National Public Radio On the Printed Page

IN compiling this comprehensive collection of some of the best interviews broadcast on National Public Radio last year, the host of ``All Things Considered,'' Robert Siegel, has bravely faced the challenge of smoothing the journey from the spoken (often ``live'') word to the printed word - the opposite of the transition required of the literary world in books on tape.

In both instances, editors have to ask what it does to an aesthetic experience if the objet d'art is hauled out of context. Just how portable is the experience?

In the introduction to ``The NPR Interviews 1994,'' Siege clar- ifies the issue by telling us that his aim was to collect interviews that read well on the page. This meant, for example, excluding almost all music interviews, which depend on hearing the music under discussion.

He also points out that for years NPR staff have been encouraged to write for the ear, not the eye, avoiding the literate, highly punctuated language of the classroom. In preparing the text, he smoothed and sweetened without rewriting. He corrected repetitions, omissions, and errors of grammar.

And he's succeeded. Every interview reads well, even though no amount of editing skill could recapture the emotion of a born orator in full flight, ``live'' on the air. There's so much more to such a performance than the printed word could ever reproduce, and Siegel would probably be the first to admit it. So, as with any daily news broadcast on public radio, readers will concentrate on the bits that catch their fancy, and ignore the rest.

Understandably, the hard news interviews in the book are dating faster than others, but Siegel has split the material conscientiously - 166 pages of international and United States domestic news stories, 179 pages of cultural affairs (arts, media, science, animals, and religion), and 31 pages of lighthearted human-interest stories, called ``enders'' in the radio business.

Regular listeners to NPR will probably welcome the opportunity to savor again portrait photographer Richard Avedon's approach to his art, and especially his use of a picture of a man on stilts as a metaphor for the artist - ``Not above the crowd, but apart from the crowd, looking at everyone on very shaky feet ... yet ... you have to have that distance at all times''; pollster George Gallup Jr.'s gentle chiding of the media for not paying enough attention to people's spiritual journeys because ``perhaps they are not as interested as other segments of the populace in religion and spiritual matters''; or anthropologist Elizabeth Marshall Thomas's remarks on canine behavior and the phenomenon of howling.

The book is a gallery of famous people from many walks of life, among them George Kennan, Helen Suzman, Harry Blackmun, Charles Schulz, John le Carre, and Arthur C. Clarke.

In some instances, people drop the political cloaks in which we see them most often and reveal their inner selves, as Archbishop Desmond Tutu did in his interview with Katie Davis.

``We were made to enjoy music,'' said the Nobel Peace Prize recipient, ``to enjoy beautiful sunsets, to enjoy looking at the billows of the sea and to be thrilled with a rose that is bedecked with dew.... Human beings are actually created for the transcendent,'' he went on, ``for the sublime, for the beautiful, for the truthful ... and all of us are given the task of trying to make this world a little more hospitable to these beautiful things....''

That interview had the special intimacy that is the hallmark of a good radio broadcast, and is remarkably persuasive no matter how it reaches us.

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