"My Experimental Life": An Interview With Bill Siemering (Part One)

"Listeners could hear the saw at the Bethlehem Steel factory and hear workers changing shifts; hear a little bell at the Pillsbury factory and street sounds and airplanes coming in. The idea was that natural sounds could be heard as music and you could check what the city sounded like over time."
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Introduction by David Galenson

William Siemering is one of the most important innovators in the history of American radio. His early productions at radio stations in Madison and Buffalo became the model for the creation of National Public Radio in 1970: he wrote the initial statement of purpose for NPR, and became its first director of programming. But inventing NPR is not his only achievement. In 2004, he founded Developing Radio Partners, to bring information to people in rural areas of developing countries, and he continues to work at this today, at the age of 78. Siemering loves radio, and what it can do: "It is a powerful, personal, imaginative medium that is easily learned and can change lives. Radio gives a voice to people. Poverty is about having no voice, so by giving voice to people they can air and solve their problems, hold public officials accountable, and celebrate their culture." He has worked in radio for six decades, since his days as a student at the University of Wisconsin, and is using it now to strengthen emerging democracies: "This may be the most important work of my career. I couldn't imagine not using all this experience in a new way."

In 1993, Siemering received a MacArthur Foundation "genius grant." He has also received the NPR Lifetime Achievement Award and the Edward R. Murrow Award from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. He graciously agreed to do the following interview by email. He prefaced his responses by a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson: "All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make the better."

Q: What experiences led you to a career in public radio?

A: Two events from primary school have stayed with me throughout my life, instilling in me love for radio and a sense of fairness.

In the two-room country school outside of Madison, Wis., twice a day the teacher turned on WHA, the"oldest station in the nation" at the University of Wisconsin and we'd listen to programs from the Wisconsin School of the Air. Prepared with an instructor's manual, our teacher guided us through science, nature, social studies, music and art all by radio. From first grade on, I regarded radio as a source of information and imagination.

Many of the pupils in the school came from homes with limited income; some literally used string for shoelaces. Lunch might have been a cold pancake. When an African-American girl was harassed, I instinctively intervened on her behalf and was rewarded with a kiss. My older sister observed this, so it became a retold family story. It wasn't anything I thought about; I just felt it was unfair and stepped in to stop it. From this earliest time, I sensed the need to respect people who were in some way different.

When I was around 14 I started working outside of Madison on the farm of my math and science teacher and her husband. I not only learned about work, but also how important the radio and the daily farm program were to the farmers.

Later, as a student at the University of Wisconsin, I worked at WHA as an engineer, announcer, newscaster and actor. WHA had become the statewide Wisconsin Educational Radio Network, and I saw how it linked the state through its programming.

Q: As a member of the founding board of directors of NPR, you wrote the original mission statement for NPR.

A: Fast-forward to the 1960s and State University of New York at Buffalo. It was a new experience for me being in the east and all the different ethnic neighborhoods. So one of the first things I did was a "porch to porch" survey in the African-American community. I wanted to find out what people were interested in, and how they used radio. We actually put on a series of programs, called "To be Negro." At that time, of course, that was the way African Americans were referred to. Folks talked about what the experience was like. And this led to me establishing a storefront broadcast center, in the heart of the black community, where they produced 27 hours a week of programming. At that time there were virtually no people of color or women in news organizations.

Ed Smith, was a black theater director who hosted a jazz program interviewing musicians. He said:

We always complained because the black [commercial] stations were just doing the top R&B thing, with no community focus. With the satellite radio [studio], we could reach not just the black audience, but the whites too, who had never heard our perspective before. (Fischer, Marc, Something in the Air, (2007), Random House, p. 173.)

The staff came from the community: a postal worker produced news; Bey Barlow, a clerical worker was able to fulfill a lifelong dream presenting a history of the blues; a housewife and singer hosted a children's program. A one-legged Vietnam veteran walked in off the street and produced the first-of-its-kind avant-garde jazz program.

The staff took pride in their work and we sponsored a black arts festival with music, art, photos and poetry. Discussion programs dealt with community issues such as busing with both black and white parents, and drug abuse produced by former addicts.

I told the staff that the FCC was established by Congress in the belief that the "airwaves belong to the people," and they adopted this as a motto.

I also produced a series of programs on the Iroquois Confederacy at the Tuscarora Reservation, nearby Niagara Falls, titled,
Nation Within the Nation

My eight years as manager of WBFO at SUNY-Buffalo were the most experimental; we didn't have much money, but I had the support of Richard Siggelkow, the dean of students, who I had known at the University of Wisconsin and brought me to Buffalo. When I arrived in 1962, WBFO was a student club, off the air in the summers. During the school year, it went on air at 5:00 p.m. when classes were over. Dean Siggelkow told me, "This is just a small bush now; you can make it into a large tree." He protected the journalistic integrity of the station and gave me total freedom. Experimentation is valued at the university and there was a lot of creativity on campus with writers such as John Barth, Leslie Fiedler, and Robert Creeley.

The music department had a group of Creative Associates and the late composer Mary Anne Amacher came to me and asked us to work with her to create a composition made from live sounds in the city. We set up microphones in five locations around the city and mixed them into a 28-hour live broadcast, called "City Links WBFO." Listeners could hear the saw at the Bethlehem Steel factory and hear workers changing shifts; hear a little bell at the Pillsbury factory and street sounds and airplanes coming in. The idea was that natural sounds could be heard as music and you could check what the city sounded like over time. This was the first of 22 similar installations that Mary Anne made over nearly 30 years in the U.S. and overseas.

We reproduced student paintings in the program guide and the artists talked about them, "Talking Painting." Then a composer wrote short pieces in response to the paintings.

When a student strike brought 300 police on campus to quell the disturbance, WBFO broadcast the events over several nights as the confrontation unfolded. We broadcast the tear gassing of the student union where the studios were located, all the while bringing in all the perspectives. We heard from the student leader of the movement, the acting university president, and a range of students and faculty. There wasn't a right or wrong, just different perceptions of reality.

WBFO had an extraordinary group of gifted students that went on to have impressive careers in and out of broadcasting including Henry Tenenbaum, who was long-time reporter at KRON-TV in San Francisco; Howard Arenstein, CBS Radio Washington Bureau Manger, Ira Flatow, creator and host of NPR's Science Friday and Terry Gross, who moved to Philadelphia to produce/host NPR's Fresh Air.

Cliff Stoll was a student engineer who became an astrophysicist and author including the best seller, The Cuckoo's Egg. Cliff described this period:

When Bill came, some people viewed him as an upstart, starting something new. What he was really doing was teaching by demanding excellence. We weren't even seniors; he trusted a sophomore and a senior to build a new studio. We didn't have time to get discouraged because the schedule changed every month; we were unafraid to take risks, and just had fun experimenting. Bill would say, "Try this, and if that doesn't work — well then try something else." ( "That's Great Radio," by Peter Waterhouse. University of Buffalo Today, Winter 1994, p. 10.)

All these experiences informed me as I wrote the original Mission and Purpose for NPR as a member of the founding board of directors in early 1970:

National Public Radio will serve the individual: it will promote personal growth; it will regard individual differences with respect and joy rather than derision and hate; it will celebrate the human experience as infinitely varied rather than vacuous and banal; it will encourage a sense of active constructive participation, rather than apathetic helplessness...

The total service should be trustworthy, enhance intellectual development, expand knowledge, deepen aural esthetic enjoyment, increase the pleasure of living in a pluralistic society and result in a service to listeners which makes them more responsive, informed human beings and intelligent responsible citizens of their communities and the world.

All photos courtesy of Bill Siemering

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