When he retired as co-host of All Things Considered in January of this year, Robert Siegel was one of the signature voices of National Public Radio.
The New York-born Siegel was hired by NPR in 1976. From 1979 to 1983, he was based in London, where he opened NPR’s first overseas bureau. In 1987 he became a host on All Things Considered, which is currently the most listened to drive-time radio news show in the U.S.
Siegel covered the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1990. He also covered 9/11, when he happened to be in New York. During the 2008 earthquake in Chengdu, China, he reported from the quake epicenter.
This week, Siegel appears in Indianapolis at the Jewish Community Center’s Ann Katz Festival of Books and Arts, in conversation with WFYI’s Jill Sheridan.
We talked to Robert Siegel ahead of his visit.
NUVO: Are you frustrated to no longer be able to cover developments like the Kavanaugh / Blasey Ford hearings?
ROBERT SIEGEL: Not really. I’m frustrated that I don’t have the company of lots of people who are thinking interestingly about it everyday. But I’m not part of that. It was fantastic being on the radio. I did enough. I was on the air for the Clarence Thomas hearings. I was on the air for lots of them. I can’t honestly say that I miss it.
NUVO: I still remember your report on 9/11, “On 9/11 Paper Memories Fell from the Skies.” Was 9/11 a watershed moment in your career, and by extension in the career of NPR, or do you see it as more as a continuum?
SIEGEL: Well, I would go on the watershed side. For me personally it was very affecting. I happened to be in New York on the day that it happened. I should have been downtown at 9:30 a.m. I was in Midtown. I grew up about a mile and a half, two miles from where the World Trade Center went up. It was being built as we were moving out and I’ve lived for the past 30 years in South Arlington, less than two miles from the Pentagon. So it was a pretty personal event, and obviously a very troubling one. I think it was the first time that I realized that NPR over the years had grown to the point where we had more reporters and more full time correspondents based overseas than the big TV networks. I knew that we’d been adding every year and that they’d been cutting back, often clustering reporters around international airports whereas we actually had people in Germany to cover Germany and Cairo to cover Egypt and so on. So it was a remarkable test that arose at a time when we were prepared to pass it.
I think the most important thing was that it was rare event where something happened that I guess most Americans would have had difficulty telling you who Osama Bin Laden was or what Al Qaeda was. We had people who had covered the millennium plot trial out in Los Angeles against an Al Qaeda operative who had been intercepted at the Washington State border. We had covered the embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania and the USS Cole bombing in the fall of 2000. We had people who had done pretty dangerous reporting trips to Afghanistan and were familiar with the role that he had played there. And it was one of those moments where the country needed the kind of journalism that we had always excelled at which is explaining and translating matters that were obscure and complex to a broad audience and trying to not assume familiarity with these things, not just gloss over the fact that the name Al Qaeda might not have meant much to people, but to kind of define these things, to give background, to take a few minutes or more than a few minutes to tell people about it. So I thought it was the case when people needed the kind of journalism and podcasting that we did.
NUVO: I heard some reports suggesting that NPR could have done things differently as far as handling the flow of information during 9/11, sort of Monday morning quarterbacking. I guess that’s what I’m asking if there were any adjustments in that direction.
SIEGEL: No. Let’s put it this way. I think that a news organizations like NPR are adjusting everyday. You don’t know what you’re going to be covering next month. We didn’t anticipate covering the Trump administration. And we didn’t anticipate covering Dr. Ford’s testimony. You’re constantly adjusting to it. I think with the actual 9/11 coverage we did a fair amount of reporting on unfair cracking down on American Muslims. In one case that I remember very well, Sikhs, they’d freak somebody out by wearing a turban and they’d get arrested. It was a nasty time.
Later, we covered the debate over going to war in Iraq. We heard from different sides of the debate. With hindsight I wish we’d pursued further the skepticism about some of the weapons of mass destruction arguments that were made ...
NUVO: I had fun listening to all the Robert Siegel impressions when you signed off. But it made me think of how that you are one of the iconic voices of NPR, and when I think of the NPR voice I think of a calm, conversational voice that can deliver upsetting information without a pause or a false note. Can you recall a moment when you had trouble maintaining that calm?
SIEGEL: Well, I did in the last show. I was on the verge of crying in that.
9/11 was also very testing. I was in the middle of the city that I grew up in, a New Yorker who’s been living out of town for 40 years. And that was very trying.
What I remembered at that moment was that, when I first got bitten by this idea of doing radio news, I was in college at Columbia University and there were huge protests and police busts and a great deal of confusion. I worked at the radio station and we decided to cover all of these events. I felt useful. I wouldn’t have protested, I wouldn’t have counter-protested; it was not in my personality. But if I helped sort out what was going on, and questioned different parties to the conflict and dispelled certain rumors—and reminded people what was happening—then instead of feeling totally at sea and useless, I’d feel like, boy, I’m doing something useful.
That feeling came back to me on 9/11 which was the most trying thing to cover. And I didn’t find it hard to be a fairly calm presenter of unpleasant news because it reminded me of why I do this. We can’t just get hysterical in the news media. That’s not useful.
NUVO: I guess you didn’t talk in that calm voice before you joined NPR.
SIEGEL: [Laughs.] When I hear old tapes of myself it’s very painful. And really for the first 20 years that I was on the radio, I think, I was hoping that I would sound more older and authoritative than I was.
NUVO: Was that kind of conversational tone unheard of when NPR began or was it part of a trend?
SIEGEL: Well, here’s the point. The idea of presenting the news in a very conversational way, it was an idea in the air in the late 1960s and early 70s. And NPR was part of that movement. And I’ll go further. There was a hole; this is all about the baby boom and it’s all about the civil rights era and the Vietnam War… The news media stood out like very old-fashioned very formal voice of God presentations in which journalists didn’t talk like human beings.They barked at you.They exuded a total authoritative confidence in what they were saying and probably overdid the emotional content of what they were talking about. You didn’t see, when I was growing up, the reporter actually conversing with the anchor. You’d see the anchor introducing the reporter, and the reporter would then talk at you and the camera and there was something very formal and un-conversational about it.
NPR from the start, or at least from the moment Susan Stamberg became the host of NPR in 1971, is presenting the news in a different way and at the same within a year or two before that New York Magazine was doing journalism that read like novels. The newsroom format in public television which reporters talked out their stories rather than presented them was coming about. So there was a general mood and people especially believed the news media, then the people who write to them and talk to them shouldn’t sound like they’re coming out of 1925.
NUVO: Did you hear in the 60s that kind of affected delivery that sounded like it wasn’t coming from any particular place?
SIEGEL: If you go back and listen to John Cameron Swayze who read the news for NBC in the very early 1950s, well, there were people on the radio that spoke like that. Franklin Delano Roosevelt spoke like that. But that wasn’t the way people typically conversed with each other. They weren’t orating. So they used to talk about Mid-Atlantic speech, that would have typified Alistair Cooke who would appear on American television.To Americans he sounded like a Brit, and when I worked in London they thought that hilarious because they thought that he sounded like an American …
Totally apart from the accent, the question of whether you screw up your face and look at the camera and shouted into the microphone, those styles, I think, felt very antique in the late 60s and very inauthentic. I’d say that at NPR, first of all, there were just more women on the air. That alone was pretty odd at that time. Susan [Stamberg] had a fairly unmistakable New York accent. That was unmistakable at the time. People with New York accents weren’t behind the microphones.
NUVO: Listening to you over the years, I could never tell whether you were a New Yorker or not.
SIEGEL: Well, in my case I’m 100 percent New Yorker. But I’m also 100 percent the child of public school teachers who had an obsession [laughs] about speech.
A linguist from the University of Pennsylvania, William Labov, who I interviewed a couple of times over the years—once about New York accents—said that New York is the rarest city on earth that stigmatizes its own accent. If you’re in New York and you sounded like a New Yorker, it’s not a good thing. And that was certainly true of the school system. My father, in order to advance in it, had to wring some of the New York out of his speech and as far as his children were concerned, we were not to say we had a friend on [affecting a New York accent] Long lsland … We were never to say ain’t and in order to get he and him right and not to say New Yawk no matter what we said on the playground, we weren’t to say that. So when you hear me, let’s say, you hear a bleached out New Yorker.
NUVO: You’re coming to the Ann Katz Community Center. Have you seen a change in the Jewish community over the years?
SIEGEL: Yes. I’ve seen many changes in the Jewish community. I was raised in a Reform congregation in lower Manhattan and remained all my life a member of a Reform congregation. First of all, the Judaism I grew up with, Reform Judaism, it’s so much more traditional today than when I was growing up. Number one, that change is remarkable. I really have learned more prayerbook Hebrew as an adult than I did studying for my Bar Mitzvah. The prayer book I grew up on is an antique as the old accents on the news. That’s a change. And I’ve seen a huge involvement of women as being leaders in the Jewish community at the level of synagogue presidents and rabbis and cantor, certainly different. I think we’ve gone from an almost wall to wall support for whatever Israel did when I was a young man, and great pride in what Israel did, to much more [qualified support and skepticism] except for some of the Hasidim who for their own reasons were anti-Zionist ...
But over the years I’ve seen opinions on Israel within affiliated active Jewish society become much more disparate and found myself on a few occasions being very much criticized by groups that felt that they were looking out for bias against Israel, I felt that I didn’t feel I harbored any bias against Israel. [We did] totally straight reporting I felt. Now… I’m not surprised when I hear a Reform rabbi sermonize against some policy of the state of Israel. Making sure to say that I lead a trip there every year and that I love Israel, I’m not surprised to hear that. That’s a big difference.
Politically, I’m more surprised by how little in domestic politics the Jewish community has changed. In the old days I remember Blacks used to vote about nine to one democratic. Jews used to vote about eight to two democratic.
NUVO: What was your experience interviewing Vladimir Putin like?
SIEGEL: [Laughs] I hosted an hour long phone-in show with questions that had been sent in in advance via email. They were very few of my questions. I hosted it out of our New York bureau and it was quite an experience. What happened was, when Bill Clinton had gone to Moscow, he had gone on the independent Moscow radio station called Echo Moscow, very famous, probably the last independent news source in Moscow. And he’d taken questions on the phone via email.
So when Putin came to America after 9/11, one of his guys from the embassy, a Russian advance man named Dmitri, went to the president of NPR Kevin Klose, who was then the president, a former Moscow correspondent for The Washington Post, he told me that this guy Dmitri is like no other Russian he’s ever met. He’s a 21st century character and very slick, well-tailored, media savvy advance man.
And [the Russians] said, “since Bill Clinton had been on a radio station in Moscow, taking question by email and phone, when Putin comes to America, he should do a program on an American radio station and take questions by email and telephone.” The idea was that he should be treated exactly the same way that the American president had been treated in Moscow. We had a set-up where we couldn’t predict exactly when he would arrive at our New York bureau where we did this. We set aside two hours and did a panel show out of Washington and then as soon as Putin arrived, two minutes later we would begin our hour. And he was down at Ground Zero. This was December, 2001.
And there was a little diplomatic kerfuffle with Dmitri the advance man very agitated on the phone and I said, “what’s the matter?” And he said, “well, they want him to pose for a picture with Giuliani.”
I didn’t understand what the problem was because at that moment everyone wanted to have a picture taken with Rudy Giuliani, the mayor of New York. And he said, “he’s the president. The mayor’s the mayor; it would be a total violation of protocol for the president to be with the mayor… They ended up settling the problem by Putin walking up alone looking into the pit of Ground Zero and making a very serious face while contemplating the horror of it all, and never took the picture of Giuliani. They [then] came in a motorcade uptown to join us. The deal was I assumed because it was done the same way in Moscow that I had to greet Putin at the door. And take him to a very small studio…[where there would be] simultaneous translation. At one point during the preparation the Russian advance team had declared that the men’s room on the floor of our bureau in New York which was our old bureau and a fairly shabby one. The men’s room was absolutely unacceptable for the president and we almost lost the show. But then it was determined that we could turn the ladies room into a unisex bathroom in the case that he needed it. We all took a look at the ladies room looked like to see what was so special about it. And it was a big joke I remember. Everyone had the same reaction. David Remnick who now edits The New Yorker, who had been a correspondent; he said when I told him this story that when the Russians tell you that when your restroom is not good enough, that is the lowest insult in the world …
I came away with a couple of memories from it. One was the obsession with protocol. The animating force behind this whole Putin party is we should be taken just as seriously as your president is taken. We demand respect. Second, when I greeted him and we were both standing together and shaking hands he presented me with a little piece of pottery. When I first wake up in the morning before my spine collapses, I’m almost 5’7" still, I’m 5’6" by the end of day. I was not looking into Vladimir Putin’s eyes. He’s a tough little guy.
And at this party of ten people who crowded into this rather little bureau that we had, I always felt that, I would have known who the boss was just by a sense of swagger and body language, he’s that character ...
I think the president of NPR wanted to present to Putin an NPR or an All Things Considered anchor’s cap, the currency of NPR being mugs and caps. And … my daughter [who has a Ph.D. in Russian and was present at the interview] had told me that the advance team who had come up from Ground Zero were all grumbling, saying “they want him to wear the president to wear a stupid hat.” They were not appreciative. But, anyway, he spoke and answered one question very much in praise of Andrew Sacherov who had been a Soviet human rights activist who was surveilled by the KGB so I never knew quite whether Putin was capable of a more reforming spirit than he later showed … He was coming to America to do do business at that point. They found a common threat because they claimed that the Chechens were this terrible Muslim insurgency that they had crushed ... I still get a big kick out of the Russian advance team declaring the NPR mens room to be below presidential standards.
NUVO: You came out of retirement for a brief bit to host On Point. Do you foresee doing anything like that in the future?
SIEGEL: I don’t rule it out. I was going up to Boston. [NPR affiliate] WBUR is a station that I’ve had a very long association with and they were giving me a reward to honor me in my retirement. And they said, [affecting a Boston accent] “Well how about, as long as you’re going to be here on Friday, how about hosting?” And it’s a very good group. They hadn’t yet hired a permanent host which they now have done. It was fun and mostly I was doing ideas that the staff had already planned. But I got to bring historian Timothy Snyder on who was a big favorite of mine. I had read his most recent book but now that I was retired I didn’t get to interview him about it.