'All Things Considered,' NPR pioneer is a visionary MACARTHUR FOUNDATION WINNERS

July 11, 1993|By Holly Selby | Holly Selby,Staff Writer

PHILADELPHIA -- As a schoolboy in rural Wisconsin, William Siemering learned science and art and music from the broadcasts of an educational radio station.

But he absorbed more than facts about photosynthesis or names of composers from the small station whose motto was "the boundaries of our campus are the boundaries of the state."

While listening in his classroom, the youngster developed an abiding respect for the power of air waves and a large-scale view that accepts few boundaries for the reach and depth of public radio.

Last month, the 58-year-old former Baltimorean, who is called a "visionary" again and again by colleagues, received a $345,000 "genius grant" from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

While the grant delights Mr. Siemering, the vision thing bothers him.

"People put the label of 'dreamer,'or 'wool-gatherer' on you," he says. "I really resent that because no matter how good it is, the vision isn't worth a damn if you can't get it to work."

Nonetheless, the description follows him. Mr. Siemering wrote the mission statement for National Public Radio as its first program director. He also created the renowned program, "All Things Considered."

"He heard [the sound of the future NPR] in his mind before it took to the air, and he told us how to listen for it," says Susan Stamberg, the original host of "All Things Considered," who was hired by Mr. Siemering in 1971. "He has visions, and he understands them, and he sticks with them," she says.

From 1987 to 1992, Mr. Siemering was executive producer of WJHU in Baltimore, where he developed "Soundprint," a weekly documentary series that has won more than 25 national and international awards. During that time, he lived in Baltimore five days a week and in Philadelphia on weekends with his third wife, Lucretia Robbins, an art teacher.

Known as a shy, self-effacing man who listened to and cultivated others' ideas as well as his own, he began many a WJHU office meeting with poetry -- Emily Dickinson, perhaps. Or James Dickey.

"He's an original original," says Moira Rankin, who succeeded him as executive producer at WJHU. "It's a cliche to say he looked for different voices, but that has always been his hallmark: listening to what different kinds of people have to say because he thinks it makes a more interesting world."

A graduate of the University of Wisconsin, Mr. Siemering began his radio career in 1962 as general manager of WBFO in Buffalo, N.Y. He spent two years in Washington at National Public Radio as a founding member of the board of directors, then worked at several local public radio stations, including WHYY in Philadelphia.

At WHYY, he won an Edward R. Murrow Award for "outstanding contributions to public radio" and helped transform a local arts program called "Fresh Air" into a live arts series now broadcast nationally by NPR.

The MacArthur grant comes at an opportune time because Mr. Siemering left his position as executive producer at WJHU to become a consultant in January and to live full time in Philadelphia.

These days, the blue-eyed man who speaks softly and slumps slightly is working to bring public radio, U.S.-style, to emerging democracies.

Last winter, he presented a workshop on public radio in Budapest, Hungary, and in May, at the request of NPR reporter John Matisonn, went to South Africa. There, he spoke at white universities and at black universities, visited small villages and gave workshops in Cape Town, Pretoria and Johannesburg. And he returned to this country with what he calls "missionary zeal."

Experience gained during the '60s in Buffalo, N.Y., is helping him now, he says. There, he worked to forge a "community station within a station" by developing 25 hours of weekend programming solely from and for the black community.

That effort made him realize that public radio "can create a community that doesn't exist in real life," he says, gesturing, spectacles in hand, with a vague, circular motion. "South Africa is a good testing ground. If [public radio] can work there, it can be a model for the rest of the world."

The man who describes himself as a "simple guy from the Midwest" adds, "I think it can be done."

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