Access to this program is pass-specific. Already registered? Sign in. Need access? Add the pass to your registration.
Technical difficulties? View the FAQs for assistance.
100 Years of Broadcast News: Challenges Met, Challenges Anew
In recognition of the centennial of broadcasting and proliferation of electronic media, this one-hour special produced by the Library of American Broadcasting Foundation features accomplished TV and radio journalists reflecting on the long history of electronic news and sharing their thoughts on the towering challenges it faces in our country in a time of deep political division and social unrest.
On Nov. 2, 1920, KDKA-AM in Pittsburgh ignited the Big Bang of electronic media, which over the past 100 years has produced FM radio, broadcast TV, cable TV, satellite TV, satellite radio, streaming and social media. In recognition of the centennial of broadcasting and proliferation of electronic media, this one-hour special produced by the Library of American Broadcasting Foundation features accomplished TV and radio journalists reflecting on the long history of electronic news and sharing their thoughts on the towering challenges it faces in our country in a time of deep political division and social unrest. The special will be hosted by LABF Co-Chairs Ginny Morris and Heidi Raphael and include comments by NAB President Gordon Smith on the critical continuing importance of TV and radio news to the health of our communities and our democracy.
Produced in partnership with Library of American Broadcasting Foundation
Broadcast journalism was us telling you what was happening out there. Social media is everybody telling everybody else what their perception is of what’s happening out there.
At the end of the day, you will only have your reputation. And you can spend years building it and five unfortunate minutes losing it unless you are willing to think in the moment about, what does this mean for the viewer? What does this mean for fairness?
And it’s certainly not the kind of profession that you have to get licensed for. The doors are pretty open. It requires people who have convictions about this enterprise– that we’re better off getting a straight story or straight stories from multiple sources that engage us about the world– and journalists who try a little harder to explain why this should be of interest to you.
I’m glad I didn’t listen to the person who told me that broadcast is going to be dead and it doesn’t exist. That was a long time ago. That was 30, what, 31, 33 years ago or something. And they were wrong. They were wrong. They were wrong– so wrong. And they’re going to continue to be wrong.
This is the way it was at the Westinghouse Electric Works in Pittsburgh on the night of November 2, 1920. I’m sitting in a full-scale recreation of the original KDKA transmitter and studio shack just a few hundred yards from where the actual shack had been hastily built. From this humble structure, and through the genius of Westinghouse engineer Dr. Frank Conrad, the newly christened KDKA broadcast the returns from the Harding-Cox presidential election.
It sparked a national mania for radio and planted the seeds for all the electronic mass media we have today– everything from TV to TikTok. I’m Larry Richard. You might say I’m a direct descendant of the men who produced that inaugural newscast. And I’m proud to be a part of the 100-year tradition of KDKA and of radio.
Every weekday morning, my partner Kevin Battle and I broadcast four hours of news. Amazingly, the simple AM radios of 1920 can still tune into my broadcasts. What other electronic medium can boast that its receivers never become obsolete? That first broadcast went for four hours, culminating in the announcement that Warren G Harding had become the 29th President of the United States.
While the returns dribbled in, the pioneering broadcasters filled the time playing records on a hand-wound photograph and live banjo music. A local country club made a big party of the broadcast. They set up a receiver in a ballroom along with speakers so that everybody could hear. The guests soon established another broadcasting precedent, calling into the station to complain– too much music, not enough news, they said.
Others had harnessed the power of the airwaves for the better part of two decades before KDKA had its big moment, but Westinghouse executive Harry P Davis was the first to see radio’s potential as a mass news and entertainment medium and as a way to make money. Westinghouse pitched radio not as something for enthusiasts and specialists, but for the whole family to tune into regular programming in the living room.
Radio was simple, democratic– anybody could listen in– and they did in droves. The future of mass media was on the way, and this was the station that started it all. I’m Larry Richard, KDKA Radio, Pittsburgh.
Hi. My name is Ginny Hubbard Morris, and I’m the CEO of Hubbard Radio. My grandfather started our family company in 1923, just three years after KDKA Pittsburgh triggered the big bang of electronic media with its inaugural broadcast in November of 1920. I’m also privileged to co-chair with Heidi Raphael, the chief communications officer of Beasley Media Group, the Library of American Broadcasting Foundation, which produced this program with incredible support from the NAB.
Our aim today is to celebrate the invention of commercial radio and all the other electronic media that it has spawned over the past century– broadcast TV, FM radio, cable TV, satellite TV, and of course, all the incarnations of the internet. But like all good librarians, we believe that the past can instruct the present and help guide us into the future. So we also decided to explore the state of TV and audio news in all of its forms and investigate what might happen next.
In focusing on news, we are taking our cue from KDKA. On that evening long ago, it broadcast the returns of the Harding-Cox presidential election. For the very first time in history, people all across the country were able to follow breaking news as it happened. Today, news delivered through electronic media has opened our eyes and ears all across the world.
For 100 years, it has removed barriers of time and space. It has put us on a first-name basis with newsmakers, entertainers, and sports figures, as well as business and government leaders. It has shared uneasy truths and joyful moments.
Through broadcast news, we see unfolding history brought to life today. And we feel how it reaches out to us from the past. While technologies may change, audio and video storytellers have remained constant and trusted companions for an entire century. For our discussion, we spoke with some extraordinary TV and radio journalists who have not only made successful careers in electronic news media, but have thought deeply about the role and the impact of electronic news on our society.
Today, electronic media are facing a great challenge of telling the story of America at a time of great civil unrest, economic instability, and deep political division. But that’s nothing new. The past century has seen a never-ending succession of major upheavals, and each time, the electronic media has risen to the task, growing stronger and more influential as they have proliferated in many forms. None can doubt that they will continue to do so. I believe my grandfather would have been amazed and delighted to see what the advent of radio began.
Now, allow me to introduce NAB President Gordon Smith with his thoughts on the anniversary of KDKA and our first century of broadcasting in electronic media.
Thank you, Ginny. And Thanks to the Library of American Broadcasting for preserving the rich heritage of local radio and television, which has given so much to the American people. NAB has always supported LAB’s missions. And why wouldn’t we? After all, the actual Library of the American Broadcasting has its roots in the NAB building. For decades, the old NAB building in the DuPont circle area of Washington, DC was home to the library collection that was moved to the University of Maryland about 15 years ago.
We’re gathered here today virtually to celebrate 100 years of broadcasting. The beginnings of broadcasting had many pivotal moments. A widely recognized milestone was the first commercial broadcast a century ago, when KDKA Radio in Pittsburgh covered the 1920 Warren Harding-James Cox presidential election returns.
Little did KDKA engineer Frank Conrad know what an impact that broadcasting would have on so many lives. So thank you to LAB for hosting today’s event and for documenting broadcasting’s history. I’m really looking forward to Marci Burdick’s discussion today with some of America’s legendary broadcast journalists, both past and present. We’re honored by their presence.
But before I turn it over to Marci, let me offer a few words about broadcasting’s role in society. I like to say that broadcasting is America’s indispensable communications medium. It’s available to all, regardless of income– rural or urban, Republican or Democrat. Our stations are live, local, and lifesaving in times of emergency. And unlike our competitors, our programming comes free of charge.
Our listeners and viewers know they can count on their local broadcasters to provide the news they trust most and to be their eyes and ears at the most pivotal events in history. We were there for FDR’s fireside chats and Edward R Murrow’s coverage of the Nazi blitzkrieg on London in World War 2, the McCarthy hearings, the Nixon-Kennedy debates, and the JFK assassination, lunar landings, Watergate, and more.
Without fear or favor, broadcast reporters have covered it all– the fall of Communism and the collapse of the Berlin Wall, presidential impeachments, the space shuttle Challenger explosion, the horrific events of 9/11, Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy. Broadcasting has evolved, to be sure, but even with all the changes, our mission is the same as it has been for 10 decades. Our job is to record the first draft of history– whether that’s a terrifying pandemic that has taken the lives of 200,000 Americans or civil protests and unrest over racial inequality or another presidential election that’s just around the corner. We provide a window to a community, to a nation, and to a world.
In my 12 years as a US Senator and 11 years at NAB, I’ve seen firsthand the value of local and network broadcasting. I’ve witnessed the selfless acts of courage exhibited by journalists covering wars, natural disasters, and COVID-19. I truly believe that in the soul of every broadcaster, there beats the heart of a public servant.
The first 100 years of broadcasting was pretty special, but I think the best is yet to come. So with that, I will now turn the program over to Marci Burdick. Marci spent her entire career in the broadcast business, first in the news and then in management with Schurz Communication. She’s won Murrow Awards, Emmy Awards, and the Broadcaster of the Year Award.
She’s a former chair of the NAB television board of directors, and is a past president of the NBC affiliates association and the radio television digital news association. Marci represents the very best that broadcasting has to offer. Marci, the virtual stage is now yours.
Senator Smith, thank you so much. We asked four respected journalists for their perspectives on this anniversary of 100 years of broadcasting– Ted Koppel, Soledad O’Brien, Carol Marin, and Robert Siegel. For this program, we’re drawing excerpts from those conversations, but each interview will be preserved in its entirety by the archives of the library. Each person spoke pointedly and passionately on the history of news reporting, its current state, the challenges ahead, and the viability of broadcast news.
Soledad O’Brien is an award-winning journalist. And in addition to that, she is an author, she is a philanthropist, and she is a professional speaker. But she also anchors and produces the political magazine program “Matter of Fact with Soledad O’Brien,” for the Hearst Television Network, she is founder and CEO of her own production company, and she also reports for HBO “Real Sports,” for PBS News, and for WebMD.
And, Soledad, I feel like I almost need to say– in your spare time–
Right? I’m tired. That feels like a lot.
Well, thank you for making time today for this conversation about–
My pleasure. Thank you.
Broadcasting. I actually want to start with some of the work you’re doing now and then kind of back into your history. But I remember seeing you in the ’90s at a then radio television news director’s convention as one of the first people talking about and helping to educate about digital media and journalism. And I vividly remember some of the people in the room kind of giving you a pushback– like there’s that thing over there. How over the arc of your career has digital media, particularly social media, changed broadcast journalism?
It’s changed a lot. It’s interesting, in the ’90s, because I had come from San Francisco and I had actually hosted a show from the Discovery Channel in addition to my reporting duties in local news, we literally did a show that was all about kind of the cutting edge of science and technology. After I left that show, I started doing a show for MSNBC when they launched called The Site that literally was a show that looked at websites. And I remember–
I remember it.
It was such a challenge. It was ’96, and we were trying to– who were we talking to? People who are trying to figure out how to build a website, and you’re saying, OK, so step one is– or is it people who have already embraced the technology and are light years ahead? And it was very hard to figure out, who’s our audience and what are the topics that we’re going to be talking about in a nightly newscast about technology?
Social media, obviously, has changed a lot for journalists and journalism. Partly, I think, maybe in the biggest ways, just the ways we get stories and how we think about access to people. I mean, the number of times if I want to interview someone generally, I just DM them and say, hey, want to come on and talk to me? And within an hour, two hours I have an answer back, as opposed to the old days of, let me figure out who their person is, then we’re going to reach out– we’ll have our people reach out to their people.
And you’re able to cut through a lot, I think. So just in that way alone, you have a much closer connection to the people who are sort of in your sphere on social media. But I think also social media drives a lot of stories.
There are all kinds of things that I want to follow up on, but one is really how you’re using the intersection of broadcast and broadband, if you will. And I was just watching today something that you were doing on Matter of Fact TV about showing some of these clips we’ve all been seeing about conflict between races and having people comment on them and then, surprisingly, bring them together– just the thought of how you bring those things together and what impact it’s having in a different way. I wonder if you’d talk a little bit about that and what your thought process is and some of the other things you’ve been doing in that regard.
It’s a classic social experiment. We called it a social experience, but really, it’s a social experiment where you capture something and then you record someone as they’re responding to it. And then you want to actually follow the arc of their entire journey through it– usually how they’re interacting with other people. Brands do it a lot. You might remember a famous beer brand that brought people together– and they disagreed on issues, but they had to build a bar.
And at the end, they kind of realized even though we don’t agree on everything, we can always sit down and have a beer. That was the whole goal was to sell the beer. I love social experiments, but I thought in this particular case our Matter of Fact Listening Tour that was looking at bias, bias is sometimes such an amorphous thing.
And I think the mistake people make about it is that people get very pedantic and lecturey. Let me tell you– and who wants to watch a show like that? So being able to create a show– that show was a digital show, but I think it’ll air on TV as well. And certainly now all of the different, disparate elements can also air on our show. So we can kind of go back and forth from just a digital show but that’s shot to really be a TV show.
Content is multi-platform. And when you stop thinking about it as like, well, this is broadcast. I think the mistake people make would always be, we have a story. And then there’s the social media part. And younger people don’t think of it that way. They think of it they all have a different kind of life in different areas. So over on social media, that conversation is actually very different.
And over here on broadcast, the link has to be different, the way it’s formatted, the storytelling is different. The audience is different. But if we want to cut it down and put it on TikTok where it’s much younger, that’s completely different. But if I wanted to write it up for The Atlantic, well, that’s going to be something that’s completely different. It’s just the same chunk of story, but just finding the platform and then understanding the rules of the platform so that it makes sense to the people who are the platform native.
Well, you have been tackling with the hard truth about bias in our time, and this isn’t new for you. I’ll just remind the audience that you’ve been doing some very thoughtful pieces. ’07, “Black in America,” ’09, “Latino in America.” And the hard truth about bias has some spectacular content. And I wonder if you could talk a little bit about how you see the role of broadcast journalism today– how you think we’re doing on covering some of those major issues just in the whole.
I wish we would do more. I think right now we’re kind of in a political cycle that’s lasted four years. And because of that, political reporting and the framing of everything as a horse race or he did better or he’s stronger, he appears– it’s all framed, I think, wrongly. And I’d like to hear more about education, and not through the candidates’ perspective, but just education and what’s good for students and other things like that I think are kind of lost in the mix because we’ve been on a four-year campaign, basically.
So I think we could do better. I’d like to see us do more. I think what we were able to show in our piece about bias was you can actually have thoughtful, calm conversations with intelligent people in a respectful and interesting and compelling way. I knew black people would like it. The number of white people who liked it and would say, wow, I really watched every moment of it, was fascinating to me.
I guess what worries me sometimes is it’s easier for the click bait. Let’s look at the heinous video and not stay for the substantive conversation afterwards. I don’t know that any of us ever get to that– how do you get people to that piece?
What’s so interesting– I think audiences really are sick of people yelling at each other and actually want to understand. I think they really do. I would never have thought that anybody would want to understand the history of gerrymandering and that there was a guy named Gerry who drew a map like a salamander and they called it gerrymandering. And where that came from– I think people want to understand.
There’s so little context. And in race reporting especially, or reporting on history that somehow intersects with race, often, everything just sort of popped up. Black people have less income and less wealth. And Latinos are this– and no one says, well, whoa, how did we get here? Do we understand even what has happened?
And so I think there’s a tremendous audience for that. The stuff that we do does really well, because it doesn’t get funded if it doesn’t. I’m a complete realist. And you can’t just do like, kumbayah, I loved it. For me, it was great, but it didn’t do well. That stuff, as you well know, your boss types you a very nice note, and it all goes away. You never do it again.
Well, in the time we have left, I think I have time for about one more question, and I’d like to ask you if you could look in a crystal ball– what does the next 100 years of broadcast look like? Is that even a word I should be using?
Yes. Yes. When I got my first job in television news, I remember I was interviewing, and the woman at WBZ TV who was interviewing me said, broadcast is going to be dead– not going to exist. That was 1987– ’87. So I often tell students, people will make all kinds of dire predictions about what you’re doing. Ignore them. They don’t know.
Will it be different? Absolutely. But audiences will always be these people over here because they like their information this way. And these people over here, they like their information this way. And these people over here like it this way. And the people who can really most of my projects, whether they are for our show “Matter of Fact” or they’re for specials, are chopped up in 90 different ways so that people can get the 1-minute version, the 5-minute version, a 30-minute version, the doc-length version, the multi-part series version.
And my job is to figure out how to tell that story to every audience that’s out there. Sometimes that’s a lot of work. But I think that that’s the way to think about it, and broadcast will absolutely be a part of that. So just like someone was right– I remember thinking, wow, so the people who are anchoring broadcasts are doing pretty well right now.
I’m glad I didn’t listen to the person who told me that broadcast is going to be dead and it doesn’t exist. That was a long time ago. That was 31, 33 years ago or something. And they were wrong. They were wrong. They were wrong. So wrong– and they’re going to continue to be wrong. But it will change, it will morph. And how we access our information or how we even think about where that information is coming first, I think, that’s definitely going to change and shift.
Well, I can’t thank you enough for your time today and the work that you’re doing to help elevate some of these discussions in the United States and elsewhere. Thank you, Soledad.
As we commemorate the 100th anniversary of broadcasting, I am very pleased to welcome author, senior contributor for CBS Sunday morning, and multi-award winning journalist, Ted Koppel. So in general, what do you think about the state of broadcast journalism today?
The fact that you have narrowed it down to broadcast journalism means that I have to acknowledge that broadcast journalism in terms of the influence that it has in America today is merely a shadow of what it once was. Broadcast journalism 50, 60 years ago was arguably, I think almost indisputably, the most influential medium out there. Today, it is not.
And why do you say that?
Because social media has really taken over. And it’s taken over in terms of changing the entire dynamic. Broadcast journalism was us telling you what was happening out there. Social media is everybody telling everybody else what their perception is of what’s happening out there. And while on the one hand, it represents a democratization of journalism, democracy is not always a good thing.
The fact of the matter is that broadcast journalism in the era that you’re talking about, when I first joined it– which is now almost 60 years ago– it was influential, in large measure because it was run and almost entirely populated by professionals– people who took journalism very seriously. By democratizing journalism, by making it possible for anyone with access to a cell phone or an iPad to create his or her own network to be able to broadcast out to thousands of people, and depending on how interesting or outrageous the material is that you’re putting out there, there are some of these people who are reaching hundreds of thousands of consumers out there.
At first blush, that seems like a good thing. But when you realize that an awful lot of people with absolutely no training in the discipline of journalism are putting out material with the realization that the more interesting, read sensational, read outrageous– the more interesting they make the material, the more hits they’re going to get. You just have more misinformation floating around in the world today than I think has ever been the case before.
So let me switch to the role in broadcast history of “Nightline.” I’d like to talk about what I think is the importance of “Nightline” in history– born out of the hostage crisis. I think most people remember it became its own program in March of 1980 with you as the sole host. That was a time, though, when that time period was populated by entertainment. And while Johnny Carson was the king on NBC, what were the conversations, back room conversations, about “Nightline” taking over that late night time period for the foreseeable future?
Well, of course, it didn’t take it over in the cold. What had happened was that in the wake of the hostage taking, which occurred in early November of 1979 in Tehran at the US embassy there– in the wake of that, Roone Arledge, who was then the president of ABC News, came in one day and sort of said to all of us, there is nowhere I can go in New York City today, or for that matter in the country, where I’m not being stopped by people who want to know what’s happening with the hostages. It had become a national obsession.
And so very early on in the process, I think it may have been by day four or five or six, we began doing late night specials which were 15 minutes long, and they went on after the local news ended at 11:30– just bringing people up to speed. And the title of that program, as many of your older viewers and listeners will remember, was “America Held Hostage.” And then we appended the day– day seven, day eight, day nine, day 10.
Some weeks later, Walter Cronkite began doing the same thing on his evening news program. But the point was, America focused its attention in laser-like fashion on any new development in the hostage crisis. And in those days, we still thought it was going to be over in a matter of days, if not a few weeks. It went on and on and on– November, December, January.
And eventually, the folks at the network– not the news, the network– the president of the network, the senior vice presidents, members of the board– began to get a little nervous, because these late night special programs, because they were special events, did not permit advertising. That meant that ABC News was losing money by the barrelfull– getting huge audiences, but losing money because there was no advertising revenue.
And so finally, the decision was made that “America Held Hostage” would become a permanent program. And as you pointed out March 24 of 1980, “Nightline” was born.
When you look at the next 100 years of broadcasting, what do you see that makes you optimistic? And what do you see that worries you?
Well, what worries me is that when you talk about broadcasting, clearly maybe you don’t intend to, but you’re excluding social media. And social media is, to a very large extent, taking over the role that broadcasting once held. And what I see is an awful lot of amateurs out there– people who have never learned anything about journalism, who really don’t care about journalism, who just care about putting on the most dramatic, the most exciting, the most sometimes horrifying video and information that they can.
And because social media rewards the number of hits that any given item gets, you find people being driven not so much by an imperative to inform the American public as to titillate the American public. That worries me. I don’t see that getting better anytime soon.
What would you tell an 18-year-old who was thinking about a career in journalism?
Oh, by all means, do it. Do it. Look, I have had a wonderful life. I’ve been to the most interesting places. I’ve talked to the most interesting people. I’ve been witness to some of the greatest events of the past 55, 60 years– and all because I had that press pass, all because I worked for a network that could afford to send me and was interested in sending me around the world.
I don’t know what form journalism will take 20 years from now, 30 years from now. But can I recommend it as a career? You bet. What a terrific lifestyle. You get to talk to the most interesting people, go to the most interesting places, witness the most interesting events, do it on somebody else’s dime, and get paid for it. Come on.
When journalist Carol Marin announced in September that she’d be ending her 48-year television career, a newspaper columnist in Chicago wrote, TV certainly will be poorer without Marin’s authoritative presence on important stories and a dedication to excellence that she personifies.
Carol Marin began her career in 1972. She moved back to her native Chicago in 1978, where she has remained in journalistic service to the residents of the Windy City with the exception, I think, of about a five-year stint to work on “60 Minutes” with CBS network news. Carol Marin has won virtually every journalistic award that exists, and she also serves as director of DePaul University’s Center for Journalism, Integrity, and Excellence. Welcome, Carol– thrilled to talk to you today.
Thank you very much, Marci.
Well, let me ask you first– it’s been about a month since you announced that you’ll be entering a new chapter of your life. What was the viewer reaction to that?
It was, with one exception– a Fraternal Order of Police spokesman said, good riddance. But outside of that, it’s really been warm and wonderful. And people have been wonderful to me– colleagues as well as viewers. So it’s been very affirming and very touching.
Well, let me go back to the beginning for a second. What inspired you to be a journalist?
The simple answer, my parents, though they didn’t know they were inspiring me to do what I have done. I grew up in a blue collar family in the suburbs of Chicago. I was born on the South Side of Chicago. They then moved when I was about seven. But I grew up in a house that couldn’t afford very much, but there was always going to be a newspaper in the house at all times.
And that was the background by which I graduated from the University of Illinois as a debater and trained from my parents at dinner, and as an English teacher. And then when I couldn’t get an English teaching job, I auditioned on a dare at WBIR TV in Knoxville, Tennessee. And they did a kind of condescending audition.
And so I reacted, and they hired me. They said, spunky girl– we’ll hire her. And I began to do a talk show in 1972 at the CBS affiliate in Knoxville, Tennessee. The problem they had with me, though, was I wouldn’t do makeup. I wouldn’t do homecoming queens. I brought the Ku Klux Klan on in full gear and asked them if their chapter wasn’t pretty much over as a racist organization.
And they said, if this isn’t a woman’s talk show, send her up to the newsroom. She’s not going to work out here. So maybe there was a recognition of a need to include women, but I don’t think there was an understanding still at that point of what women could really do in terms of reporting.
I remember those days when there were few of us in newsrooms. And people would turn to us all the time and say, what do women think about x? And so it became an education in some respects from our part to say, there isn’t generally a universal view, and that women could, in fact, do news. Did you have to fight along the way to get past some of those stereotypes and demonstrate every single day your chops, if you will?
Yes. And one of the principal demonstrations early on was– I wanted to do serious news. I didn’t want to do features– not that there’s anything wrong with features, it just wasn’t me. And so I found the best avenue for that was to develop a prison beat, because nobody really wanted to do the prisons, and I did.
And I remember originally when I said, I want to go down to the State Penitentiary in Nashville. There’s a convicted killer there. The case is controversial. And they said, oh no, no, no. We couldn’t send a woman into a prison. What would your husband think? And it was that kind of sort of outrageous question.
And so I fought and I got into the prisons. And ultimately, the prisons defined my reporting. And my first governor to ever go to prison was Ray Blanton in Tennessee. And I came to Illinois, where I had multiple other governors who went to prison. But the prison beat was deadly serious. Nobody’d mistake you as a light-hearted, fluffy journalist. And so it really helped define what I wanted to do, which was serious news and investigative reporting.
I wonder if you’d reflect for just a moment about how broadcast journalism has changed and evolved over the arc of your career– whether it be technology, content, proliferation. Just for the better or worse, how do you think broadcast journalism has evolved?
I’ve gone through some of my old memos from 20 years ago, 30 years ago. And it turns out I was pretty much arguing with management about the same things, just in different eras. I started in television news when there was 2-inch tape machines in the master control, and we were shooting film. We went from film to videotape in a decade. We went from videotape to microwave, microwave to satellite, now digital.
Every 10 years, there has been a complete technical revolution by which we delivered our stories and the speed with which we delivered our stories. And while I think there are those of us in the business who lament some of those changes, we’ve adapted to them and they have, in many ways, helped us more than hurt us.
So there are lots of issues in news, and there always have been. But when I think about the revolutionary nature of the technology with which I have worked over all these decades, it’s stunning.
I think you’re absolutely right about what it’s allowed us to do. When I talk to young journalists, and you work with them every day, the pressures of the always on world are something they talk about. What do you tell young people today about opportunities to be reflective, the pressure not to be first in some cases? Would you talk a little bit about that?
Sure and at DePaul, where we run the Center for Journalism, Integrity, and Excellence, one of the things we do virtually in every class period is pose an ethical problem. And it turns out our students love that as much or more than talking about how you put together a story. What we tell them is at the end of the day, you will only have your reputation. And you can spend years building it and five unfortunate minutes losing it, unless you are willing to think in the moment about, what does this mean for the viewer? What does this mean for fairness? Is there something I should hold back on, as you say, not be first, because being first means maybe I didn’t check it well enough?
And I did some harm. The SPJ code is, first and foremost, do no harm. And the speed with which we can deliver things, say things, tweet stuff, Instagram something out the world, there needs to be, take a beat, take a breath, and say to yourself, is this a good idea, really?
What do you think the next 100 years is going to look like for broadcasting?
Good grief, I only wish I knew. I mean, if every 10 years already in my career we’ve had heads spinning, revolutionary changes, I don’t know what it will be like. But what I do know is that the principles of what we do don’t change. It is still, and it may be a cliche, but it’s the who, what, where, when, and why. And then it is the guideposts of how you conduct yourself honorably make all the difference.
That’s true in the medical profession, the legal profession, it’s true in journalism– that there are some sort of immutable laws of decency and integrity and fact gathering. And so I don’t know how it will be delivered in another 10 years, another 20, or another 100, but I do believe that the essentials have always remained in place.
Well, on that note, thank you for your years of service to local and network journalism as someone who’s just watched you from afar. Thank you for spending time with us today and for your thoughts.
It’s been an honor. Thank you very much. And I so applaud this project that you have undertaken. I think it’s so important. Well, as we commemorate 100 years of American broadcasting, I am thrilled, I am honored to welcome someone for a conversation this morning who really has had a front row to that history for the last 40 years– and 50, I guess, if we count going back to your college days. But Robert Siegel is an award-winning journalist, NPR’s first staffer overseas, and to thousands of Americans– hundreds of thousands of Americans– the familiar voice as host of “All Things Considered” for the last 30 years. Robert Siegel signed off from that role in January of 2018, and so pleased to have you here for a conversation this morning.
Marci, I am very pleased to be with you. Thanks. And I hadn’t realized that I had been broadcasting for half the history of broadcasting– food for thought.
Well, let me ask you– I’d like this conversation this morning to be not only about the history of American broadcasting, but certainly your role in it. But I’d like to ask you first, how have you found retirement? How’s your life changed?
Well, it’s changed a great deal in that I have far fewer deadlines. And I am quite happy to have far fewer deadlines. I’m involved in a couple of webinar projects, and I still read a couple of papers every day and follow the news as best I can. What I really missed when I retired was the company of people at NPR whom I had, in many cases, known for 30, 40 years.
And that was tough. But of course, in 2020, my former colleagues aren’t seeing each other anymore. They’re working ingeniously from home. So it’s been a relatively easier year to be retired, I’d say.
Well, let me switch to the history of broadcasting. So we’re thinking about 100 years with the launch of KDKA in Pittsburgh. You grew up in New York. You’re a native New Yorker. And so you were in the hotbed of the proliferation of the media– media central. What were some of the moments or the stories that resonated with you when you were growing up as a young person?
Oh my gosh. When I was growing up as a young person, first of all, radio was omnipresent. At home, it was always on. If not the CBS “World News Roundup” in the morning, then classical music that my father would listen to. And we were surrounded by newspapers– the daily papers. I think there were eight or nine daily newspapers just in New York City alone.
So the media environment was very rich. Television was something quite young. And what passed for a national news program, John Cameron Swayze’s “Camel Caravan” of news was not something that would be the winner of major journalism awards today, but it was very curious.
I remember coverage of big crime stories like the Mad Bomber, who was sought for years in New York City. I remember coverage of municipal strikes and municipal politics. And I remember mostly hearing it on the radio.
How did that, or did that, form your career decisions?
It didn’t. It didn’t, actually. What happened was it formed my decision about what I would do in college and how I would waste my time in college instead of being a diligent student. I worked at the college radio station. And for four years– this was at Columbia University– I spent far too much time at the radio station doing everything.
For me, my love of radio came first, focusing in on news came second. I was doing sophomoric comedy bits with friends on the radio station and disk jockeying golden oldies and also reading newscasts. At the end of college in my senior year, there were massive protests at Columbia and occupation of several buildings by protesters who were– it was both a combination anti-war protest and also a protest against the university’s plan to build a gymnasium on public park land.
And we at the radio station launched a 24-hour a day coverage of it. Up until that time, if you’d asked me, would you want to be a journalist– I wouldn’t have told you what I wanted to be. I’d figured out by that time that I didn’t want to be a doctor. That was the main achievement of my college education. But I would have said, well, no, a journalist– if you want to be a journalist, you should go write for the New York Times, and that’s where journalism is done. And who needs the rest of it?
We did a terrific job of covering the protests at Columbia and the police evictions of protesters. And we did a better job than a lot of professionals and than a lot of other media. And I was totally bitten by the experience. I was anchoring the coverage. And that was what determined my career. It occurred to me that here was a way in which, at a time of great confusion, we were on the air, and we were of use to people. We were of service to people.
It also satisfied a deep curiosity. Most broadcast organizations that have been around for a long time, they know whom they idolize. They know who their Murrow was. They know who their Cronkite was. NPR didn’t have that. NPR, we were making it up every day as we went along. And there weren’t any fixed rules about how we were supposed to do this. So it was a great kind of place to get in on the ground floor.
So in your time at NPR, has what is considered the definition of news evolved or change or the decisions that you made about what your viewers are interested in? Would you talk a little bit about that?
Well, things have definitely changed, but I would say that at the beginning, NPR’s definition of news was something that, if it were on local television, some critics would have deplored as infotainment. Because we thought that if it’s something that people are talking about, that we’re curious about, that’s interesting, we should do it. We should have something on the air about it. And that would include stuff on television, stuff happening in society, interesting things happening in sports, whatever.
And I think we took the breadth of the old daily newspaper, and instead of simply expecting to hear that unfold in the course of a week’s programming on a radio station, included within a news program. We thought of half hours going from hard to soft. Soft was very much a part of the programs. The back of the book was very much part of the program.
Well, that seems like your career has certainly seen that full arc from the big, powerful radio days to the threats to radio that NPR helped revitalize, and now, in some ways, podcasting is this generation’s radio. But what in those trends as you look to today and the future of broadcast, what in those trends excites you, makes you nervous, outright frightens you?
Well, I remember I think it was during the 2008 New Hampshire primary when I was up doing a story when I saw– I guess it was a political science class full of kids with smartphones, horizontal, on what do you call– it’s not a–
Selfie stick, basically– holding it up at a political rally and, effectively, broadcasting live. The one that sticks in my mind was a Rick Santorum rally somewhere in New Hampshire. And I remember thinking, oh my, this is the future. Every citizen is a remote TV crew right now. It’s democratized.
And now we’re into a new era where everybody’s a journalist. My fear is that everyone will be a journalist because they have a piece of equipment and because they are in the right place witnessing something, not because they are put through the drills of how you corroborate a story, how you get multiple sources, and how you find out things that don’t unfold on camera or on microphone. That’s very important.
So my fear is that in a world where everybody can be a global broadcaster of sorts, that we will devalue the real act of reporting, which is the fundamental building block of journalism. On the other hand, I’ve got to say that the number of talented people, on the positive side, who can show their stuff and connect with an audience without having to be rejected by the hiring officer at umpteen radio stations and networks before they get a job, that’s remarkable.
One constant seems to be that whatever happens, the information will arrive at us faster, and it’ll arrive at us more directly. Is it broadcasting if it goes through my watch– if I’m seeing alerts about what’s happening in the world, which used to be radio’s bread and butter. And so you’ll learn more about it on television, but you’ll hear about it first on radio– it was the same way back when. I learn about it on my phone which transmits it to my watch.
So everything will change. Everything will change. And we will remark on how different things are. But it still requires people who are dedicated to principles of the– you raise a good question. I don’t know whether it’s really a profession or not. It’s certainly not the kind of profession that you have to get licensed for. The doors are pretty open. But it requires people who have convictions about this enterprise that we’re better off getting a straight story or straight stories from multiple sources that engage us about the world– and journalists who try a little harder to explain why this should be of interest to you.
You can watch each full interview on the Library of American Broadcasting’s website and YouTube page. The library’s mission is to support the history of broadcasting. Let’s go now to College Park and the University of Maryland, where the library is housed.
Welcome. I’m Adriene Lim, Dean of Libraries at the University of Maryland. And I’m here with two of my colleagues, Laura Schnickler–
And Michael Henry.
Hello. To thank you for your generous support for the Library of American Broadcasting Archives and to provide you with a few highlights of the work that we’re doing to preserve materials and make them more accessible. This is critically important, extensive collection in the UMD libraries, one that is well used by researchers and students and faculty and teaching and learning about mass media and culture.
Most people don’t realize that broadcast history is notoriously poorly preserved. TV and radio stations have never made a habit of saving their own histories. Yet so much of our cultural history has been influenced by and reflected in broadcast media. And that is why the LAB is such a vital resource. Originally called the Broadcast Pioneers Library, the LAB is a set of archival collections from broadcast organizations, individuals, networks, and stations, amassed by people in the industry who recognized the value of documenting it.
Now, we serve scholars, historians, producers, podcasters, and students from all over the world who rely on the LAB to answer research questions and bring their stories to life. This photo of Uncle Ezra and the Hoosier Hotshots made it to primetime and the recent Ken Burns series on country music. The LAB’s Westinghouse audiotapes have been an ongoing resource for documentary film companies, covering topics such as the MLK assassination, Malcolm X, the Apollo 11 moon landing, and Lady Bird Johnson. And dozens of recent books on media history include citations from LAB collections.
As stewards of the LAB archives, UMD Libraries is committed to working with the LABF board to preserve these materials and enhance their accessibility to researchers. In the last three years, we have digitized over 600 audio visual materials and over 74,000 pages of print materials so that researchers can access them remotely.
Additionally, we have created over five dozen new finding aids, which serve as guides to specific collections, and published them online. This has resulted in a significant increase in research requests since those collections are now discoverable and searchable online. Chief among them are collections of women in broadcasting, such as Helen Souza, Martha Brooks, Mona Kent, and American women in radio and television, all of whom have been spotlighted in a current research boom on the history of women in media.
Additionally, we annually host both graduate and undergraduate classes whose research topics align with broadcast history. Whether they’re learning about the history of broadcast journalism or the representation of race in 1950s television, most of them are astounded to discover how much broadcasting has shaped and been shaped by American culture.
Many thanks to the team at the University of Maryland for being such great custodians of the collection and our industry’s history. These are exciting times for us. Broadcasters continue to provide a trusted voice for the people of America and the world at large. Our sincere thanks to our extraordinary guests for taking the time to share their thoughts and their wisdom on the impact of electronic media on our society over the past century.
The Library of American Broadcasting Foundation would also like to extend its deep appreciation for the outstanding team at the University of Maryland for their support and care of the collection that is home to our industry’s incredible legacy. We now invite you to join us in supporting our mission of preserving the past, reflecting on the present, and informing the future of the American broadcasting industry.
For more information about the library and how you can make a big difference to our work, please visit LibraryofAmericanbroadcasting.com.