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Radio's Voice With a Smile in It

As a `founding mother' of `All Things Considered,' Susan Stamberg saw the show grow up

SUSAN STAMBERG has conducted a whopping 20,000 interviews in her radio career, so asking her to name a favorite one is a tough request.

Nevertheless, one of the self-described "founding mothers" of National Public Radio's "All Things Considered" says her best conversation was a near disaster.

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It was the spring of 1977, her sixth year as co-host of the NPR show. Ms. Stamberg had settled somewhat nervously in a studio chair opposite journalist and author Joan Didion.

"I was so overprepared," Stamberg says in a New York-accented voice that lowers to a deep whisper when she emphasizes certain words. "I had read too much, and plus I was so impressed with her that I think it all got jammed in my head ... so I stopped, I started, I apologized again. It was really a mess."

After 15 minutes of jumbling, she ran out of uneasiness, and the conversation began to flow.

"It's a wonderful conversation in ... how she explains herself," Stamberg reflects. "She made me understand how she writes. That's a terrific thing to know." Started as a weather girl

Stamberg recounted this tale in the elegant tea room of the posh Ritz Carlton Hotel in Boston where she was staying during a tour to promote her new book, "Talk" (Random House, 380 pp., $24). The interview with Ms. Didion is one of 85 conversations in the book that begins with the turbulent days of 1971, when "All Things Considered" was just getting started, and runs through 1991. Subjects and topics range from Nixon aide John Ehrlichman on Watergate to Mrs. Ernest Hemingway on her life with the author t o Annie Leibovitz on photography.

Stamberg has a friendly, down-to-earth personality and makes a stranger feel like an instant friend as she talks about her book, her work, NPR, and radio in general.

Her career began in the 1960s when she took a job as a weather girl at a small radio station. But she didn't just forecast rain, snow, or sunshine. "I thought the weather was so boring so I looked for poems about the weather I could put at the beginning of the forecast," she says. "That made it interesting for me."

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She brought this atypical approach to "All Things Considered," where her questions are often the unexpected and unusual. "You look for the other way - the thing nobody else has asked," because otherwise the interview may sound like everyone else's, she says.

Choosing 85 interviews from about 20,000 for "Talk" was difficult, but Stamberg says her goal was to tell the story of the times. So, for instance, she includes a 1974 interview recorded at the height of the feminist revolution with a woman film critic who debated if marriage would ruin an independent woman named Rhoda, the main character on a popular TV show of the same name.

When Stamberg reminisces about the early days of "All Things Considered," she is incredulous at the pace she kept until 1986 when she moved to Weekend Edition and then Morning Edition. A typical day included a 10 a.m. editorial meeting and then about five hours to research, interview, and edit tapes. Editing then and now at NPR is a primitive operation done with razor blade, marker, and sticky tape. "It's like piecing a quilt together," she says. "It was a mad, harried situation."

NPR, says Stamberg, has moved from fledgling to major institution. It has swelled from a staff of 65 in 1971 to about 437 today. The 63 member stations have mushroomed to 468.

There's been enormous audience growth, especially since the Gulf war. "We're doing well," she says. "We've carved out a position for ourselves."

NPR has recently expanded its foreign coverage by adding reporters and opening bureaus. The next step, Stamberg says, is to go global with the network.

"Just as you can sit in a hotel room in Prague and watch CNN, I hope you will be able to sit and hear NPR - like the BBC," she says. "It's not going to happen tomorrow ... but it's part of the plan. We're ready for it." NPR listenership grew

When asked about NPR's finances, Stamberg knocks on the table. "I keep waiting for the shoe to drop, and it doesn't seem to.... The stations are doing wonderfully," she says.

"A lot of it has to do with our increased audibility - the fact that the listenership is growing, and we're seen as such an institution for dissemination of information, so that attracts contributions." NPR is funded largely by corporate donations and fees from member stations.

She adds that nightly television news coverage, "which borders on the frivolous and doesn't explain the event or give you context," is benefiting NPR.

Radio fills a unique media niche, she says, because "we can take you to a place in sound in a way that TV through its pictures, strangely enough, can't do. TV's so specific that all you see is that fire in San Francisco. You don't see that the rest of the city wasn't burning with the earthquake. It's just that one thing they give you to look at, and there it is, but that's all you know."

Stamberg is now a special correspondent for NPR with no plans to leave. She and 14 colleagues have stuck with the organization since its early days. "They call us `lifers' there," she laughs. "We've grown up with it."

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