Friday, May 25, 2001

Strolling Through the Headlines

For 30 Years, 'All Things Considered' has savored the news, walking listeners around the world.
All Things Consered hosts Robert Siegel,
Noah Adams and Linda Wertheimer. (source: NPR)

By Steve Carney, Special to the Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON — A radio show that broadcasts silence from an Alaskan glacier and has a host watching sparks in a darkened closet might not be expected to hold listeners 30 seconds, much less 30 years. But this month, "All Things Considered" on National Public Radio enters its fourth decade with the same recipe of news and novelty.

The show debuted May 3, 1971, with a report from a student war protest here as police teargassed the group. Since then, "All Things Considered" has dispatched correspondents from the peak of Mt. Everest to the killing fields of Rwanda to a yoga class for preschoolers in Massachusetts, along the way building a passionate audience now numbering nearly 10 million listeners a week.

"They expect the news, but they expect more than that," executive producer Ellen Weiss said of the fans. "They expect somehow to connect on a very personal basis with what they're hearing."

The two-hour weekday show, hosted by Linda Wertheimer, Robert Siegel and Noah Adams, airs locally on KPCC-FM (89.3) 3-6:30 p.m., and on KCRW-FM (89.9) 4-6:30 p.m., with each replaying part of the broadcast.

"We are essentially the same people as the audience--curious Americans who really want to hear a radio show about what's going on that day," said Siegel, 53, a co-host since 1987. "It's a very unusual and special place. I wish in broadcasting it were not so unusual."

In July, the show begins a nationwide tour as part of its anniversary, with Siegel coming to Los Angeles on Oct. 3. Though details are still being finalized, the stops will include receptions at which fans cans get a glimpse of the daily behind-the-scenes frenzy that goes into the creation of "All Things Considered" captured in a short film, hear from and meet hosts and listen, once again, to clips from the show's vast archives.

"It's amazing the way people connect with the program, and by extension, with us," said Wertheimer, 58, who began hosting the show in 1979. "They have a sense that they know us. I think it has something to do with the intimacy of the setting."

When the show debuted, Adams said, almost all radio news consisted of announcers shouting at the audience, "Give us 15 minutes and we'll give you the world!" Instead of sprinting through the headlines, "All Things Considered" takes its listeners on a stroll through the world, taking the time to stop and examine the vital and the whimsical, the compelling and the entertaining.

On May 3 the show celebrated with a reception here for about 400 listeners and public-radio workers, hosted by Ted Koppel, himself a fan of the show.

"I'll get home and be in the middle of one of your stories, and 10 minutes later my wife sends one of the kids out," to find him still sitting in the car, listening to the end, Koppel said, eliciting laughs and knowing applause from the audience.

NPR and "All Things Considered's" "appetite for longer stories and more detailed stories was almost unquenchable," even at times when print and other broadcast media were cutting back, said William Drummond, professor of journalism at UC Berkeley. But he fears the show's long, compelling stories may still be endangered by time constraints and a concentration-deprived audience.

"There's a lot of pressure to make pieces shorter and to the point," he said. But "I'm still saying this is the best thing on radio."

"It came along at just the right time in the early '70s. A lot of people felt alienated from the media and wanted to know more," Drummond added. And instead of same-sounding announcers bleating an East Coast perspective, "All Things Considered" features commentators and essayists from around the U.S. and the world.

"All Things Considered" broke ground in other areas, as well. Susan Stamberg, co-host from 1972-1986, was the first woman to host a nightly national news show. And Wertheimer was the first person to broadcast from the floor of the U.S. Senate, during the Panama Canal treaty debates in 1978, and in 1976 was the first woman to anchor network coverage of a presidential nominating convention and an election night.

To leaven the serious news, Weiss said they want to make listeners laugh at least once every show. One example was Stamberg's 1979 piece on whether Wint-O-Green LifeSavers cause sparks when bitten in the dark. For this, she accompanied NPR science reporter Ira Flatow into a closet.

"I see it! I see it!" Stamberg exclaimed as Flatow bit into the candies. And, in a sense, so could the audience, which applauded in appreciation when that piece was replayed at the anniversary reception.

Adams joined Stamberg as co-host in 1982, and that year he broadcast live from Alaska for a week, ending one segment from a glacier on Mt. McKinley with a few moments of silence.

"It was the only place I've ever been that I think I couldn't describe adequately," he said. "I felt that it would draw a listener in more."

Adams, 59, was working construction in Kentucky in 1971 when he first heard "All Things Considered," while getting a ride home from a carpenter.

"He said, 'I want you to hear this program, but don't tell the other guys on the job I listen to this,' " Adams said, pricking at the stereotype of the show's audience as Volvo-driving yuppies. "It was so different from commercial radio. It was conversational, and respectful of the audience."

And, Siegel added, "there are a lot more carpenters out there than you think."

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