissa began to cry.

[Melissa Block: Some are setting off firecrackers to, um, usher the children into the afterlife and to ward off… evil spirits.]

SS: I had mentored her when she came to NPR and when she was starting, and she came to me when she came home, and she said, what did you think about that? I think it was a mistake and I shouldn't have done it. I said, oh, no, Melissa. It was, it was extraordinary. It was really a breakthrough for us. And for you. You don't do that every day, but how could you not, and how could you not yourself as a mother as well as a reporter, have that reaction to the disaster that you yourself experienced?

RLH: Once again, Susan Stamberg's judgment turned out to be spot-on. Melissa Block and Robert Siegel won a duPont-Columbia University award for outstanding on-the-scene reporting of a major breaking news event done with extraordinary skill, sensitivity, and nimbleness.

Susan Stamberg says she hasn't cried on the air. But she says there's a fine line between a reporter's genuine emotion becoming part of a breaking news story – and a reporter simply getting personal.

SS: I really deeply believe that you have to earn saying I, and always consistently making it not about yourself, but someone else.

But NPR is very open to that now. There's a lot more of it. And it really does change the experience of the listener. I think they listen harder because they know somebody's upset. So you're creating a kind of community there of sympathy and that's this very short-handed these days in this country, you know, compassion and really caring for others. So it was a way of demonstrating that, I think, too.

RLH: What advice does she have for reporters just entering the industry? What has she learned that she wished she understood when she started?

SS: If you're gonna be available to the public, prepare <laugh>, come in prepared wherever you go and think about it and give it some thought in advance.

But if it's going into journalism, I would say run full speed into it. And yet these are difficult days for journalism. I don't know even what it would mean to young people now. It would mean expressing themselves. That's not what it's about. It would be riding their own favorite hobby horse. That's not what it's about anyway.

RLH: And can you speak to that point? Because that's something that comes up a lot.

SS: Yeah.

RLH: This whole idea of expressing yourself--,

SS: right—

RLH: versus reporting the facts. Is there a way to report the facts and express yourself, or are we sort of blurring some lines now?

SS: Well, I think they're very blurred because everybody is about telling about their lives all the time. And that's great. You know, I know you have a difficult life. I know you have a wonderful life, but that's not all that's happening in this world. And keep your ears and your eyes open to the rest of it. And the people who are suffering for real tragedy and the people who are celebrating for real joy and for real reason.

But stick with the reality, which is not all you. It's not all you and your opinion and what you want. The thoughts you want to get out and get everybody's attention to. That's simple and kind of short and maybe, uh, unfriendly in a way, but so be it.

RLH: Gender watch is what Susan Stamberg calls her vigilance in looking out for talented women to hire at NPR. Having more women around made for a better work environment, a thoughtful and creative approach to news. Even with supportive male bosses in the early days, the Founding Mothers had to deal with blatant sexism. Although the staff was at least 50% female.

SS: And there may have been more of us than there were men. The men were the ones who did the hiring, you know, and made those decisions. But the women were brought in and given important jobs from the start, largely for sad reasons, which persist to today. They needed the money <laugh> and they often were married, which is not a sad reason at all. But there were two salaries in the home.

RLH: She took a big salary cut from her previous job at a magazine.

SS: And we could afford to do that because he worked for the government. And so he had a regular salary, which was a reasonable one you could live on. And that was true for a lot of us at the beginning. But we had to fight for equal pay. And the fights still continue. Very often it will be revealed to you that a man who's doing exactly the same work that you are is getting a lot more money for it. I mean, that's an ongoing battle.

RLH: There were so many barriers you had to break through and you did break through

SS: mm-hmm.

RLH: And then decades later in 2017, one of the top news executives at NPR, Michael Oreskes, is asked to resign.

SS: Yeah.

RLH: For sexual harassment.

SS: Exactly.

RLH: So what do you think about when, in 2017, when that's still going on?

SS: Well, it's still going on.

And it should have happened way earlier than NPR because there were, I don't know, I, you know, we women, they used to say NPR as a network of soft men and strong women. And I guess we were at the beginning because we sounded, you know, Totenberg, I mean, she's no pushover. We sounded very forceful and very confident.

But I think there was a hesitation of, you know, being a whistleblower that way, which is ridiculous. And the Me Too movement, I mean, this is also recent, has given permission and made it really important to go public with these stories that you were ashamed had happened to you or, you know, you didn't want to want to bring up again or, or ever or think, have to think about again. So I think that was at a kind of long lasting reluctance, which is disappearing big time now,

RLH: There are some happier legacies to explore, though. In fact, Susan Stamberg maintains one of the funnier holiday traditions.

If you don't, if you don't know the joke, every year around Thanksgiving, Susan Stamberg does a piece on Mama Sandberg's.

SS: It's my mother-in-law's recipe.

RLH: Cranberry relish, not sauce,

SS: sauce.

RLH: It's not a sauce, it's a relish.

SS: Good.

RLH: And it went from being bubblegum pink to Pepto-Bismol pink.

SS: Pepto Bismol Pink.

RLH: And I'll let you tell the ingredients, but in the introduction, so every year she comes up with a different conceit for being able to share the recipe. And listeners who expect this every year, know that that's where she's going. You're eventually gonna get the recipe.

One year, she asked the late rapper Coolio to try Mama Stamberg's relish. She even got him to rap about it.


RLH: This particular year you decided to interview the CEO of Ocean Spray,

SS: Mm-hmm.

RLH: And you started out with all kinds of legitimate questions like, well, why is it called Ocean Spray? Because cranberries don't come out of the ocean.

SS: I never asked that. That's a good question.


That's a good one, Rachel.

RLH: And you asked about business and all of that, and we all know you're headed straight to the recipe and you, you're gonna get him to taste it and tell you what he thinks.

SS: Right.

RLH: But Steve Inskeep introduced the piece saying that our Special Correspondent Susan Stamberg is not always a fan of transparency in her reporting.


SS: And as you will now hear here…


RLH: And that's exactly what it was. And it's one of the –

SS: That's so cute.

RLH: The way that your humor is expressed.

SS: Yeah.

RLH: That I think is so fun for all of us.

SS: Thank you.

RLH: You come up with something different every year.

SS: Well, what I wanted to do with him was say, why don't you give big bucks to public radio? I've helped you earn a good deal of money with this silly recipe. So it's your turn. But I didn't.


RLH: Well, Susan Stamberg, what a pleasure and an honor and a privilege.

SS: Oh, thank you.


That's this edition of CoastLine – a production of WHQR Public Media. Thanks to Mary Bradley for making this episode possible – as well as Technical Director Ken Campbell and Jonathan Furnell, audio engineer.