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NPR's Robert Siegel Reflects On What It Was Like To 'Grow Up On The Air'

Dec 21, 2017
Originally published on December 22, 2017 6:10 am
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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.


RENEE MONTAGNE, BYLINE: Britain's Margaret Thatcher in Moscow. On All Things Considered, I'm Renee Montagne.

ROBERT SIEGEL, BYLINE: And I'm Robert Siegel.

GROSS: If that introduction to All Things Considered sounds both familiar but different, it's because it was recorded 30 years ago on the day Robert Siegel became a host of the program. On January 5, he's retiring from NPR. So I asked him to come talk with us about a subject he doesn't typically talk about on All Things Considered, himself.

His career at NPR dates way back to 1976 when he worked as a newscaster. He became an editor a year later. In 1979, he opened NPR's London bureau. He spent the next four years reporting from around Europe and serving as the bureau's senior editor. Then he returned to Washington to direct NPR's news and information department.

Robert, thank you for coming to FRESH AIR. Thank you for all the great work you've done at NPR over the years and for helping to make NPR what it is today. So I want to start by listening back to your very first newscast on NPR in 1976. I believe this was your very first. It was Christmas day. Were you filling in for someone?

SIEGEL: I was filling in for Diane Dimond, who had not yet arrived on the job.

GROSS: And was this your first newscast?

SIEGEL: At NPR? I guess so. (Laughter) I'm terrified of hearing this, so I don't know.

GROSS: Oh, well, hold on (laughter).

SIEGEL: It's painful, yeah.

GROSS: (Laughter) OK. So hold on, we're going to start with the old original All Things Considered theme...

SIEGEL: Oh, my gosh.

GROSS: ...Which everyone will enjoy. And it will lead right into the newscast.

SIEGEL: A stunning orchestration, yes.

GROSS: (Laughter) So here we go. Robert Siegel's first, I think, newscast. That's what the archive told us - that this was your first.

SIEGEL: Oh, gosh.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: First, the news and Bob Siegel.

SIEGEL: World leaders mark this Christmas Day with public messages and private gatherings. President Ford and his family in Vail, Colo., opened presents and dined on roast turkey. The Carters visited Ms. Lillian Carter, the president-elect's mother, who was hospitalized last Wednesday for treatment of arthritic discomfort.

I'll talk. I'll tell you anything. You can - I'll give you all my secrets if you only stop playing that.

GROSS: (Laughter) Well, let's start with Bob Siegel. You were introduced as Bob Siegel.

SIEGEL: I was...

GROSS: How long were you Bob on the air?

SIEGEL: I was Bob on the air from sometime in the 1970s in New York until the first day of the Panama Canal Treaty debates in the U.S. Senate. I grew up always being called Robert. In my family, I was always Robert or Rob. But at some point - I guess in high school - I had a choice to make which was every time everyone called me Bob would I say, no, please, call me Robert. And I didn't do that. So I succumbed to peer pressure and became Bob.

When we began the Panama Canal Treaty debates - Linda Wertheimer sitting perched over the Senate floor. And I was back at NPR in the studio to cover for all the quorum calls and breaks. I realized that I would say my name now before more people than had ever heard me say my name before. And I was either going to reclaim my name or not. So since that moment, I'd been Robert again.

GROSS: And you owe it all to the Panama Canal hearings.



SIEGEL: I owe it to the U.S. Senate and Panama Canal, yes.

GROSS: Now, I read that when you were at a local station, WGLI in Babylon, Long Island, that you were Bob Charles.

SIEGEL: I was. I was.

GROSS: Was Charles your middle name?

SIEGEL: Charles is my middle name. And the - I think it was the - it wasn't the program director. It was someone else. Some other official told me that they didn't like to have names that might offend anyone. And so I shouldn't be Siegel. And frankly, I leapt at the - I leapt at the possibility of anonymity, that I would have deniability about this job that I'd taken. So I was Bob Charles, I guess, for about six months or more.

GROSS: I think, like, a gazillion people in radio have used their first name and second name with their second name as their last name. You know, their middle name becoming their last name because their last name was too ethnic in one way or another.

SIEGEL: Exactly.

GROSS: Yeah. OK, so what did you hear different in that first newscast from how you sound now?

SIEGEL: I heard a young man wanting to sound older and authoritative. And I heard somebody - I wouldn't have thought that I was very nervous doing what I was doing at that time. But I - listening to it, I hear someone who's very tight and very unnatural and very nasal.

GROSS: You know, it took me...

SIEGEL: And it's no fun listening to it (laughter).

GROSS: It took me, I think, until I was middle age to realize I didn't have to try to sound older anymore (laughter).

SIEGEL: Exactly.

GROSS: I was so used to being like so young that people would think, like, really? They let you do this? (Laughter) They're allowing you to interview me?


SIEGEL: There's some turning point when it no longer is bothersome to be thought young.

GROSS: Exactly.

SIEGEL: And usually it's too late at that point.

GROSS: So did you want to have, like, a radio voice? And did you think you had one?

SIEGEL: Well, I knew that I didn't have one like Bob Edwards, who was hosting All Things Considered in those days. But, yes, I wanted to sound like somebody on the radio. And I think that the speech - my - the way that I spoke when I was reading - or announcing is what I was doing there - was completely unlike the way I would've asked someone a question. Imagine asking someone a question in an interview in that tone of voice, you know?

GROSS: So before you joined NPR, you worked at the Columbia University station WKCR.


GROSS: And this was the time of the student antiwar protests. So students were taking over administration buildings. The police were on campus. All hell was breaking loose. What was it like to be a student reporter at that time when the students were taking sides, but you were there being the reporter?

SIEGEL: It was very satisfying and life changing. I realized I was co-producing and anchoring our coverage of this - these strikes in which several buildings - academic buildings were occupied. And I realized during that time that, first, I liked being really well informed and knowing what people in positions of authority on either side were saying. I liked not being a participant. I liked not being an activist. So I don't know what I would have done if I hadn't been on the radio.

And I really liked people telling me and my colleagues on WKCR that we had performed a real service for them because it was a very confusing time, and we'd sorted out various rumors and got straight things that were pretty garbled. And I was bitten. I was completely taken with this role. And I remember thinking, wow, if you could actually do this as a real job, this would be the, you know - this would be the most terrific job you could have.

GROSS: So what year did you get to NPR?

SIEGEL: I got there in December of 1976.

GROSS: So because NPR was brand new - you got there at the end of '76. It didn't - NPR didn't even start doing programming until 1971.

SIEGEL: Right.

GROSS: So NPR is, like, pretty brand new. And there really had never been a radio network like NPR because all the earlier radio networks were just from a different era. They were doing like big band programs and soap operas and stuff. So were there things you felt like you were making up as you went along because the network was so new and because there wasn't a lot of precedent for the NPR style?

SIEGEL: That's what I think was most important. The fact that there was no precedent, that if I had gotten the most junior job that I could get at CBS News, let's say, I would've been working in the place that had been defined by Edward R. Murrow decades earlier, and it spawned a couple of dozen very famous journalists. There was a style. There was a way of doing things.

And here was this place which had no history. As you say, it had five years of on-air history. And so we really could make it up as we went along. And I think it led to a good deal of creativity. Or at least it felt like creativity in that there really wasn't a standard. There wasn't a monument to any founder that we were trying to live up to all the time. And that I thought was - it was interesting.

Over the years, we became the place that the young people whom we hired had grown up listening to. And I used to feel it was interesting, over the years, we became the place that the young people whom we hired had grown up listening to. I used to feel it was - it should be a mission for NPR to encourage the younger people, as they came on board, to feel the same kind of liberty with what they did and the same kind of a sense of experiment as we had felt way back when.

GROSS: I'm wondering if you felt it was easier to take risks and to do experiments on the air in 1976 and '77 knowing that not that many people were listening yet?

SIEGEL: Yeah, we were doing - We were working in the dark to a great extent. We all - I mean, I think people aspired to being heard by more people. You know, we wanted to have a larger audience. We were also working in a medium that had been declared dead not too many years before. The big broadcasters had pulled out of radio for the most part and were concentrating on television. So, you know, we were this not very high-profile medium with a pretty small audience. So yes, it gave us a pretty big free space to grow up on the air, nor to grow up in public, which you don't get in a lot of places. You know, they expect it to be grown-up before you're on the air doing things.

GROSS: OK. Well, I think we need to take a short break here. So let me reintroduce you. If you're just joining us, my guest is Robert Siegel. He's been one of the hosts of All Things Considered for 30 years. And on January 5, that will be his last broadcast on All Things Considered, and he'll be retiring from NPR. So we're talking about his work at NPR and his life, and we'll do more of that after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Robert Siegel, who I'm sure you know as the host of All Things Considered. On January 5, he's retiring. That will be his last broadcast as host of All Things Considered, and he will be leaving NPR. So among the many positions you've held at NPR, you opened up the London bureau for NPR. And you were basically the London bureau chief for four years, and in that position, got to travel and cover stories all around Europe. What's one of those like front-seat-to-history kind of stories that you were so excited to be there for?

SIEGEL: Well, in 1981, I made two reporting trips to Poland. This was the year when Solidarity, the big labor federation, was challenging the Polish regime. They had been - Poles had been emboldened a year or two earlier by the election of a Polish pope, which was a very important thing for them. And when I went to Poland, I experienced on a national basis the same kind of uncertainty and chaos and upside-down-day-to-day situation that I'd seen in college at Columbia when there were protests, right down to the buildings being occupied by people. And it was fascinating. It was just the most interesting place imaginable. Everybody you met had on his mind or her mind questions of authority and stability, of can we support the family under this system? Would we be better off under a different system? I mean, everyone was thinking big thoughts. And for me, it was the beginning of several years of, in one way or another, covering the end of the Cold War.

GROSS: When you got back to NPR headquarters in Washington, D.C., from having been in London, you became basically the news director. And I'm wondering, what's an example of a difficult journalistic decision you had to make in your years overseeing the news operation at NPR, about whether to report something or how to handle it or, you know, what the ethically correct decision, you know, approach would be?

SIEGEL: One thing that I remember from those days was that we were starting to cover the AIDS-HIV epidemic pretty heavily. And I think, first of all, I had questions for our science unit, which is, is this the number one epidemiological problem that we face as a country? Should we be covering it this much? And the answer I got was yes from their board of advisers, from people who were pretty seriously involved in this. Then there came a question of, well, how do we - how far do we stray from the medical and epidemiological stories into the cultural stories that were developing around AIDS? Which meant hearing people talk about being gay with a candor and a frankness that some people in the public radio system found uncomfortable.

And I thought it was very important that we be straight about this, that we, you know, we talk about - I guess straight is an odd word for me to choose in that case - but for us to be open and to not flinch from talking about stories about how the virus was transmitted, stories about people who had lost dozens of friends over the period of a couple of years and what impact that had on gay communities. And that was one where I recall, you know, telling a producer that while there may be lots of radio lore behind it, I don't agree with the sentiment that we never discuss bodily fluids on morning radio. If bodily fluids are part of a devastating epidemic, we talk about them. So that was a story I hadn't bargained on being on our programs as much as it was, and it required some editorial support, I think.

GROSS: Were you most concerned about listeners or stations or getting, you know, or the FCC? Because there are usually very ambiguous language boundaries for the NPR about what you can say and what you can't, but you often don't know you can't say something until you've said it. And then some stations are very conservative, they're in conservative parts of the country. And they get very upset if you cross what they consider to be a line. And especially if you're talking about safe sex and especially for talking about safe sex among gay men in the early-to-mid-1980s, there's probably people at those stations who are likely to push back at you.

SIEGEL: Yes. Yes. And I guess in running the news department, as it was then, of NPR, I didn't think a lot about stations. I thought about people who were listening. And we had lots of - we had vice presidents above me, I figured, to worry about stations. And we - what - you've described exactly what the problem was. And I don't think it would have served well for us to have edited and ducked away from language or from descriptions of things in order to satisfy the most-conservative audiences in the country.

GROSS: So when you were the head of news at NPR, you were given the task of finding a new host for All Things Considered when Noah Adams left.

SIEGEL: (Laughter) Yeah.

GROSS: And in the spirit of when Dick Cheney was put...


GROSS: ...When he was asked to head the advisory - the search committee looking for a vice presidential candidate for George W. Bush, and he decided Dick Cheney was the best choice, you decided you were the best choice to host All Things Considered (laughter).

SIEGEL: So I didn't get to make the choice.

GROSS: You didn't? OK, I always wondered.

SIEGEL: The vice president above me had to make the choice. All together, I'd run NPR News for four years. I'd taken over at the pit of a terrible budget crisis, which was the only reason that I was running NPR News at that point. We, I think, had Laid off a third of the staff just before I came back. And I - when I've looked back on it, I thought I had a pretty good run as head of NPR News. We launched Weekend Edition Saturday and Weekend Edition Sunday. We expanded newscasts. We got FRESH AIR on the network as an national program.

GROSS: Yes, I've forever indebted to you for that.

SIEGEL: No small...


SIEGEL: No small thing.

GROSS: You were totally behind that.

SIEGEL: I felt - I did feel miscast as the head of NPR News. I felt that these steps that took months and months to unfold were not - didn't bring the instant gratification that walking into work, putting a program on the air and going home would. And I went to the boss and said, you know, I'd really like to do that job - like, how do I apply for this because I've had it. You know, I don't see a big future in being the head of NPR News for several more years. He was favorably inclined. And the vice president of programming ultimately approved and hired me. So yes, I was - it was Cheney-esque.


SIEGEL: I guess I had - to say I had an inside track would be an understatement. But I felt as though I've - you know, I've bled for this network.


SIEGEL: I've been - please let me out of here. And let me do something that I might be good at.

GROSS: My guest is Robert Siegel who's retiring from NPR January 5. He's hosted All Things Considered for 30 years. We'll talk more after a break. And our TV critic David Bianculli will talk with us about this year's best TV shows. I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Robert Siegel. He's retiring from NPR January 5 after hosting All Things Considered for 30 years. His NPR career dates back to 1976 when he joined as a newscaster. He's also served as an editor. He reported for years from NPR's London bureau and directed NPR's news and information department. One of the things you've had to do a lot of on All Things Considered is interview politicians.


GROSS: And that is really hard. I mean, let's face it. Most politicians walk in the door with a set of talking points. They know what they're going to say. They know how they're going to say it, and they know when they're going to say it. And it's your job to get them to say something else (laughter).


GROSS: But...

SIEGEL: Mission seldom accomplished on my part. It's - I find it - I find it very difficult.

GROSS: Just describe your frustrations in dealing with interviewing politicians who come in with their talking points.

SIEGEL: Well, it was best put by my former colleague Linda Wertheimer, who is a host who was stuck doing a live interview with the chairman of the White House Council of Economic

SIEGEL: Well, it was best put by my former colleague Linda Wertheimer, who is a host who was stuck doing a live interview with the chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers. And every question Linda asked got the same answer about the budget that that administration had proposed. And she turned afterwards and said, you know, I swear I should have asked, what do you think the Redskins' chances are next year? Because I would've gotten the same answer to that question, too.

The worst things - to me, the worst news in an interview is, number one, hearing the same thing repeated over and over and, second, hearing the guest throw in my first name in every answer, as well.

GROSS: (Laughter) 'Cause we're old pals. Yeah.

SIEGEL: Yeah. Exactly.

GROSS: Oh, Robert, you and I are old pals.

SIEGEL: We're now dealing with a completely rehearsed - right.


SIEGEL: Well, you can - with you, you can use whatever name you want. You can call me Bob for all I care.

GROSS: (Laughter).

SIEGEL: But we know each other. But the orderly, studied, prepared interview is - it's a frustration. And I'm very ambivalent about it. We have an obligation to bring on and question people in leadership. And very often, the subjects we talk to them about are going to affect people. And it's quite important. The prospects of a real moment of candor are few and far between. And when they happen, it's really very gratifying. I mean, I'll say that much.

GROSS: So, Robert, why have you decided to retire?

SIEGEL: Well, I decided about three years ago that I would be turning 70 this year and that - I had made a decision that I didn't want to stretch this into being 80 years old. I feel that - I think I do get a lot about American politics and global politics. I can't say that I get our popular culture as well as I did 20, 30, 40 years ago. And I didn't want to get into a kind of a post-career career of reflecting back on what I used to do. I'd rather that whatever I do would be fresh and that I should enjoy this part of my life as something different.

GROSS: So you said you're looking forward to a new part of life. Do you know what you want in that new part?

SIEGEL: No, I don't.


SIEGEL: I don't really know what I want. I'm enjoying - you know, the past six months, I've been sort of half on, half off. And I tasted life without deadlines and a reading list that has nothing to do with what's new and whom I might interview next. And as I like to say, I'm looking forward to having the time to accept the invitations that I'll no longer receive...

GROSS: (Laughter).

SIEGEL: ...And to read all the books that publishers won't send me free anymore.

GROSS: (Laughter). What did retirement mean to you when you were much younger? What was your vision of retirement?

SIEGEL: I only - I think I only began to think seriously about what happens after I stop working sometime when I was in my 60s - or when I stop hosting. I had this fabulous job that I loved doing. And that dominated my - not only my work day but left me with a lot of homework to do. And so I don't think I thought about it at all.

Just, you know, a few years ago, I started thinking about this and felt that I don't want sort of the last chapter of my life to be determined by disability or by lack of choice. I'm a happily married father of two, grandfather of two. And I'm still very curious about the world. And I guess I'll do something related to journalism in the future. But the reason that I'm improvising so is that I really hadn't thought about it.

You know, I recently interviewed a woman who wrote a book about the movie "The Graduate." And - which I remember going to see with a girlfriend in - I think it must have been December of '67 when I was in college. And the Dustin Hoffman character, Benjamin, is just out of college. And everyone's asking him, so what are you going to do? What are you going to do? And someone famously says, you know, you should do plastics. And I felt that fifty years later, I'm reliving that experience.

GROSS: (Laughter).

SIEGEL: As I'm looking at retirement, everyone's asking me, what are you going to do? What are you going to do? What are you going to do? And they don't say - they'll say podcasts instead of plastics.

GROSS: (Laughter).

SIEGEL: It's a similar word, but that's usually what they suggest. And I don't know. I'm just sort of relishing the lack of direction (laughter) in my professional life right now.

GROSS: Robert, I wish you, like, a great retirement. I suspect it's not really going to be a full retirement. I'm sure you're going to have some kind of project (laughter).

SIEGEL: Well, I can tell you...

GROSS: In broadcasting or print, I'm not expecting you to be idle. But I hope you can do it all on your own terms and that whatever it is you decide to do both in terms of pleasure and work - that you find, like, a great balance of it and that it's all really fulfilling.

I also want to thank you for hosting for so long and for doing - you know, for being so great on the air but also for everything that you did for NPR in all the positions that you had because I really think NPR wouldn't be the place that it's become without you helping it become that.

And on a more personal note, I thank you for making FRESH AIR a national show because that was - at NPR, that was really your call more than anyone else's. And so I personally owe you a lot for that, as well. So...

SIEGEL: Well, that's very kind of you. And you're more than welcome for all those things. And you asked earlier about how I've learned - or as to how I learned to fill the day without working, I have one hour covered, so long as you don't retire.

GROSS: (Laughter) I'm not going anywhere yet.

SIEGEL: All right. Good. Good.

GROSS: All right. It's been a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you so much, Robert.

SIEGEL: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Robert Siegel is retiring from NPR January 5. He joined NPR in 1976 and has been a host of All Things Considered for the past 30 years. After we take a short break, our TV critic David Bianculli will talk with us about the best TV shows of the year. This is FRESH AIR.