A Riot Sparks Robert Siegel's Love For Radio NPR's Robert Siegel realized he wanted to pursue a career in radio after anchoring broadcasts at Columbia University's radio station during sit-in demonstrations in 1968.
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A Riot Sparks Robert Siegel's Love For Radio

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A Riot Sparks Robert Siegel's Love For Radio

A Riot Sparks Robert Siegel's Love For Radio

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GUY RAZ, host:

Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

For the past few years, during the week leading up to Thanksgiving, NPR and the StoryCorps Project team up for something we call the National Day of Listening. The hope is that it'll encourage people going home for the holidays to sit down with friends and family and, well, listen.

I asked my colleague, Robert Siegel, the long-time host of this program during the week, if I could listen to him, not as the host of ALL THINGS CONSIDERED but as a person I've learned a lot from over the years.

This past week, Robert was awarded the John Chancellor Award by Columbia University as its journalist of the year.

Now, long before you or I even knew who Robert was, people were listening to him, back in 1968, when he was a student reporter at the radio station at Columbia University. And at the time, student protests turned violent when police confronted the demonstrators.

I know about your early days at Columbia, and we've actually played some tape of your anchoring the riots from when you sounded like this...



RAZ: ...in a great how did you do it?

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: When I sounded like what?

RAZ: Can you do it?

SIEGEl: You mean, can I...

RAZ: How you did it.

SIEGEL: No. It's hard for me to do now.

RAZ: The student - yes.

SIEGEL: That's the sound of a 20-year-old kid trying to sound like a 40-year-old man, I think.

RAZ: But you did a good job.

(Soundbite of laughter)


RAZ: It was great.

SIEGEL: The truth is, when I was in college, this was the student radio station, 1968, we did a very good job. For me, this was a time, first of all, of discovering how much I enjoyed being in the know in a time of tremendous confusion, being of some service to people and telling them what's going on, and also not doing it, you know, not being part of it.

I was really a I don't know what I would have done if I hadn't worked at the radio station or possibly at the student newspaper. I don't think I would have sat inside a building. It's not...

RAZ: I don't think you would have.

SIEGEL: ...in my nature.

RAZ: You don't strike me as that kind of person.

SIEGEL: I'm an inactivist.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: I've always been an inactivist. But I don't know. I don't know what I would have done. All I know is having a role that actually was in some way constructive and also satisfied my deep curiosity about what was going on, that clicked for me at that point. And I said, gee, if I could actually do this for a living, there are people who do this, that would be great.

RAZ: So that was the moment? I mean...

SIEGEL: Yeah. Yeah.

RAZ: ...that was when you knew, this is what I'm going to do?

SIEGEL: Yeah. Yeah.

RAZ: You were basically a middle-class kid. Your mom was a secretary at a high school, right?


RAZ: What did they think of your chosen profession? I mean, did they say, you know, Robert, we want you do something else?

SIEGEL: They weren't like that. I mean, they said what they thought I should do, I mean, that there are lives that are secure and that you can hang up a shingle with, and most of them come with an MD after them.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: I heard a lot of that. And I went into a life that was fairly shabby, I must say.

RAZ: Robert, I remember in 2003, I arrived to NPR's London bureau to become the bureau chief.


RAZ: And my predecessor, Julie McCarthy, who is now in Islamabad, our correspondent there, she left a list of all the people who had done that job before.

And there was it was you - you opened the bureau in the late '70s. Neal Conan was on that list, Andy Bowers, Michael Goldfarb. And I looked at it, and it was one of the most intimidating things that I had seen. What...

SIEGEL: See, we had an the ones - those of us who came to NPR pretty early had an advantage in that we didn't have this list to look at, you see?

RAZ: Yeah.

SIEGEL: We were making it up as we went along, so we weren't intimidated by it. This wasn't what we had grown up listening to. We weren't fulfilling anyone's ambitions for us - any parent, by coming to work here.

RAZ: Right.

SIEGEL: And so I think we were liberated in that sense, and we you know, there were no literal or even figurative statues of the greats in our lobby, and we didn't have a way of doing things.

I think by the time you came, we'd become kind of important. And I think it's harder for you guys to come in after a place has developed its own important or self-important history and the way it's supposed to be done.

RAZ: You've been doing this for 23 years, and you've been here for more than 30. This is the last question I have for you, and then you've got to go an interview, right?

SIEGEL: Yeah, I do.

RAZ: Do you ever still get nervous sometimes?

SIEGEL: I can't remember the last time that I really got nervous about being on the air. I get nervous when I feel that I'm going into an interview where I'm not as well prepared as I should be. And I'll get nervous when I'm in the middle of an interview that's going no place. How am I going to make something decent out of this? How can this be useful?

But, you know, the mic light comes on, and the program begins, and that's pretty much second nature by now.

RAZ: That's our friend and colleague Robert Siegel for the StoryCorps National Day of Listening project. You can hear more conversations throughout the week on NPR. And for tips on how to do your own interview, you can find them at nationaldayoflistening.org.

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