Q&A With All Things Considered Host Robert Siegel As He Retires After 40 Years At NPR

Tuesday, January 2, 2018
By Brooke Ruth, Maureen Cavanaugh
Credit: Courtesy of NPR
Above: Robert Siegel is pictured in this undated photo.

After 30 years co-anchoring NPR's All Things Considered news magazine, Robert Seigel is about to step away from the microphone. His retirement is set for January 5.

All told, Seigel has had a 40-year career in journalism, helping to shape NPR's international reporting and national coverage.

KPBS Midday Edition host Maureen Cavanaugh spoke with Siegel prior to his retirement. Here is that interview:

Q: It just won't feel like the same drive home for thousands of people in San Diego without your voice on the radio — I wonder, are you getting that message from people all across the country?

A: I've received some very nice messages from many people telling me that they'll miss my voice in the drive home or the time preparing dinner or whatever it might be and it's very gratifying and it's nice to know that I've become a part of people's lives even if I'm the rush hour accompanist.

Q: What made you decide to retire at this point, right now?

A: Well, I decided to do this about three and a half years ago and I thought that age 70 looked like a reasonable time to start a new chapter in my life, whatever that might be, while I would still be healthy and at the top of my game and still able to walk and all that and feel energetic about it. So for the past three years I've been thinking about this. I've made almost zero plans for this moment, which I'm happy about. But it seemed fitting to me. It just seemed like a good time. I felt that if I went a little bit longer I would never be able to pry myself away from doing it. I would want to do it into my 90s, which I don't think would be healthy.

Q: You worked as a reporter, a foreign correspondent and a news director before becoming the co-host of All Things Considered — what was it about sitting behind that ATC microphone that kept you engaged for 30 years?

A: Everything. This is a, first of all it's a news program. It's a place where people who are interested in what's going on in the world will get their fix in the afternoon whether it's in the car or at home or wherever and I loved being a part of that process and trying to make complicated events a little bit clearer and understandable to people. Also it's a wonderful thing to be a host of a broadcast. I have lots of colleagues doing that. None of them is under my supervision and I am supervised by one person. So it was a wonderful change of pace from running NPR news, which was managerial and bureaucratic and I guess it required a patience of me that I don't think I really have and being a host of a daily program is really built for someone with a short attention span. You get to immerse yourself in a few things, go in, do the program and then you go home and you do homework for the next day's program, but there's something that happens routinely, so I've loved everything about it.

Q: In reviewing these years as you must be doing now, as you're doing all these interviews, and participating in this sort of long goodbye, is there a particular news story or interview you'd very much like to do-over?

A: I'd probably want to do over the Oval Office interview with Bill Clinton the day the Washington Post broke the story that he was under investigation, when Mara Liasson and I had the pre-State of the Union address. I think I could have pushed a little harder on that. We did push but we felt at the time that the first five or six minutes was good for that story that we knew nothing about and then we'd get on to the regular State of the Union material. That's one I'd want to redo I think.

Q: You know, I think most people would agree that we're living through a unique moment in American history and in journalism history. Are you concerned about what long-term effects all this "fake news" talk will have on the future of journalism?

A: Yes, I'm concerned. I think the challenge to us, let's say, at NPR is to stick to our game and get better at it and recall what our purpose is, which is to be a straight, clear source of news and information. We are not a political movement, we're not a political party. And the fact that there's a president who demonizes good journalism or aggressive journalism as fake news and a normal criminal investigation as a witch hunt, is a challenge to other institutions to abandon their standards and to join in an argument at that level. And I think the challenge to NPR and other news organizations is to remember who we are and what we do and remember that there are times when the media are under attack from the White House. That was certainly true during the 1960s and '70s under the Nixon administration. And the media can survive if we do our job right. It's not a matter of becoming antagonists even if we are lured into the fight.

Q: Just to take that whole idea just one step further — we talk a lot here at KPBS about the importance of public broadcasting. From your perspective, as one of the people who has really helped shape NPR from its early years, what makes public broadcasting important?

A: I think it's this unique relationship between us and the audience. I was once hosting a visiting group of Israeli journalists and trying to explain the system that we operated in and one of them said 'You ask the people that listen to support you, to give you money? Are you crazy?' and I said 'No people actually give money to support public radio stations and it doesn't mean that they agree with every word they hear on the radio station but they do that.' That to me is something quite special, that public broadcasting is both a system of organizing radio and television stations, it's also a civic endeavor and it moves the act of journalism into or more plainly into our civic life, not just our business life. We are the demonstration that one thing that a city needs is vibrant media that will be putting the claims of politicians and business people and activists to the test and examining if what they say holds water. And that's not something that's there because it sells enough advertising to survive and it's a good business, it's part of democratic society. That may be true of other media as well, but I think we in public media epitomize that.

Q: You've won many, many awards during your career, is there one that stands out or means the most to you?

A: I was given a very distinguished award named for John Chancellor, who was a great NBC anchor man and it's given every year to a single journalist and it's a lifetime achievement sort of award and friends and colleagues have been similarly honored and it's a classy group to be part of and it was given by the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, which I attended and dropped out of. I didn't complete the master's. So it was both a very generous prize given to people who I admire and am proud to be counted among them, honoring a man whose journalism and whose calm during very difficult times was an absolute model for broadcast journalists I think, and there was the added benefit of it healing what was then a 30-year divide between me and my graduate school.

Q: Now you say you have no real plans about what you're going to be doing. How do you think you're going to shape the effort to decide what the next chapter in your life is going to be?

A: I'm going to read and I'm going to talk to friends and find out things that they're doing that they find interesting. And there are things that I'm interested in pursuing, subjects that I want to read up more on and perhaps write about, but I leave that all up to future conversations and study hours. I'm really anticipating a degree of freedom first and then perhaps developing some new routine after that.