Saying Goodbye To Robert Siegel, A Distinctive Voice At NPR For Decades

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NPR host Robert Siegel. (Stephen Voss/NPR)
NPR host Robert Siegel. (Stephen Voss/NPR)

There's going to be a voice missing from the NPR choir after today. It's thoughtful, it has gravitas, it's our base.

Robert Siegel is retiring Friday after more than 40 years at NPR, and 30 years as co-host of All Things Considered — a radio career that started when he covered the 1968 demonstrations at his alma mater, Columbia University (if you believe Wikipedia, which he would tell us not to).

And always, even on his first day reporting for ATC in 1987, he exuded a calm authority.

Siegel earned some of the industry's highest awards, including a coveted cameo on "The Simpsons." Who can forget when the curmudgeonly Mr. Burns watches as a wing of his mansion is destroyed — and Siegel shows up with a boom box?

Siegel also earned the respect of his colleagues.

"The way I got through the day every day was, 'Don't disappoint Robert Siegel. Don't let Robert Siegel down by letting something wrong get on the air,' " Laura Lorson told NPR's Scott Simon in 2015, about how working at NPR prepared her to be a "Jeopardy!" contestant.

Demonstrations of Siegel's commitment to the facts and to holding people in power accountable come daily. But in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, NPR reporters on the ground described people on rooftops waiting for rescue, armed carjackings and floating corpses. And at the Morial Convention Center, more than 2,000 people in horrific conditions, with no food or water.

Michael Chertoff, then-U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security, was overseeing the operations and seemed unaware.

SIEGEL: We are hearing from our reporter — and he's on another line right now — thousands of people at the convention center in New Orleans with no food, zero.

Sec. CHERTOFF: As I say, I'm telling you that we are getting food and water to areas where people are staging. And, you know, the one thing about an episode like this is if you talk to someone and you get a rumor or you get someone's anecdotal version of something, I think it's dangerous to extrapolate it all over the place. The limitation here on getting food and water to people is the condition on the ground. And as soon as we can physically move through the ground with these assets, we're going to do that. So...

SIEGEL: But, Mr. Secretary, when you say that there is — we shouldn't listen to rumors, these are things coming from reporters who have not only covered many, many other hurricanes; they've covered wars and refugee camps. These aren't rumors. They're seeing thousands of people there.

But then there is the Robert Siegel of unbound intellectual curiosity and bemusement. That brings us to a conversation from 2016 with comedian and voice actor Jon Benjamin, who released an experimental jazz album — emphasis on experimental.

In an interview with WBUR's All Things Considered, host Lisa Mullins told Siegel many listeners consider him "the voice of NPR." He said he appreciated the sentiment, but disagreed.

I'm not the voice of NPR. There are lots of great voices on NPR ... And broadcast journalism is a team sport ... I hope that what all of us leave here to people is a journalism, a broadcasting that's based on interesting, rational discourse that's not just about insult and vituperation but that addresses the real curiosities of Americans who deserve to get a straight take on what's happening in their country and around the world.

Today on ATC, Siegel will say goodbye for himself. But for all of us at Here & Now, thank you, for informing, questioning, making us laugh. Please come up with a recipe for something like cranberry relish like Susan Stamberg did, so we can hear from you every year.

This article was originally published on January 05, 2018.

This segment aired on January 5, 2018.


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