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The trailblazing women behind 50 years of extraordinary journalism at NPR


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Amna Nawaz: Well, this year marks the 50th anniversary of NPR.

And a new book, "Susan, Linda, Nina & Cokie: The Extraordinary Story of the Founding Mothers of NPR," explores the careers and the friendships of trailblazing journalists Susan Stamberg, Linda Wertheimer, Nina Totenberg, and Cokie Roberts.

Judy Woodruff recently spoke with Lisa Napoli, the author of that book, and Susan Stamberg about how those four women helped build National Public Radio into one of the country's most popular and respected media outlets.

Judy Woodruff: Susan Stamberg, Lisa Napoli, so good to have both of you with us.

And, Lisa, what a book. And it is NPR's 50th anniversary this year. And these women you have chosen to write about, they're women, we're familiar with them all today, but you remind us what an extraordinary uphill climb they had.

Lisa Napoli: These women needed a book together to celebrate their work with each other, but also how they helped NPR launch, because, of course, it hadn't launched, and it wouldn't have, probably, without them.

Judy Woodruff: And, Lisa, what was it that drew you to them? Because, again, I mean, so many people think they know them because we hear their voices and we have seen them somewhere. What drew you to this?

Lisa Napoli: That's exactly it.

I knew their names. I have been following them for years, but I didn't really know where they'd come from. And, Judy, that's why I love writing books. I loved practicing journalism for so long, but writing books, you can dig deeper and find out the why.

And what really surprised me is the troubles that women faced. I knew from my mother that the economics for women were not always equitable, but I certainly didn't realize that there was a time when women weren't allowed to be on the air or even have a byline in the newspaper.

So, as a researcher and a writer and an amateur historian, I just loved telling the story of this media outlet through the lens of these four women who were able to make inroads that they couldn't have just even a few years before.

Judy Woodruff: And, Susan Stamberg, you were the first.

I mean, you were the pioneer arriving at what was to be NPR in the 1960s. But there you were. You were Sue Levitt from, what, the Upper West Side of New York City.

Susan Stamberg: Yes.

Judy Woodruff: And your great credential graduating from college was, you could type 90 words a minute.

Susan Stamberg: Oh, better than that, 100. These days, 90, because you slow down. You're right.

And Totenberg tells a story about going for different jobs and being told, we already have our woman. And Linda tells stories about having worked for a bit at the BBC in London. And the women would go out, record someone on tape, come back and they would edit out the woman's voice, so -- and then a man would come in and voice between the clips, so that they were never heard.

Judy Woodruff: What is so remarkable about these stories is that each one of you made it to the -- of course, the successful place that you are today.

Of course, we lost Cokie, our beloved friend, a year-and-a-half ago to cancer. But each one of you made enormous success, but through very different routes.

You came to Washington. You then went overseas. You came back. What explains the fact that it all worked in the end, do you think?

Susan Stamberg: NPR was a startup. So there weren't 1,000 people ahead of you in the job you were dying to get. That makes it tough for anybody, men or women, but particularly difficult for a woman.

My theory is total luck and very persistent telephone calling. I would call and go after a job and drive the people crazy. And I think they hired me to just get me off the damn phone.

Oh, excuse me. We don't speak that way on the "NewsHour." Forgive me.


Judy Woodruff: And, Lisa, from your perspective, what was it about these women that made them endure, that made them become who they were?

Lisa Napoli: Oh, boy. I think it's kismet, isn't it? You know, you don't find four people like this very often.

Their stories, like you say, were so different. And their rises were so different. I mean, I don't think a lot of people remember that Linda Wertheimer was a consumer reporter before she knew Congress in and out, or that Susan had been behind the scenes and had the life that she had, or that Cokie had to basically cry and beg to get a job, it was so difficult for her.

So, I think it is a staying power. It is -- I don't mean to diminish anybody's talent. And a lot of it is luck. But, really, they were there at the birth of a new medium. As Linda said, it was a startup, but it was also FM radio exploding and public radio beginning.

Judy Woodruff: Right.

Lisa Napoli: And so all those things. That's what I love about this story. It's all these little elements that came together. And it was a combustible moment.

Judy Woodruff: You did extraordinary research.

I mean, the fact that Cokie's husband, Steve Roberts, gave her resume to Nina Totenberg at NPR because he really wanted his wife to have the job that she wanted.

But, Susan, people look at NPR, and maybe they don't realize how different public radio is from commercial radio. How do you explain it to someone who isn't in the middle of it?

Susan Stamberg: Well, it's non-commercial, so we don't interrupt things constantly, much like yourself, with various ads.

We do a whole lot of underwriting. But that's a great strength. You can listen to it straight, get the information straight, and also full and balance. Much of news anyway on television is a -- is kind of opinion nation. That is, it's not -- there's no effort to make it balanced or objective.

But NPR does. It's our M.O. It's what we do. So, I explain it that way. And I also explain it's full of very terrific women.

Judy Woodruff: Lisa Napoli, what a great gift this book is for all of us who've depended on NPR and still depend on NPR for all these years, and to read in such fascinating detail about the lives of these four remarkable women. Thank you.

And, thanks, Susan Stamberg, for being there at the creation. We owe you a lot.

Thank you both so much.

Susan Stamberg: Thank you, Judy.

Lisa Napoli: Thank you.

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