Susan Stamberg graces public radio's `Weekend Edition'

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To shepherd a show like Sunday's ``Weekend Edition'' through its two hours of eclectic features takes a special kind of talent. You need a combination of warmth, liveliness, and intelligence suitable for that relaxed time of the morning. You need a facile, dependable mind and voice at the mike. You need, in fact, Susan Stamberg, who as host of this recently launched venture of National Public Radio has already made it a welcome addition to the wall-to-wall programming which NPR now offers mornings and evenings seven days a week.

Ms. Stamberg possesses one of those instantly recognizable radio voices that sounds as if there's a real person behind it, and she uses it in a pleasantly individualistic way. She has been referred to as having the ``voice that smiles,'' but it really does more than this.

For all the Sunday show's friendly, laid-back tone, it has a deceptively demanding format in which Stamberg talks with everyone from Zenani Mandela Dlamini (daughter of the South African political figures) to restaurateur Alice Waters, who tells listeners how to cook wild mushrooms on toast.

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Stamberg's running comments mix the obvious with the insightful in seeking a gracious and civil atmosphere in which few thoughts are deemed unworthy of an appreciative chuckle.

Much of Stamberg's skill owes, no doubt, to the 14 years she spent as the well-loved co-host of National Public Radio's ``All Things Considered.''

But her new role in this featurish setting calls for a kind of alert casualness in talking, for instance, with Roger Rosenblatt, the program's ``idea contributor,'' or with Ira Flatow on such science riddles as why blowing on soup cools it off.

As usual with such magazine formats, the inherent value of the segments is what counts, not their novelty or how cleverly they're introduced.

For instance, the attraction of a radio ``chain novel,'' with a different noted writer adding a new chapter each week, is not that it's a bright idea but that it gives us a welcome chance to hear good, original material read out loud at some length.

Among the show's other regular goodies is car-repair advice given to phone callers by brothers Tom and Ray Magliozzi, who sound like your local garage mechanic but are actually MIT graduates.

``Games editor'' Will Shortz offers radio crosswords and other puzzles.

Writer and Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Jules Feiffer is there to review films.

And in addition to six-minute newscasts at the start of each hour - along with other newsbreaks - Daniel Schorr comments on the news topics looming for the week ahead.

Stamberg knows that the right chemistry for all this often requires a dialogue - not a straight interview.

Her appealing approach should wear well in the months ahead, even if the results sound just a bit concocted at times because of the constant pressure to achieve the intimacy and physical immediacy that are among the program's apparent objectives.

The trick is to be cute, but not too doggone cute (to paraphrase Sandburg). There are many references to being in ``Studio Three,'' lots of to do about brewing the decaf coffee (``Oh, it smells delicious,'' says Stamberg, as you actually hear her pouring it), and frequent badinage with the adroit house pianist, Stef Scaggiari, who gamely bridges unrelated segments and sometimes gets a well-deserved solo.

Alan Bunce writes frequently on radio for the Monitor.

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