Author Q&A: Lisa Napoli

– Interview by Elena Bowes

Elena Bowes spoke to author Lisa Napoli about her book Susan, Linda, Nina & Cokie, the Extraordinary story of the Founders of NPR.

Lisa Napoli

Your book Susan, Linda, Nina & Cokie describes the life stories of each of the four founding mothers of NPR – The so-called “Fallopian Jungle” consisted of Susan Stamberg, Linda Wertheimer, Nina Totenberg and Cokie Roberts. How do you think the founding mothers changed the face of journalism?

They were strong women voices covering stories women weren’t previously allowed to cover (politics, law, government, etc). They helped changed the perception of women for all who heard them.

And how did these four special women change women’s perception of themselves?

Hard as it might be for younger people today to imagine, it wasn’t societally permissible for women to engage in discussions, particularly in public, about subjects other than “women’s issues,” like weddings, babies, homemaking, fashion. When you hear women in the media talking about something other than that, finally, you realise, Aha, we’re allowed to have a brain and an opinion and to express our thoughts.

I wrote an earlier book about the first all-news channel, CNN, and the boss there hired a number of women and people of color as on-air staff in 1980—which was an outlier at the time, too. Of course, as was the case with NPR, that was partially because those staffers cost less than men, and were more willing to work at start-ups no one had heard of.

In the early 70s, the station’s first program director Bill Siemering said NPR’s mission should be “to celebrate the human experience” and “encourage a sense of active constructive participation, rather than apathetic helplessness.” What did he mean by ‘apathetic helplessness’?

Regular broadcasting, particular television, shovelled out stories of gloom and doom—even then. If you sat in front of it, you thought, “Oh my god, the world is ending,” and there was nothing you could do. Bill wanted to make it possible for people to engage with the world’s issues more constructively. When you heard a story that wasn’t just alarmist recitation of the car crash or war, but rather a story that was more thoughtfully constructed, well, perhaps you might feel able to do something. Or at least feel a bit more educated about the situation.

What were some of your more surprising discoveries made while researching this book?

I had no idea how scrappy NPR’s roots were, nor how precarious its financial situation was for its first decade plus of existence.  I did, however, know how bad things were for women. My mother raised me to be aware of this, even though she’d risen out of the working-class, so her wisdom came from a different perspective than that of an aspiring journalist.

And speaking of research, how long did your well-researched book take you to write?

I had a year to write this book. It was a killer. However, the year happened to fall during the first year of the pandemic; I was glad to have a major and consuming distraction during that terrible catastrophic time. 

Was it difficult to figure out the best structure for the book, with four strong characters equally deserving of the limelight?

This structure fell into place so easily for me. In my other books I had to wait and let the story “bake” longer. Thankfully, given my deadline, this “architecture” of the story laid itself out in natural course.

Was Susan always the biggest star of NPR? And if so, why?

Susan still is the biggest star, in many ways, even though she’s mostly emeritus now. But she was the first star, because she defined the sound and put the place on the map.

You didn’t include any photos in your book, why not?

A. Very few photos exist of that time, and contemporary photos were besides the point.

B. the photos we did find, it wasn’t possible to license them.

Can you explain what McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc’s wife, Joan Kroc, had to do with NPR? I saw in your footnotes that Mrs. Kroc had tried to give half the money to public television but when her staffer’s calls weren’t returned, she gave it all to public radio. This is amazing.

Yes, isn’t it? Joan Kroc, about whom I wrote an earlier book, was an incredible, inventive, wild philanthropist who was also a news junkie. I hope anyone reading this will read my book to see how she got interested in NPR and gave a fortune to the network when she died.

What’s next?

I’m working on a book about another strong woman, Marian Anderson, who blazed different trails earlier in the 20th century. My last three books have been rooted in the 1970s; time to learn about a different era!

Thank you so much for agreeing to this interview and for writing such a fascinating book, a real slice of history. It’s hard to believe what these women were up against and yet it wasn’t that long ago at all. A lot has been achieved in a relatively short span of time thanks partly to the Fallopian Jungle.

Can you imagine someone calling a corner of the office populated by strong women the Fallopian Jungle now?? 😉

– Interview by Elena Bowes

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