The Magic of Radio

April 13, 2011

Margaret Low Smith, Cokie Roberts, Audie Cornish and Susan Stamberg with Christopher H. Sterling and Frank Sesno

NPR’s Margaret Low Smith, Cokie Roberts, Audie Cornish and Susan Stamberg with GW Professor of Media and Public Affairs Christopher H. Sterling and School of Media and Public Affairs Director Frank Sesno.

By Julia Parmley

They were in Germany when the Berlin Wall came down; in Pennsylvania during the greatest nuclear power accident in the United States; and on the ground in New York City when the World Trade Center fell.

And on April 11, National Public Radio was in GW’s Jack Morton Auditorium to celebrate 40 years on the air.

NPR’s Audie Cornish, Cokie Roberts, Susan Stamberg and Margaret Low Smith joined GW Professor of Media and Public Affairs Christopher H. Sterling on a panel about the impact of public radio, moderated by School of Media and Public Affairs Director Frank Sesno.

The evening was also a celebration of Mr. Sterling’s retirement from GW. On the faculty for more than 30 years, Mr. Sterling is a leading expert on the history of broadcasting and journalism and has authored, co-authored and edited more than 25 books, including the six-volume Encyclopedia of Journalism, which has more than 360 entries on U.S. media.

In his introductory remarks, Global Media Institute Executive Director Michael Freedman said the event honored “both an entity and a man that have kept the magic of radio alive; one through superb creative and substantive programming, the other through a career of superb teaching and writing.”

“A fair number of us fell head over heels in love with this marvelous medium that provided such intimate entertainment, information and companionship,” said Mr. Freedman, former director of United Press International Radio Network. “Today, that magic transcends terrestrial radio and embraces exciting new digital platforms that allow programming on demand and text and other features that are drawing a new generation to this amazing theater of the mind; young people who may not even know what a transistor radio is are now in love with radio.”

Although she called the past year “one of the most difficult birthday years imaginable,” Ms. Smith, NPR’s acting senior vice president of news, told the audience that she remains “eternally optimistic” about the importance and purpose of NPR. She recounted the last several months of news coverage, which took NPR staff around the world, covering everything from natural disasters in Asia to civilian uprisings in Africa. Ms. Smith said these stories illustrated NPR’s reporting skills as well as its “distinct ability to tell you about the human toll.”

“The dedication to telling the story and getting it right is impossible to quantify. That dedication is NPR’s secret sauce, and we’ve been using the same recipe for 40 years,” she said. “Collectively, we understand the power of rigorous reporting, exquisite writing, rich sound and the intimate nature of the human voice. Beyond the news, our coverage provides a celebration of life and humanity, lets people understand the ties that bind us and make sense of this crazy experience called life.

“Despite this difficult moment for NPR, I believe so deeply in what we do and why we matter,” she added. “We are honored and humbled to have this celebration.”

The panelists discussed NPR’s evolution from providing national news programming to 90 stations in the 1970s into the global media organization it is today, with a network of 900 stations and 27 million listeners each week as well as 17 million online listeners. NPR provides news, arts and life and music programming, which includes popular shows Morning Edition, This American Life, All Things Considered and Car Talk.

The first woman to anchor a national nightly news program, Ms. Stamberg began at NPR in 1972 as co-host of All Things Considered and is now guest host of NPR’s Morning Edition and Weekend Edition Saturday. She said she “could not have imagined” NPR would become the organization it is today.

“At the start we had to do things differently from what the big and rich guys were doing,” she said. “But I never would have expected, in these 40 years, to be so many people’s primary source of information, as other institutions have collapsed.”

Ms. Roberts, a senior news analyst for NPR News and a political commentator for ABC News, said NPR’s diverse audiences make its influence even greater. “People have been listening to NPR for a long time,” she said. “We have people on farms, on Wall Street, in the halls of Congress and on college campuses.”

The panelists also discussed the future of public radio and some of their favorite NPR moments.

Ms. Stamberg advised students interested in media careers to dig for every story and be as prepared as they can.

“If you’re lucky you’ll get to the truth, but always your duty is to be as fair and balanced as you possibly can,” she said.

“Never quit and think you’re done, because you’re not,” she added. “There’s always 10 more steps to take and 110 more stories to tell. Do that and you’ll find the passion I’ve had all my life.”