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Radio With A Purpose: Bill Siemering On NPR's Original Mission Statement

With the help of Bill Siemering, NPR was able to identify its core values and goal to diversify its storytelling.
Wanyu Zhang
With the help of Bill Siemering, NPR was able to identify its core values and goal to diversify its storytelling.

When I was six years old, I knew that radio was a medium with a purpose. Twice a day, my teacher in a rural school turned on the radio and we listened to the Wisconsin School of the Air and I learned art, music, science and nature studies listening to the radio. This was but one example of the Wisconsin Idea that "the boundaries of the campus are the boundaries of the state."

The NPR Purposes did not just spring forth one day; it was the result of many experiences. One of the most significant was when I established a storefront studio in the heart of the Black community in Buffalo to originate programming on WBFO, SUNY Buffalo. The extensive programming was planned and produced by residents of the community; most had no broadcast experience. Radio is easy to learn.

As the result of this, I wrote in a publication published in 1969:

To allow minority views to be unrepresented or misrepresented is to deny freedom of choice and threaten the life of the democracy. While commercial media have ignored the pluralism of society, the future of public broadcasting may be to capitalize on this diversity.

When — as a member of the NPR founding board of directors — I was asked to write the Purposes, I wanted to differentiate public radio from educational and commercial radio and from PBS. I wanted to make the case for radio as a medium because it had been disparaged. The transition from educational to public meant inclusion, for everyone. Program and editorial decisions would be made by merit not by ratings. I wanted it to be both aspirational and practical.

Radio with a purpose.

Read the original NPR Purposes through the slideshow below.

National Public Radio Purposes (1970)

National Public Radio will serve the individual: it will promote personal growth; it will regard the individual differences among men with respect and joy rather than derision and hate; it will celebrate the human experience as infinitely varied rather than vacuous and banal; it will encourage a sense of active constructive participation, rather than apathetic helplessness.

National Public Radio, through live interconnection and other distribution systems, will be the primary national non-commercial program service. Public radio stations will be a source for programming input as well as program dissemination. The potentials of live interconnection will be exploited, the art and the enjoyment of the sound medium will be advanced.

In its cultural mode, National Public Radio will preserve and transmit the cultural past, will encourage and broadcast the work of contemporary artists and provide listeners with an aural esthetic experience which enriches and gives meaning to the human spirit.

In its journalistic mode, National Public Radio will actively explore, investigate and interpret issues of national and international import. The programs will enable the individual to better understand himself, his government, his institutions and his natural and social environment so he can intelligently participate in effecting the process of change.

The total service should be trustworthy, enhance intellectual development, expand knowledge, deepen aural esthetic enjoyment, increase the pleasure of living in a pluralistic society and result in a service to listeners which makes them more responsive, informed human beings and intelligent responsible citizens of their communities and the world.

Implementation of Goals

Such statements of purpose are only platitudes and good intentions unless there is the strong commitment, creative energy and specific strategy to implement them. The detailed implementation of National Public Radio is the responsibility of the President and his staff, but some priorities and suggested approaches are necessary to help answer the how and why of NPR.

The priorities of NPR program development:

  • Provide an identifiable daily product which is consistent and reflects the highest standards of broadcast journalism.
  • Provide extended coverage of public events, issues and ideas, and acquire and produce special public affairs programs.
  • Acquire and produce cultural programs which can be scheduled individually by stations.
  • Provide access to the intellectual and cultural resources of cities, universities and rural districts through a system of cooperative program development with member public radio stations.
  • Develop and distribute programs to specific groups (adult education, instructional, modular units for local productions) which meet needs of individual regions or groups.
  • Establish liaison with foreign broadcasters for a program exchange service.
  • Produce materials specifically intended to develop the art and technical potential of radio.
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    Bill Siemering