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Consider this: 'All Things Considered' turns 30

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NPR's "All Things Considered" hosts Linda Wertheimer, Robert Siegel and Noah Adams  

(CNN) -- Some would say it was the worst of times.

The United States was stuck in a war it would not win. Its president was three years away from resigning office in shame. The Summer of Love was a dim memory, and the Beatles had broken up.

In other words, the '60s were definitely over.

But things were just getting started for National Public Radio's "All Things Considered." On May 3, 1971, the daily radio news magazine that would become the network's flagship program broadcast its first show from Washington.

Reporter Jeff Kamen kicked things off with a report on the antiwar demonstrations filling the nation's capital with unrest. "Today in the nation's capital," Kamen began, "it is a crime to be young and have long hair."

  QUIZ
 

Now, 30 years later, "All Things Considered" has not only survived, it has thrived. It has an audience of a few million people, including fellow journalists who have found consistent integrity, unique views and surprising content in the show.

Robert Siegel, a host of "All Things Considered" along with Noah Adams and Linda Wertheimer, joined NPR in 1976 and has served a variety of positions, including news director.

On Thursday, he'll mark the 30th anniversary for the show with a special one-hour program, a collection of interviews with 30-year-olds who share their thoughts on what it has been like to grow up in the past three decades.

Siegel recently spoke with CNN about the old days, the Internet days, and NPR's legacy as a radio "community."

CNN: Did you ever think that you'd still be on the air after 30 years?

Robert Siegel: No. I thought I'd have a real job by now. I moved to NPR at the end of 1976 and at the time, my wife and I had had our first daughter and the health insurance was so lousy at the previous radio station I worked at that I remember at the hospital bursar I paid with a credit card while she was upstairs getting ready (to give birth).

So I came here and they had good maternity benefits, I remember, and I figured we'd have the next kid on NPR, and then I assumed we'd be gone to work for a real network. That second child is 22 now and here I am.

CNN: Why have you chosen to stay there?

Siegel: Rationally at every moment, when I thought I might do something else, day in and day out working for NPR was just gratifying. Linda and Noah and myself have been here so long that we've actually been part of building this place. It's not just that we remember it when it was very small and when it consisted of talking to far fewer people.

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"Linda and Noah and myself have been here so long that we've actually been part of building this place," Siegel says  

We were part of that smallness and we've had the opportunity to be like pioneers in building something, which is an unusual institution. So there's a special relationship with it that I don't think I could replicate elsewhere.

And then, there have always been good, interesting things to do. This is good! This is a great job on a great show. ... I work for a program that I would listen to even if I didn't work here. If I sold shoes I would listen to this program. If I taught school I would listen to this program. If I listened to another broadcast outfit I would still listen to this program.

CNN: That sentiment is shared by fellow journalists, who listen to you every day. Is there a certain pressure associated with that?

Siegel: No. I don't think that's a special pressure. That's nice. I think we became something the people in the news media listen to before we became something that a few million people listen to. I find the pressure of the few million people greater than the other journalists.

CNN: Are there two news stories -- one from when you started, and one from today -- that highlight how NPR has changed its coverage over the years?

Siegel: We have changed our coverage so much. I remember sending a reporter, David Ensor, who's now at CNN, to France for a French election and then later to the Soviet Union on a trip ... These trips were such a big deal. It involved such a commitment of resources. ... We had nobody based overseas.

... Today, we have staff on all continents except Antarctica, based in Johannesburg and Jerusalem and Cairo and Rome and London and Berlin and Paris and Moscow and Beijing and Tokyo and Delhi and Mexico City and San Paulo.

CNN: You must be proud that NPR has stood up to television news and the Internet.

Siegel: Television obviously dealt a body blow to radio that, at some level, we'll never recover. We're no longer the primary cultural event for American families -- to sit around and listen to the radio. NPR was the aspect of American radio that recovered from that in ways that the commercial radio networks in some ways did not.

I think we've survived the arrival of the Internet. ...But I think that no matter what happens, there will always be an audio medium. I think we will be a successful news and information source. Whether we're on radio 30 years from now, who knows? But I think in some ways we'll be finding people.

CNN: What's NPR's legacy for the last 30 years?

Siegel: I think we've been this remarkable source of community for quite a few million Americans who find something lacking in commercial broadcasting, which is a dominant force in our culture. ... I think we've given a lot of people a place, an act of listening to something that connects them with the world, a curiosity about the world, a state for good story-telling and good writing, an interest in books as well as movies and music. All of that is honored and I think that's the legacy.

... If you had said 30 years ago we were going to have a dozen or more foreign correspondents in bureaus around the country and hours of programming, and it will essentially be supported by people giving money to their radio station every year, even though they don't have to -- that was the greatest source of skepticism you could probably imagine. That's our legacy.



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