Fifteen years of quenchless curiosity

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.''

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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.''

Loyal listeners to ``All Things Considered'' and to Susan Stamberg discover that both have a quenchless curiosity, a sense of empathy and humor, and that both are full of surprises.

The program's listeners, she says, are slightly better educated than average. ``But if there's any elitism to it, it's a group of people -- be they high school graduates or college dropouts -- who want to learn about things.'' In turn, she says, ``we don't talk down to them, we don't pander to them, and we assume a level of curiosity and a wish to know.''

Although NPR is government-backed, Stamberg says that the only ``direct pressure we get [is] from our listeners. And there are Moral Majority listeners, as well as People for the American Way listeners.'' She notes: ``We review stories to see whether there's any truth to the criticism or not,'' and, she says, they take listeners' letters seriously.

In fact, listener involvement is key to the program. Many ideas are generated by listeners (as well as by staff members and media clips). And listeners are often as involved as country neighbors would be at a barn-raising. When ATC ran its ``Best Hamburgers in America'' contest, listeners' favorites poured in like ketchup, from Mr. Bartley's Burger Cottage in Cambridge, Mass., to the Biff Burger in Selinsgrove, Pa.

One of Stamberg's favorite programs grew from her request to listeners a year ago to help ATC put together a story on Eleanor Roosevelt's centenary. She told them, ``I'm going to be preparing this story and I want to do it with untold history. Any one of you who had a firsthand experience with her and found it memorable, write and tell us.''

They got a boxful of mail, called the writers, and put it on the air. ``It became sort of an oral history, which hadn't been printed anywhere, because it was from the people's point of view, those who had seen and perceived it.''

A few days ago, Stamberg told a droll story about seeing glittering Imelda Marcos dolls being sold at the Manila airport in the Philippines, then segued into a request for listeners to contribute their own personal travel stories.

Stamberg is just back with 15 reels of tape from a two-month pause for station identification in her own life; she is fresh from a journalism fellowship at the East-West Center at the University of Hawaii. One of 12 Asian Pacific Affairs fellowships, it included three weeks of seminars in Honolulu, then a month in Japan, Hong Kong, China, and her focal point, Thailand. But there was a downside to this trip:

``It was wonderful being away for two months, but oh, I didn't like not having my guys around. It wasn't good.'' Her ``guys'' are her husband, Louis Stamberg, and their 16-year-old son, Josh.

Stamberg, who majored in English literature at Barnard College, once said she'd always wanted to have a salon -- a place where interesting people came to talk. Being interviewed by Stamberg is much like sitting in her living room, comfortable and relaxed, and telling her about something she just happens to be fascinated with.

That sense of ease she gives her interviewees is the key to her success, whether it's a two-hour session with President Carter, a chat with a former prisoner, or true confessions from novelist Joan Didion.

Her secret? ``A lot of it has to do with preparation. I can't make you feel comfortable if I'm not comfortable with the subject.''

Generally, she vacuums up everything she can read on the subject, talks to experts, thinks about what the focus is. ``Then I'm feeling good about it. I'm feeling as comfortable as I get. That transfers to the person I'm talking to.''

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