From assignments and deadlines to pure freedom – Robert Siegel looks back on his career
After more than four decades in radio news, Robert Siegel – host of NPR’s All Things Considered – is stepping back from the mic. He took the time to share some parting thoughts with WBFO about his years on the air and what lies ahead.
Avery Schneider (AS): Robert Siegel, long-time host of NPR’s All Things Considered, thanks for joining us as you begin your retirement. Is this an exciting time for you?
Robert Siegel (RS): Absolutely. It’s very exciting. It’s the biggest change in my life in at least the past 31 years that I’ve been doing this one job. So, yeah, a pretty big change.
AS: Well 31 years, a voice as distinct as yours is hopefully easy to spot. So I wanted to ask, how often are you stopped by someone turning around and going, “Excuse me, I couldn’t help but overhear, are you Robert Seigel?”
RS: It’s not a daily occurrence. But once in a while it will happen. And sometimes I’ll see a look in a restaurant or some place that I understand to be a moment of recognition of a familiar voice. Whether they could put a name and a program to that, I don’t know. But it’s happened, but not all that often. It’s not like people in television who have no privacy at all. They walk down the street, everyone turns and looks at them as they walk down the block. Radio offers a certain amount of protective anonymity.
AS: Well, I know what you mean. I took a look back on your career in radio, and I found out that before you joined NPR, you were on air at your college radio station at Columbia, and also worked in both AM and FM radio news in Long Island and New York City. So what drove you from there to public broadcasting? Were you a fan?
RS: No. It wasn’t being a fan. I was at a station in New York, an FM radio station, a little station, and it was sold. And it went…in our remarkable system of broadcasting, ownership would change hands when it was approved by the FCC from, perhaps the most ethical principal licensee of a commercial radio station in America – the Riverside Church in the City of New York – and it was sold to a company that owned a dozen radio stations, or five – whatever the limit was in FM or AM. And in every other city they had a different kind of complaint against them at the FCC – for topless radio, not enough minority hiring, payola alleges. And the station was going to change hands – I saw no future for myself there. I still wanted to work at something that was a little more idealistic than big commercial radio in New York City, and a friend of a friend had come down to Washington and worked at this new place – only a few years old – National Public Radio. I listened to it, and they called up a guy in China. They had an interview with somebody in Beijing. And I thought, ‘Wow, I would have had to get approval to make a phone call from outside of New York City to Long Island to be able to make a call like that.’ And here was this place that, to my ear, immense resources. I wanted to work for them in New York City, originally. I didn’t get the job, so the fall back was to move down to Washington and be a newscaster.
AS: Is it those same things – that idealism in radio news and, perhaps, the vast resources that our listeners come to enjoy – that’s kept you inspired to stick with radio this long?
RS: I think that’s a large part of it. I remember feeling about NPR early on that this was, I thought, about as un-cynical an environment for a newsroom and for a broadcast operation as I could imagine. I thought that there were lots of people of roughly my age – late 20s, very early 30s – who were trying to actually put into practice the ideals of broadcast journalism that they’d learned in graduate school or wherever it was. And I found it a very inspiring enterprise. It was very small, but the assumption was we were all doing this so that the place would get bigger.
AS: In your career, over 40 years, you’ve clearly covered a lot. We could probably spend all day talking about the things you did cover. But I wanted to know, is there any story you always wished you’d gotten to cover? Or something you wished you’d covered in a different way?
RS: It’s a tough question. I guess I could have been more involved in covering the war in Iraq. I didn’t go over there. And probably I wish that I and all my colleagues had been tougher and shown more skepticism in the year leading up to the war in Iraq. We did actually have critical voices, questioning voices about the rationale for going to war in Iraq but, perhaps, not enough. So that would be a regret.
AS: Mary Louise Kelly is taking over the host’s mic at All Things Considered. Is there any critical piece of advice that you have for her and, perhaps, for future generations of broadcasters?
RS: Well, Mary Louise, first of all, she’s great. She will be the second host of All Things Considered to have done all these things – majored in French Literature in college, worked at Bush House – headquarters of the BBC external services, and edited All Things Considered. The other person who did all these things is me. I always thought she was a great editor and a terrific reporter. And writing novels gave her a real work at it being a storyteller in a different medium. My advice to her is enjoy it. It’s the best job you can imagine. It requires doing a lot of homework, a lot of reading. But it’s fascinating. You’ll stay interested in a great variety of things, given the variety of subjects they’ll toss at you every day.
AS: Robert, what made this the right time to retire?
RS: My age. I turned 70 back in June. And three years before that, as I sat down with my boss – the Vice President of News then – and we talked about what my ambitions were. My main ambition was to start the next phase of my life while I still felt I had a lot of life in me. And I remember, there was a question. I was supposed to do this last end of June, but Audie Cornish needed a little family leave time to take care of a wonderful little boy, and so we stretched that an extra six months. But there was a question – would you want to wrap up at the end of June, or when you hit 30 years on the job in April. And I said, ‘No, end of June, when I’m 70.’ Because it really isn’t about how many years I’ve worked on the program. It’s about my feeling when the punctuation time is in my life. So that’s it.
AS: Is it safe to say that even after you depart the show, we might hear from you again on the airwaves?
RS: Maybe. Not shortly. At first I want to try living without assignments or deadlines. Maybe, who knows. Maybe not by my voice. I’m not really sure what I’ll do. But I’m relishing a kind of liberty that I really haven’t known since I was an adolescent to walk out and figure out what am I doing today. My wife is terrified of this, I think. But I think it sounds very exciting.
AS: Well since we’ve got just a quick moment left, I want to just squeeze one more fun question. This year, one of the newer items in the NPR shop is a series of All Things Considered Socks – one of them with your likeness on it as a seagull, the bird. Did you ever expect, in your career, to be emblazoned on the feet of people everywhere?
RS: Well no, and I don’t think the socks have become a universal piece of apparel throughout the country. But I have long enjoyed the confusion of my name with being the bird – a seagull. And I think it accounted for a certain relationship I had with a certain kind of fan. For many years, I’ve received letters from people saying, “My four year old son, my three year old daughter, my five year old son will state, from the back of the car, will shout out, ‘I’m Robert Siegel.’” And I think it always had to do with my perceived affinity to big bird.
AS: Well, Robert Seigel, congratulations. Thank you for all you’ve done for public radio and good luck in your retirement. We certainly look forward to hearing what’s next.
RS: Thank you very much, Avery. And thanks to everyone listening who supports WBFO. By doing so, you also support NPR News and that’s a relationship that those of us who work here relish and thank you for very much.
Read Robert Siegel's full NPR biography here.
Follow WBFO's Avery Schneider on Twitter at @SAvery131.