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NPR At 50: Founding Mothers Reflect On Radio Past And Present

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Finally today, as you may already know, NPR is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. And since the kickoff to our celebration coincides with Mother's Day weekend, what better way to celebrate than to invite the women we refer to as NPR's Founding Mothers to stop by for a visit? Well, a virtual visit. I do not think I exaggerate when I say that these women are legendary in the world of journalism, but they remain treasures to us. Without their work in glass-breaking spirit, NPR would not be what it is today, so we thought we'd talk a little bit about the past but also about what's happening in the world right now because that's the business we're in.

Joining us now is Susan Stamberg, special correspondent for NPR, Linda Wertheimer, senior national correspondent and Nina Totenberg, NPR legal affairs correspondent. Welcome. Welcome. Thank you all so much.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, BYLINE: Thank you.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: Thank you for having us.

SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: Oh, thank you Michel. Thank you.

MARTIN: Susan, I'm going to start with you. Did you think you'd see 50 years at this place? I know certain words have been used over the course of the week - ramshackle affair, things of that sort. Did you think you'd see 50 years here?

STAMBERG: Listen. I didn't think I'd see the day after tomorrow when we began. And Linda will tell you that even more firmly because she was our first director. It was pretty shaky, but it was thrilling. The thing is it was so complicated. We were very ambitious from the beginning, Day 1, wanted to compete with The New York Times. We had exactly five reporters. We had a handful of engineers. And maybe we had five stations as well - and five listeners. But still, the ambitions were great. The resources, as you can imagine, were tiny. And what it meant though - and I suppose I didn't realize this in the instant was - we were creating something that had never been heard before. And it was going to be heard eventually, as today, in the millions across the country and across the globe. I couldn't have predicted 50 years, but I did feel there was going to be a big future.

MARTIN: Linda, what about you? Did you think you'd see 50 years at this place?

WERTHEIMER: No.

(LAUGHTER)

WERTHEIMER: No. I thought that jobs in our field or just not long - you know, were not lengthy jobs that you moved from institution to institution, maybe doing the same work but not for the same folks. But then, what happened to me and the reason that, you know, went for decades is that, first of all, we were a startup. So everybody began at the beginning. And we didn't have a whole lot of people who outranked us even though we were brand new, and we didn't know our craft very well. We were the first people there, so we had the jobs. Nobody was ahead of us. And so we were able to move up and on and up and on over and over.

MARTIN: You know, to that end, you know, NPR has been a pioneer in putting women on the air in meaty roles. I mean, Susan Stamberg, you became the first woman to anchor a daily national news program in America when you hosted ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Linda, of course, pioneer. And the other thing of hearing women on the air in these substantive beats at a time when that was considered unusual. So I wanted to ask each of you what that was like. And, Nina, why don't you start on that one?

TOTENBERG: Well, this was the only place I had ever worked where I wasn't either the only woman or one of two. And I - my first job was on the women's page of the old Record-American in Boston, otherwise known as (imitating Boston accent) The Record. And it was a traditional women's page - that is recipes and bridal gowns and stuff like that. And I did an extra shift to do other things. And it was an amazing thing to work with lots of other women. And, of course, you know, the only reason they hired lots of women by and large was because they could afford us. No man would have worked for what we worked for.

MARTIN: Who wants to jump in there? Susan.

STAMBERG: I will, yeah. Michel, I had to fight to be the first woman to anchor a nightly news broadcast, but I didn't know about it at the time. I only found out 11 years later from Bill Siemering, who was our program manager and the one who really created ALL THINGS CONSIDERED and decided I should be the woman to be the anchor, that there had been at the very beginning a number of calls from our station managers objecting to my doing that job, saying a woman's voice is not authoritative. No one will take her seriously. He, to his credit - to my enormous relief 11 years later - never told me at the time. He had great confidence in me. And he thought if I simply continued - he liked what he was hearing, and it was the voice that he wanted to hear and had heard in his head and became the voice of National Public Radio - calm, conversational, chatty over the back fence, tough when need be. He felt if he just let me go, listeners would get used to it, and things would be fine. And, in fact, that happened. So I never knew it until later.

MARTIN: Linda, what about you? I mean, you have so many crazy stories, especially covering the Hill and covering politics as you did. I mean, some of those things still happen, as we know, just even from stories that, you know, have emerged over the course of the last couple of months about people calling people up and telling them they'll destroy you and, you know, people putting their hands on people and things of that sort. But, Linda, what about you? Did you - talk a little bit about what it was like. Did you feel like you had to fight for respect on your beats?

WERTHEIMER: I did - remember the wonderful lunchrooms in the House and Senate. I would sit down, and I'd be the only woman there. And there would be some guy who would make some stupid comment like, really funny story I could tell you, but I can't tell Linda here - you know, stuff like that that just makes you want to just pick up your plate throw it at them.

STAMBERG: And throw it.

(LAUGHTER)

WERTHEIMER: But it was - you know, I mean, we were the only ones in too, too many situations. There weren't very many girls on the bus. There weren't very many women flying on the first plane in a campaign. Those were things that, you know, that I did have to get into roundhouse battles about. But it wasn't an NPR battle. It was me versus the campaign, that kind of thing.

MARTIN: Before we let all of you go, as we said, it's NPR's 50th anniversary. Looking forward, what needs to change?

STAMBERG: In the world or at NPR?

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: At NPR. We'll stick to NPR. Susan, what do you think? Well, the world's sure - we'll talk a bit later. We'll have drinks. But, Susan, what about at NPR?

STAMBERG: I would say we will always be telling stories, and also, in different forms, these podcasts which are really taking off enormously and make me worry about the future of radio per se and radio programs. But the core of it, the core of what we do, that will continue because stories are desperately needed and always will be.

TOTENBERG: Well, I do podcasts now along with my other daily work, so I'm very big on podcasts. And I'm glad that we do them and that they are like a magnet to people who are considerably younger than we are here.

WERTHEIMER: Hear, hear.

TOTENBERG: I'll say, though, in terms of the democracy and the nation, I'm really going to miss if it happens - radio programs. I've seen in our lifetime and the work that we've been doing that the country would come to a halt - or anyway, those who could would gather around the radio when - the way they did in the old FDR days so that they could hear the news of the day. And that creates a kind of community that I believe is very much missing and very much needed in this country.

MARTIN: Those are three of NPR's Founding Mothers - Susan Stamberg, special correspondent for NPR, Nina Totenberg, NPR legal affairs correspondent, Linda Wertheimer, NPR senior national correspondent. And we're missing Cokie Roberts. And thoughts of her as well as others who have left us. But thank you all so much. As a matter of personal privilege, I think, if I can say that, thank you all so much for doing what you've done and doing what you'll all continue to do. Without you, there is no us. Thank you all so much.

STAMBERG: Michel, thank you so much. It's been great to be with you.

TOTENBERG: Thanks for having us, Michel. This was fun.

WERTHEIMER: Thank you very much, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.