I had the pleasure of interviewing Lisa Napoli, author of Susan, Linda, Nina & Cokie, The Extraordinary Story of the Founding Mothers of NPR.
Napoli’s book is not just a biography of the four amazing women whose conversational voices explained the world to rapt listeners across America, but it’s a story of the 1970’s when sexism was the accepted norm. This sisterhood of remarkable women, “the little engine that could”, changed the way America perceived women and how women perceived themselves.
Listening to NPR, one felt like these women were in your living room, asking the questions you’d love to ask that weren’t being asked. In 1979 Susan Stamberg moderated the first live call-in with a US president and while she didn’t ask President Carter about his flawless teeth during that interview, she did find out later from his dentist that Carter was very attentive to his oral hygiene. Napoli’s book is full of lovely details like this, details that humanise the people in their stories. Below is my interview with Napoli:
Your book, Susan, Linda, Nina & Cokie, tells the life stories of each of the four founding mothers of NPR. The so-called “Fallopian Jungle” consisted of Susan Stamberg, Linda Wertheimer, Nina Totenberg and Cokie Roberts. How do you think the founding mothers changed the face of journalism?
They were strong women voices covering stories women weren’t previously allowed to cover (politics, law, government, etc). They helped changed the perception of women for all who heard them.
- And how did these four special women change women’s perception of themselves?
Hard as it might be for younger people today to imagine, it wasn’t societally permissible for women to engage in discussions, particularly in public, about subjects other than “women’s issues,” like weddings, babies, homemaking, fashion. When you hear women in the media talking about something other than that, finally, you realize, Aha, we’re allowed to have a brain and an opinion and to express our thoughts.
I wrote an earlier book about the first all-news channel, CNN, and the boss there hired a number of women and people of color as on-air staff in 1980—which was an outlier at the time, too. Of course, as was the case with NPR, that was partially because those staffers cost less than men, and were more willing to work at start-ups no one had heard of.
- In a sentence for each, how would you describe the distinct identities of each of the women as a voice for NPR?
Susan was the salon hostess; Linda was the studious one who immersed in the research; Nina was the dogged determined pursuer of the story; and Cokie, well, she was all the above plus the beloved peacemaker/ringleader.
- You write “they weren’t women in power, they were women of power.” Please can you explain.
All four women could have run NPR. They chose to have jobs that were more “visible,” if you will, to the public. So rather than being in charge, they wielded the (now-staggering) power of the public platform.
- You yourself have had a long career in journalism, was there one founding mother that you most identified with? And why?
Susan, because her dad was a salesman like mine and because we’re both New Yorkers.
- And if you had to single out 2-3 of your favorite NPR episodes, which would they be? Why?
I loved listening to the archival stories, especially the longer interviews. There’s such a different quality to them as opposed to today. Susan’s long interview with President Jimmy Carter, where they took listener questions live, is a gem of a history book in itself, about a time for media and the presidency that no longer exists.
And it struck me that these women were dear, supportive friends, not rivals. How was that achieved in the typically cutthroat world of journalism?
The world was different then; they were aware they were fortunate to have jobs instead of feeling entitled to them; and they genuinely loved one another as friends, real friends. It was a Kismet situation.
- I also noticed that each woman appeared to be happily married with a supportive husband. How big a role do you think, that played in their successful careers?
Incalculable. As was the fact that they came from enormously loving families.
Thank you so much for agreeing to this interview and for writing such a fascinating book, a real slice of history. It’s hard to believe what these women were up against and yet it wasn’t that long ago at all. A lot has been achieved in a relatively short span of time thanks partly to the Fallopian Jungle.
Can you imagine someone calling a corner of the office populated by strong women the Fallopian Jungle now?? 😉
You can read the rest of my interview here on 26– Some, but definitely not all, of my questions appear on both sites, only because I just couldn’t leave them out of either post.