Robert Siegel: Broadcast Journalism Too Often 'A Little Scrap Of Something That Might Be News'

Jan 2, 2018

Robert Siegel has been a familiar voice on NPR since 1976 and the host of NPR's All Things Considered since 1987. At the end of this week, and to the dismay of many listeners including myself, Siegel will end his run as host of All Things Considered. Robert Siegel joined me to talk about wrapping up his storied career. 

Note: During the interview, Peter Biello mentioned Fresh Air's conversation with Robert Siegel. You can find that right here

This transcript has been edited for clarity:

I speak for myself myself and I speak for many listeners when we say we're really going to miss your voice on All Things Considered, especially you know the rapport that you have with guests. 

Well that's very kind of you. Well I guess I'll miss talking with all those guests. But it's been a great ride and I think I'm I'm happy to be getting off at this point. 

Let me ask you about your interviewing style. How did you learn how to interview people? This is not a talent that most people have since birth. 

I can't say that I've taken a lot of instruction on it. I remember being taught a little bit in journalism school about interviewing people. I remember listening to Susan Stamberg pretty closely when I came to work here at NPR and listening to her responding to people in the way that we would respond if this were a conversation we were having over a cup of coffee, or we were standing around the corridor talking with someone.

So I've listened to people whom I admire - to Susan, to Terry Gross. I've listened back to things I did that worked and tried to do more of that, and to things that didn't work and tried to do less of that, and always tried to talk with people as if we were to human beings having a conversation. 

What interviews are you most proud of? 

I don't think that way. I think that this is such a job cut out for someone with a short attention span. When you say that, I typically think of something that I did a month ago something as opposed to the past 30 years. I have enjoyed lots of interviews with writers and musicians over the years. 

You've been a journalist for many many decades now, and I'm curious how you think being a journalist has changed since you began?

I think it's changed quite a bit, actually, in broadcasting. First, most broadcast reporters when I was in college and getting bitten by the radio news bug would write a story and maybe get edited on it and then announce it and tell people in a very authoritative sounding way what the news was. NPR was one of those outfits that, for a variety of reasons, presented a lot of stories in what we call a two-way - it's a misnomer. When the host interviews a reporter about the story, we talk about the story and the reporter really isn't so much talking directly to the listener as to as to the host and being overheard. And while I think that that's a very important and humanizing trend- or it was - I think we've gone overboard in that a lot of what passes for news coverage and what seems to be the the driving form of journalism these days is cable news.

You very rarely see somebody who has spent several hours consulting multiple sources and then in a very careful way presents that information. Maybe it's a newspaper reporter who did that and now is on television talking about it. But broadcast journalism all too often, I think, just hearing a little scrap of something that might be news. And we've invited the public into the process of editing that and making news, but it makes what you hear a bit less authoritative. 

What do you think you'll miss about the job of hosting All Things Considered? 

Well I'll miss the company of lots of terrific people, some of whom I've worked with for for 40 years, and some of whom are young enough to be a good deal younger than my children, but they're great folks. And it's a unit - we meet in the morning, and everybody from the most senior producer or host to the intern pitches story ideas. And we've been doing that for a long time, and I think we enjoy working with one another and I don't know what I'll do without the company everyday. 

Well Robert, we're really going to miss you. And we just thank you so much for decades and decades of excellent work on NPR. We really appreciate hearing you. 

It's very kind of you. And I've I've really enjoyed - I wouldn't have thought this 41 years ago when I came to work here - but I've enjoyed the unique relationship that we have with listeners and stations and people who who listen and who support their station. It's actually a very gratifying system. I'm amazed it still works, but it's it's very gratifying. So thank you and thanks to everybody there.