NPR Purposes

In 1970 National Public Radio’s first program director wrote a “mission statement” to define the aspirations for this new network and its first daily program, All Things Considered, which debuted May 3, 1971. Here’s some prime cuts from “National Public Radio Purposes” by William H. Siemering:

Because National Public Radio begins with no identity of its own it is essential that a daily product of excellence be developed. This may contain some hard news, but the primary emphasis would be on interpretation, investigative reporting on public affairs, the world of ideas and the arts. The program would be well paced, flexible, and a service primarily for a general audience. It would not, however, substitute superficial blandness for genuine diversity of regions, values, and cultural and ethnic minorities which comprise American society; it would speak with many voices and many dialects. The editorial attitude would be that of inquiry, curiosity, concern for the quality of life, critical, problem-solving, and life loving. The listener should come to rely upon it as a source of information of consequence; that having listened has made a difference in his attitude toward his environment and himself.

There may be regular features on consumer information, views of the world from poets, men and women of ideas and interpretive comments from scholars. Using inputs from affiliate stations, for the first time the intellectual resources of colleges and universities will be applied to daily affairs on a national scale.

Philosophically, time is measured by the intensity of experience. Waiting for a bus and walking through an art gallery may occupy the same time duration, but not the same time experience. Listeners should feel that the time spent with NPR was among their most rewarding in media contact. National Public Radio will not regard its audience as a “market” or in terms of its disposable income, but as curious, complex individuals who are looking for some understanding, meaning and joy in the human experience.

Most of the ideas in Siemering’s doc still seem sound; many remain untested. For instance, here’s NPR’s hopes for “cultural programs.” Notice the use of the term “radio art”… perhaps the first and last time NPR expressed the concept:

National Public Radio might use any of the following to make the arts understandable and engaging.

  • Listeners could gain a contemporary view of the world through the eyes of a sensitive writer. National competitions might be held to encourage new radio writers.
  • Encourage, and provide facilities for leading writers of fiction and dramatists to prepare new materials for radio.
  • Standards of the radio art could be improved by broadcasting regular criticisms of the medium.
  • Young people could be introduced to the beauty of the medium through materials prepared for in-school listening. Writers of children’s books could be commissioned to write for radio.
  • Work cooperatively with National, State and local councils on the arts and international agencies in developing greater understanding and appreciation of the arts. For example, reproductions collected from around the country of a period or school of art could be printed and distributed through local stations. Leading art historians could lead the listener viewer through the book in a broadcast series.
  • Stimulate local symphony orchestras, through national broadcasts. Rather than a series of the New York Philharmonic, there could be a concert series with a different local orchestra each week performing what it does best.
  • Compose and perform new works live across the country.
  • Use the products of the National Center for Audio Experimentation at the University of Wisconsin as a contemporary esthetic experience and to help give the service a unique identifiable sound.
  • A sense of the cultural diversity could be achieved by programs featuring the music of the different ethnic groups across the country.
  • Competitions could be sponsored to encourage new artistic uses of the medium and to improve the quality of the product.

Among NPRs original goals was a grand collaboration between local stations and the national provider — something they still pursue and often acheive:

One of the unique aspects of National Public Radio is that each member station will have the potential of being an originator of programs as well as a transmitter; it will be national in input as well as distribution. Since the majority of member stations are part of large universities or near urban areas, for the first time the best intellectual resources of the country will be able to he effectively used, quickly and easily, on a national scale. Many Americans probably know only of one anthropologist, Margaret Mead, and one historian, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. Individual stations may contribute short actualities, an interview of national interest, segments of a longer special program, a complete program or program series or help to arrange for a live discussion of one specialist with another in a distant city. Stations should receive appropriate compensation for their contributions.

Initially, many stations may lack the skilled personnel or experience for some of the tasks necessary to implement this goal. Workshops for production personnel should be provided so that standards of excellence can be established and maintained. A significant by-product of this goal will be the considerable upgrading of staff and service of many local public radio stations.

At the end Bill goes out with a bang:

Improving the art of the sound medium should be an on-going concern at the production center just as newspapers and magazines constantly improve the format and appearance of their medium… National Public Radio should utilize the most advanced techniques of the medium, should introduce new concepts and have the highest technical standards in the field.

Godfrey Featherstone, writing in the British publication Anarchy suggests some of the potentials:

Using sounds alone, with no imposed pictures or rigid, linear print tending to fragment and narrow thought processes and imagination, can stimulate a habit of thinking in terms of dynamic complexes of ideas or far-reaching constellations or “fields” of imagery. Sound can tap the flow and structures of feelings of ordinary people if they speak directly for themselves about their lives’ central experiences in actuality is made fuller, complex, concrete through the tone, pace, rhythm, and stress of their speech … Skillfully, tactfully and simply relating actuality material to song, Charles Parker’s Radio Ballads … about the efforts, strengths, risks, hardships discriminating wisdom rooted inmost people’s working lives did this with an impact greater than a multitude of political propaganda efforts.

National Public Radio should not only improve the quality of public radio, but should lead in revitalizing the medium of radio so that it may become a first class citizen in the media community.

—William H. Siemering, 1970 “National Public Radio Purposes” 1971, collected by Current at their by Public Broadcasting PolicyBase.

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