Profiles of Late Style: Bill Siemering
“Wherever I’ve been forced to land, I’ve always tried to use radio creatively and for social good to improve peoples lives.”
For those of us who have experienced a “driveway moment,” it is hard to imagine life before NPR. The next time you are sitting in your car captivated by a story and waiting to hear how it ends, you can thank Bill Siemering.
Everything is Connected
Bill Siemering is humble, unassuming and unpretentious with a kind face that invites conversation. Growing up in the farmlands of Wisconsin, Siemering’s natural curiosity propelled him to explore the world. At his rural elementary school the teacher would turn on “Wisconsin School of the Air” twice a day for lessons on science, art, social studies, and nature. Siemering quickly learned that radio was a source of information and imagination.
In 1970, Siemering was the first Director of Programing for the newly formed National Public Radio. Motivated by a belief that everything is connected and that all people should be respected and heard, radio was a natural fit.
The now famous NPR mission statement, penned by Siemering, drew on this belief. Siemering wanted to create a platform that dealt with “real-life” issues and was deeply rooted in respect for others, especially those who were different. “It was aspirational and helped guide our core values. I guess the fundamental thing was respect.”
Early in his career Siemering was already redefining what was possible in radio. His quest to tap the potential of radio as a creative medium and communication platform resulted in broadcast projects ranging from recording cityscape sounds to hosting the very first conversations around race and equality.
“It was a significant departure from what was normal at the time. I wanted our news programming to come on first, before network stations. I believed that by having a program that is inclusive and dealt with arts and culture, as well as hard news, you would attract a larger audience.”
Siemering saw the potential that radio had in promoting social good. Specifically, Siemering wanted to foster a platform where complicated social issues could be explored in a long-format, interdisciplinary way. As a result, he helped launch programs such as Fresh Air, Radio Times, and All Things Considered.
Pushing Out the Boundaries of Radio
For Siemering, public radio was never simply about dispensing information. Throughout his career he has had to make the case for radio as a unique storytelling medium. “With radio you can get out of a studio, get into the streets and really explore….People connect with radio in a way they don’t with other communication mediums.” There is an emotional attachment that forms with someone’s voice that lends itself to storytelling.
And it’s not simply the audio qualities of radio that are compelling- it is the transformational quality of the content itself. Working with a diversity of people throughout his career confirmed his belief that everyone has something to contribute, especially those who are living at the margins. “As a result of listening to NPR, someone who was ‘different’ might have been able to get a job or rent a room because someone else on the other side of that issue learned about that ‘difference’ and was more open. That would be success… That is where people change their minds.”
Defining Success by the “Everyday” Stories
Siemering has had a number of career pivots throughout his life. He’ll be the first to admit that “not all my job changes were voluntary.”
Yet there is a compelling quest for innovation that propels him forward and motivates him to keep working.
Siemering’s most recent passion has been Developing Radio Partners (DRP), an organization that equips radio stations throughout the developing world. Building on his domestic radio experience, it seemed like a natural fit to expand his efforts internationally. The scope might be different, but his underlying philosophy remains the same.
“We are not the north coming down, we simply try to enrich their programing. We help make things personal and real. We help bring in farmers, agronomists, to help enrich programs around practical, pressing issues. We are really empowering these communities with better quality programming- it really builds up these stations.”
And the process of improvement is always measured by the impact on everyday life. “When I asked a manger of a station in Rwanda, what he considers success, he said, ‘when a farmer calls us from the field and asks how he can turn cassava leaves into organic fertilizer or what pesticides to use. That is success because we’ve helped him and his wife.’ It is that practical stuff.”
There are More Stories to Be Told
Siemering is currently still working as President of DRP, yet he knows there are more stories to be told. He continues to travel and consult and is always paying attention to how the world unfolds around him.
In this chapter of life, is Siemering ready to ride off in the sunset? “Oh no! I’ve never thought of doing that! There is too much to do… My goal is to stay as healthy as I can, as long as I can, to work as long as I can, to do as much work as I can.”
The Profiles of Late Style blog series is part of the Departure and Discovery Project led by the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society which is supported by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage. Over the next few months, we will be featuring weekly stories that explore a whole range of perspectives on late style and its impact as an altogether universal human experience.