The demand to be reading wonderful writing throughout my time at Barnard ... formed my ability to write and my standards for what good writing ought to be. With every passing year I’m more and more grateful to Barnard. It was an absolutely first-rate education.
Above: Susan Stamberg for Barnard Magazine, Fall 1979.
Susan Stamberg ’59 was a radio legend long before her name was added to the Hollywood Walk of Fame on March 3, 2020. Her 14-year tenure on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered featured interviews with historic personalities like Rosa Parks, as well as making history herself, becoming the first woman to anchor a national nightly news program on any platform. She has been with NPR for five decades — since its founding in 1971 — and won every major award in broadcasting, including being inducted into the Broadcasting Hall of Fame and the Radio Hall of Fame, as well as a host of other accolades.
In a ceremony that included remarks from Oscar-nominated actress and NPR fan Annette Bening, Stamberg's award coincided serendipitously with what many consider to be the 100th year since broadcast radio began, starting with an election-night broadcast from KDKA in Pittsburgh in 1920. “I think about [the ceremony] as the last good day,” Stamberg quipped on the phone a few weeks after receiving her star and the COVID-19 pandemic began in the U.S.
Even having a casual phone conversation with Stamberg feels remarkably like listening to NPR on a car radio while commuting to work, on long road trips, or as a podcast while cooking dinner. Her voice is instantly recognizable to any radio news listener from the past 50 years.
Stamberg got her start in radio as the producer, program director, and general manager of WAMU-FM in Washington, D.C., where she learned the ropes of broadcasting on the job after graduating from Barnard College. “I never had the nerve to go across the street over to King’s College Radio [at Columbia],” Stamberg said. “It was in a basement, and it was so dark, and it was all boys. There were no women doing any work over there.”
Stamberg majored in English, and her first jobs out of college were at Daedalus magazine and The New Republic. “When I first walked into a radio station, I looked around at all the equipment and all the wires and stuff, and I said, ‘I was an English major, what am I doing here?’” Stamberg recalled with a laugh.
In the end, though, Stamberg’s English degree proved crucial to her success as a reporter. “All those classes in analytic reading and parsing poems and getting to the heart of things, those are all things I hope you practice in journalism,” Stamberg said. “And the demand to be reading wonderful writing throughout my time at Barnard, that’s what formed my ability to write and my standards for what good writing ought to be.”
More than just academic rigor, Barnard was integral in preparing Stamberg to take on leadership roles after graduation. “With every passing year I’m more and more grateful to Barnard,” Stamberg said. “It was an absolutely first-rate education.”
She continued: “So much was expected of us, and we were told that anything we wanted to do we were capable of doing and that our intelligence was respected,” Stamberg said, citing President Millicent McIntosh as a role model for all Barnard students.
During her tenure at Barnard, McIntosh balanced a marriage, five children, and a very demanding career, Stamberg says, which “were the standards for us, and those were the things that we were educated to do, and to do for the rest of our lives.”
Now an octogenarian, Stamberg still works as a special correspondent for NPR. “I’ll never leave, because every time is different, every day is different in this work, and that’s why I stayed where I am,” Stamberg said. “Also there was no place else I felt that I could work at this level, with this caliber and this kind of quality.”
These days, Stamberg finds herself most drawn to visual arts stories. “I love it because it’s so impossible to do on the radio,” she said. Stamberg expertly describes the artworks to help listeners, and NPR posts photos of the pieces on their website — like this recent story on the rooster sculptures by German artist Katharina Fritsch.
This latest coverage is part of Stamberg’s lifelong interest as an art lover, having graduated as an arts major from LaGuardia High School in New York. “As a news anchor for so many years, [doing visual arts stories is] the icing at the end of the day ... a chance to talk to an artist.”
Other than the fact that she can now post images online to accompany her arts stories, Stamberg doesn’t think radio has changed much since she started in broadcasting. “We [NPR] changed it, by creating a different kind of sound with which to talk to listeners and the use of ambient sound, sound that you find in a place when you go out on a story,” Stamberg said. Since then, in her view, the actual work of radio has remained largely the same.
What’s different, though, is the climate in which radio now operates, with an increased online presence and an emerging younger audience, in large part through podcasts. “There will always be sounds, and there will always be voices talking and stories, but the platforms are different now,” Stamberg said. “Everybody’s got this urge to talk and be heard, and I love that. There’s something very democratic about it.”
—VERONICA SUCHODOLSKI ’19