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The founding mothers of NPR: Susan, Linda, Nina & Cokie

Headshot of author Lisa Napoli next to her book cover
Author Lisa Napoli wrote the 2021 book "Susan, Linda, Nina & Cokie: The Extraordinary Story of the Founding Mothers of NPR."

Author Lisa Napoli examines the role of women and public radio in American history through the lens of journalists Susan Stamberg, Linda Wertheimer, Nina Totenberg and Cokie Roberts.

International Women's Day seemed like a perfect time to take a deep dive into the world of public media, and the women who built it.

Lisa Napoli is the author of Susan, Linda, Nina & Cokie: The Extraordinary Story of the Founding Mothers of NPR.

Their tenacity and authenticity now and at the dawn of public radio inspired us at KAXE, a station where women are in leadership.

Scott Hall reminsces on the history of KAXE

According to Napoli, there's a possibility of this book becoming a TV series or movie, thanks to Josh Stamberg, Susan Stamberg's actor son.

Listen to Napoli’s interview here or read the transcript of my Q-and-A with the author below.

KAXE Morning Show conversation with Lisa Napoli

Heidi Holtan: When did National Public Radio begin? What was the world of journalism like for women at that time?

Lisa Napoli: That's a great question.

For anybody listening who remembers the '60s television had basically asserted its grip on the American psyche by the '60s. And people were worried people in power and people swirling around the power were concerned about the power that regular broadcasting commercial broadcasting had on the American populace.

And so that's why President Johnson signed into legislation a bill that funded public broadcasting and that only peripherally included radio, because at that point radio was sort of a left for dead medium that had been big footed by TV.

And so, in the in the early '70s, when public television and public radio were ramping up, moving over from educational stations, educational media was very, very strong, but it wasn't codified as under one umbrella. So that started happening in the early '70s in tandem with the second wave women's movement.

So just as women were starting to assert themselves in the workplace more than they had before as a group we had this rise of public broadcasting, public television and public radio. Of course, the strange part is that they didn't have big budgets. So where was it that a a woman who was an aspiring journalist, or even an experienced journalist, where could she get a job, was in the place that men didn't want to go work because they couldn't pay them well enough. So, it's a strange and interesting braid of American mid-20th century American history.

HH: Even if someone is not the public radio junkie that I am, I found this story of women in public media such an interesting way to understand what women were going through at that time.

LN: Thank you. That's a huge compliment and I hope you'll also read my book about Joan Kroc, because that's an interesting story about a woman who was extremely involved in financing public radio. Who came up at a slightly earlier time with different obstacles.

And yeah, it's just it's so interesting, I think, to look back at the history of the world. But of course, this country in particular and really of the media. And how influential they are. And these four women that they all came into the system at the time that they did in the 70s, as the public radio system was being built up really helped. Set the tone for the American public about women in authoritative positions that just had not existed up until that point.

HH: A lot of people think Barbara Walters was the first female host of a national news broadcast, and they would be wrong, wouldn't they?

LN: Yes, yes. And somebody who listens, who may remember when Barbara came on the scene and she was in this vaunted position at a huge celebrity salary it blew people away because up until that point, women just were rarely behind the microphone or in front of the camera and talking about serious issues.

They were there. But we were relegated to covering weddings and society. News in the local newspapers, but very, very consumer affairs. But rarely did women step away from all of that.

Today we looked back at a Focus Group we held on June 10th of 2019 at the KAXE Studios in Grand Rapids. About 13 women were in attendance including hosts…

HH: Well, I want to talk about each of the women. So, let's start with Susan Stamberg. What was her story? How did she get to All Things Considered?

LN: Well, Susan's story, she was unusual in that she had gone to college because women didn't typically go to college then. But she, like many women, found herself working in a secretarial role because that's what women, especially once they got married, were basically relegated. Too, because it was believed that women were going to leave instantly and go. To become mothers, and so they couldn't possibly want to invest in careers and she back ended into educational radio in Washington, DC, where she moved where her husband was working, and they basically needed somebody to produce a public affair show.

She was so eager to get out from behind the typewriter that she accepted a pay cut and even though she had no idea what a producer did someone explained to her that it was being aggressive and making a lot of phone calls and she said: well, I can do that!

So that's how the very first female anchor of a nightly national news broadcast got her foot in the door was basically a little educational radio station with a very low budget trying to do a local public affairs show. And that's how she she entered the system.

" She (Susan Stamberg) was just being herself, and by being herself, and because she was allowed to sit in front of a microphone it was a completely radical act, and it actually transformed broadcasting. It set the stage for public radio that continues to this day."
Lisa Napoli, author of "Susan, Linda, Nina and Cokie"

Susan Stamberg
Susan Stamberg.

HH: I was so drawn to Susan's story, especially in what she considered news that she saw that arts and culture are a part of the news of every day as well. And I I bet at that time that was seen as more of a woman's topic.

LN: Well, exactly. And for anybody listening who didn't remember that time the 60s and the 70s, that was a time when the news was presented every night by an anchorman and an older, very official looking gentleman in a suit. All white men and they all basically sounded very similar and news was considered a certain sort of domain.

Covering Congress and covering politics and covering, maybe some world affairs very, very minimally on on broadcast news. And so for Susan to come along and to be the main voice in public radio, which was reaching every corner of the nation and and to say that there was a more human element to news. It was extremely radical for the time, incredibly radical and that she did it with warmth, humanity and authority again is something you take for granted, especially if you listen to public radio.

But at that time, it was just completely way out there. She wasn't trying to be way out there. She was just being herself and by being herself and because she was allowed to sit in front of a microphone. Was a completely radical act and it transformed and set the stage actually transformed broadcasting, but it set the stage for public radio that continues to this day.

HH: OK, so let's talk about Linda Wertheimer. How did she get involved in National Public Radio?

LN: Also interesting, but completely different. She had grown up in New Mexico. She wanted to be a journalist from the first moment TV came to her home in New Mexico when she saw Edward R Murrow. But she knew that basically she'd have to be his assistant because she knew that there was no way for her to be a star herself.

She made her way on scholarship to an excellent college and made her way to Washington, DC. She had married also, but she'd been running up against roadblocks trying to get jobs in journalism as a woman. And then, you know, she and her husband heard about this new place that was starting up, and she went and said, I want a job here. And she got a job behind the scenes.

A good job behind the scenes — she was basically directing the show, which is a very difficult and and stressful job, even if it's not audible to the world. And from there, she's just stayed in the system for the rest of her career, working her way up to be the anchor person after Susan had exited, so she's had a long, storied career, but she didn't come from the kind of roots, so to speak, where you might expect someone to come to be at the helm of a of a show like that.

HH: It is always exciting when we do get to hear Susan Stamberg occasionally on MORNING EDITION. But Nina Totenberg is still a staple. Tell us a little bit about Nina and how she got to National Public radio.

LN: Like Linda, Nina also knew that she from an early age wanted to be a reporter and came up against the obstacles. You can only do this kind of story because you're a woman.

But as anybody who listens to her, and if they're listening to this, they must know, that she's a tenacious person and doesn't take no for an answer, and she was like that as a young woman too. And what's fascinating to me about her is that she basically created a beat for herself. She wasn't initially assigned to the beat of the Supreme Court, and nobody would have ever thought that the Supreme Court would be a beat. Or justice issues really are what her beat is - legal issues.

Legal issues in Broadcasting was just too complicated to discuss in broadcasting as it was. Thing is, you know, back when television news and radio news was much shorter than it is today, you had 22 minutes to tell all the news. So, the idea that you would talk about legal affairs, just put everybody to sleep.

Nina Totenberg
Allison Shelley
Nina Totenberg.

But along came Nina and Nina basically invented that sort of storytelling. That people love and as you say, rely on to make sense of extremely complicated topics, and she's been doing it ever since she walked in the door in the mid 70s in DC. So that's an incredible story of a success for for everyone because she she's also, of course, mimicked people want to cover the Supreme Court. Now, whereas before it was seen as something very new. Also fascinating about her is that she doesn't have a legal degree, so she's telling it in a populist voice that that people need for complex topics when we're not educated in those topics.

HH: Cokie Roberts is the 4th in your extraordinary founding mothers. She was so interesting to me for a number of reasons. Her background and also her husband, being a working journalist at the time and how that was figured out for her. Can you talk about Cokie?

LN: Yes, she probably rose to the greatest fame of all four women, in part because she did cross over to television. But she also came from the most storied background of the four women because her father and then her mother served in Congress and extremely politically active in Washington. Even when her mother was not serving in Congress herself, so Cokie, had grown up at the knee, so to speak, of power, and basically married a man who wanted to be a journalist.

From his early years she subjugated what she wanted in order to marry him and have a family. And after the family was growing, she decided she needed a career, wanted a career and just got into the business. I think if she had not married a journalist, it's possible that she would have gone into what she calls the family business of politics, but or maybe law, but she instead went in this direction and became this glittering figure in large part because she was able to understand and explain Congress from an inside perspective that very few people can have so.

She was the last of the four women I write about to enter the public radio system, and certainly an enduring presence.

HH: I think there is to this day a stereotype that these four women and the expertise and what they they did with their careers, that they probably didn't get along. People think that women will not get along, especially in a workplace. How did that work?

LN: Well, that's what's so interesting is that would their stories individually would be interesting anyhow, historically for anybody today following journalism to know the obstacles that they encountered.

But knowing that they banded together. They were basically a force field of nature both with each other and in the system in the public radio system. It's an Even better story, although maybe some people would like it better if they thought they didn’t get along.

I think it's better that they were all you know, lovingly sisterly. Connections that that endured through, of course, the end of Cokie's life and and it seemed to endure today they had a a bond because they were in a moment in time together.

But they also just had, as we all know from workplaces, you know, we find somebody who we just attached to and love forever, even, even long after we're not working together. They were just Extremely fortunate that they had that with one another. You know at that moment. The time when it was a fiercely competitive time, when people were tripping each other to to get ahead. So, you know, you know, that's one of those things... it's like any sort of love, right?

It's ineffable. You can't explain why they all fell in love with one another and were willing to support one another, go out of their way to help each other during difficult personal times and just professionally. But they did. And that's part of the story, too.

Heidi Holtan is KAXE's Director of Content and Public Affairs where she manages producers and is the local host of Morning Edition from NPR. Heidi is a regional correspondent for WDSE/WRPT's Duluth Public Television’s Almanac North.