Susan Stamberg, the first full-time woman anchor of a national nightly news broadcast, played an important role in making National Public Radio (NPR) a news organization that offered pioneering opportunities to women journalists. She has broken gender barriers while presenting herself as a vital, womanly presence in a male-dominated media world. Succeeding as a pioneer news anchor, she also has won acclaim as a top interviewer of a diverse array of individuals. She continues to offer a personal feminist perspective to public radio, engaging listeners with clarity and charm in her reporting.
Susan Stamberg, a renowned journalist for National Public Radio (NPR), first gained acclaim as the first woman to anchor a national nightly news program on a full-time basis and subsequently won every major broadcasting award in the United States. In a half-century career at NPR, Stamberg has presented a feminist perspective, bringing a lively, down-to-earth approach to some 50,000 interviews with individuals, some famous and others unknown, but all made interesting by her conversational skill.
Childhood and Education
Stamberg was born on September 7, 1938, in Newark, New Jersey, the beloved only child of Robert and Anne Rosenberg Levitt, both of whom were second-generation Americans of Lithuanian Jewish background. She grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, which she described in her 2011 interview as “a world that totally enwraps you in Jewishness.” Nevertheless, her family did not observe Jewish rituals.
Sent to a Jewish school to prepare for her religious confirmation, Stamberg was expelled after raising objections to studying for confirmation instead of learning academic subjects. In the interview Stamberg described herself as a secular Jew but stressed that she felt sociologically Jewish and identified “with my Jewishness.” She praised Jewish values, including respect for books and learning and interest in the discussion of ideas, for influencing her upbringing and career.
Growing up in the pre-television era of the 1940s and early 1950s, Stamberg loved the radio. When she received her Hollywood star, Stamberg told a reporter for Variety, “Radio was the glamour medium of my childhood. I loved getting a cold, because I could stay home and my mother would move that radio out of the kitchen into my bedroom, and the two of us would sit and listen to all the soap operas.” Possibly she was preordained for radio interviewing, she continued. “I have a friend from high school who told me that she hated coming to my house for sleepovers because I would keep her up all night asking questions, and I guess I was practicing for this work.”
The first member of her family to attend college, Stamberg received a degree in English from Barnard College, the women’s division of Columbia University, in 1959 after graduating from New York’s competitive High School of Music and Art. According to Stamberg, Barnard graduates of her era were expected to combine a profession with marriage, but she did not immediately find her way into radio. She first worked for Daedalus, the journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Marriage and Early Career
In 1962, she married Louis C. Stamberg, a graduate of Harvard Law School, and the newlyweds moved to Washington, D.C., where Louis began an outstanding 34-year tenure with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). In the 1960s the couple spent two years in India when he was assigned to an USAID mission there. Returning to Washington, they both pursued careers while caring for their only child, Josh, born in 1970. At the insistence of her husband, who had been brought up in a devout Jewish family in Allentown, Pennsylvania, Stamberg joined a temple and helped Josh prepare for his bar mitzvah, but she dropped out of the temple after the ceremony. Louis Stamberg died in 2007. Josh grew up to be a well-known actor performing in television series, films, and plays.
On her initial arrival in Washington, Stamberg took a secretarial job at New Republic magazine. Contacts there led to later employment at WAMU-FM, a public broadcasting station on the campus of American University. Hired as a producer, she first appeared on air as a weather “girl,” as women weather reporters were called in the 1960s, inventing a weather forecast in a panic when the actual weather “girl” failed to show up. She soon took over the weather slot and rose to be general manager of the station before leaving WAMU in 1971 for NPR. Encouraged by her husband to seek new opportunity, she made the move even though she had to take a pay cut to work for the fledging network.
Blazing a Trail at NPR
Joining NPR at its inception in 1971, Stamberg broke gender barriers by becoming co-host of its premier evening news program, “All Things Considered,” in 1972. A role model for other women newscasters, she continued in that position for fourteen years, after which she hosted “Weekend Edition Sunday” from 1987 to 1989. Subsequently named a special correspondent, she has continued to excel in radio, covering cultural issues for “Morning Edition” and “Weekend Edition Saturday.”
When she started as an anchor on “All Things Considered,” some NPR stations complained that a woman’s voice did not sound authoritative enough to deliver news. Stamberg, who was not aware of their opposition until years later, proved their fears unfounded. In a 2011 interview for the Jewish Women’s Archive, she pointed out that radio technology of the early 1970s did not transmit women’s voices well, but that transmission actually improved at the same time listeners became accustomed to hearing her. Today, when both men and women regularly report news, her male cousin Ari Shapiro is a host of “All Things Considered.”
In addition to her NPR work, Stamberg has hosted series on public television, recorded television specials with Fred Rogers, and taken part in commercial television shows. Displaying her versatility, Stamberg has narrated presentations by the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and the National Symphony Orchestra and appeared on Broadway in a voice-only role. Inducted into both the Broadcasting Hall of Fame and the Radio Hall of Fame, in 2020 she received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for her contributions to radio.
Reflecting on her start at NPR for Variety, Stamberg said, “I had a good deal of radio experience by the time NPR came along….but certainly not in doing news and certainly not in being an anchorwoman.” She first tried to imitate men and speak in a deep authoritative tone, but she was instructed by Bill Siernering, the programming director who had hired her, to “Be yourself.” In step with NPR’s other stellar women journalists—Nina Totenberg [link to new entry on Nina Totenberg], Cokie Roberts, and Linda Wertheimer—she named all of them along with herself as NPR’s “founding mothers.” She said she coined the term herself even though “the others may really hate it.”
Bringing a warm, personal, and unbiased touch to NPR, Stamberg has carried on substantial conversations with notable figures—among them Laura Bush, Rosa Parks, Luciano Pavarotti, and Milton Friedman, the Nobel-prize-winning economist with whom she argued the merits of free trade. Yet her trademark bears a domestic touch. Every Thanksgiving since 1971 she has finagled a way to broadcast her mother-in-law’s recipe for a bright pink cranberry relish, going so far as to set it to music or trick celebrities into reading it. Her approach to listeners prompted novelist E. L. Doctorow to call her “the closest thing to an enlightened humanist on the radio.”
Honors and Awards
Stamberg’s numerous honors include the Edward R. Murrow award from the Corporation for Public broadcasting, the Golden Anniversary Director’s award from the Ohio State University, and the Distinguished Broadcaster award from American Women in Radio and Television. Among her honorary degrees is a Doctor of Humane Letters from Dartmouth College. She is a fellow of Silliman College, Yale University, and the American
Academy of Arts and Sciences. In addition, she has served on the boards of the PEN/Faulkner Fiction Award Foundation and the National Arts Journalism Program located at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.
Stamberg has written two books and co-edited a third based on her experiences at NPR. The first, Every Night at Five: Susan Stamberg’s All Things Considered Book, was published in 1982. The second, Talk: NPR’s Susan Stamberg Considers All Things, came out in 1993. The co-edited volume, The Wedding Cake in the Middle of the Road, which originated in a series of stories she commissioned for “Weekend Edition,” appeared in 1992. As a tribute to her mother, she wrote a chapter for a 2013 book titled What My Mother Gave Me: Thirty-one Women on the Gifts That Mattered Most.
Stamberg is proud of her son, Josh, who spoke at her Hollywood Walk of Fame ceremony. With her customary sense of humor, she told a Variety reporter that she had instructed Josh not to “tell any mean stories about your mother, but please do stand up, because you’re so handsome.”
A breast cancer survivor, Stamberg also is humble, commenting that her cancer left her less fascinated with extremely successful people and more attuned to humanity in general. In the Variety interview she called it a mistake to place her name on a star in the Walk of Fame. “The name should be NPR, because that’s been what has been behind me, and what I’ve been behind over all of these decades,” she said.
Selected Works by Susan Stamberg
Every Night at Five: Susan Stamberg’s All things Considered Book. New York: Pantheon, 1982.
Talk: NPR’s Susan Stamberg Considers All Things. New York: Turtle Bay/ Random House, 1993.
“Truths in a Ring.” In What My Mother Gave Me: Thirty-One Women on the Gifts That Mattered Most, edited by Elizabeth Benedict pp. 213-218. Chapel Hill, N.C.: Algonquin Books, 2013.
The Wedding Cake in the Middle of the Road, edited by Susan Stamberg and George Garrett. New York: Norton, 1992.
“Chatting With One of NPR’S ‘Founding Mothers’ Susan Stamberg.” Interview for AirTalk, KPCC, February 26, 2020. https://www.scpr.org/programs/airtalk/2020/02/26/65356/chatting-with-one-of-npr-s-founding-mothers-susan/.
Hover, Scott. “How Childhood Colds Created NPR’s Susan Stamberg’s Connection to Radio.” Variety, March 3, 2020. https://variety.com/2020/tv/features/susan-stamberg-walk-of-fame-interv….
“Interview with Susan Stamberg,” by Deborah Ross for the Jewish Women’s Archive, March 28, 2011. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eMbPatcX4CY&feature=youtu.be.
NPR. “Susan Stamberg.” NPR website. https://www.npr.org/people/2101242/susan-stanberg.
Phillips, Lisa A. Public Radio: Behind the Voices. New York: CDS Books, 2006.