Bill Siemering Awarded the 2018 Jessie McCanse Award For Individual Contribution to Media Literacy
On May 23rd, 2018, NTC presented Bill Siemering with the Jessie McCanse Award for his groundbreaking contribution to the field of media literacy. William H. “Bill” Siemering is a pioneer radio innovator and advocate. He was a member of the founding board of NPR and the author of its original “mission statement,” the National Public Radio Purposes. As NPR’s first director of programming, Siemering helped shape its flagship program ‘All Things Considered’ into an influential and enduring fixture of American media. Later, he developed ‘Fresh Air with Terry Gross’ from a local to a national program. After a decades-long career in public radio, Siemering embarked on a second career of nurturing independent radio in the developing world.
We asked a few of Bill's colleagues to write about him.
Tribute from Danny Miller, Executive Producer of Fresh Air with Terry Gross
“Because of the economic basis of mass media in America today, people are becoming compartmentalized in their information inputs, selecting out those sources which reinforce their beliefs… There are decreasing sources of information in which diverse peoples have faith. Public radio should emerge as one of those sources… In the absence of any agreed upon objective truth, there are growing myths, rumors and fears.”
It’s amazing how much those words resonate today, because Bill Siemering wrote them nearly 50 years ago, when he was managing WBFO, the student radio station in Buffalo. Soon he would become the founding program director of National Public Radio, where oversaw the creation of All Things Considered, in the process hiring Susan Stamberg, the first woman to anchor a national nightly news program. Bill’s mission statement for NPR set the course for what has become one of the most widely trusted and valued sources of broadcast journalism in the country. He wrote:
“National Public Radio… will regard individual differences with respect and joy rather than derision and hate… it will encourage a sense of active constructive participation, rather than apathetic helplessness… [NPR] will not regard its audience as a ‘market’… but [rather] as curious complex individuals who are looking for some understanding, meaning and joy in the human experience.”
Bill’s vision for NPR is an enduring and powerful inspiration and guide. After his time at NPR, and then at Minnesota Public Radio, Bill came to Philadelphia in 1978 to manage WHYY, where he led the effort to transform a local three hour program called Fresh Air into the national program it is today. At WHYY, Bill created a community of journalists and producers who – to this day, 40 years down the line – still gather every few years in his honor.
In 1993, a second chapter in Bill’s career began, when he started to work overseas. In South Africa he was a mentor to journalists at the South African Broadcasting Corporation, which until then had been a mouthpiece of the Apartheid government. That same year, he received a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship – the “Genius Award” – and founded Developing Radio Partners, working with community stations in developing countries, including Zambia, Rwanda, Cameroon, Sierra Leone, Nigeria and Mongolia.
For all his accomplishments, and his stature as one of the most revered figures in public radio, Bill is extraordinarily modest. For all his gentleness, Bill demonstrates tremendous courage. With all the awful things in our country and the world that will stir him to anger, Bill maintains his capacity for optimism, generosity and inclusiveness. And today, with deep divisions in our country, when the press is under attack by our President, when well established climate science is disregarded, when objective facts are no longer respected – these are times when trustworthy journalism is so important. We treasure Bill for the values he has inspired in us, and the work he has done to enrich the lives of so many in this country and elsewhere in the developing world. Congratulations Bill.
Tribute to Bill from David Brugger, former Vice President of CPB, Corporation for
Public Broadcasting and Chair of Developing Radio Partners
I learned about the life and career of Bill Siemering so I could introduce him as the recipient
of the Edward R. Murrow Award in 1986.
His knowledge enhanced my work in Indonesia for a Democracy-building project. Bill was Soros Foundation’s Open Society Institute setting up public radio operations in Eastern European and African countries. At the time he was preparing to speak about "Radio at the Ends of the Earth." Bill’s note to me spoke of the people with whom he worked overseas as being in their “young-20's or early 30's and how inspiring it was to see them discover radio and use it so inventively.”
His scholarship earned him degrees in Education, appropriately so. His practical application came as a programmer of public radio and exemplified by NPR’s All Things Considered and Soundprint, a national weekly documentary series, which earned 25 national and international awards.
Bill’s international interests were given life through his presidency of the International Center for journalists, a Knight International Press Fellowship, and a MacArthur Genius Award, spending his financial award to help develop community radio. He continued working overseas for the Soros Open Society Institute.
One of his defining notes to me stated his intent “to employ the principle underlying all his work … to build from the bottom up rather than impose a “model from the top down. By engaging people in the development of their own medium, they create a civil society. Independence and credibility are the great strengths of local radio to fairly present all sides and settle disputes.
Thus his written NPR mission statement in action: “National Public Radio will serve the individual; it will promote personal growth; it will regard the individual differences among men 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."
More recently, Bill established Developing Radio Partners, dedicated to people in poorer countries where radio is the most important medium.
A list of Bill’s accomplishments is found lacking because it’s not what he or his career has been about. Bill is the model human being that one wishes all his friends could be. He has the natural ability to be one with people, empathizing with them and opening his self to their needs and interests. His humility is self-evident and his service is self-sacrificing. It was not in the least surprising that his daughter should choose the religious life for service to the least fortunate. She lived with a role model who understands the power of one and the need to be that “one.”
I have no limiting qualifiers for Bill. He is the genuine thing. No award will change him. I have no doubt he will continue his service until his human body can no longer function. And then it will be up to his worldwide spirit to carry on his legacy. I believe you honor your prize by naming Bill as a recipient.
Tribute to Bill from Charles Rice, President of Developing Radio Partners
You really get to know someone when you travel with them.
Over the past 14 years, I’ve had the great pleasure and good fortune to have had the very best travel and work companion – ever.
Bill Siemering and I have traveled across the Gobi in Mongolia with a crazy driver who, we nervously discovered, had a thing for shooting AK-47’s in the desert. We’ve worked our way across remote areas of Malawi dodging goats and cows, ridden in SUV’s with bald tires in Rwanda and wondered if a crippled bus would get us where we needed to go in Cameroon. And off the West African coast, he was the picture of calm on a four-hour terrifying flight of severe non-stop turbulence and lightning flashes from Praia, Cape Verde to Dakar, Senegal.
All of these trips had one thing in common: radio.
Each trip, we were on our way to meet radio station partners and discover from them how we could help them help their listeners by enriching their radio programs.
Bill is best known for his thoughtful and enduring vision for National Public Radio and its wonderful programs – such as All Things Considered and Fresh Air with Terry Gross. Yet, Bill took that beautiful vision for NPR and he shared it with the rest of the world.
Through the NGO that he founded, Developing Radio Partners, Bill has brought the idea of promoting personal growth and celebrating the human experience to communities across the African continent. Using radio as a classroom – Bill’s vision has helped farmers improve their livelihoods by using “green” farming techniques, he’s inspired young people to get involved in climate change issues in their communities, informed girls and women about the importance of regular health care, and provided hundreds of journalists with the skills needed to engage and enrich their communities.
Through Bill’s incredible, and continuing work, across the decades – both here at home and around the planet -- he has truly led the effort to create a media-wise, literate, global society.
I have been extremely fortunate to know Bill for these past 14 years. He’s a friend, a colleague and a mentor who continues to touch lives – one listener at a time. His grassroots approach to development reminds me of the words of Bishop Desmond Tutu: “Do your little bit of good where you are; it's those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.”