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Co-Founder Bill Siemering Looks Back At 50 Years Of NPR

William H. Siemering
Kelly Moffitt
William H. Siemering in 2017 during a visit to KWUM in St. Louis, Missouri.

On May 3, 1971 the newly formed National Public Radio aired the first broadcast of All Things Considered.

Bill Siemering was a founding member of NPR and became the first director of programming. The Wisconsin native says that at the time news came exclusively from one of the few large radio outlets and he felt that those organizations were simply dictating what was happening in current events. His vision was of radio content that started conversations for listeners and gave broader explanations of why events were happening in the news.

“There’s so much more to tell than ‘this just happened,' to be reflective, to give context, to talk about things that did not fit in a short news summary,” he says.

Siemering grew up going to a country school outside of Madison and would listen to Wisconsin School of the Air, a local educational radio station that broadcasted from the 1930s to the 1960s. He says educational radio taught him that radio can be used to achieve a purpose.

That’s why when developing NPR, the word "public" in the name was so important to him. It signified the purpose of organization was to not just educate but to serve the public.

“[NPR] is much more wide open, and an opportunity to create a new sound and new ideas — ways of experiencing life if you will,” he says.

Siemering wanted listeners to feel like time spent listening to NPR was meaningful and that after turning their radios off, listeners would be prepared to make intelligent decisions.

NPR was created on the heels of the civil rights movement and a time of civil unrest that had many similarities to the events of the past year. Siemering says the fact that the United States is one of the most diverse societies in the world creates a lot of internal fear and that he hoped NPR could help people understand that diversity is a cause for joy.

“Enjoying the pleasure of living in a diverse society, the pleasure of that and not the fear of it but the pleasure of diversity and that’s still a theme that we’re working on as a country,” he says.

As an organization, NPR is also working to always be a better reflection of diverse communities. He acknowledges that often NPR is stereotypically thought of as content for educated, higher class white people and accepts that as a challenge to overcome by including more diverse voices that don’t just talk at communities but who incorporate communities into the news.

Siemering says going forward passion, empathy and curiosity are the three traits he would like NPR to be focused on promoting over its next 50 years.

Ben Binversie was a producer with WUWM's Lake Effect program.
From 2020 to 2021, Jack was WUWM's digital intern and then digital producer.
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