50 And Forward: An Anniversary Celebration Of NPR | Connecticut Public Radio
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50 And Forward: An Anniversary Celebration Of NPR

May 19, 2021
Originally published on May 3, 2021 1:06 pm

It's been a turbulent time, with a deadly pandemic and a chaotic — sometimes violent — political climate. In the midst of all this, NPR is marking a milestone; on May 3, 2021, the network turns 50 years old.

On the same day, in 1971, we started holding up our microphone to America. Just outside our doors, on the streets of Washington, DC, one of the biggest antiwar protests in American history was taking place. NPR's story is that of a ragtag network — born in the era of the Vietnam War and Watergate — one that came of age during the explosion of the 24/7 news cycle.

In the 50 years that NPR has been around, the news and journalism have changed. The network has been shaped by its talented reporters, producers and hosts.

NPR has also had to reckon with the ways it has not lived up to its mission of diversity and inclusion, a mission it continues to strive for today. But, as stories go, NPR's is quite a memorable one.

NPR's beginning was improbable. The network barely made it on air.

Linda Wertheimer, who directed the first broadcast of All Things Considered, thought they would never survive another week. Given the chaotic nature of that first day, her sense of NPR's future was grim. "[It] was just going to be beyond awful," Wertheimer says.

But from the start, NPR's blueprint was infused with the chance to do something different, something extraordinary. "We were creating it from scratch. There was no template for it," says Susan Stamberg, NPR's Founding Mother.

Susan Stamberg
NPR

To understand the media world from which NPR sprang, you need to look at what was going on — not in radio, but on television, in the late 1960s. At the time, concern that public television was not adequately serving the public was growing. In a now famous speech before the National Association of Broadcasters, FCC Chair Newt Minow challenged broadcasters to do better: "I invite you to sit down at your television set when your station goes on the air, and stay there for a day," he says. "Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland." Minow and others felt that the public was not receiving the benefits that the airways owned.

In 1967, President Lyndon B. Johnson articulated the mission of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a nonprofit corporation funded by American taxpayers. Originally named the Public Television Act, the bill's purpose was to fix TV's problems. Radio wasn't even on the docket; in fact, the words "And radio" were taped on — literally — at the last minute. According to On the Media host Brooke Gladstone, there wasn't much, if any, news happening in radio. "NPR was able to walk into an open field and start playing," she said. "That was one of the reasons it was able to set the rules of the game, the sound of the air." NPR's sound was an open question: What would it be? Who would they sound like?

Bill Siemering, NPR's first director of programming, recognized the lack of structure as something exciting. "I remember, maybe at the first staff program — staff meeting — I said 'We have a blank canvas here, and there'll be thousands of brush strokes on this,' " Siemering recalls. " 'But the very first brush strokes that we put on this are very important because that will set a tone and value.' " Siemering remembers being aspirational, offering a few core values for the network to follow, as he wrote the first paragraph of what would become NPR's mission statement:

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.

NPR's mission statement has worked its way into the network's DNA. Even today, many staff members can recite parts of it, and a newer version is displayed in large letters on the wall of NPR's lobby.

Few things represent NPR's growth more than our headquarters in Washington, DC. It stands seven stories high, almost a city block long. The day's headlines scroll across the building on a giant, black news ticker; you can see them from across town. When you walk in, the lobby is a sleek, cavernous space. You'll notice right away that there's a timeline of our history, how the network grew from a staff of just 65 people, to what is now a thriving news network with over 1,000 employees around the country and the world. Radio is the medium that launched us, and to this day, our success still comes back to the singular, human voice in your ear. So, it's fitting that when you visit the newsroom, Susan Stamberg's voice escorts you upstairs.

Stamberg helped shape the sound of NPR as the first woman to anchor a national nightly news program. "When I went on, there were no role models. There were no women doing this. All there were — were men," Stamberg recalls. "So, I started lowering my voice and talking like this. And that really wasn't washing very well, and I couldn't keep it up for an hour and a half which was as long as the program was." Bill Siemering, who hired Stamberg, had a conversation with her that changed the way she spoke on air. "He said, 'Be yourself.' And that was like, such a gift. I didn't have to be ... that man-sounding voice," Stamberg recalls. "I could just speak as I spoke in real life, just like this ... It was what he heard. It was the voice he heard in his head, and he found it in me."

Renee Chaney, visitor Louisa Parker, Linda Wertheimer and Kris Mortensen, in the first All Things Considered studio, 1972.
NPR

Not everyone embraced Stamberg's voice right away. Jack Mitchell remembers that certain board members in the midwest felt that she was "too New York." What it came down to was Siemering, who heard the sound he wanted for NPR in Stamberg's voice. Her voice was " ... curious, authentic, [and had a] rich tone color, and just this insatiable curiosity that kind of bubbles over."

Hers wasn't the only voice to define the NPR sound — Cokie Roberts would become a legendary congressional and political reporter; Linda Wertheimer, a longtime host of All Things Considered. Finally, Nina Totenberg, who defines our Supreme Court coverage. Nina, Linda, Cokie, and Susan: a roster of female talent affectionately referred to as "The Founding Mothers."

NPR was still nascent when Ira Glass — a young intern who had never heard of NPR — arrived in 1978. "And I'm going to say this, and it doesn't sound like it's true, but it's totally true," Glass says. "NPR didn't get a satellite till 1980." Glass explains that if you were listening to NPR in Los Angeles, what it sounded like was if "somebody in Washington was listening to All Things Considered on the radio, and they were holding their phone up to the radio."

Stan Barouh

The arrival of the satellite coincided with the launch of Morning Edition, which debuted in 1979. The show was almost cancelled before it even started. "It was absolutely a disaster," former Morning Edition host Bob Edwards said. Jay Kernis, a former producer who helped get the program off the ground, agrees: "There were many pilots. They were all pretty bad." Edwards took leave from All Things Considered and a week later, Morning Edition went on air.

NPR continued to expand. In 1979, the network opened its first foreign bureau, sending Robert Siegel to London. Slowly, the network was able to hire new correspondents and freelancers stationed around the globe. Now, NPR has 17 official foreign bureaus and numerous stringers providing coverage around the world. "I mean, when I first came [to NPR]," Siegel says. "We were a little spice in the public radio system." Decades on, NPR has become an institution — in some regards, a cliche — the subject of jokes, Siegel suggests.

NPR

By the time Michele Norris arrived in 2002 to host All Things Considered, which she did for nearly a decade, she remembers "NPR ... as the gold standard in journalism [due to] their, their foreign coverage, political coverage, their depth, and the pristine sound." Yet NPR has had to reckon with many of the ways it still needs to change. "I will admit that for a time as a journalist, I did not want to cover the race beat." Norris said. "As a person of color. I always covered matters of race, perhaps more than my white colleagues did, because that's what happens in a newsroom." Norris says that her views changed when she became a host. Part of the issue comes down to who NPR thinks its audience is. "I think there was a false perception that NPR had a Chardonnay-drinking, Volvo-driving, fuzzy sweater wearing, Birkenstock-walking audience. Our audience was much more diverse than that," Norris says. "I knew that when I went out in the world. I knew that from the listeners that I heard from. Our job is to hold a mirror up to the world."

50 years later, we fill a digital space that goes beyond the wildest dreams of our founders. "I've never thought of it as something that was exclusively radio," NPR's Vice President of Programming, Anya Grundmann, says. "It's about creating experiences that will enhance people's lives." NPR serves on every platform imaginable. Every week, 60 million people consume some form of NPR across a full range of experiences, including radio, smart speakers, NPR.org, video streaming, live events, mobile apps — and of course, podcasts.

NPR has been one of the top publishers in the US since podcasting began. In fact, in January of 2000, NPR created an online show that didn't exist on the radio at all: All Songs Considered — our first podcast before the term even existed. Today, NPR publishes more than a dozen of them every week and partners with stations and independent producers as well. In fact, one-third of all daily podcast listening is attributed to NPR and our public radio partners.

NPR continues adding podcasts at a fast clip, thinking about whose stories matter. Code Switch, one about race and identity, is a good example of this. Shereen Marisol Meraji, one of the show's co-hosts, shares the story she's most proud of telling — one that got listeners to think more deeply about a statistic: "16 million people live in a household where one or more of the people in [their] household is undocumented." For this story, Meraji reported on a family of three siblings: one who was was a citizen, one who was completely undocumented, and one who had DACA — which granted her temporary relief from deportation. Meraji asked the siblings what it was like to live together, knowing that their futures looked very different. "And I think that that's what we do so well at Code Switch," Meraji says. "... We will take a faceless statistic, and we will make it real and human for our listeners." Last year, Code Switch was named Apple Podcasts' first-ever "Show of the Year" in the US.

Another NPR innovation that surprised even the people who invented it was the Tiny Desk Concert. It started with NPR Music's Bob Boilen and Stephen Thompson taking an annual trip to music festival South by Southwest, where they often come across emerging musical talent. As Boilen tells it, he and Thompson went to see the artist Laura Gibson perform at a noisy bar. "We introduced ourselves to Laura, and Stephen jokingly said to her, 'We couldn't hear you. You ought to just come play a private concert in our office,' " he recalls. "All three of us laughed. And before we knew it, three weeks later, she came to NPR ... And I put her behind my desk with a microphone and a couple of cameras and took it home and edited it, put it up online."

Lizzo plays a Tiny Desk Concert on May 21, 2019 (Claire Harbage/NPR).
Claire Harbage / NPR

No one at NPR music imagined that this chance meeting would, in time, produce the phenomenon known as the Tiny Desk, a video series that features musicians performing short 15-minute concerts. It would eventually become NPR's biggest digital program. Another turning point was rapper T-Pain's performance who played, for the first time in public, without autotune. The concert went viral; within a few days, 7 million people had watched it. Soon, the Tiny Desk series was featuring a wide range of musical genres on a regular basis. Just last year, the Tiny Desk series had nearly a half a billion views on youtube.

Across the audio landscape, there's been an explosion in creativity, especially in storytelling — much of it sharing our DNA. Take Ira Glass, for instance, who started his career as an intern at NPR. 17 years later, after learning the ropes as a producer, reporter and sometimes host, Glass came up with the idea for a show that would feature a new kind of storytelling. Naturally, he turned to NPR to see if they would distribute it. "NPR just did not want to pick up the show," Glass recalls. "The management, they just didn't like it. They didn't get ... even, that it was journalism." But Glass doesn't necessarily see NPR's rejection of what would become This American Life as a missed opportunity: "In the end, I feel like that's one of those things that just doesn't matter at all. We were on all the same stations. We reached all the same audience, you know what I mean?"

Katherine Rose / Courtesy of KCAW

This American Life took off in spectacular fashion and remains one of the most popular shows today. It has what could be described as a kind of "public radio style" — conversational, low-key, intimate. The creativity of the show rippled out and helped shape some of the podcasts that would come to define NPR, like Planet Money and Invisibilia. This American Life made more than a splash even though NPR didn't see anything in it at first. Glass attributes this to the unique public radio format in the United States. "There's no big boss at the top who decides what all the stations should run, and there's a radical decentralization in public broadcasting," he says. "And that has made for a lot of creativity and openness than would otherwise happen."

The decentralized network has been there from the beginning; it exists as NPR's member stations. "I think one of the best parts of public radio, its secret sauce, if you will, is its member station network," Emily Kwong says. "They are the eyes and the ears of their community." Kwong, who works at NPR's Science Desk, says no other station embodies that better than where she got her start — KCAW, known by locals in Sitka, Alaska, as Raven radio. "Working in a tiny town, I didn't know if a big story would ever come our way, one that would necessarily result in the airing on NPR," Kwong says. "Until January 2018. A 7.9 [magnitude] earthquake had struck off the coast of Alaska in the middle of the night, and it prompted a tsunami warning for the entire state of Alaska and parts of Canada." Kwong remembers crawling out of her bed, bleary eyed, thinking, "I have to start doing my job, which is to report the local news."

As part of her job, Kwong spoke to Rachel Martin on Morning Edition. The wave thankfully never came, but the conversation helped her appreciate the relationship between NPR and its member stations. "The level of caring and concern in [Martin's] voice — knowing that there were eyes on Sitka, that people outside of Sitka were paying attention to us and that kind of connection is something I won't forget," she says. "And it made NPR real to me. It made it a place I knew I can call up and share the news of what was happening in my area and share that with the country because that's how it's structured to be."

Kwong now works at headquarters in Washington, DC as a reporter for NPR's Science Podcast, Short Wave. "What it really is, is a show that's looking at science from a lens of equity," she explains. Kwong believes that NPR is in a unique position to help listeners have a deeper understanding of America "because we have [the platform, the power, the ability] and the time to research all of this, and interview people who understand it."

Having power and a platform means we can experiment with new shows and ask the kind of questions that give us a deeper understanding of America. NPR Music's Louder Than a Riot looks at the interconnected rise of hip-hop and mass incarceration. "With Louder than a Riot, we really wanted to tell the story that we've lived," co-host Rodney Carmichael says. "You know, as two people from the hip-hop culture, of the hip-hop culture, who've been fans of it, you know, from day one. And we knew that there was a story there, that there were voices there, that you have never heard on NPR." Co-host Sidney Madden agrees, noting that "it is very serendipitous that the rollout of this show came on the [dovetails] of the summer we just lived through in 2020" — referring to the protests for racial justice, after the death of George Floyd. "But at the same time, the whole point of the show is that hip-hop has been saying it for 40 years," Madden says. "And so many people didn't listen and they just casually consume it, but don't consider the deeper meaning ... between the lines and between the lyrics."

Carmichael says that he would love to see NPR get to the point where it's not just creating specialty shows to go after a certain kind of audience. "We need to be, in all of our main broadcast shows, telling the kind of stories that we feel like aren't being heard or told enough on the [other] bigger outlets." Madden agrees. "It's like, don't wait to play, catch up on something you know you can be a leader in. [NPR has] the talent, the resources and the drive and the vision to do it," she says. Carmichael suggests that we shouldn't have to wait another 40 years to tell the story of what's happening this year. "Let's start telling those stories right now."

Right now and for the years to come, we'll continue to ask ourselves what we can do better, where we can improve and how we can innovate. NPR has worked for 50 years to get it right: to Hear Every Voice and to connect with you — and we're grateful for the chance to do it all again. In the words of Susan Stamberg: "Hang on to that sense of mission and the idealism with which we began. We're hurtling towards the next phase. We have passed through it and there's gonna be something beyond that, too."

: 5/01/21

In a previous version of this story, we misspelled Newt Minow's name as Newt Minnow and Shereen Marisol Meraji's name as Shereen Marison Maraji.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

AUDIE CORNISH (HOST): It's really kind of an improbable story. NPR barely made it onto the air.

LINDA WERTHEIMER (BYLINE): I thought we would never survive another week. It was just going to be beyond awful. And, in fact, it was beyond awful.

CORNISH: But the blueprint for NPR was infused from the start with a chance to do something different.

SUSAN STAMBERG (BYLINE): We were creating it from scratch. There was no template for it.

CORNISH: I'm Audie Cornish. And this is FIFTY AND FORWARD, an anniversary celebration of NPR. Today, we're going to explore how we got here.

ROBERT SIEGEL (FORMER NPR HOST): I mean, every year we'd be adding someone here, adding someone there.

CORNISH: We'll do the math on some course corrections.

MICHELE NORRIS (FORMER NPR HOST): Our job is to go out and cover the world, not just the things that are of interest to the audience that we think we have.

CORNISH: And we'll take a look at where we might go next.

RODNEY CARMICHAEL (BYLINE): I think if NPR wants to continue to not only survive but thrive, we got to make sure that we are telling all of America's stories.

CORNISH: Coming up, FIFTY AND FORWARD, an anniversary celebration of NPR.

This is FIFTY AND FORWARD, an anniversary celebration of NPR. I'm Audie Cornish. With all that's going on today...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1 (BYLINE/NPR CLIP): The U.S. COVID-19 death toll has now gone...

CORNISH: It's been a turbulent time with a deadly pandemic, fights for racial justice and a chaotic and sometimes violent political climate.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2 (BYLINE/NPR CLIP): Pro-Trump rioters have stormed the Capitol building.

CORNISH: And in the midst of all this, we're marking a milestone.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCASTS)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3 (BYLINE/NPR CLIP): Allow us to introduce ourselves.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4 (BYLINE/NPR CLIP): This is NPR, National Public Radio.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: NPR is turning 50. How long is 50 years? Well, long enough to remove the seemingly outdated word radio from our name...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCASTS)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #5 (BYLINE/NPR CLIP): This is National Public Radio.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #6 (BYLINE/NPR CLIP): This is NPR News.

CORNISH: ...Long enough to witness a dizzying parade of world-changing events and upstart technologies, long enough to figure out when it's time to start doing things differently.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS #1 (PROTESTERS/NPR CLIP): (Chanting) Stop the war now. Stop the war now.

CORNISH: Now, that's us on the very first day of our first show. It was May 3, 1971, and outside our doors, on the streets of Washington, D.C., one of the biggest anti-war protests in American history was taking place. We started by holding up our microphone to America. And we're still listening today.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS #2 (PROTESTERS): (Chanting) George Floyd.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER (PROTESTER/NPR CLIP): (Chanting) Say his name.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS #2: (Chanting) George Floyd.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Chanting) Say his name.

CORNISH: Two of the biggest protests of our times bookending 50 years of NPR. Today, we have the story of a ragtag network, born in the era of Vietnam and Watergate, that came of age during the explosion of the 24/7 news cycle. And we're going to explore how the news has changed.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCASTS)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #7 (BYLINE/NPR CLIP): First reports that President Nixon would resign...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #8 (BYLINE/NPR CLIP): The space shuttle Challenger lifted off...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #9 (BYLINE/NPR CLIP): As of today, the wall that bisects Berlin...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #10 (BYLINE/NPR CLIP): An extent of the epidemic of Kaposi sarcoma.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #11 (BYLINE/NPR CLIP): President Clinton is vowing to finish his term...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #12 (BYLINE/NPR CLIP): Katrina hit the coasts of Louisiana...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #13 (BYLINE/NPR CLIP): It appears that a plane has crashed into the upper floors of the World Trade Center.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1 (GENERAL PUBLIC): My goodness, we're in the middle of an earthquake?

STEVE INSKEEP (BYLINE/NPR CLIP): Powerful scene in Tahrir Square...

DAVID GREENE (BYLINE/NPR CLIP): Last night, Donald Trump was elected the 45th president...

CORNISH: We'll look at how our journalism has changed with our ever-growing team of reporters, producers, hosts.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCASTS)

SANFORD UNGAR (BYLINE/NPR CLIP): I'm Sanford Ungar.

ROBERT CONLEY (BYLINE/NPR CLIP): I'm Robert Conley.

NOAH ADAMS (BYLINE/NPR CLIP): I'm Noah Adams.

WERTHEIMER: And I'm Linda Wertheimer.

SIEGEL: I'm Robert Siegel.

BOB EDWARDS (BYLINE/NPR CLIP): I'm Bob Edwards.

MELISSA BLOCK (BYLINE/NPR CLIP): I'm Melissa Block.

RENEE MONTAGNE (BYLINE/NPR CLIP): I'm Renee Montagne from NPR News.

ARI SHAPIRO (BYLINE/NPR CLIP): I'm Ari Shapiro.

SCOTT SIMON (BYLINE/NPR CLIP): I'm Scott Simon.

INSKEEP: And I'm Steve Inskeep.

GREENE: I'm David Greene in Washington, D.C.

MARY LOUISE KELLY (BYLINE/NPR CLIP): I'm Mary Louise Kelly.

NOEL KING (BYLINE/NPR CLIP): I'm Noel King.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO (BYLINE/NPR CLIP): I'm Lulu Garcia-Navarro.

AILSA CHANG (BYLINE/NPR CLIP): I'm Ailsa Chang.

RACHEL MARTIN (BYLINE/NPR CLIP): I'm Rachel Martin.

KELLY MCEVERS (BYLINE/NPR CLIP): This is Kelly McEvers from NPR's...

MICHEL MARTIN (BYLINE/NPR CLIP): It's All Things Considered from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: We'll hear our theme music grow up.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: And as stories go, we think ours is a pretty good one.

Now, if you want to understand the media world that NPR sprang out of in the late 1960s, you need to look at what was going on in television.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NEWTON MINOW (CHAIR, FCC): I invite each of you to sit down in front of your own television set when your station goes on the air and stay there for a day.

CORNISH: In this famous speech, Newton Minow, the head of the FCC, challenged American broadcasters to do better.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MINOW: Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland.

CORNISH: A vast wasteland.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MINOW: Blood and thunder, mayhem, violence and endlessly commercials...

(SOUNDBITE OF AD)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS (SINGERS): (Singing) Brilliant, brighter colors, the brightest you can get...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MINOW: ...And most of all, boredom.

CORNISH: It was becoming clear that the public wasn't getting the benefit from the airwaves that it owned. And so in 1967, President Lyndon B. Johnson formalized an alternative. It was called the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LYNDON B JOHNSON (36TH US PRES): ...The Corporation of Public Broadcasting (ph). This corporation will assist stations and producers who aim for the best. We in America have an appetite for excellence, too. And while we work every day to produce new goods and to create new wealth, we want, most of all, to enrich man's spirit. And that is the purpose of this act.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: And the bill was originally named the Public Television Act. And its original purpose was to fix TV's problems. Radio wasn't even on the docket. In fact, the words and radio were slipped in at the last minute. Longtime NPR host Robert Siegel described it this way.

SIEGEL: We were also working in a medium that had been declared dead for the most part. So you know, we were this not very high-profile medium with a pretty small audience. So yes, it gave us a pretty big free space to grow up on the air.

CORNISH: From what you know of that period, was radio dead?

BROOKE GLADSTONE (BYLINE): Yes, it was dead from a news point of view.

CORNISH: That's Brooke Gladstone, host of "On The Media."

GLADSTONE: FM had killed AM radio, certainly, and FM radio was principally music. NPR was able to walk into an open field and start playing. That was one of the reasons it was able to set the rules of the game, the sound of the air.

SIEGEL: The period when National Public Radio and All Things Considered, when they were conceived, was a time when there was a tremendous amount of change going on in American journalism in the name, I would say, of authenticity, of let's not be so uptight and stylized about how we tell people what the news is. All Things Considered and NPR, in the early '70s, are part of that. It was a time of great creativity and great ferment. And I think that that spirit can be read in the founding principles of what our first big program, All Things Considered, was going to do. It was going to be different, like so many new and different things that were happening in news media at that time.

JACK MITCHELL (FORMER NPR HOST): My name is Jack Mitchell, and I was the first person on the job at NPR.

CORNISH: Jack Mitchell and NPR's newly formed board of directors were trying to figure out what to do with this fledgling network.

MITCHELL: The Corporation for Public Broadcasting had to do something in radio because law said they had to. NPR, at that point, was just an idea. I remember going out to the Peoples drugstore and buying a Wollensak tape recorder as our first piece of equipment because we needed something to listen to tapes on when people sent in auditions, you know, it's just so loose and so informal, which, granted, it couldn't last that way forever. And you could make it almost whatever you wanted. There were all kinds of possibilities. You hadn't failed yet. Nothing had gone wrong yet. And there was no structure whatsoever.

CORNISH: While NPR may have lacked structure at the time, around the country, there were hundreds of educational radio stations, some of which had been up and running for years.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1 (ANNOUNCER): This is public radio for Kansas, KSAC...

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #2 (ANNOUNCER): ...To FM Columbus, Ohio.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #3 (ANNOUNCER): This is WOI-FM, Ames, dial 90.1.

CORNISH: The thing is, most stations couldn't hear what was happening in other cities. And to share programs, they had to send clunky reels of audiotape through the mail. One of NPR's founding mothers, Susan Stamberg, remembers it this way.

STAMBERG: I had a nice tape in Washington. I sent it to Boston to that station. So two days later - the post office was very efficient then - they would get the tape, maybe put it right on the air. But the dream was always talk to one another today about what was happening today 'cause you couldn't do news that mailing way. And the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 made that possible, made the today speaking possible.

CORNISH: The today speaking - the ability to broadcast news and information to stations across the country. And so one man set out to put into words how NPR would make that happen.

BILL SIEMERING (FORMER DIRECTOR OF PROGRAMMING, NPR): I remember maybe at the first program staff meeting, I said we have a blank canvas here. And there'll be thousands of brushstrokes on this. But the very first brushstrokes that we put on this are very important because that will set a tone and value.

CORNISH: This is Bill Siemering. He started out as a station manager in Buffalo, N.Y., and would later become NPR's first director of programming.

SIEMERING: In writing the mission statement, I was trying to be both aspirational and offer some core values, I think, and to reflect the - what was going on in American society at that time. So I wrote in the first paragraph, 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.

CORNISH: Now, that mission statement has worked its way into our DNA. Even today, some staffers can recite parts of it, and a newer version is displayed in large letters on the wall of our lobby.

SIEMERING: I think I did offer some core values with a mission statement that people say is more relevant now than when I wrote it in 1970. So I think that may be one of the more valuable things I contributed. I think, in retrospect, that I - one of my skills, I think, was in hiring good people.

CORNISH: And who were some of those good people?

WERTHEIMER: I'm Linda Wertheimer. I went to work for NPR in 1970. The first real job that I did was direct All Things Considered, which was the worst job I have ever had at NPR - I mean, the worst.

CORNISH: Linda had a feeling that she was walking into an unconventional workplace.

WERTHEIMER: I didn't realize when I sat down with Bill Siemering that he was basically the inventor of everything that we would do for the next, you know, several decades. He kept asking me questions that didn't make any sense to me. And he was just kind of lounging and back in his chair and talking about how he wanted it to be different from everything else. And he didn't like the idea of radio voices. And I said, but Edward R. Murrow. He said, not Edward R. Murrow. We're not on the Ed (ph) - we're not doing Edward R. Murrow. And I'm thinking, what? What are we doing? (Laughter). And I really didn't understand it. But it was very clear to me once I got on board what he wanted.

MITCHELL: He wanted diversity and authenticity.

CORNISH: Again, Jack Mitchell.

MITCHELL: He did not want professionalism, which rubbed many people the wrong way. And he wanted women to be - as many women as there were men. He wanted a significant role for minorities, regionalism - that it was going to be a group of people who represented the intended audience, which was everybody, and that they would express themselves and their interests and their values in what they chose to put on the air and that this would reflect the entire country.

WERTHEIMER: Bill Siemering really, really wanted for there to be a strong minority presence. We have not exactly won that fight that Bill Siemering wanted to. We have not turned this network into a place that sounds like America really.

CORNISH: Realizing Siemering's vision of a diverse NPR - well, that's the work that continues today. But on May 3, 1971, the priority was to launch the first program, All Things Considered.

STAMBERG: The day of the very first broadcast, we were all wired.

CORNISH: Susan Stamberg.

STAMBERG: We were so excited. Everybody couldn't wait for it, were terrified of it, were as enthusiastic as we could be. The handful of reporters - five is what we started with - the five reporters were deployed all over the city because it was a day of a massive anti-Vietnam War protest.

WERTHEIMER: There was so much tear gas in the air that when I came to work on the bus, you know, I was just gagging the entire time. And then we get there, and we don't know where anybody is.

CORNISH: Linda had good reason to wonder. It was up to her to get the broadcast on the air.

WERTHEIMER: And of course, those were the days before cellphones. And somebody would have to, like, run into a restaurant and call the home base and say, I've got this, and I've got that, and I'm coming in. Or not call - you know, just leave us wondering if they lived.

STAMBERG: They came racing in with tiny little reels that they had to put on bigger reels in order to deal with them and work with them. They sat down, and they began slashing at it with the razor blades and the sticky tape, racing it into the control room, throwing it at the engineers to rack up on the playback machines.

WERTHEIMER: We did not know when the first piece was going to be ready, so Conley brings us on to the air.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

CONLEY: From National Public Radio in Washington, I'm Robert Conley with All Things Considered.

WERTHEIMER: He says a few things that he had planned to say, and we still don't have anything. So then he starts to talk.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

CONLEY: The day started out almost before dawn. And...

WERTHEIMER: Now, Robert Conley was - he had a beautiful voice. He'd been at The New York Times. He was a very fine writer. But he was just improvising.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

CONLEY: They shoved parked cars...

WERTHEIMER: He improvised his way into the first piece. Finally, you know, I'm saying to him, we go it, we go it, we go it. And he calls for it to be played. And we started playing it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

JEFF KAMEN (BYLINE/NPR CLIP): Thousands of young people came to Washington willing to risk being arrested in order to end the war. They went into the streets this morning to stop the government from functioning.

STAMBERG: And I remember sitting - again, on the floor 'cause we still didn't have furniture; only a month had gone by - sitting on the floor of the control room then while Linda Wertheimer directed and listening to what was coming out of the radio. And it was something - it was sounds and a kind of reporting I had never heard.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

KAMEN: To these young Americans, today was a major test of their commitment to the ethical code of the young and the angry. It was their Freedom Ride, their Selma march, their May Day.

STAMBERG: The star of it was a guy named Jeff Kamen, who was a guerilla radio reporter. I mean, he was just a wild man, none of that stiff formality out of Jeff. And he'd had a lot of experience at different - in different radio places.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2 (NPR CLIP): ...Policeman.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3 (NPR CLIP): ...On A motorcycle hit him, not a citizen.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4 (NPR CLIP): Right there...

STAMBERG: So he came back with wild tape, just capturing the guts of that day, the rage that was on the street, the reactions of the cops and the famous piece of tape which all of us who were there at the beginning, he brought back. And it was Kamen going up to a cop and saying, excuse me, officer, but is that a technique? You are riding your motorcycle directly into the crowd.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

KAMEN: Sergeant, excuse me. Jeff Kamen, National Public Radio. Is that a technique where the men actually try to drive the bikes into the demonstrators?

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE SERGEANT (POLICE SERGEANT): No, it's no technique. We're trying to go down the road, and the people get in front. What are you going to do? You don't stop on a dime.

WERTHEIMER: We didn't have all of it. So some more would come in, and we'd put that on. Some more would come in. We had no idea how long it was. We had no idea what was coming next. It was just - I mean, at the end of it, I was ragged as I could be and trying not to have hysterics because it was so awful. But the radio program was good. And I - even in the throes of my upset, I understood that it was beautiful and that it was wonderful stuff and that he was amazing to be able to do it.

STAMBERG: So this was like the glory moment. It was a jewel. And it was a signal how different we were going to be because you weren't hearing - you certainly weren't hearing anything like that anywhere else on radio and very rarely on television.

WERTHEIMER: When that program was over, I was - as I remember, I was in tears because I had just thought - I thought we were not going to live through it. But we did. And then it occurred to me that we had to do it again the following day and every day after that. And I didn't - I had no idea how we would do that. I could not imagine how we would do that. But we were so lucky that in that first day, we had this huge news story. And none of the pieces that we had planned, none of them had been used. So we actually did have enough material to do the next day's show. But then what were we going to do on Day 3? I had no idea.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: Coming up, what happens after Day 3? You're listening to FIFTY AND FORWARD, an anniversary celebration of NPR. I'm Audie Cornish.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: Welcome to FIFTY AND FORWARD, an anniversary celebration of NPR. I'm your host, Audie Cornish.

Few things represent NPR's growth more than our building, our headquarters in Washington, D.C. Now it's seven stories high, almost a city block long, and the day's headlines scroll across the building on a giant black news ticker. You can see them from across town. And when you walk in, the lobby is this sleek, cavernous space. And you'll notice right away that there's a timeline of our history, how the network grew from a staff of just 65 people to what is now a thriving news network with more than a thousand employees around the country and the world.

Radio is the medium that launched us. And to this day, our success still comes back to the singular human voice in your ear. So it's fitting that when you visit the newsroom, a very familiar voice escorts you upstairs.

STAMBERG: Going up.

CORNISH: That's Susan Stamberg. She helped shape the sound of our network, and she became the first woman to anchor a national nightly news program.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

STAMBERG: From National Public Radio in Washington, I'm Susan Stamberg with All Things Considered.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

STAMBERG: When I went on, there were no role models. There were no women doing this. All there were were men. (Lowering voice) So I started lowering my voice and talking like this. And that really wasn't washing very well, and I couldn't keep it up for an hour and a half, which was as long as the program was.

CORNISH: That's Susan recalling her early days as a host a year after she was hired by NPR's first program director, Bill Siemering.

STAMBERG: And Bill said just the two most important words, almost apart from I do from my husband - he said, be yourself. And that was, like, such a gift. I didn't have to be that man-sounding voice. I could just speak as I spoke in real life, just like this. It was the voice he heard in his head, and he found it in me.

CORNISH: But not everyone embraced that voice right away.

MITCHELL: Here is somebody whose name is Stamberg. She had an obvious New York accent, made no bones about it.

CORNISH: Jack Mitchell remembers.

MITCHELL: That did not play well with certain board members in the Midwest who felt she was too New York. And the president of NPR asked that I not put her in there because of the complaints from managers. We did it anyway, and he was very supportive afterwards.

SIEMERING: Susan, I felt, had exactly the sound that I wanted for NPR...

CORNISH: Bill Siemering, the man who hired her.

SIEMERING: ...Curious, authentic, rich tone color...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

STAMBERG: We've been looking into the Watergate story again tonight.

SIEMERING: ...And just this kind of insatiable curiosity that kind of bubbles over. And she can modulate her voice for serious or for fun things.

CORNISH: Including a memorable experiment on air - to see if chewing Wint-O-Green Life Savers made a spark in the dark.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

STAMBERG: I saw it. I saw it (laughter).

IRA FLATOW (BYLINE/NPR CLIP): What did you see?

STAMBERG: I saw a flash of kind of greenish light just for a fraction of a second.

SIEMERING: So I really still believe that she had the best voice. If there would be a voice for what NPR is, I think she had that.

CORNISH: Hers wasn't the only voice to define the NPR sound.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

COKIE ROBERTS (BYLINE/NPR CLIP): Six weeks after Three Mile Island, Pennsylvania is trying to assess...

CORNISH: Cokie Roberts would become a legendary congressional and political reporter.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

ROBERTS: In an affidavit filed with the Senate Judiciary Committee, law professor Anita Hill said she had much in...

CORNISH: Nina Totenberg pretty much defines our Supreme Court coverage.

NINA TOTENBERG (BYLINE/NPR CLIP): We started from scratch, paid very low salaries and hired a lot of women because they were willing to work for that price.

CORNISH: And again, Linda Wertheimer - she became a longtime host of All Things Considered. Nina, Linda, Cokie and Susan, a roster of female talent often referred to affectionately as the founding mothers.

TOTENBERG: I just can't tell you how extraordinary it was. I mean, when I was - you know, when I was a teenager and I imagined being a secretary to some important news man, I never thought that I would be able to do the work.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: A lot has changed since the early days of the founding mothers, and you can feel it when you walk into the newsroom. When we're not in a pandemic, the building hums with activity, reporters recording interviews, producers checking facts and timing stories. There are digital clocks everywhere and usually someone running a last-minute script into a studio. When you see it, it's hard to imagine that NPR launched all those years ago in 1971 with just one daily news program run by a small group of staffers in a dingy, smoke-filled newsroom.

IRA GLASS (FORMER NPR REPORTER): When I first came to NPR, first of all, I had never heard NPR on the radio.

CORNISH: That unmistakable voice is, of course, Ira Glass. He started at NPR in 1978. Here is how he remembers the network in the early days.

GLASS: NPR at the time was two floors of a building on M Street in Washington, and there were three studios, and it was reel-to-reel tape. And I'm going to say this, and it doesn't sound like it's true, but it's totally true - NPR didn't get a satellite till 1980. And so the way that you would hear All Things Considered if you were in Kansas or California was through a phone line. And what it sounded like was...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #14 (BYLINE/NPR CLIP): ...Sounded like this on the old interconnected system.

GLASS: It sounded like somebody in Washington was listening to All Things Considered on the radio and they were holding their phone up to the radio.

CORNISH: Listen carefully. You're about to hear how NPR's sound changed with the addition of satellite distribution.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #14: But now, they sound like this.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: And the arrival of the satellite coincided with the launch of Morning Edition.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: Morning Edition debuted in 1979, but the show was almost canceled before it even started.

EDWARDS: They did this pilot. Only the stations heard it. It was closed circuit. And it was awful. It was absolutely a disaster.

CORNISH: That's Bob Edwards, former host of Morning Edition.

EDWARDS: It was very chatty. It was like bad small-market television. And a lot of member stations heard the pilot, and they didn't want any part of that.

JAY KERNIS (FORMER STAFF MEMBER, MORNING EDITION): There were many pilots. They were all pretty bad.

CORNISH: And that's producer Jay Kernis. He helped Morning Edition get off the ground.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

EDWARDS: This is Bob Edwards. I'll be away from All Things Considered for a while. Instead, I'll be with you each morning for National Public Radio's new Morning Edition.

CORNISH: A week later, Bob Edwards took leave from All Things Considered, and Morning Edition went on the air.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

EDWARDS: Good morning. Today is Guy Fawkes Day. Guy's plot to blow up Parliament was discovered on this day in 1605. Today is the beginning of national split-pea soup week, and it's the debut of this program. I'm Bob Edwards.

CORNISH: And that first show was well-received but still needed to prove itself, especially with NPR's staff.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

ROBERTS: They told us that we really wouldn't be doing very much for it at all, that we'd be writing a news spot here or there. They lied.

CORNISH: The voice of Cokie Roberts. She was with the program until her death in September 2019. Here she is in a 1989 interview, voicing concerns of staff that they'd be working twice as hard for the same pay.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

ROBERTS: They knew they'd have us over a barrel in the end because they had all of these statistics that showed them that morning is when a lot of people like to listen to the radio. And they knew that all of us were egomaniacal enough so that, once we found out that everybody was listening, we'd beg to be on that program. And right they were.

CORNISH: Morning Edition built its audience, and NPR continued to expand. In 1979, the network opened its first foreign bureau, sending Robert Siegel to London, and slowly, NPR was able to hire new correspondents and freelancers stationed around the globe.

SIEGEL: We'd contracted with someone in South Africa. We'd contracted with a woman in Rome whom you may have heard of.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

SYLVIA POGGIOLI (BYLINE/NPR CLIP): For National Public Radio, this is Sylvia Poggioli in Rome.

SIEGEL: We did it incrementally, and every year we'd be adding someone here, adding someone there. And I remember on 9/11, being in New York and learning, that week at least, that we by that time had more staff, foreign correspondents - or at least in more places around the world - than the big three television networks did.

CORNISH: Now NPR has 17 official foreign bureaus and numerous stringers providing coverage from around the world.

SIEGEL: I mean, when I (laughter) first came, we were a little spice in the public radio system. Ten years later, 15 years later, we are an institution. We've become, in some regards, a cliche, the subject of jokes.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

ANA GASTEYER (ACTOR): (As Margaret Jo McCullin) Hello, I'm Margaret Jo McCullin.

MOLLY SHANNON (ACTOR): (As Terry Rialto) And I'm Terry Rialto.

ANA GASTEYER AND MOLLY SHANNON: (As Margaret Jo McCullin and Terry Rialto) And you're listening to the "Delicious Dish" on National Public Radio.

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: This sketch appeared on "Saturday Night Live" in 1998.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

GASTEYER: (As Margaret Jo McCullin) Well, Terry, I really got greedy this year. I'm asking Kris Kringle for a wooden bowl.

CORNISH: OK, so NPR had clearly become a household name. Our reputation was due as much to our news coverage as to our growing array of programs.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

PETER SAGAL (BYLINE/NPR CLIP): Bill, what's Carrie's (ph) topic?

BILL KURTIS (BYLINE/NPR CLIP): You're busted, buster.

SAGAL: Nobody wants to get caught red-handed - unless, of course, you're one of the original cave painters of Lascaux. That is the most NPR joke ever told.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

RAY MAGLIOZZI (FORMER HOST, CAR TALK/NPR CLIP): No, don't tell me where your car is.

(LAUGHTER)

R MAGLIOZZI: But does it happen to be in the vicinity of, like, a bulldozer? Have them just bulldoze a long ramp into the ground.

TOM MAGLIOZZI (FORMER HOST, CAR TALK/NPR CLIP): Drive it in there.

(LAUGHTER)

R MAGLIOZZI: And drive this - and don't use the brakes. Just let it coast in.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

MARIAN MCPARTLAND (FORMER HOST, MARIAN MCPARTLAND'S PIANO JAZZ/NPR CLIP): Hi, I'm Marian McPartland. My guest today is Shirley Horn. She's a truly inspirational singer and pianist whose sensitivity and romanticism have contributed greatly...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS (BYLINE/NPR CLIP): Well, I'm really glad we got the chance to speak 'cause when I heard you had a book coming out, I thought, what a good excuse...

(LAUGHTER)

MAURICE SENDAK (AUTHOR/NPR CLIP): Well...

GROSS: ...To call up Maurice Sendak and have a chat (laughter).

SENDAK: Yes, that's what we always do, isn't it?

GROSS: Yeah.

SENDAK: Thank God we're still around to do it.

GROSS: Yes.

SENDAK: And almost certainly, I'll go before you go, so I won't have to miss you.

GROSS: Oh, God, what a...

SENDAK: And I don't know whether I'll do another book or not. I might. It doesn't matter. I'm a happy old man.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: Now NPR shows begat future shows. Reporters, hosts and producers all built on what was created by those who came before. I mean, that was my experience. I learned a lot from a former host of All Things Considered - Michele Norris. Michele hosted All Things Considered for nearly a decade. I asked her for her first impression of the network.

NORRIS: By the time I arrived, NPR was viewed as the gold standard in journalism. Their foreign coverage, political coverage and the pristine sound - it was held in such high regard. The thing that always surprised me is that inside the building, I'm not sure that people always recognized that. It still had sort of a college radio feel, and yet NPR was running with or leading the pack.

CORNISH: And we talked about how NPR has had to reckon with the many ways it still needs to change.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: There was a time where I feel like, as young journalists of color, as you were coming up, you were sort of led to believe that you shouldn't be, quote-unquote, "pigeonholed" in stories about race and that you had to do this kind of dance around the things you might be interested in or not because of how it would be perceived. How do you think that changed as you were coming up?

NORRIS: I will admit that for a time, as a journalist, I did not want to cover the race beat. As a person of color, I always covered matters of race perhaps more than my white colleagues did because that's what happens in a newsroom. My view of my role as someone who would elevate conversations about race, not - I didn't say racism; conversations about race - changed when I became a host. I felt a greater responsibility to elevate and center those conversations and those voices.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5 (GENERAL PUBLIC/NPR CLIP): ...Now we didn't get it, and now I'm angry about it. I see that happening...

INSKEEP: So those are some of the fears on voters' minds. And here's one more. It's a grim fear that's been whispered since Obama became a serious contender for the White House.

CORNISH: Leading up to the presidential election in 2008, Michele teamed up with Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep for a series of trips to York, Pa., where they listened to voters and held frank and sometimes challenging conversations about race.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6 (GENERAL PUBLIC/NPR CLIP): For the things that have been said at those rallies, this is as though they want to bring out the skinheads, the KKKs, so they can kill this man. That's my fear. That's my fear. That should be your fear.

INSKEEP: But no matter what happens on November 4, many in this room are concerned about what happens November 5.

NORRIS: And we'll return to York soon after the election for another chat about the outcome of...

I think there was a false perception that NPR had a Chardonnay-drinking, Volvo-driving, Birkenstock-walking audience, you know? And our audience was much more diverse than that. I knew that when I went out in the world. I knew that from the listeners that I heard from. Our job is to hold a mirror up to the world. Our job is to go out and cover the world, not just the things that are of interest to the audience that we think we have. I'm no longer at public radio, but I'm a listener, and I think there is a clear understanding that in order to survive in, you know, a multiethnic, multiracial society, that you have to cast your reporting lens in lots of different directions to serve lots of different audiences all at the same time.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: I have to say that in terms of being a host at NPR, it's such a small sorority-slash-fraternity (laughter), even smaller for nonwhite hosts, and I always appreciated the way that you - I don't know - for lack of a better term, watched out for me 'cause you didn't have to.

NORRIS: Thank you. I appreciate that. The job that you hold is the hardest job I've ever had. And so to have that kind of support system where you can reach sideways, you can reach forward, you can reach backward and know that people have your back is really important. It's the key to survival. It's the key to thriving.

CORNISH: So how does NPR survive or thrive in the next 50 years? Coming up, we'll find out. You're listening to "FIFTY AND FORWARD: An Anniversary Celebration Of NPR." I'm Audie Cornish.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: Welcome back to FIFTY AND FORWARD, an anniversary celebration of NPR. I'm your host, Audie Cornish.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: So remember the blank canvas?

SIEMERING: We have a blank canvas here.

MITCHELL: There were all kinds of possibilities. You hadn't failed yet. Nothing had gone wrong yet.

CORNISH: Two of NPR's first employees, Jack Mitchell and Bill Siemering, considering the promise of our brand-new radio network in 1971. Fifty years later, we fill a digital space that goes beyond the wildest dreams of our founders.

ANYA GRUNDMANN (BYLINE): I've never thought of it as something that was exclusively radio. It's about creating experiences that will enhance people's lives.

CORNISH: Anya Grundmann, NPR's senior vice president of programming.

GRUNDMANN: And if you think about NPR as only a service on one platform, then that really limits what you can do and how you can serve audiences.

CORNISH: Serving you on every platform imaginable. Every week, 60 million people consume some form of NPR across a full range of experiences, including radio, smart speakers, npr.org, video streaming, live events, mobile apps and, yeah, podcasts. NPR has been one of the top publishers in the U.S. since podcasting began. In fact, in January of 2000, NPR created an online show, and that didn't exist on the radio at all. It was called All Songs Considered. It was our first podcast before the term even existed. Now NPR publishes more than a dozen of them every week and partners with stations and independent producers as well. We're always thinking about those stories that matter and how to tell them.

SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI (BYLINE): I am personally interested in immigration stories. My father is an immigrant from Iran and stories of Latino identity. My mom is a migrant from Puerto Rico.

CORNISH: Shereen Marisol Meraji, a co-host of the NPR podcast Code Switch.

MERAJI: Code Switch is a team of journalists that talks all about race and identity in the United States. And the story that I am the most proud of telling is a story that went beyond a stat - a stat that is used over and over again, which is that, you know, 16 million people live in a household where one or more of the people in that household is undocumented. And in the case of the family that I profiled, I talked to three siblings - one who was a citizen, one who was completely undocumented and one who had DACA - about what it was like to live together and know that their futures looked very different. They shared with me things that they hadn't even told each other.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

ABIGAIL GONZALEZ (NPR CLIP): Me and my sisters were actually talking about, how we don't have a plan if we're deported. We've been in this country long - like so long that we feel like nothing's going to happen to us because, like, it just - it hasn't happened before.

MERAJI: And it was very psychologically challenging for all of them to do this. And I think that that's what we do so well at Code Switch is we will take a faceless statistic, and we will make it real and human for our listeners.

CORNISH: Last year, Code Switch was named Apple Podcasts' first-ever show of the year in the U.S. Another NPR innovation that surprised even the people who invented it was the Tiny Desk Concert.

BOB BOILEN (BYLINE): I go to a music festival every year. It's called South by Southwest, and I've discovered lots and lots of talent there.

CORNISH: Bob Boilen of NPR Music.

BOILEN: I went with NPR Music teammate Stephen Thompson. We went to see an artist named Laura Gibson.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COME BY STORM")

LAURA GIBSON (MUSICAL ARTIST): (Singing) When my eyes survey...

BOILEN: And we couldn't really hear her. She came off stage. We introduced ourselves to Laura. And Stephen jokingly said to her, we couldn't hear you. You ought to just come play a private concert in our office. And we both laughed - all three of us laughed. And before we knew it, three weeks later, there she was. She was - she came to NPR. She was on tour with The Decemberists at the time. And I put her behind my desk with a microphone and a couple of cameras and took it home and edited it, put it up online. And it was the beginning.

CORNISH: No one at NPR Music imagined that this chance meeting would, in time, produce the phenomenon known as the Tiny Desk, a video series that features musicians performing short 15-minute concerts. And it would become NPR's biggest digital program.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

T-PAIN (MUSICAL ARTIST/NPR CLIP): How's everybody doing?

(APPLAUSE)

T-PAIN: That's a pretty good sizable applause there. That was pretty good. Thank everybody for coming out again. This is weird as hell for me.

(LAUGHTER)

T-PAIN: Never done anything like this. I didn't think you guys were going to be here, but I guess we're doing this. So...

CORNISH: This is T-Pain at the Tiny Desk playing for the first time in public without autotune.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

T-PAIN: (Singing) Oh - oh, no, no, no, no. No, no, no - oh. Oh, oh. Baby girl, what's your name? Let me talk to you. Let me buy you a drink. I'm T-Pain. You know me...

CORNISH: And this concert went viral. Within a few days, 7 million people had watched it. And soon, the Tiny Desk series was featuring a wide range of musical genres on a regular basis, especially hip-hop and R&B.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

LIZZO (MUSICAL ARTIST): How we feeling at this tiny-ass desk?

(CHEERING)

CORNISH: This is the Tiny Desk that helped put Lizzo on the map.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

LIZZO: I'm feeling pretty good, too. I've been wanting to do this for a long time.

(CHEERING)

LIZZO: So I think I'll do it today. (Laughter).

(LAUGHTER)

LIZZO: Can I get an amen?

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Amen.

LIZZO: This tiny-ass desk.

(Singing) I'm crying 'cause I love you. Ya ya ya, ya ya - got me standing in the rain, got to get my hair pressed again.

CORNISH: Now last year, the Tiny Desk series had nearly half a billion views on YouTube. The explosion of creativity, especially in storytelling - well, a lot of it shares our DNA.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "THIS AMERICAN LIFE")

GLASS: From WBEZ Chicago, it's "This American Life." I'm Ira Glass. Today on our program, amateurs - the fact that they are not professionals...

CORNISH: Remember Ira Glass started at NPR as an intern. And 17 years later, after learning the ropes as a producer, reporter and sometimes host, he came up with the idea for a show that would feature a new kind of storytelling. Naturally, he turned to NPR to see if they would distribute it.

GLASS: NPR just did not want to pick up the show. Just the management, they just didn't like it. They just didn't get what it was. They didn't see - like, they didn't get, like, that even that it was journalism in a way. (Laughter) Like, it just was not - it was just not to the taste of the managers at the time.

CORNISH: Is what your takeaway for NPR on that effectively missed opportunity - with your show, at least?

GLASS: I guess. Like, our show would have been the same - with the same audience, whether it had NPR's name on it or not. So in the end, I feel like that's one of those things which doesn't matter at all. We were on all the same stations. We reached all the same audience.

CORNISH: "This American Life" took off in a spectacular fashion. It remains one of the most popular shows and podcasts today. And it has what could be described as a public radio style - conversational, low-key, intimate.

GLASS: There are things that when I went off to do my own show that were very different than I would do as a reporter or occasional fill-in host on All Things Considered or Talk of the Nation or something. And my problem was, when I would try to do it, what I sounded like was somebody trying to sound like an NPR reporter and mostly failing. Like, if anything - like, when we started "This American Life," the way I sounded on the air to a lot of program directors around the public radio system, it was not seen as an asset. Like, I remember, we would try to talk stations into picking up our show. And the program directors were like, well, Ira, you know, I have heard him on NPR, and he's a good reporter and all. But are you going to get a real host? Like, are you going to get - like, are you going to get - and by that, they meant somebody who, like, spoke with more authority. But...

CORNISH: There is some irony, though, that given the spread of "This American Life," but also the - what I would call all the seedlings from it, whether it's Planet Money or Invisibilia or all this kind of programming, didn't go away just because NPR didn't embrace it at first.

GLASS: That's correct. Like, one of the things about public radio in the United States that's different than other countries is that there's no big boss at the top who decides what all the stations should run. And just, like, there's a radical decentralization to public broadcasting, and that has made for a lot more creativity and openness than would otherwise happen.

EMILY KWONG (BYLINE): I think one of the best parts of public radio, its secret sauce, if you will, is its member station network.

CORNISH: The decentralized network that has been there from the beginning, NPR's member stations. This is Emily Kwong from NPR's science desk.

KWONG: They are the eyes and the ears of their community. And there's no station that embodies that better than the station where I got my start, which is KCAW Sitka, known as Raven Radio by locals, in Sitka, Alaska. Now, Sitka is a fairly rural Alaskan town, and one of the heartbeats of that town is the radio station. Working in a tiny town, I didn't know if a big story would ever come our way, one that would necessarily result in it airing on NPR - until January 2018.

A 7.9 earthquake had struck off the coast of Alaska in the middle of the night, and it prompted a tsunami warning for the entire state of Alaska and parts of Canada. So I'm like bleary-eyed, crawling out of bed, and I know two things. One, I have to get to high ground in case a giant wave is going to come crashing over our island. Two, I have to start doing my job, which is to report the local news. And one of the people I spoke with that morning was Rachel Martin on Morning Edition.

(SOUNDBITE ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

MARTIN: What happened when the alarm went off?

KWONG: Well, it's quite a violent way to wake up in Sitka, Alaska. We received a text message alert of some kind saying that there was a tsunami warning...

And I was also comforted to tell her that the wave never came. But the level of caring and concern in Rachel Martin's voice, knowing that there were eyes on Sitka, that people outside of Sitka and southeast Alaska were paying attention to us - and that kind of connection is something I won't forget. And it made NPR real to me.

CORNISH: Emily now works at NPR headquarters in Washington, D.C., as a reporter and co-host of the NPR Science podcast Short Wave.

KWONG: A show that's looking at science from a lens of equity - how has science and medicine historically failed to provide equal care for people of color, and how has that impacted them? And I think that lookback and that kind of intelligence and care and thoughtfulness is unique to NPR. And as a company, we can really do that. We can take listeners on a journey of understanding how we got here as America because we have the platform and the power and the ability and the time to research all of this and interview people who understand it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: Having the power and the platform means we can experiment with new shows, ask new questions and hear new voices.

SIDNEY MADDEN (BYLINE): This is Sidney Madden from NPR Music. I am one of the co-hosts and reporters of Louder Than A Riot.

CARMICHAEL: And I'm Rodney Carmichael, also of NPR Music, where I also co-host and co-write and report for Louder Than a Riot.

CORNISH: Louder Than a Riot is a podcast that looks at the interconnected rise of hip-hop and mass incarceration.

CARMICHAEL: With Louder Than a Riot, we really wanted to tell a story that we've lived, you know, as you know, two people from the hip-hop culture, of the hip-hop culture who've been fans of it, you know, from Day 1. And we knew that there was a story there, that there were voices there that you have never heard on NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

LISA P (NPR CLIP): Hip-hop is talking about where we live - trying to live the American dream, failing at the American dream, being abused by the system and law enforcement and the government. Without those things, hip-hop wouldn't even exist. You have to...

MADDEN: It is very serendipitous that the rollout of this show came on the dovetail of the summer we just lived through in 2020. But at the same time, the whole point of the show is that hip-hop's been saying it for 40 years. And so many people didn't listen, and they just casually consume it but don't consider the deeper meaning and the meaning between the lines and between the lyrics.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

LISA P: A lot of people aren't able to understand their purpose in my neighborhood because they're trying to survive. I need milk. I need bread. Damn it, I just got a gas bill. Oh, my God. My lights is off. Oh, my God. Now my lights is off. Now my car broke. How am I going to even think of anything else?

CARMICHAEL: It's funny because when I came to NPR and, you know, we would be in these big meetings and there would be talk about audience and numbers and, you know, target audience and what the quintessential NPR audience looks like, a lot of times, I heard that audience - I've heard it described in ways that didn't include me. And that was always surprising to me because I've been a fan of NPR for 17 years. And so I imagined an NPR audience that was just as wide-ranging and diverse in listenership as, you know, as my own experience is. And I would love to see us get to the point where we're not just creating specialty shows to go after new audience. Right? Like, we need to be, in all of our, you know, main broadcast shows, telling the kind of stories that we feel like aren't being heard or told enough on our bigger outlets.

MADDEN: Absolutely, absolutely. It's like don't wait to play catch-up on something you know you can be a leader in, you know - something you know you have the talent and you have the resources and you have the drive and the vision to do.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CARMICHAEL: And we shouldn't have to wait another 40 years to tell people the story of what's happening in 2021. You know, let's start telling those stories right now.

CORNISH: Right now and in the years to come.

As always, we'll continue to ask ourselves what we can do better, where we can improve and how we can innovate. NPR has worked for 50 years to get it right, to hear every voice and to connect with you. And we're grateful for the chance to do it all again tomorrow.

FIFTY AND FORWARD was produced by Kerry Thompson with production assistance from Erin Slomski-Pritz. Our editor is Kitty Eisele. Our senior producer is Suraya Mohamed. And the senior director of programming is Yolanda Sangweni. Special thanks to Art Silverman, Neil Tevault, Barry Gordemer and Kassa Overall. There are countless people we couldn't include who made NPR what it is today. And to them, we say thank you. To hear this show again and check out stories from the archives, please visit npr.org/50 - and some final words from Susan Stamberg.

STAMBERG: Hang onto that sense of mission and the idealism with which we began because it shows we're hurtling towards the next phase. We have passed through it, and there's going to be something beyond that, too.

CORNISH: I'm Audie Cornish. You've been listening to FIFTY AND FORWARD, an anniversary celebration of NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.