Meet NPR’s Founding Mothers, the Voices of a Generation

Lisa Napoli; Susan, Linda, Nina & Cokie book cover

“It wasn’t a foregone conclusion that NPR was going to succeed.”

Just before National Public Radio turned 50 in May of 2021, Lisa Napoli released her fourth book, Susan, Linda, Nina & Cokie: The Extraordinary Story of the Founding Mothers of NPR. In it, Napoli expertly weaves together the stories of four women — Susan Stamberg, Linda Wertheimer, Nina Totenberg, and Cokie Roberts — and the many pieces that had to fall into place to make the struggling radio network the force it is today. She documents how the turbulence of NPR’s early decades allowed these women to become some of the most powerful voices in U.S. media, just as American women were demanding to be heard like never before.

KCM spoke with Napoli about her experience researching and writing the book, the importance of understanding our history, and the evolution of public radio from a media backwater to a network reaching tens of millions of people.

Katie Couric Media: For a lot of people, NPR is such a touchstone of American life — it’s part of so many people’s childhoods. What role has public radio played in your life up until the writing of this book? 

Lisa Napoli: It’s funny that you say people grew up listening to it because a lot of people didn’t. The whole media landscape was different in my youth than it was in yours. It’s not something that I grew up listening to, in part because it wasn’t a big powerhouse the way it is now.

It played a big role in my life, in that I went to work in public radio in Los Angeles at age 40 after I aged out of television. I’m grateful for it and when I was looking for the job that took me out here, I remember thinking the last place in broadcasting where I’d want to work is public radio. 

Do you remember when it became the powerhouse that it did?

The dissatisfying answer to that question is that there isn’t any one moment: It was incremental. If you talk to people who remember it from the 1970s when it was still in the preteen phase, they’ll tell you that they heard some Watergate hearings on the radio. That was a big moment in time because unlike today, where you can hear everything, you can eavesdrop and peer into every part of government, that was not the case when NPR started. It was a very personal thing for many people who will tell you that, you know, they might’ve lived in a small town and turned on the radio one day and heard this woman, Susan Stamberg, and just been so enamored of her that that changed their world and made them lifelong NPR fans.

What initially pulled you into this particular origin story?

It was such an interesting origin story, not just of NPR and these women’s careers, but also the women’s movement in a way that I had never thought about before. I knew there was a women’s movement when I was a kid, but I wasn’t really aware of it in the macro sense. It was a really amazing story that it dovetailed the creation of public broadcasting and these women’s lives because they were young women at that time.

What was it like to dig into that recent history and see how close you were to not being able to work in media at all? 

My mother always told me when I was a kid that things were different when she was a young woman. I’m from a working class family and I knew that there were struggles for women that were different than the world I was entering into.

To me, it’s that awareness of the thing you can’t control, which is when you’re born and to whom. To see work as something other than just a job, but as a career was a newfangled movement when I was first starting out in the eighties. To research the seventies, which I had to do for this book, was fantastic, and it was also very interesting to think about how it relates to where we are today. Many of the struggles are the same, but the conversation and the tone and the words that we use are different.

Were you surprised at all in the course of your research by how much or how little we’ve progressed since then?

These four women, who are some of the best broadcasters of a generation, struggled to find work in the early days because they were expected to be typists and researchers and basically told you can’t be on the air, or “we have our token woman and we don’t need any other women on the air.” When you think about it, that generation had such a struggle, and that never occurred to me when I started working. I never faced that at all.

As a woman, especially of a certain age, writing this book was illuminating and frustrating and angering to know what women had been through. It allows you to understand the dialogue we have today a lot better.

The level of detail in this book makes it feel very intimate, like we know these women. How did you research it?

It’s not easy to get a sense of a moment in time that you didn’t live in or witness. It’s different than journalism. You have to really immerse yourself in so many different media to really get a sense of it. It is a bit of talking to people, a lot of reading, a lot of archival digging. Thankfully I’m writing about a moment in time documented with videos and films. All those things come together to help you encapsulate a particular incident or person or moment in time. 

All of these women were well-documented: When Susan Stamberg was becoming this famous person indelibly connected to this new network, there were tons of profiles of her in newspapers all around the country. Newspapers were much more robust than they are now and they did their own reporting, so there were so many original interviews with her. 

Free speech and freedom of expression has been such a hot-button issue recently, and it looms so large in this story. How do you think the way people see free expression has changed from the early days of public radio to now?

The news business today is unrecognizable from what it was when I started working. When NPR started and they started All Things Considered, the big tension was whether it was going to be more of a magazine show or more of a news show. I don’t know that anybody under the age of 50 really knows the difference between magazine and news shows the way that they were talking about back then because everything is infused with opinion and point of view and what we then would have called editorial or commentary. For this book, it wasn’t about where it is today. I want someone to read this book and be provoked into thinking whatever they’re going to think about where we were not that long ago, versus trying to have a broad, sweeping commentary about point of view.

If you look at the intent of NPR when it started, there were people who wanted it to be more of a cultural service and a connecting point in the United States between big cities and small towns. The reason for NPR was to give voice to people who weren’t heard in typical media, which was dominated by these three broadcast networks, and to offer a non-commercial take. 

After doing all this research and reading these interviews with these women, what surprised you?

What surprised me is the thing that never ceases to amaze me about life, which is that there are certain things you can control and then there are certain things that are completely out of your control that are all about luck and timing. These four women walked into a place that they had never heard of and that most people hadn’t ever heard of, and that place went on to become a legend and so did they. It so easily could not have happened.

The real surprise for me is that it wasn’t a foregone conclusion that NPR was going to succeed, and how tenuous its existence was at the very beginning. That’s exactly what gave this foundation for these women to build on. I’ve worked for many places that were very short lived, but I learned so much from them and I think that’s the big lesson. You may not go work for the place that’s going to become the next big, great media entity, but wherever you go, you can get something out of it. These women exemplify that.

This interview has been edited and condensed.