For the 77th episode of the Journalism History podcast, host Nick Hirshon spoke to Lisa Napoli about how four women – Susan Stamberg, Linda Wertheimer, Nina Totenberg, and Cokie Roberts – transformed journalism through their pioneering work on National Public Radio.
Lisa Napoli has had a long career in journalism, including at the New York Times, Marketplace, MSNBC, and KCRW. She is the author of Susan, Linda, Nina & Cokie: The Extraordinary Story of the Founding Mothers of NPR.
This episode is sponsored by Taylor & Francis, publisher of Journalism History.
Lisa Napoli: Twinned with the creation of public broadcasting was this opportunity, with this little pipsqueak network called National Public Radio, for women to get their feet in the door.
Nick Hirshon: Welcome to Journalism History, a podcast that rips out the pages of your history books to re-examine the stories you thought you knew, and the ones you were never told.
Teri Finneman: I’m Teri Finneman, and I research media coverage of women in politics.
Nick Hirshon: And I’m Nick Hirshon, and I research the history of New York sports media.
Ken Ward: And I’m Ken Ward, and I research the journalism history of the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains.
Nick Hirshon: And together we are professional media historians guiding you through our own drafts of history. This episode is sponsored by Taylor & Francis, the publisher of our academic journal, Journalism History. Transcripts of the show are available online at journalism-history.org/podcast.
This spring marks the 50th anniversary of one of the most beloved programs in the history of broadcasting. National Public Radio aired the first episode of “All Things Considered” on May 3, 1971, with coverage of a Vietnam War protest in Washington, D.C., that allowed listeners to hear the voices of the demonstrators, police officers, and veterans assembled on the streets of the nation’s capital.
That was the story of the moment, but there were other voices, ones that had largely been unheard on the medium, that were making a more consistent impact. The network had brought women onto the airwaves to report the news every day at a time when half the population had been underrepresented in the profession.
Three female journalists, Susan Stamberg, Linda Wertheimer, and Nina Totenberg joined the network at its inception and helped build its audience. Then came a fourth broadcaster, Cokie Roberts, who made such a reputation for herself as a congressional correspondent –
on NPR that she landed regular television appearances and became a household name. Together, these four women elevated the status of their sex, not by marching for equality or angrily lamenting the lack of it, but by outworking their male counterparts.
On this episode of the Journalism History podcast, we examine the careers of these pioneering journalists with Lisa Napoli, the author of the new book, “Susan, Linda, Nina & Cokie: The Founding Mothers of NPR.”
Lisa, thank you for joining us today to discuss your book. You focus here on the careers of four women who you say changed journalism, the public’s perception of women, and women’s perceptions of themselves through their work at NPR.
These women, of course, Susan Stamberg, Linda Wertheimer, Nina Totenberg, and Cokie Roberts. And in their interviews with newsmakers, they posed questions that had previously gone unasked about essential matters that men didn’t ask about, like health care and schools and equality.
But before we get into their lives in particular, I wonder if you could kind of set the stage for us here about what life was like for women in journalism, in broadcasting in the era before NPR came into existence. You mentioned, for instance, a turning point with the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. So can you give us that sense? What was life like for women in broadcasting leading up to this critical point?
Lisa Napoli: The same rail guards that existed for women in other professions existed in every aspect of journalism that existed in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Women weren’t allowed to progress much beyond researcher, or secretary, or assistant producer. It was very rare to hear a woman on the air. If you did, it usually was on a women’s issue, not on a serious, weighty issue.
And it wasn’t that women didn’t want those jobs. It’s just that they were told repeatedly that they weren’t allowed to have them, that they didn’t have the authority, the gravitas to –
convey that kind of news to the public, either in print or in radio or on television.
So there were very few women who penetrated that world, and when they did, they were on basically tokens to show that women were allowed. But, you know, many newsrooms would have just one woman on the air if they had any at all. And any woman that –after that who wanted to progress beyond researcher to become a reporter or an anchor, it just, it just wasn’t, wasn’t possible.
Nick Hirshon: And so we have sort of two different threads here in your book, right? Because you have women in broadcasting and journalism, but then also the birth of NPR itself. And you go into how President Lyndon Johnson had launched what he called his movement for a Great Society that’s probably familiar to a lot of our listeners, with abundance and liberty for all.
This famously included a war on poverty, sweeping social programs to feed and educate every child,
beautification programs for roads and neighborhoods, health care for the poor and elderly, but there was also this focus on the arts, including a government-financed alternative to commercial television. And you write just as the words “and sex” were slipped into the Civil Rights Bill in 1964, right? It wasn’t just about race. We also want to have gender in there. So too the words “and radio” were tacked onto what became the Public Broadcasting Act in 1967.
So Johnson signed the law on November 7, 1967. He said, “Our nation wants more than just material wealth. Our nation wants more than a chicken in every pot. We in America have an appetite for excellence too.” And he ends by saying, “That is the purpose of this act. The airwaves belong to the people.” So Congress allocated $5 million to create the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. A sliver of that money went to radio.
So how did this open the door for NPR, and eventually for women to get more involved –
Lisa Napoli: Well, it’s so interesting to look at that moment in time, and there was no way to look at the lives of the four women I profile in this book without looking at the wider culture, both in society and in journalism and broadcasting. And in the ‘60s, you know, television had been widely available for a while at that point and the critics were out.
The critics had started to say that much of what was on commercial television was bunk and banal and just useless to any other purpose than the commercial people, the commercial advertisers, and the broadcasters’ pocketbooks. And so there was this movement among the elite, the intellectuals that — who wanted to serve a different population than this, you know, mass media that had evolved with television.
And so what President Johnson did in establishing the Broadcasting Act was to say that there should be more on television than just commercial fare. And the whole wrangling to get radio acknowledged is another interesting historical fact because by the ‘60s, radio was a marginalized medium.
Television had ascended so grandly, and, and taken over the mindshare of the people so, so greatly that radio really didn’t have the import that we think of it having today, or many of us think of it having today. And so out of that was born NPR, and I detail that in the book, the birth of it in the book, and the push to get radio, which up till then was either commercial radio or this very fringy, marginalized, educational radio.
There was no in-between. It was either pure commercial, music, pop,
ah, you know, some talk, or there were stations that were really low power, extremely low budget, mostly volunteer that were mostly emanated out of schools and universities, licensed to those organizations.
And so President Johnson was basically saying with the Public Broadcasting Act, “I want to amp up public television and radio by investing in it,” and, you know, it was up to people who were in that orbit at that time to figure out what that meant. And so it was a very exciting time and a fraught time. And to answer your question, what that dovetailed with was the emergence of the women’s movement, which of course, you know, had been bubbling up in various forms for decades and, and, you know, really emerged in the ‘60s, ‘70s.
And so twinned with the creation of public broadcasting was this –
opportunity, with this little pipsqueak network called National Public Radio, for women to get their feet in the door in a different way than they could virtually anywhere else in the media.
Nick Hirshon: Well, and then let’s get into the lives of some of those women who are in the title of your book, ah, because when these three started at NPR together. I want you to kind of maybe tell us a little bit about how they got there.
Um, so Susan Stamberg was the first woman eventually to anchor a nightly news program and press for accommodations to balance work and parenting. Linda Wertheimer was the daughter of shopkeepers in New Mexico and fought her way to a scholarship and a spot on-air. Nina Totenberg invented a new way to cover the Supreme Court.
So how did these women first come to NPR? Was there a very conscious effort to bring more women on the air?
Lisa Napoli: So Susan and Linda started at NPR at the very beginning,
and each had, ah, you know, some experience behind them in, in radio – Linda in commercial radio, Susan in educational radio. And literally they were hired as they were crewing up national public radio, which was an extremely modest, low-budget operation at that point with one show that would be fed out to — just a handful of stations around the country were capable of handling the show that they were going to create, which was called All Things Considered.
They came on and it was one of those “let’s put on a show” affairs where everybody regardless of their title basically did everything. Everybody pitched in to put this 90-minute show on the air each day. And in that kind of petri dish, anybody who’s worked in it knows that eventually the good people rise to the top, emerge, you know, take over the show.
And basically Susan and Linda, they didn’t literally take over the show –
but they emerged as great workhorse people, and it just happened to be that they were women. That was inconsequential. They were able to work hard and get themselves – in their cases, they wanted to be on the air and they did.
Later, Nina Totenberg came in, in a similar way, in the sense that she had been working for years to make her way as a bylined print reporter, having all kinds of struggles that women did. No one wanted to take them seriously. No one wanted to put them on the nightshift. Few people allowed women to actually write stories. It was one thing if a woman went out and reported a story, but it was rare that they were allowed to have the byline.
And Nina had, as I detail in the book, made her way to the stage where she did have a byline, and she did – she was a young woman working as a reporter in Washington, D.C., and really by accident she became asked to work –
at National Public Radio in the mid-‘70s, also, again, by happenstance. There was an opening. There weren’t very many reporters on staff. NPR still was not a powerhouse the way we know of it today, and it really was an accident of timing that an editor there knew her work in town.
And also, as all the women have said, they were cheap. Women would be willing to work for rates that were lower than a man who was expected to maintain a certain salary to maintain a household. So, Nina came in as a single woman at that – in that way. And again, she, she seized the opportunity. She was great, she was a workhorse, and, and obviously she’s still there today in, in an incredible way.
Nick Hirshon: Certainly. Well, even several years after the 1964 Civil Rights Act, you describe how that promise of –
equality hadn’t quite caught up with the legislation itself, and many workplaces remained unfriendly to women. There were edicts that kept women off the air as newscasters and confined them to jobs where there would be no danger they’d serve in a superior position.
And you cite several examples here from 1970 that I thought were interesting. Newsweek employees filed a federal class-action lawsuit charging gender discrimination. Nineteen male reporters at the New York Times each were found to have earned more than the most senior female reporter, even though her stories often made page one.
Lisa Napoli: Yes.
Nick Hirshon: And against this context there was only a small staff churning out 90 minutes of “All Things Considered.” The show lacked structure, but these women helped that. So what was the role in women in achieving that structure for a show that’s now become so beloved?
Lisa Napoli: Well, the, the first thing that happened was a producer – a permanent producer was assigned to “All Things Considered,” whereas up until that point anybody who showed up early –
at the office took on the job of assembling the 90 minutes that day. And that producer, a man, basically noticed that Susan was just everything they were looking for in a host. They’d had a rotating cast of characters at that, up till that point, a year or so in. And Susan just had it all.
And he, Jack Mitchell is the producer’s name, didn’t have a bias against a woman. The people he worked for were a little dubious. The stations around the country were very dubious of a woman, not just a woman but a woman who sounded like a New Yorker, which to them really typed her geographically. That was back when you were expected to have that flat Midwestern intonation in broadcasting, which NPR, of course, has busted through that convention in a big way, but back then that was, that was the convention.
And so there was resistance to Susan,
but Jack Mitchell saw that Susan Stamberg just was an incredible host of a radio show, especially one that didn’t have dozens of reporters fanned out around the world as it does today. It needed somebody who could engage with people in a conversation like the one we’re having right now. And she was it, so he chose her.
Meanwhile parallel to that, Linda Wertheimer, who’d been the show’s first director, really wanted to be on the air as a reporter, made her way as a consumer reporter at first, and then took it upon herself to learn and study and understand the congressional happenings in a way that few people do.Ah, she immersed herself in the beat and took on the beat and was so good at it nobody could say, “You’re a woman. You shouldn’t be on the air.” She just, she ran with the beat and, and –
really worked it so that no one could, could disregard her. And, you know, that sounds maybe to somebody who’s below the age of 50, like “big, old duh,” but back then it was not a “big, old duh.” It really took a place that, that was emerging and wavering with its leadership for these women to be able to just flourish as themselves.
There was no, you know, ratings. There were no ratings. They were in pain for ratings. They couldn’t afford ratings. There were no focus groups or marketing surveys or any of that hoo-ha that impedes the growth and, and creativity of so many organizations. It was just basically two interesting women who got their feet in the door, who got to a point where – you know, who used the system in a great way to do what they wanted, and, and contributed so much.
Nick Hirshon: And although they obviously flourished, as you said, they also faced significant challenges along the way. Just giving one of many examples from your book, Nina Totenberg, in 1971, before she even turned 28, you describe how she revealed President Nixon’s secret list of Supreme Court candidates.
Lisa Napoli: Mm-hmm.
Nick Hirshon: And her editor called her the hardest hitting reporter on his staff. Quite a compliment. And then soon after, she reported a profile on the mysterious FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. She interviewed more than 100 sources to construct this damning portrait of his bizarre personal behavior, his wiretapping of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s phones, and intimidating Dr. King with information that he learned about his sex life.
And Hoover wrote and demanded that Totenberg be fired for “malicious lies, inaccuracies, distortions, and untruths.” And then others suggested that she was only scoring these juicy stories by sleeping with her sources.
Lisa Napoli: Right.
Nick Hirshon: So how did she deal with all of this?
Lisa Napoli: Well, she dealt with it –
by letting it roll off her shoulders, which is also hard for people who are working today to imagine. But basically, all of the women knew that there was bias against them. People said things. You know, Nina also wrote another story where a congressman I think called her a prostitute, or maybe it was a whore. Something, you know, unbelievable that would never – well, it might happen today, and the minute it happened the person would be marched off and pilloried.
But back then, sadly women were accustomed to being marginalized and dismissed as only achieving whatever they achieved because of sex, or their sexuality, even if they didn’t have sex with someone. It was basically, you know, deploying feminine charms. But Nina has said many times since that she chose to pick her battles, and her battle was that she wanted to keep working.
And so when in the face of sexual harassment with one of her editors, before she was at NPR, at a print publication, the man propositioned her and others, they basically realized that there was nothing they could do and they kept marching on. You mentioned before the landmark lawsuits in, in the early ‘70s at many news organizations.
I think, you know, the news – the Newsweek lawsuit is well documented in Lynn Povich’s excellent book about, about that time. There’s another excellent book about the New York Times lawsuits, which I wish that any person who has ever read the New York Times would read, because it’s, it’s mind-blowing to imagine that not that long ago women were treated the way they were, that notes were kept on women staffers as well as prospective hires about their looks.
It’s, it’s just hard to –
imagine, but it happened – it happened not very long ago.
Nick Hirshon: And you detail that all very well in your book, a lot of the excerpts of what some of those memos included that, as you say, today would be shocking to most people.
Lisa Napoli: Yeah.
Nick Hirshon: Um, well let’s get to probably the name in the title of your book that would be most familiar, I would think, to most of our listeners, Cokie Roberts. She may be best known for her television work on ABC, on “World News Tonight,” the daily evening news show, or on “This Week,” the Sunday morning political affairs program. But she did first really rise to prominence at NPR, coming there in 1978, working as the congressional correspondent for more than 10 years.
So what stood out to you about her rise at NPR?
Lisa Napoli: Wow, Cokie Roberts’s story is extraordinary. Ah, she was born to a prominent congressman, who died tragically and whose wife, Lindy Boggs,
took over, or, or ran for his office, his seat, and won and served in Congress herself. So she herself was a groundbreaker. So from that world of privilege and access came Cokie Roberts, who went to the finest schools, really, at the time. She was a young woman, wanted one thing which was to get married and have a family, and she did that.
She married a wonderful man who happened to be a New York Times reporter, and that set her life on a particular course because he was sent all over the world as a correspondent, and she, of course, went with him as his spouse with their growing family.
But, but what surprised Cokie, and what is so interesting about Cokie Roberts, because most of us have this image of her and can hear her voice in a contemporary way, may she rest in peace, she really couldn’t imagine that she’d –
want to have a career, and in fact, found herself falling basically into this career as a journalist almost accidentally.
And when her husband got transferred back to Washington, D.C., she was so angry. She did not want to come back to Washington, D.C., because she was loving being the wife of a foreign correspondent and what that afforded their family, and basically accidentally just picked up journalism jobs along the way, the way a woman who didn’t have to earn a full-time living might.
Back in D.C., where she didn’t want to be, she, she basically, again, accidentally found her way to NPR because she couldn’t find work anywhere else. Most places would say, “We have our woman. We don’t really need another woman.” Ah, and NPR at that point in the late ‘70s was sill emerging as a force. It was not quite where – it’s nowhere near where –
it was – it is now. And she, again, back-ended her way into the place.
She basically had never really heard of the place, and once she was there, it was so obvious that she knew Washington, D.C., unlike anybody else possibly could because she’d grown up in the halls of Congress. Also, miraculously, Linda Wertheimer, who had not grown up in the halls of Congress, rather than being threatened by Cokie’s knowledge sort of took it in and they became a force together, an incredible force together.
These two women roaming the halls of Congress, obviously an enormous beat. Even two major forces can’t really handle Congress alone, but they did. And they, they worked it and together their knowledge and understanding and love and appreciation for the government and the proceedings
allowed them to become this incredible voice, these incredible voices for the American people from Congress that people had not heard before.
People were used to this soporific junk from, from blowhards, mostly men, largely men, and here were these two women who were wry and funny and knowledgeable and just dogged. And they, they not only took the art of covering Congress to a new level, but they took Congress to the people in a way it hadn’t been taken before, and it happened to be that they did this all at a place called National Public Radio.
Ah, they probably would have done that wherever they were if, if they’d been able to, if they’d been allowed to, but it all – it’s a perfect storm of people at a place, at a moment in time that just hadn’t existed before, and that’s –
why I love this story.
Nick Hirshon: Well, and you tell it really well. And obviously the title of your book, “Susan, Linda, Nina & Cokie,” kind of conveys a sort of intimacy about the relationship between the four of them. So can you get into that a little bit more? You know, you write that they all lacked allies and friendship for so long that they were unabashed in their delight of having found one another.
Lisa Napoli: Mm-hmm.
Nick Hirshon: And this work together. And they didn’t need to be at the hand of the old boys club anymore. They were firm and proud leaders of the hard-won old girl network that they hatched.
Lisa Napoli: Right.
Nick Hirshon: So what about the relationship amongst each other over the years?
Lisa Napoli: They bonded in a way that would be difficult to happen today in today’s rat race, partially because nobody has any time to do anything but work in a 24/7 news environment was – which was just emerging when they were working together. But they, they saw in each other themselves, and they wanted to support one another.
They didn’t compete with one another except in a friendly way. They, they – their allyship was as important to them as anything else. And that’s what’s so extraordinary about it all to me too is that, you know, when one had cancer, or there was an illness in one’s family, or – Cokie Roberts’s kids were calling the newsroom because both of her parents, their parents were working.
All the woman worked together with each other because they saw how important it was, and how difficult it had been for each of them to get to the point that they were. And none of them glossed over the idea, you know, “Oh, of course. We have it all.” This is before the have-it-all generation. They knew it was hard to have it all.
Ah, not all four of the women had children. Um, the two who did understood that the juggle was not a pretty one. And because of that, they respected in –
each other what the others had to do to just get by each day. And, again, that sounds so reductive now. Like of course, but it’s not an “of course” if you worked in a newsroom and – or in an organization. Yes, there are people who ally with you, but the whole idea that you needed to help each other baked into them is, is just another part of this extraordinary story.
Nick Hirshon: Well, it’s very special that you’ve been able to share that with us and get so in depth with all of their lives, show us where they came from, how they ended up bonding, so we appreciate you doing that in this fantastic book. We hope that people check it out, certainly.
Well, as we wrap up today’s episode, I’d like to just leave you with a question that we pose to all of our guests on the podcast, why does journalism history matter?
Lisa Napoli: I’m so glad you asked me that question because I am not a scholar. I’m a career –
journalist. I’ve worked in every medium, but I should have been a journalism scholar because I’ve long – ever since I started my career at CNN as a very young woman, almost at the beginning of CNN, I’ve been fascinated by the emerging technologies and communications tools that have been in front of me or emerging in front of me in my career, and I – and how they impact how communications work.
I think it’s so important, and it shocks me that everybody, scholar or not, doesn’t see the importance of understanding the context of how we communicate. The media are as important as anything in our society. Ah, look at where we are in our world today. It’s, it’s – it would be impossible to imagine this world, and I’ve tried to.
If you go back and look at the 1918 pandemic and the historical period, then imagining that without –
radio, without television or widespread radio at least, it’s such an important force that it is so clearly obvious to me that we need to study how we got where we are, and I did that with my last book with CNN and, and the creation of the first 24-hour news network.
I hope to do it in a future book with a period of time at the New York Times that I worked, during the emergence of the worldwide web. Because hopefully people out there will look at these emerging forces and say, “Here’s what we can learn from them. Here’s what we can do differently. Aha! Here’s how it used to be, and use it and, and inform ourselves and, and move on and do better.”
Nick Hirshon: Well, and you certainly offer a perspective in your books that a lot of authors that we have on the show can’t because you’ve worked in the industry for so long. So you have that sort of insider look at it, but –
also the ability, I guess, to kind of take the bird’s eye view and see it for what it is.
So again, we thank you so much for taking the time to write this terrific book. We hope people will pick up “Susan, Linda, Nina & Cokie: The Extraordinary Story of the Founding Mothers of NPR,” and for joining us, Lisa, on the Journalism History podcast.
Lisa Napoli: Thank you so much for your nice words, and for your interest in this book.
Nick Hirshon: Thanks for tuning in, and additional thanks to our sponsor, Taylor & Francis. Be sure to subscribe to our podcast. You can also follow us on Twitter at @JHistoryJournal. Until next time, I’m your host, Nick Hirshon, signing off with the words of Edward R. Murrow, “Good night, and good luck.”