Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald


All Things Considered: Past and present

With anti-Vietnam protests escalating and the Watergate scandal looming on the horizon, the newly founded National Public Radio successfully launched its first news program, All Things Considered, in the early 1970s with University of Wisconsin professor Jack Mitchell at its helm.

The drive-time newscast started as a program that contained a little bit of everything and was meant to be thought-provoking, according to Mitchell, who formerly served on the NPR Board of Directors.

With ATC’s anniversary approaching, Mitchell and others in the field look to the program’s nearly 40 years of practice in pondering the future of public radio across the country and in Wisconsin.


“[ATC] still has a large variety,” Mitchell said. “We had more music and dramatic segments back then because the basic concept then was to cover anything interesting going on — sometimes news, sometimes not.”

Mitchell said in the 1970s, ATC, hosted by Robert Conley, was a mix of comedy, dramatic sketches, human-interest stories, softer news and the hard news of the day. Today, ATC broadcasts similar programming with interviews, news commentary and special features daily.

In the beginning was the word…

According to Professor of Media and Cultural Studies Michele Hilmes, newspapers owned a lot of early radio. In Chicago, WGN Radio stood for “World’s Greatest Newspaper” and was owned by the Chicago Tribune.

Hilmes said the arrangement worked well for newspapers because they had a tie-in on the radios, which read news bulletins and promoted their paper. However, newspapers were also suspicious about the potential for radio to take away its audience.

“There were restrictions about how much news could be on the radio and when, so it wouldn’t scoop the afternoon edition of the paper,” Hilmes said. “There was a limited amount of news on the radio around 1938-39.”

Instead, there were news commentators giving opinions on news. It was not until right before World War II that the development of reporting news from direct locations upped the amount of news on the radio more than 10 percent, Hilmes said.

Mitchell said NPR was started in response to former President Lyndon Johnson’s signing of the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967. The act initiated public broadcasting as Johnson’s attempt to invest in the United States’ education and culture in the 1960s.

“Radio was weak,” Mitchell said. “There were very few stations that were very good, so they needed to set up a place with equal programming, and NPR and the Public Broadcasting Service were formed.”

Mitchell said he started with NPR when a couple stations he was working with decided to send him to England to the British Broadcasting Corporation to study how their system worked.

Mitchell moved from unit to unit at the BBC to see how they worked on an operational level. He came back from the experience and said NPR was not ready to run because they had not picked a president yet, so he opened up the NPR office himself.

“I was literally the first one there. For three weeks, I was NPR,” Mitchell said.

He added the atmosphere was very creative and loose in 1971, with a young staff putting together something new that had never been done before. The Vietnam War was four years from ending, and the protests were a large segment of news they covered.

…and the word was used to inform…

Mitchell said the philosophy at the very beginning of the 1970s was the sense that people needed to be brought together. There needed to be a place where people would be taken seriously, where they could discuss their interests and ideas.

Through public radio, which is still essentially the same today, short items can be presented covering various topics, he said. There are different segments of interest, appealing to different demographics.

“Radio, and increasingly television and online, is segmented by demographics, aiming at about 5 percent of the population,” Mitchell said. “The notion was that there should be a place that appealed to everyone: minorities, women, unions, college professors.”

However, a fundamental change from the last 40 years was the realization that radio cannot appeal to everyone. There needed to be programming about all these different groups for people who are interested and actually want to learn about them, Mitchell said.

ATC in particular attracted college-educated listeners. Mitchell said the audience listening was about as old as the staff putting it together, generally 20-30 years old.

“It appealed to people who agreed with us. People who were a lot like us, interested in the world,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell said ATC is intended for an audience that is intelligent, has respect for different kinds of people, is interested in exploring ideas, tends to be politically liberal and has an open mind.

Emeritus professor at the University of Wisconsin-Extension Karl Schmidt said radio goes back to the 1920s, with Wisconsin Public Radio in particular as an extension of the UW System and UW-Extension.

“[UW System and Extensions] spread its knowledge and learning around the state via radio,” Schmidt said.

Schmidt, who has worked for and served on boards with NPR and WPR since the 1940s, reads for WPR’s Chapter a Day, reading chapters from fiction, biography and history.

“WPR upholds the application of the Wisconsin Idea with its programming,” Schmidt said. “I’m involved with WPR as producer, audio person and part of a classical music program.”

According to Hilmes, WPR has two networks consisting of 31 radio stations: the Ideas Network and NPR News and Classical Network.

“The Ideas Network is mostly talk and news while the other is more classical music and big NPR news,” Hilmes said. “If it weren’t for WPR and the importance of their reporting the news covering the whole state of Wisconsin, I know I would be less informed.”

…and to entertain while being easily accessible…

In the rapidly changing universe of radio, there is the luxury of being able to have more words in a live broadcast story, as opposed to the newspapers. Readers have the luxury to listen whenever and wherever they are, Schmidt said.

Schmidt added the use of radio and the media to inform and entertain goes back to Greek drama. Such a vast history opens up how a story can be delivered.

“Radio can be more immediately responsive to people and interact with them. Radio can be more reactive, which is an advantage to using this forum,” Schmidt said.

Hilmes agreed with Schmidt, saying radio is entertaining in its capacity to be interactive in a way no other medium is, citing call-in radio becoming a huge success in the last 20 years.

“The goal of most media is to inform and entertain. Newspapers have comic pages, advice columns,” Hilmes said. “It’s always been inform, entertain and also educate. I think that’s such a broad category;, it’s hard to imagine anything else.”

Hilmes added particularly in the past 10 years, programming is also more available online. Radio is not tied to a schedule anymore, but available through podcasts and live listening.

…but what happens in the future?

Schmidt questioned whether radio or even television should include an audio story or a video taken at the scene of a terribly private crisis; there will always be issues with privacy and ownership of news.

“Now you don’t have to wait for a radio crew to show up. Anyone can record any event that happens,” Schmidt said. “Journalists will become whoever shoots a video or records an audio.”

Mitchell said he is concerned with where the future of news could be heading. He said no matter what forum, a balance between actual journalism, opinion and discussion must be facilitated. Particularly with the changes in technology that make it easier to capture news stories on cameras and phones, news will not just be found by trained journalists and presented to the public. Mitchell said two functions involved in any journalistic medium are first, trying to show the world as it is, as close as possibly with facts and second, to be a facilitator or participant in the discussion.

“I’m afraid we could end up with the journalistic half [of the balance] dying down,” Mitchell said. “No one will look for facts to nail down and confirm, but will turn to people’s opinions and discussions [of events].”

Mitchell said this ambiguity is already visible. Whereas 50 years ago stories were mostly hard facts presented to the public, now news commentary plays an increasingly prevalent role.

“Radio is basically the spoken word,” Mitchell said. “It’s closer to print then TV. TV is pictures and, as a result, is good at being dramatic but not good at doing an idea.”

Schmidt said he thought the future of radio and even the media will be more informal and more immediate with less control by governments. He said the informality would generally be a good thing, as long as it is used correctly. As in any advance in communications, Schmidt said there could be a dark side, but that is just the nature of the media.

“Even with printing, you can print bibles, or you can print porn,” Schmidt said. “It’s all in how you use it.”

Hilmes said she believes radio has changed for the better, particularly with new technology available.

“This is the second golden age of radio because of the wonderful extent and variety of original audio work that’s especially available via the Internet,” Hilmes said. “NPR was the first to do really innovative things with radio [and] made the national format possible.”

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