Thursday, 15 March 2012

Just Call Me Bill

One of the most serendipitous paradoxes of galloping senility is the sudden, inexplicable hunger to wonder whatever happened to a Somebody who you gave you unearned or at least underdeserved rungs up the Ladder of Life. One such recent quest: Whatever happened to Bill Siemering?

There I was, the new English Chair at Beaver College (1961) surrounded by hyper-traditionalist women English professors boiling at the insult of their having been ignored for a well-deserved promotion by a mere media nut. It began with WFIL-TV’s Tom Jones (whose tele-career was Sports and More Sports to the Beat of American Bandstand! (Except that Tom had a secret passion for T.S. Eliot and his ilk.) Conversations I had presumed would take place at the Penn Faculty Club unreeled at quick WFIL lunches.

It so happened that my two University of the Air TV series he approved and promoted. It happened that the same crew also did American Bandstand. They used to mock tease me for my mini-Nielsens. I joined the joke by urging them to give me a few South Philly fillies and my ratings would soar. Tom giggled hugely, as only an overweight comic ca, and urged me to learn how to shoot and edit cultural essays for John Roberts weekend News. It was the first step towards my dream of becoming a TV documentarian. Suddenly Tom disappeared and I’ve never found out where he went, or why!

Not so with Bill Siemering. It was the seventies Golden Age of WHYY-TV, in their new Liberty Plaza HQ around the corner from the Afro-American Museum. Terri Gross was taking over nationally with “Fresh Air”, which turned out to be the best egghead radio ever deployed since Norman Corwin. When I shyly offered to do a Travel Talk weekly, he said GO! When I shyly offered to do oral Op Eds, he said DO IT! And got to do live interviews with the likes of Robert Penn Warren from Vanderbilt,on the 50th anniversary of “I’ll Take My Stand”, the bible of Southern literary conservatism.

Where did this mild looking, yet tougher than iron, guy get his cojones? Madison, Wisconsin, a Bob La Follette liberal at heart. His preference for radio began at WHA-Madison. He liked to recall: “My previous summer jobs had included 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.” (Wikipedia.)

He polished his blue collar manners teaching high school speech in Madison. He practiced his working class gospel while managing WBFO-FM at the State University of New York at Buffalo: setting up the first storefront broadcast facility in the African American community in the 1960s when it took more than enthusiasm to innovate that way: the locals produced 25 hours a week indigenous programs. (It’s where he first came across Gross, one of the great combos of early NPR. They both then moved to WHYY-FM, Philly, where together they made media history.

In 1982, when I quit teaching to go global as an alternate journalist, I lost track of Bill. He had gone national as NPR’s programming chief. Perennials like “All Things Considered” attest to his egalitarian imagination. Gone Global? He was, I discovered, now the president of Developing, an organization dedicated to supporting independent radio stations in young democracies through professional development in journalism, programming, station management, and finance. Never was a MacArthur Genius award more productive of humanistic results.

He used his Mac bucks to assist community radio stations in South Africa townships. From 1996-97 he served as president of the Washington, D.C. based International Center for Journalists, More recently he served for five years as a senior radio adviser for the Open Society Institute (OSI) which funds civil society initiatives in more than 50 countries and is among the world’s largest foundations. OSI service took him to Mozambique, Sierra Leone, Burundi, Ukraine, Macedonia, and Moldova. He has spent most of his time in South Africa and Mongolia.

He wasn’t always getting grants and glowing in public praise. In his late 50’s and unemployed, he groaned: "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.” In a recent “Manifesto” he summed his career up: “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 dance with our listeners.” Hear here.

P.S. The last address for Bill is back in Philadelphia! “Hey, Bill. Don’t desert the globe now. They need you more than ever. Listen to what your former colleague in Minnesota public radio, Dennis Hamilton, says about you: "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 in action.” That's humanism at work! Thanks for the example, Bill.

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