William "Bill" Siemering is the first Director of Programming of National Public Radio, and the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation genius grant. He invented the first signature program of public radio, All Things Considered. This followed his authorship of the new public network's first statement of its mission and goals. Siemering went on to create other signature programs including SoundPrint and the predecessor to Fresh Air with Terry Gross, which he helped transform from a local to a national program.
Siemering got his start at one of the nation's oldest radio stations, WHA in Madison, Wisconsin. As he recounted, "My previous summer jobs had including bailing hay and harvesting grain, working in a hotel laundry and sometimes cleaning the lavatories. WHA seemed like an improvement: it was air-conditioned and the job required no heavy lifting." He also taught high school speech in Madison. In the 1960s, while manager of WBFO-FM at the State University of New York at Buffalo, he established the first store-front broadcast facility in the African-American community, enabling residents to produce 25 hours a week of programs. In the late 1970s, he became manager of the main public FM radio station in Philadelphia, WHYY.
Siemering is the president of Developing Radio Partners, an organization dedicated to supporting independent radio stations in young democracies through professional development in journalism, programming, station management, and finance.
The Utne Reader said about him, "Bill Siemering has done more than anyone to revive and inspire the art of sound." Dennis Hamilton, long the Vice President of Programming at Minnesota Public Radio, put it this way: "We are the produce of seeds of thinking and action planted by Mr. Siemering. We are disciples who extend his ideas. We cherish knowing him because he gives our lives focus and brings meaning to our work. Tune around the radio dial and I guarantee you will hear Bill Siemering talking to you."
Even though the industry to which he had given his life seemed slow in recognizing it, the confirmation of Siemering's high worth came from another source. In 1993, he was awarded a MacArthur Foundation fellowship, the so-called MacArthur genius grant. Typical of Siemering, his work was not finished. He used the funds to assist community radio stations in South Africa's townships. He returned to South Africa in 1995 as a Knight International Journalism Fellow. From 1996-97, he served as president of the Washington, D.C., based International Center for Journalists, a leading print and broadcast journalism training program. Most recently, Siemering served for five years as a senior radio advisor for the Open Society Institute (OSI), which funds civil society initiatives in more than fifty countries and is among the world’s largest private foundations. His work with OSI took him to Mozambique, Sierra Leone, Burundi, Ukraine, Macedonia, and Moldova, and included assessing station news and information programming, management and technical needs, journalism and management training, and mentoring. He has spent most of his time in South Africa and Mongolia.
In an essay Siemering wrote when he was in his late 50s and unemployed, he said, "You've spent over thirty years practicing the art and craft of your profession and now you have dust. It's as if a pianist loses the use of his hands."
As to his being a genius, Siemering has always been reluctant, insisting that his "inventions" were group efforts and commenting on his many job departures, saying, "If I was so smart, I wouldn't have had to reinvent myself so often." He also has a practical objection to the term: "Whenever I give a talk, I insist the introduction never include that word because it is obvious I'm not and then listeners think to themselves, 'If that guy's a genius, why the hell didn't I get a MacArthur!'" (The MacArthur Foundation itself doesn't use the term "genius". They refer to recipients of their award as "Fellows". It's the public and the press that use the "genius grant" term.)
Throughout his life, Siemering has maintained his belief in the power of radio. At the end of his "Manifesto" written for the online site Transom.org, Siemering was full of his usual optimism:
While we can always be better, we should never lose sight that public radio is an essential part of the lives of millions of listeners. I know of no other programming that generates such strong feelings. You hear it all the time. Think for a moment what your life would be like without public radio. Amazing, isn't it? This connection between producers and listeners is unique. Let's celebrate it. Let's dance with our listeners.