NPR’s Robert Siegel Reflects On 40+ Years With The Network As He Retires

Jan 5, 2018
Originally published on January 5, 2018 12:53 pm

After 30 years of hosting All Things Considered, and more than 40 years at NPR, Robert Siegel is retiring. Today is his final day on the air. This transcription of his interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Brian Moline: For most of us in broadcasting, there's an event or moment that drew us into broadcasting as a career. When were you bitten by the broadcasting bug?

Robert Siegel: I was in college. I had enjoyed working at the college radio station a lot, doing some reporting, some newscasts, but there for the most part fooling around. And at the end of college in my last semester there were enormous protests at Columbia University in New York, and the demonstrations were a big nationwide story. And we at the college radio station said we should probably cover this. And we produced this thing, and I anchored it, and at a time of great confusion, at a time when the normal source of order was upended, and students were occupying buildings, and professors were outside of buildings instead of inside of them, we on the radio station were a source of some clarity. We answered people's questions about what was going on through our reporting. and I felt wow, in this time of tumult and confusion, for me to be doing something useful of service to people, and I also I get to know what's going on. It satisfies my curiosity, and I'm not an activist. I'm kind of a professional spectator, an interpreter. If I could do this for a living, this would be amazing, and astonishingly that's what I've been able to do.

BM: Do you feel like maybe you've come full circle in some ways with some of the turmoil and tumult of our political scene right now?

RS: Well, it's not a circle. I think it's much more a jagged line, because in the course of my working life, I've seen, well, I went to Poland in 1981 a couple of times on brief reporting trips, and I saw an entire country in the kind of disorder, upheaval, uncertainty, a mixture of elation and fear that I had remembered from these college protests. I was in New York for 9/11. I got to Berlin for the wall to come down, and there are always moments of great change. It's not in the nature of humanity for things to be constant and always to be certain. So, what we're going through now in Washington with the Trump presidency, which is certainly unusual, and certainly marks a different relationship between the president and the news media that what we've been accustomed to, change is the one thing that we can assume is constant, and newness is what ... we can't describe it it advance, but we shouldn't be shocked by it when we see it.

BM: Looking back at when you joined NPR in 1976, how did the network fit into the news landscape at that time?

RS: It's interesting. It was a very small outfit. We had about ten reporters in total. When I came, people were very proud that NPR had broadcast live the entire Watergate hearings, and the entire impeachment hearings. And that was at a time when commercial radio was backing away from an investment in news and current affairs. We were on FM radio, and a lot of people in America didn't have an FM radio, frankly. Most cars, it wasn't standard equipment in a car. So, our typical station, not all of them, but the majority of our stations were on a band that people were moving to, the trend was toward FM, but a lot of people couldn't hear us yet. The big program we did was All Things Considered, 90 minutes long, starting at 5pm eastern. And it had some fresh reporting of the day's events in Congress, at the Supreme Court by Nina Totenberg, and at the White House, but to a great extent it was a gloss on things that had been reported earlier in the big papers, the (New York) Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post. And we were giving you more analysis of, and expert commentary on news events that other people had reported. And that has steadily changed over the years to a much greater role of us being the primary news source. It's still being a source of other people's reporting and what it means, but the balance has shifted enormously over these years.

BM: Before you began hosting All Things Considered, you had several other roles with the network. You opened NPR's London bureau, you served as director of the network's news and information department. How did you begin hosting ATC, and why was that the right fit for you?

RS: I began hosting ATC the year when our two hosts left. I had for four years been running NPR. Before that, I had always worked on the air, and I had been in management for four years after a peculiarly bad financial crisis that we'd had. I felt that we'd pretty well patched that together, and I'd served my sentence was my view. There were times when I felt that boy, if I were hosting. The first thing I did at NPR was host a little eight-minute program, and I felt that "boy, I would ask that question differently. I wouldn't ask that. Here's what I would ask." I would think these things, and as news director I would talk to the producers. And finally, I was encouraged by a colleague, he said, "You should do it. You should apply for the job." First of all the thought of not being in management anymore, I was ecstatic about that idea. And my superiors welcomed my application, so I ascended for the second time in my life to radio heaven. The job that I had in London I thought was the highest level of paradise that I would reach, but hosting ATC was just as good, and a lot longer.

  • NPR has announced that Mary Louise Kelly will take over as All Things Considered co-host next week.
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