Susan Stamberg

Here’s a blog entry Bob wrote about his friend and former co-worker back in 2008

Professional marriages are even more difficult than the romantic variety, and the divorce rate is much higher.  Mine survived a tepid honeymoon to blossom into a rewarding on-air partnership and enduring friendship.

Susan Stamberg was a writer and tape editor for All Things Considered when the program debuted in 1971.  Women didn’t anchor broadcasts in those days.  They worked behind the scenes and made occasional contributions on the air.  But when Susan filled in as co-host one day, the phones lit up with calls from appreciative listeners.  She was a sensation—-refreshing, intelligent, engaging and honest.  She wasn’t just warm and personable, she was way out there, reacting to a guest’s humor with an infectious laugh that defied description.  Men were charmed by her.  Women took her to be their champion.  By sheer force of personality, Susan took over the broadcast, becoming the first woman to anchor a nightly national news program. 

Susan was great radio, the perfect performer for the aural medium that appeals to the ear and the mind.  You’d think that a guy like me who’d spent his life loving radio would recognize a natural-born radio personality and be thrilled to work with her.  Not Mr. Prig.  I was in shock, wondering what in the name of Edward R. Murrow and all that is holy is this woman doing on a news program.

There was more to it, of course, including jealousy.  Susan had been carrying the network on her back and was treated accordingly.  We were supposed to be a team, co-hosts, and yet all the attention was going to Susan.  Later I learned that the policy of NPR’s publicity department at the time was to throw everything behind Susan.  Not only was she marketable, but it was thought I wouldn’t be at NPR for very long.  Given that I was in the CBS newsroom discussing a job on the most important news day of 1975 (the fall of Saigon) that was a reasonable assumption.  

Susan made more money, though not nearly what she was worth.  She also got whatever interviews she wanted, including some that I wanted.  We tried jointly interviewing one or two guests, but without success.  I persisted in trying to get John Erlichman to admit that his participation in the Watergate conspiracy was not a good thing while Susan steered Erlichman down a more productive path.

Her workday was shorter, too.  All Things Considered was broadcast from 5:00PM until 6:30PM and repeated on tape at 8:00PM.  Susan went home at 5:30PM to be with her family.  To facilitate this early exit, the middle half-hour of the program was pre-recorded in mid-afternoon.  Then Susan would read the introductions to a couple of stories that were scheduled to run in the final half-hour.  At 5:30, Susan would go home and I would remain in the studio doing my half of the program.  If there was breaking news or the need to do a live interview, it was my responsibility.  I also had to do the updating for the 8:00PM feed, though on special occasions, such as the night Nixon resigned, Susan would return.

These jealousies likely would have doomed our partnership had not other factors come to the rescue.  Success offers a certain remedial balm for one’s troubles.  Susan and I were successful.  Whatever tensions were in the air, we kept them off the air.  Listeners heard a couple a people they liked and kept tuning in.  The audience was growing.

When I made my peace with NPR, I also made my peace with Susan.  She was my partner and the professional thing to do was to make it work.  She was also winning me over.  In fact, I discovered that I’d been unconsciously learning from her.  She changed the very way I sound on the air, talking with listeners and not at them.  In a long-form program such as All Things Considered, the interviewer’s questions are just as important as the guest’s answers—-turning an interrogation into a conversation.  I learned from Susan how to ask interesting questions.  The most important thing I picked up from her was how to extend my personality on the air.  One cannot host a program by sounding like a newscaster reading copy.  A host has to sound like charming company, someone you want in your carpool or to have over for drinks on the patio.  Susan helped me sound that way. 

I admired the way Susan handled adversity.  Every radio program gets at least a bit of hate mail, but at All Things Considered the ugly letters took the form of anti-Semitic screeds directed at Susan.  Garbage like that really upset me.  It undoubtedly upset Susan even more, but she never let it rattle her.  She never stopped being Susan.

Conceding all of Susan’s interests to Susan, I carved out my own niche, principally by doing stories on Appalachia. This proved to be very rewarding because I had the field to myself.  Appalachia usually gets press when there’s a miners’ strike or a mine disaster.  I found the region as rich as Ireland in the number of superb storytellers.  There’s great radio to be mined in the mountains.

Susan and I learned to make use of our differences—artsy, Jewish female from New York meets newsy Catholic male from Kentucky.  Each of us could usually fill in the blanks for the other.  We played to one another’s strengths and covered one another’s weaknesses.   I would feed her straight lines knowing she’d “sell” the punchline.  She returned the favor by laughing at my jokes.

The “co-hosts” were now living up to their titles.  I produced a half-hour about elevators and found a part for Susan.  I had her ride the elevators in NPR’s building and talk with passengers about elevator etiquette—no touching, no whistling—keep your eyes on the numbers or stare at your shoes.   

If co-hosts merely alternate reading scripts, you have two voices on the program, but you don’t have two personalities sharing the program.  There’s a much better sound to the program when co-hosts are involved in the same bit.  Susan wrote the scripts containing excerpts from letters written by our listeners.  Reading listener mail on the air was great fun when I adopted the listener’s voice.  If the listener was angry about something we’d done, I tried to vocalize the listener’s anger.  Susan was great about parceling out some zingers for me to read while retaining a few for herself.  

Another shared script might be based on some research done by our trusty NPR librarian, Rob Robinson.  For example, President Carter’s early 1977 proposal for a $50 tax rebate was too good to resist.  We had Rob compose a list of what $50 would buy.  The options included 150 McDonald’s hamburgers, 28 six-packs of Pabst Blue Ribbon, one share of GE stock and a 71-mile metered taxi ride from midtown Manhattan to Ellisdale, New Jersey.  It would be an interesting inflation study to see how many hamburgers $50 would buy today.  My favorite item on the list was 385 13-cent stamps.  Yes, we used 13-cent stamps in 1977.  Carter soon withdrew his proposal for a $50 tax rebate.  I wonder if our bit of fun had anything to do with his decision.

Listeners got in on the act, too.  We had what we facetiously called “contests.”  They weren’t really contests because we never declared a winner and the only prize was getting one’s entry read on the air.  We asked listeners to send us pieces of good advice they’d received over the years.  We also requested suggestions as to what China’s leader Deng Xiaoping should see when he made his historic visit to America (Filene’s basement in Boston, a hot tub in Marin County, California, Billy Carter’s gas station in Georgia).  During the bicentennial in 1976, listeners helped us create a time capsule for the tercentennial in 2076.  When scientists decided to add a “leap second” to correct the official clocks, we asked listeners what they’d do with their extra second of time.  One said she’d have second thoughts.

This was “interactivity” in the days before on-line chat rooms and before the proliferation of so many radio call-in shows as cheap substitutes for more creative programming.  Many of the ideas for listener participation came from Susan herself.  She was always looking for ways to involve the listener and offer relief from the drone of stories on inflation and partisan politics.  Susan loved her audience.  Five minutes before the program, she would powder her nose and apply lipstick to be ready to greet her listener who could only see her in the mind’s eye.

Working with Susan spoiled me for any future partners.   I learned that working with pros helped me become a pro.  Conversely, working with slugs won’t make one stand out from the rest; it makes one resemble the other slugs.  If I ever again have to share a program I’ll know how to do it, but I won’t want to do it unless I can have the sort of relationship I had with Susan.

The partnership lasted five years, ending when I left All Things Considered to start Morning Edition.  The friendship endures.  I’m so sorry that the poor woman had to put up with a co-host who was still growing up.  She was much more patient than I deserved, and she’s classy enough not to remind me of it very often.

Today Susan Stamberg is NPR’s Special Correspondent, a title I hate.  What are the other correspondents—chopped liver?   On the other hand, her stories of artists and the creative process are usually the most interesting pieces in the program.  It’s impossible to hear her and not pay attention.  You’ll usually learn something you didn’t know, and you’ll be entertained in the process.  That’s why the special correspondent is special.

-Bob

Links:

Mama Stamberg’s Cranberry Relish recipe

Susan’s bio