Women gave public radio its ‘sound’

mpr_earlyDeep in the recesses of the World Headquarters of NewsCut, there is a picture on a wall of the original employees of Minnesota Public Radio. Young Garrison Keillor, Michael Barone, and Gary Eichten standing with three others.

All of them were men. That’s the way radio was back then. Men. It wasn’t a place for diversity.

As the then-youngsters become today’s old-timers, a lot of the history of the medium is being lost, which is why today’s history lesson from the public radio newspaper Current is a richly rewarding read.

It recalls the role that these three women — Nina Totenberg, Linda Wertheimer, and Cokie Roberts — played as pioneers, staking out the turf on which women belonged.

Photo: NPR

“To listen to NPR today — and really for most of its 47 years — is to listen to the voices of women,” Jason Loviglio, of the University of Maryland, writes. Since All Things Considered debuted, the NPR “sound” has been the sound of women.

This is remarkable given the history of hostility to women’s voices on the air, especially in “non-performing” roles, throughout the history of U.S. broadcasting. Media scholar Susan Douglas argued persuasively in Listening In, her 1999 history of U.S. radio, that “tuning and retuning certain versions of manhood” has been a central preoccupation of radio from the very beginning.

The effective “ban” on women’s voices in roles of authority on network radio from the late 1920s into the 1970s was an extension of a far longer history of silencing women’s voices in public. Susan Stamberg’s status as the voice of NPR at its launch represented a challenge that is impossible to understand outside the context of political and social change that enabled it and that it came to represent.

Stamberg, All Things Considered’s first host, epitomized in many ways the founding principles of NPR (notwithstanding its masculinist language): “to regard the individual differences among men with respect and joy, rather than derision and hate … to celebrate the human experience as infinitely varied, rather than vacuous and banal … to encourage a sense of active constructive participation, rather than apathetic helplessness.”

The interviews and the stories she helped to craft reflected the network’s early enthusiasm for the unruly ambient sounds of the street and everyday life. Stamberg’s voice, warm and immediate, evoked the network’s humanism and its idiosyncratic curiosity for the quirky pleasures at the margins of news stories. The first woman to anchor a U.S. newscast, she was, as Linda Wertheimer wrote in Listening to America, “the voice” we most associate with NPR.

Loviglio contends the reason public radio sounds liberal is because it sounds diverse.

Meanwhile, on the AM dial and further right on the FM dial, conservative talk radio and drive-time and “morning zoo”–type shows blossomed in the 1970s and 1980s. These two formats were noted for their domination by male hosts, the vehemence of their anti-feminist backlash politics and their puerile, at times misogynistic humor.

Hostility to feminism was perhaps the most coherent feature of the radio talk format in this period, as Douglas has demonstrated. AM talk radio in particular was celebrated by the right as a counterweight to the perceived liberal tilt of the rest of the media and as a reaction to precisely those historical movements that promised to make many voices and accents audible on the public airwaves.

“Public radio’s many accents and dialects represent hard-fought battles that seem to be under attack with a bracingly renewed sense of vigor,” he writes. “And with the revanchist white nationalism and toxic masculinity of the moment, we are reminded of the historical struggles required for diverse voices to reach the airwaves and the precarious nature of those victories. But active constructive participation going forward may require not just new voices but new words, as well.”