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Fifteen years of quenchless curiosity

By Louise SweeneyStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 23, 1986


IT is a voice that has some sun in it, and some huskiness, a warm voice that laughs easily and casually coaxes news or secrets out of those interviewed. It is a voice that is like dialing home for many of the 3 million weekly listeners to National Public Radio's ``All Things Considered.'' This month, ATC fans hear that inimitable voice of co-host Susan Stamberg as the program celebrates its 15th anniversary. Mrs. Stamberg, who has been with the program since its start, is the author of ``Every Night at Five'' (Pantheon), the merry and informative book that traces the program's first 10 years.

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In honor of ATC's 15th anniversary and hers, Stamberg sat down over a glass of Perrier in a coffee shop near NPR and chatted about what they've both been up to recently.

``The program does today what I hope it's been doing for 15 years, only better,'' she says. ``And that is, giving listeners a sense of `this is the place to turn' if they want to find out what happened of importance or interest -- it's not always hard news -- but of general interest in the world on any given day. That hasn't changed, but we've learned to do it a lot better.''

In addition to covering in depth over the years such hard-news subjects as Watergate, the Jonestown massacre, and the Chernobyl disaster, ATC also dishes up other news for its listeners: maple sugaring in Vermont; an interview on Alaskan winters; silver-screen divorce; a neo-Nazi rally in Chicago; a presidential primary in Claremont, N.H.

The owner of the familiar voice is tall, with a wide smile. She has ankled into the coffee shop and quietly taken control of the noise level. ``We're doing a taped interview,'' she says to the manager with sweet reasonableness. ``So could you turn that music off?'' He does.

Stamberg is as vibrant as her voice, with a full head of black hair that almost crackles with energy, lively eyes the color of black coffee under arched brows, and an open, mobile face. She looks at life with an amused eye, and her infectious laughter runs through our interview, as it often does when she interviews people on ``All Things Considered.''

Despite staff changes over a 15-year period, says Stamberg, ``the big things don't change. The earlier tapes, some of the things we ran in earlier days, just wouldn't get on now. They're not good enough or trim enough or organized well enough or well produced enough. We sort of keep escalating our standards.''

Each day builds toward the 5 p.m. air time as the staff gear up in the morning for the first of two daily meetings. Then they begin sorting through the 40 potential stories that will be culled to between 17 and 22 airing that night on the 90-minute program. ATC goes out over 314 of National Public Radio's 331 member stations nationwide. Its budget for 1986 is just under $1.5 million.

The last five years at ATC have included a devastating NPR fiscal crunch. ``As you know, we got into a terrible period for us, financially -- we got into awful, dark, debted days,'' says Stamberg.

``In the middle of that fiscal mess, Doug Bennett was named president of NPR. . . . He held us together, he really presided over the rise of the phoenix.''

Mr. Bennett said later that ``in late '83 we owed an enormous debt to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting which will be paid off by October -- there's only $250,000 left [to repay] out of the original $7 million.'' He says NPR has bounded back, even has a little bit of working capital.

Bennett gives credit for the 15-year success of ``All Things Considered'' to three things: ``depth, surprise, and Susan.''

Both Bennett and Stamberg have high praise for Noah Adams, ATC co-host for the past five years. Bennett describes him as ``an excellent interviewer and a quick study.'' Stamberg says that ``he's a consummate broadcaster -- caring, meticulous, and original in the way he thinks, the kinds of questions he raises, and the way he raises them.''