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Kalb Report: How NPR Got Its Unique Sound

The spirit of Edward R. Murrow flowed through the National Press Club ballroom in Washington, D.C., in mid-December as journalist/scholar Marvin Kalb interviewed five icons of National Public Radio about how NPR news developed and where it is heading. The event was the latest in the award-winning Kalb Report series coproduced by University of Maryland University College.

In "The Sound of News: An Evening with NPR," veteran public radio correspondents Scott Simon, Nina Totenberg, Susan Stamberg, Mara Liasson, and Steve Inskeep described how Murrow's radio reports from London during World War II set the standard for the NPR sound.

Kalb, who was the last CBS News correspondent hired by Murrow, played a clip from one of Murrow's reports delivered during a Blitzkrieg attack. The report came alive with the sounds of air raid sirens and the footsteps of Londoners descending into air raid shelters.

Kalb said Murrow's advice to broadcast colleagues was to "describe things in terms that made sense to a truck driver without insulting the intelligence of a professor." And though no specific instructions like that were shared when NPR first hit the airwaves decades later in 1971, Murrow's influence was definitely felt, said Nina Totenberg.

"If there was an example, it probably was Murrow. The idea that the best pictures are painted in the mind . . . Murrow did that," she added, referencing the Blitzkrieg clip.

Totenberg said she heard Edward R. Murrow. "I was a really little girl," she said, "but I remember his voice. My thought (as a young radio reporter) was I have to tell a story that will be understood by everybody and be compelling and that will make people laugh and cry and be enraged and be happy and sad."

Mara Liasson said the Murrow-report clip made the hairs on the back of her neck stand up, "because this is what we still do. We walk into a situation. We describe it. We're thinking about sounds . . . . It is exactly the same. There is no difference. The craft is the same."

Susan Stamberg said the first NPR reporters were advised not to copy the stylized voices of most commercial newscasters, but rather be yourself. "Those were the most magic words I heard. We want to sound like we are talking over the back fence to our neighbors."

Steve Inskeep said listening is a big part of the NPR style. "We are actually paying attention to the people we are interviewing," he said. "You hear the stories of people. You hear the accents and the uniqueness in the way they tell a story. It's amazing the way people are unconsciously creative in language, in the way they tell a story."

Scott Simon described how NPR reporters are using social media to get their stories out to a wider audience.

"If you have a following on Twitter, if you have a following on Facebook or Instagram, you can post what you do piece by piece, or you can post excerpts," he said. "You can use it as an effective, no-cost form of advertising. The social media platform has become a source of distribution for us. That enlarges the audience because this is the way people are listening and reading. People may not listen to the local public radio station, but they will listen to eight or nine NPR stories a day because they get them on Facebook and Twitter."

But Liasson cautioned that while technological innovations have a place in reporting and disseminating news, they cannot replace good journalism.

"NPR is trying to be as creative on every platform as we can, but the bottom line is content and what we're putting on there," she said. "If you don't have compelling stories and really good, hard-hitting news, you are not going to get anyone to listen to you on any platform."

About The Kalb Report

Along with University of Maryland University College, The Kalb Report is produced jointly by the National Press Club's Journalism Institute, George Washington University's School of Media and Public Affairs, Harvard University's Shorenstein Center, and the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland. It is underwritten by a grant from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.