National Public Radio: The Cast of Characters

By Mary Collins | Go to book overview

CHAPTER FIVE
Early Sound Portraits

News made NPR, but the network needed first-rate cultural programming if it ever hoped to fulfill Bill Siemering's mandate that public radio become an aural museum. It took some brilliant steps in that direction during the 1970s and early 1980s with weekly programs like "Jazz Alive" and specials like "Father Cares: The Last of Jonestown"; but those flashes tended to be the exception, not the rule.

NPR never quite pieced together a full-fledged arts and performance division that could send out a considerable volume of high-quality programs. The critics oohed and aahed at practically everything the network did in drama, music, and specials, because the American airwaves had almost nothing like it. A simple comparison between England's BBC, which often aired a thousand hours of radio drama a year, and NPR, which rarely produced more than fifty, underscores just how far American radio lagged behind its European counterparts in the field of arts and entertainment.

"We were not able to produce very much," says Joe Gwathmey, a former vice president for programming. "My recollection was that we were heavily dependent on what others could supply us."

A handful of extraordinary producers did manage to create a limited but extremely influential body of work. As former NPR music specialist Frederica Kushner points out, it's the producers who usually "conceive of the program or piece, who write the script, obtain the actors, do the interviews, edit the tape, and work with engineers on the final mix. In many instances the producer is the program." Listeners may be more likely to remember a host's voice or a particular musical theme, but it's the producer's name that really belongs at the bottom of the canvas.

Robert Montiegel surely stands out as one of the grand masters of the early period. Some call him an "absolute genius"; others describe him as "very, very difficult--very exacting." All agree that he used sound in astounding new ways to produce programs that remain some of NPR's best. At his funeral in 1992, former coworkers like Noah Adams, Frank Mankiewicz, and Jay Kernis put on a farewell show complete with excerpts from Montiegel's work and a poetry reading.

The title of perhaps his greatest work, "A Question of Place," hangs in NPR's main conference room, surrounded by drawings of the twelve twentieth- centurythinkers and writers that he featured in that series: Bertolt Brecht,

-49-

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National Public Radio: The Cast of Characters
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Acknowledgments ix
  • Chapter One - Backstage 1
  • Chapter Two - the Family Tree 13
  • Chapter Three - the Formative Years 25
  • Chapter Four - the "Morning Edition" 39
  • Chapter Five - Early Sound Portraits 49
  • Chapter Six - the Financial Crisis 65
  • Chapter Seven - Tuning In 79
  • Chapter Eight the New York Times of the Airwaves 91
  • Chapter Nine from Car Repair to Caribbean Beat 109
  • Chapter Ten Curtain Call 125
  • Npr Member Stations 143
  • Photo Credits 149
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