Grand dame of the chattering classes

Monday Book Review

July 26, 1993|By Neil A. Grauer

TALK: NPR'S SUSAN STAMBERG CONSIDERS ALL THINGS. By Susan Stamberg. Turtle Bay. 380 pages. $24.

NEWSPAPER people often complain that their efforts are ephemeral, forgotten by readers within hours and good only for fish wrap the following day.

The product of those who work in radio, however, is even more ephemeral. Susan Stamberg, the bright, lively and endlessly engaging interviewer and reporter for National Public Radio, naturally knows that the greatest authority on radio's evanescence is the late Fred Allen, the comic philosopher of the medium's golden age, who observed decades ago: "Radio is about as lasting as a butterfly's cough."

In an attempt to endow her ethereal endeavors with more permanence, Ms. Stamberg gathered together highlights from the estimated 20,000 interviews she has conducted on the air since joining NPR in 1971, first with the early evening broadcast "All Things considered," and, after 1986, with "Weekend Edition" on Sundays and now with "Morning Edition."

"`Talk: Susan Stamberg Considers All Things" contains 65 interviews and a few assorted essays culled from her broadcasts between 1971 and 1991, all demonstrating Stamberg's wonderful facility for handling every imaginable individual and subject with sensitivity, insight, humor -- and toughness, when necessary.

Inherent in such a volume is the basic problem of transferring to the printed page something created for a verbal, aural medium. Ms. Stamberg acknowledges this obliquely by noting in her introduction that broadcasters "work to be heard" and her that interviews form "a sound track of our time." What is more, she writes, it is "the way the words are said" by the people she has interviewed that "colors the telling."

"The voice is any story's most important instrument," she writes. "The voice gives life, as photographs and film cannot."

The same is true of cold type. In Fred Allen's 1954 memoir of his radio career, "Treadmill to Oblivion," the excerpts he reprinted from the comedy sketches on his show were, alas, the weakest part of the book.

Nevertheless, Ms. Stamberg's skill as an interviewer in "Talk" and the astonishing scope of er work shine through, triumphing over the obstacles she faces in attempting "to catch back [from the air] some of what's been said."

In doing so, Ms. Stamberg gives the reader a smorgasbord of bite-sized morsels that form a substantial intellectual feast. The breadth of her subject matter ranges from interviews with Lord ++ Snowden on photography to Harold Stassen (!) on why he still was running for president when nearly 80.

Calling herself a "minuteperson" of the feminist movement -- she was the first woman to anchor a national nightly news program -- Ms. Stamberg writes that "in my early years of interviewing it was hard for me to raise troubling personal matters with guests." She got over it. Now she knows that if she asks "difficult questions with respect and compassion, the answers will come less painfully."

Her most "painful" interview, she writes, was a farewell telephone chat in 1986 with Kim Matthews, NPR's chirpy authority on edible wild foods "and most other things under the sun and rain," two weeks before Matthews died of cancer. Her "best" interview, she believes, was a 1977 talk with writer Joan Didion. Both became so involved in their discussion they forgot the tape was running.

In describing that rare bit of broadcast epiphany, Ms. Stamberg reflects on the mechanics of what she does -- and lets us know that like everything done well, it is a lot more difficult than it looks or sounds.

"A conversation designed to be overhead, a broadcast interview forces the interviewer to listen with a kind of third ear, to make constant mental notes about follow-ups, about when to change the subject, about how to get a more concise response, about where the tape might be cut. And when it's done very well, a broadcast interview gives 12 million listeners the illusion they're eavesdropping," she writes.

Often after finishing his weekly radio show, Fred Allen was heard to mutter, "Well, that one belongs to the sparrows." By assembling a grand assortment of her NPR work between two covers, Ms. Stamberg makes sure the birds are not the only lucky recipients of her gifts.

Neil A. Grauer, a Baltimore writer, wrote a profile of Fred Allen that appeared in American Heritage.

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