Radio May 2001

Everything You Need to Know

All Things Considered has only improved with age, the author finds. But it could still aim for deeper realms
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Illustration by Mark Matcho

Many years ago, when I was moving to one of the most rural corners of the eastern United States, I spent several days driving back roads with real-estate agents. Given my budget, I would look at anything—nothing was too ramshackle, too long on the market, too far from the road. Before I would even walk up the driveway, though, each property had to pass one test: could I pull in a National Public Radio station on my transistor, or was some mountain blocking the signal? If I couldn't hear NPR, I'd scratch the place off my list.

For most of my adult life All Things Considered (and the NPR programs that have descended from it) has been a regular part of my day. Trying to critique it is like trying to critique my golden retriever: her habits and tics have become so integral to my life that they no longer command conscious attention. Still, with ATC approaching its thirtieth birthday, on May 3, I kept wondering about something I'd always heard: that in its early years the program was fresher, more high-spirited, more venturesome. As early as 1982 Susan Stamberg wrote in her compendium Every Night at Five that the program's in-house joke was that the "Golden Age of All Things Considered was always six months before you came to work here."

NPR has a complete tape library of the program, reel after reel stretching back past the days of Watergate and the energy crisis, right to the very first broadcast, which coincided with a mammoth anti-war demonstration. ("Excuse me, sergeant," the reporter Jeff Kamen could be heard asking a police officer. "Is that a technique? Where the men actually try to drive the motorcycles right into the demonstrators?" "Naw, it's no technique," the sergeant replied. "We're trying to go down the road and the people get in front of you. What are you gonna do? You don't stop on a dime.") Shows from 1996 to the present are nicely catalogued on the show's Web site, but tapes from before the 1990s are not easily available—a situation that some university or foundation should remedy, so that any report-writing high school student could get at these voices from the past on the Internet. These tapes demonstrate all sorts of things: for instance, that even just three decades ago Americans spoke much more colorful English, with a much wider array of accents; and also that the sheer amount of history-making news broadcast on any ordinary afternoon in the early seventies overwhelms our calmer time.

What the tapes don't demonstrate is an Edenic All Things Considered.

At the very, very beginning the show did sound different. The theme music was all cheerful Moog, and Mike Waters, one of the hosts, reverberated like a cross between Orson Welles and Jehovah. It didn't matter that his echoing voice moved through the news at a stately pace: the program's small staff was clearly struggling to come up with enough polished pieces to fill ninety minutes. In July of 1971, for instance, ATC reported on a conference of anti-war activists that the reporter described as "predictable." But that didn't stop him from offering an uninterrupted five minutes and ten seconds of a speech by the former Alaska senator Ernest Gruening attacking U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Sound-bite journalism is surely the bane of our age, but I am duty-bound to say that anyone who now broadcast such segments each night would soon have no listeners. Perhaps we would be better off if we still had the ears for such rambling, but we don't.

Clearly the producers felt the same way, because by about 1977 the show had hit the stride it has maintained to this day—a combination of crisp professionalism and intelligent warmth that has built an audience of 1.6 million an evening. Carl Kasell was reading the news, Bob Edwards was co-hosting the program with Susan Stamberg (Morning Edition, Edwards's baby, was yet to be conceived), Linda Wertheimer and Ira Flatow were providing reports. Much of the current cast was in place: Noah Adams, Cokie Roberts, Scott Simon, Robert Siegel. Though the show was covering newsmakers of the now distant past (Bert Lance!), and though some of the issues of the day seem bizarre to our ears (Robert Krulwich anchored a special report on why women might want to have jobs), the tone, the length, and the ambiance would be instantly familiar to any current listener of ATC or Morning Edition or the weekend versions of these shows. Right at the beginning the format could have gone in any number of directions. For instance, to close a 1971 report on pinball parlors Mike Waters cued The Who's "Pinball Wizard," not for twelve bars but for its glorious entirety. By about 1977, though, the show's experimentation had largely ended, and the daily lineup was set: harder news in the first and third half hours, softer stuff in the second and—since 1995, when the program expanded to two hours—fourth. Each half hour in turn progressed from newsier news to features and interviews. Letters from listeners on Thursday. And so on.

To call it a formula sounds like criticism. In fact the routine has allowed for more variety than can be found on any other program on the air—wonderful contests (create an itinerary that would really show America to a visiting Chinese dignitary), numberless interviews (when Stamberg left the show, in 1986, to launch Weekend Edition Sunday, the staff presented her with a computer printout of the 15,000 interviews and reports she had done). The scripts are writerly. The hosts seem like good friends at the office: they're informal but without any of the phony, jokey banter that blights every commercial newscast. Best of all, the show has achieved a steadiness, a regularity, that allows it to take chances, to devote a quarter hour to some unlikely topic—say, the history of Patsy Cline's "Crazy"—without scaring off listeners. Trusting its quality, listeners give it the benefit of the doubt, in the same way that Beatles fans were willing to entertain the idea of sitars. Charles Kuralt, writing about the show a decade after it started, said, "It's obvious that it is not put together by jaded old geezers looking backward at humanity's wrecks and disasters, but by energetic young men and women looking ahead." That may be twenty years less true than it used to be, but for the most part those men and women have matured with little cynicism and much grace.

Noah Adams pointed out in his 1992 book about the program that hard news has slowly taken over more airtime—probably less a conscious decision than the simple result of more bureaus, more reporters, more people gathering more stuff. Perhaps the show's Washington-centered universe makes less sense than it did in the early 1970s, when the Vietnam War and Watergate drew attention naturally toward the Potomac. Yet it is National Public Radio, and clearly the program's producers feel the need to create something like a broadcast of record. In fact, since no commercial radio or TV show comes anywhere near the quality of ATC and its offspring, and since NPR owns the public-radio franchise for domestic news (the noble PRI/BBC production The World doesn't compete head-on with national stories), the show's only real peer is our newspaper of record, The New York Times. Both have one ambition: to tell you (within the limitations of the medium, of course) what you need to know. And it's here, in a funny, dual sense, that the technology of radio sometimes makes life difficult for Adams, Siegel, and company.

Covering the world comprehensively—even in the politically mainstream way in which both ATC and the Times tackle the task—means a certain number of boring stories. House subcommittees write tax policy; think tanks issue reports on prescription-drug policies. If you are going to be responsible, you've got to take note. Newspaper readers can and do skip stories, glancing at the headlines, confident that they've been filed for history, and moving on to the movie reviews. And the newspaper, at least the Times, has enough space to pay careful attention to a dull story without slighting something else. On radio, of course, you have to listen to the damn thing, and the three minutes it fills up is three minutes less for something else. No one complains that the Times focuses too much on Washington, because you can read the paper happily your whole life without ever getting two paragraphs past a D.C. dateline.

Radio has another property that complicates the lives of those trying to decide what should fill ATC's daily two hours. At its best radio achieves a kind of intimacy that allows something much more personal than print journalism does. A newspaper feature may contain a few funny or revealing quotations, but it is exceedingly rare for papers to devote the kind of space necessary to flesh out a picture of any one human being. That's why we have magazine feature stories and novels. Something about the human voice, though, even speaking only a few dozen words, can take you straight from the news into a deeper realm. Human voices keep listeners sitting in their driveways long after they've gotten home, as the radio slowly drains the battery, unable to turn off the man who is watching his father die, or the boy who is flunking out of school, or the woman who has gotten over drinking, or ... It's not Cronkite and Murrow who set the bar but Zola and Orwell and both Tom Wolfes, not to mention Johnny Cash and Preston Sturges. Such pieces transform All Things Considered from merely the best radio show there ever was into something much more. They turn regular listeners into fanatics. Maybe a few a month, maybe a few dozen a year, those stories have always come, often from freelance producers. One accepts them as occasional gifts and is grateful.

Five years ago the former ATC producer Ira Glass launched This American Life, a weekly hour of such pieces. Working with a small staff and a fairly small budget, Glass manages epiphanies on an almost regular basis. Though sometimes he has a writer read a short story, it's usually all reporting—but reporting in the broadest sense. Here are some men who work in a grain elevator—why do they listen to soap operas while they work? What do the soap operas mean to them? Here is a couple who moved back to their rural-Missouri home town after forty years in the city—why do they run into such hostility when they try to spruce up the community? Week after week, in pieces that are twenty or thirty or even sixty minutes long, Glass and company somehow manage to achieve both the smooth professionalism that is the hallmark of ATC and the urgent sense that they are inventing something new. The program quickly built a relatively huge and devoted audience. Unlike ATC, which comes on at drive time, This American Life requires fans to find a radio Sunday afternoons at three, or Saturday evenings, or at whatever other inconvenient hours local stations broadcast the show. Despite that handicap, and despite (or because of) Glass's aggressively unradio voice, it has emerged as the first real challenge All Things Considered has ever faced.

Every week Glass shows exactly how much is possible with a microphone and a DAT deck. It's as if he has announced that radio is still an infant art that offers immense possibilities for exploring the human condition—that from individual stories it can describe a time, a generation. Picking a weekly theme ("the allure of crime," "do-gooders," "the kindness of strangers") unties him from the daily news and forces his staff to think about how people actually live their lives. An hour on "kids as adults" featured a twenty-minute memoir of life as a teenage ambulance driver, a boy who gave up his teenage years to play the trumpet, and a twelve-year-old who had to decide whether or not to leave Vietnam on a boat. One hour of this stuff each week does not sate the appetite. Once you've heard it, you wonder, Why can't I listen to stories like these every single day? Why aren't they on All Things Considered every day? Why can't I sit transfixed in the driveway every night?

Luckily for the editors of the Times, no one asks them such questions. They have a clear role in the information economy. But All Things Considered was, in the words of its founder, Bill Siemering, supposed to "celebrate the human experience." Somehow we want it to tell us about the Federal Reserve and also reach the innermost parts of us. In the 360-degree spectrum of what it means to be a human being, the Times can reach maybe 90 degrees—love is more or less beyond its grasp, and thus so is an awful lot else. Radio can come pretty close to considering all things. That's why it's possible to hope that this best of all shows may get better still.

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