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Lisa Napoli on how ‘Susan, Linda, Nina & Cokie’ made NPR a powerhouse

Author Lisa Napoli, right, interviewed by Sarah Fenske on stage Nov. 8 at the St. Louis Jewish Book Festival.
Joel Marion Photography
St. Louis Jewish Book Festival
Author Lisa Napoli, right, is interviewed by Sarah Fenske onstage Nov. 8 at the St. Louis Jewish Book Festival.

Their voices are instantly recognizable. Their names, too. You probably associate them with big scoops on the Supreme Court or Congress, or broadcasts that kept you riveted on your evening commute.

But back in the early days, they were just four co-workers. Four women, not coincidentally — all paid far less than they were worth and toiling at a news outlet in relative obscurity. They changed that, of course. They changed so many things.

“They,” of course, are Susan Stamberg, Linda Wertheimer, Nina Totenberg and Cokie Roberts. And they are the subject of Lisa Napoli’s compulsively readable new biography, “Susan, Linda, Nina & Cokie: The Extraordinary Story of the Founding Mothers of NPR.”

Napoli discussed the book before a live audience at the St. Louis Jewish Book Festival on Nov. 8. The highlights of that conversation were broadcast on Tuesday’s St. Louis on the Air.

Napoli traces the rise of journalists like Stamberg and Wertheimer back to NPR’s first programming director: Bill Siemering, a former high school teacher from rural Wisconsin. Siemering was determined that NPR would sound different from commercial radio stations. He didn’t want the “white male voice of authority,” she writes.

“You know, all the things that we say about a lot of media today, he was saying back then,” Napoli recalled. “He was worried that it was too white, that it wasn't reflective of society. And it wasn't also geographically reflective. Broadcast news, if you remember, back then it was three networks that had a very homogenous way of presenting the news, but also a very East Coast-centric bias. New York, D.C., the newspapers drove what got covered. And Bill just really knew better. He knew that there was a whole country out there that wasn't being covered or reflected. And it was very important for him.”

And that led him to hire women for key roles long before the networks (or newspapers) were willing to do it. Listeners responded.

“They were grossly underpaid in the early days, as were all their colleagues,” Napoli said. “But they had this sense. And it's an exciting sense, as when you work for a new organization. It’s like, ‘Let's put on a show, we did an opening night, and there were some people.’ And then by the fifth night, the house was packed.

“And that ramp-up that they had, that they all witnessed with their early days, it's kind of like ‘we're talking into the wind,’ and then all of a sudden, they started to notice more and more that people actually were listening.”

In some ways, they were in the right place at the right time, Napoli said. By the 1970s, the world was clearly ready for female journalists to bring them radio broadcasts (even if commercial stations didn’t realize it). And they made the most of the opportunity.

“All four of the women said many times that a lot of it was timing, as much as anything,” Napoli said. “Yes, they were super talented and committed. But they came into the world that they entered at a ripe time for them.”

For more on NPR’s early days, the moment NPR almost went under, and the role the “founding mothers” played in each others’ lives, listen to Lisa Napoli’s St. Louis Jewish Book Festival interview.

'A lot of it was timing'
Listen to Lisa Napoli in conversation with Sarah Fenske at the St. Louis Jewish Book Festival

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Sarah Fenske served as host of St. Louis on the Air from July 2019 until June 2022. Before that, she spent twenty years in newspapers, working as a reporter, columnist and editor in Cleveland, Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles and St. Louis.