The philosopher king and the creation of NPR

The newsroom at NPR West in Culver City, CA. LA Observed file photo.

Los Angeles author Steve Oney’s book about the history and future of NPR is forthcoming from Simon & Schuster. The Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard's Kennedy School, where Oney was recently a spring fellow, posted an excerpt. Here's a glimpse and a link.

Hulking and unkempt, typically clad in denim and shit-kickers, Jeff Kamen was referred to around the offices of National Public Radio as El Lobo. He came from the world of big-market rock ‘n roll news. During the late sixties at Chicago’s WCFL, a 50,000-watter that blasted music across the Midwest, he’d race to crime scenes and press conferences in an Olds Cutlass, the doors bearing the station call letters in green, purple, red, and gold. His idea was to be out among them, and his aim was to produce pieces that emerged seamlessly from WCFL’s play list. To him, stories weren’t all that different from Buffalo Springfield or Rolling Stones songs. Everything he did was antic and driven by a beat, and while he numbered both cops and Black Panthers among his friends, he’d take on anyone. “He would talk back to Mayor Richard J. Daley,” said Jeff Rosenberg, a fellow member of NPR’s original staff who as a Northwestern student had been a fan of the reporter. “Most of us thought he would end up dead in an alley.” Instead, WCFL fired Kamen. He did not leave quietly, telling The Chicago American that the station’s manager accused him of putting too many “spics and niggers” on the air. Liberal Illinois congressman Abner Mikva quoted Kamen to this effect in The Congressional Record, declaring, “Last week a bright young radio newscaster lost his job in Chicago—not because he was faithless to the traditions of integrity, rather because he took them seriously.” On the morning of May 3, 1971, Kamen, the most improbable participant in an improbable new enterprise in American broadcasting, stood at the intersection of the Southwest Freeway and Maine Avenue near Washington, D.C.’s Tidal Basin, ready to go to work. Weeks earlier, NPR executives had picked this Monday to introduce their firstborn, All Things Considered. “I felt sorry for the poor bastards,” Kamen would say later. “They put a pin in a calendar, not having any idea.” But there was no turning back. The ad in The New York Times was unambiguous: “The radio revolution starts at 5: NPR.”


Misfits, castoffs, and dreamers, the National Public Radio reporters who joined Kamen in covering the demonstration were almost as unlikely as he was. Jim Russell, a rotund 23-year-old who’d done a tour in Vietnam for United Press International (UPI) and possessed a gruff evenhandedness, took up a position at a traffic circle opposite the Lincoln Memorial. Stephen Banker, an older freelancer (Harvard, 1955) who contributed sporadically to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), was at the Pentagon. Mike Waters, a veteran of both commercial and college radio best known for his melodious voice, staked out the mall. The sole advice that Bill Siemering, NPR’s programming director, gave his charges was “that they filter what they saw through who they were.” In truth, however, nothing could have prepared them. Almost immediately, Kamen was detained by the police, but he wasn’t held long. As he would tell it, an official from Chicago’s Daley administration interceded, bearing credentials from President Nixon. At some point, Waters handed over his press pass to a young demonstrator to keep the kid from being arrested. Meanwhile, a cop gassed Russell. Protesters urged him to urinate into a handkerchief then hold it over his nose. The ammonia, they said, would neutralize the poison. Russell replied, “I’d rather die.”

It was chaos, but no matter how unguided and overmatched, the NPR reporters retained the presence of mind to keep their lightweight Sony TC-100 cassette tape recorders rolling. They interviewed protestors, police, and office workers. They calmly described the mayhem unfurling around them. Most telling, they employed their equipment to collect huge gouts of ambient sound, the discordant melodies of Washington’s largest demonstration against the Vietnam War.

Read the whole thing.

Oney also had a piece in the April Los Angeles magazine about the re-rise of the NPR West presence in Culver City and what it may mean for the network.

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