Susan Stamberg: The Arts Kept Me Sane

Susan Stamberg of National Public Radio
Susan Stamberg of NPR

Tomorrow morning, try something new. Reach over and switch off that radio. Try turning off that familiar mainstay, WFCR,  that has filled your kitchen with news and music for the past fifty years.  For many Valley households, it’s just impossible to imagine waking up without NPR’s Morning Edition, and the soothing voice of Bob Paquette filling us in on the news of the day.

Earlier this month the station celebrated a milestone–fifty years of broadcasting at 88.5 Fm and on Wednesday night, a packed house of 350 listened to Susan Stamberg, herself a fifty year veteran, and called “The mother of National Public Radio.”  I caught up with Stamberg and asked her what she was going to say to the large crowd. “I’m going to talk about how art will and does save the world!” she said.

She got her start at the same time National Public Radio began, in Washington DC in 1963. Looking down at my notebook, she laughed, saying “hey you’re a real reporter there, notes and everything!” I assured her that I was no longer in diapers that year, and was all of five. I asked her about the impact of the efforts by some in Congress to eliminate funding for NPR. She said that they had escaped big cuts this session, but that future battles loomed. “But the hit for local stations across the country is where the problem is, less so with NPR because we only get two percent of our funding from the feds.”  She added that the famous $200 million donation from the McDonald’s fortune pays the station interest, but that having staffers and handlers covering two wars means a steep price tag. “It’s $1000 a day in Iraq,” so it’s a continual challenge to raise the money needed to do that kind of reporting.

What is the difference between working in the radio news business now versus when you started out in 1963? “It’s all the speed. It’s like going from a bicycle to an airplane. We used to be out in the field and you’d have to go knock on a farmer’s door to use their phone, today, of course, everything is speeded up, everything is right now.   Today Stamberg’s beat is the arts, features that no longer keep her in the fast lane of rushing to get out the latest news.  In her remarks from the dais, Stamberg reflected on how much “that white bakelite Emerson radio on the kitchen table” meant to her, growing up and listening to stories on the radio, programs that most of the audience honestly doesn’t ever recall. But a few in the audience did share her love of those old radio dramas.

The arts kept her sane, she said, as she spent decades reporting on wars, and politics and many times on bad, sad and dismal news. “But the carrot of the news day, the thing that rewarded me was the chance to talk to a painter, or to a dancer, or a musician….who make things that last.  I would try to hold the art up to the radio and share it with the listeners. People ask about bias in the news. Well I plead guilty I am biased towards the arts.”

She shared a story about the dark days that we all remember after September 11 about the ‘buttons’ those 10-30 second musical intermissions that are aired between news stories on NPR.  “As a listener, music was my contribution. But why not have the music last a minute, or two minutes, smack in the middle of all of this grim news we were reporting about the aftermath of the tragedies. Why not turn to the musicians like

Leon Fleischer, a classical pianist, who was chosen as one of the first. He picked Ode to Joy, from Beethoven’s Ninth symphony. Listeners loved it, and they thanked us for reminding them that the arts teach us that we are created in the  image of God, and we we are still capable of immense wonder.”   It was called Music for America.  She found people like Quincy Jones, Judy Collins and others to select the music that they would use in these extended buttons…just to give listeners a break from hearing more of the terrible news they had to report.