The woman behind 'All Things Considered'
Boston — On a recent train trip from Philadelphia to New York, Susan Stamberg was transported back to the Saturday mornings of her childhood, when she crouched in front of the family radio to listen to a regular lineup of shows.
''I got on that train and heard all those wonderful train sounds, and suddenly I was saying the opening lines to one of my favorite programs from the '40s, 'Grand Central Station': 'As a bullet seeks its target, shining rails at every part of our great country are aimed at Grand Central Station, drawn by the magnetic force of the fantastic metropolis. . . .'
''Listen to that writing!'' she hoots, scrunching up her nose and throwing her head back with a laugh that's not unlike a braying donkey.
''It's wonderful writing,'' she continues, ''but at the same time it's so overwritten and so stentorian because it's 1940s. And that's why, when people say to us, 'You've revived radio' or 'You've created another golden age of radio ,' I say 'no.' What we've done is reinvent radio, using real live sounds in ways they've never been used before. . . . Conversation, as we use it, and written commentary and spoken essays are a new kind of radio, not a revival.''
Thoughtfully contemplative at one moment and giggling like a naughty schoolgirl at the next, Susan Stamberg is as engaging off the air as she is on. No wonder 7 million devoted listeners tune in every weekday night at 5 o'clock to hear her on National Public Radio's ''All Things Considered.''
As co-host for the past 10 years, Ms. Stamberg has consistently produced the kinds of informative and entertaining stories that are the hallmark of this award-winning news and feature show. Whether she's interviewing the Washington bureau chief of Izvestia about Soviet stereotypes of America or talking with an unemployed waiter who's trying to break the world flagpole-sitting record, she has an intuitive knack for knowing when to pursue a question and when to back off.
''I feel everybody has a story to tell, and it's my job to help them tell it as best they can,'' she says. ''Sometimes that means listening between the cracks, for what's notm being said.''
Her talent for drawing out the revealing responses that all reporters long for owes a lot to her own disarming personality. Meeting her for the first time, it takes a few moments to tie the familiar voice to the vivacious young woman bounding out of the elevator, hand outstretched, to apologize for being a few minutes late. She's somehow taller than you'd expected, more outgoing, more gypsy-like, from her swept-back thick brunette mane to her stiletto heels. You've just met, and yet there's the feeling that you know her well, that you must have played pranks together in elementary school or shared secrets at summer camp.
''I don't think I'm intimidating,'' she says in her resonant and reassuring voice. ''I always want people to feel I'm someone who respects them, who will do right by them, who is not there to exploit them. I don't like all that bulldog stuff in confrontational interviews, so I don't do them.''
Instead of stalking stories in the harsh and glaring light of the expose, Susan Stamberg tends to rely on the incandescence of imagination for her finest work. A year ago, for example, there was the perplexing question of how, after 420 years, to celebrate Shakespeare's birthday in a new and different way. Actor Hal Holbrook was appearing at the Kennedy Center in Washington at the time, and she approached him with an intriguing request: Would he read the Bard's sonnet ''Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?'' in three different voices -- as an awkward 16-year-old boy, as a 28-year-old newlywed suffused with love and adoration, and as a 67-year-old gentleman? ''He did it all,'' she exudes. ''He was just extraordinary!''
Her praise for fellow colleagues on ''All Things Considered'' is just as effusive, and she continually refers to the combined efforts that make the show such a success. Of Sanford Ungar, her co-host since 1980, she says: ''He has the kind of soothing voice you usually associate with Mom's. You just want to listen to him forever.'' Of economics correspondent Robert Krulwich: ''To explain interest rates, he created an opera, with arias sung by Paul Volcker and Alfred Kahn. You have to have a wonderful sense of pretending to do that.''
As a youngster growing up in New York City, Susan Stamberg was quite a pretender herself: ''I always imagined I was a princess, and I used to hear all kinds of conversations going on in my head.'' An only child, she often spent Saturdays going to museums with her father and dreaming of the day when she'd become a singer. ''All I really ever wanted to do was to be able to sing wonderfully, like Sarah Vaughn,'' she confides.
She auditioned for and was accepted at New York's specialized High School of Music and Art, and later attended Barnard College, majoring in English literature. The love of good writing she developed there, she says facetiously, has become something of an inconvenience in the years since. ''I was trained with such respect for the word, and I so adored the language, that I got in the habit of sounding every word in my head as I read. Today I still feel I must read every word on a page, which is pretty stupid when you're trying to get through a massive report on the economy.''
After Barnard there was a brief stopover in graduate school and then a job with Daedalus, the journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and later with The New Republic. ''That's what English majors did in those days,'' she recalls with one of her marvelous laughs. ''You either got married or you got an interesting job in publishing and stayed there forever.''
But forever was short-lived, and Ms. Stamberg left publishing to become producer and then general manager of WAMU-FM in Washington. From there she was hired by National Public Radio in 1971 to edit tapes. After a few weeks, she was reporting. After 10 months, she had become co-host of ''All Things Considered.'' In recognition of her years of contribution to that show, in 1980 she received the fourth annual Edward R. Murrow Award from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
She's collected some of her own favorite moments from the past 10 years in her newly published book, ''Every Night at Five: Susan Stamberg's 'All Things Considered' Book'' (New York: Pantheon). In it she writes: ''The program says news isn't just what happens in Washington or on Wall Street. News also happens in the small events of life: the cabbage popping up in Fletcher Cox's garden in Alexandria, Virginia; the kindergarten pupil in Baltimore, thrilled, the first day of school, to get her own cubbyhole.''
In her search for America's voices, she occasionally puts her own family on the air. She's interviewed her husband, Louis, about ''smiley faces'' (''They're the stupidest things I've ever seen''), and talked with her mother about what it's like for older people who can't easily get outside during the winter months. Son Joshua, now 12, made his debut on ''All Things Considered'' at age 3 , singing ''Oh, Fireman,'' an original composition. Her mother-in-law has stopped by the studio at Thanksgiving to share her controversial recipe for cranberry relish, made with sour cream and horseradish.
''It's ideas more than fancy celebrities that I like to do,'' she says, explaining the philosophy behind the show. ''That's why I opened the book with that story about nine-year-old Benjamin Alsop. Before I talked with him, I couldn't have said that I'd always wanted to interview a kid who'd just gone fishing for the first time. But when it happened, I knew that was the kind of thing we were looking for. I just knew it.''