She gets away with irreverence and an accent to match
Nobody recognized the tall woman when she walked into the YMCA day camp and dropped a quarter into the soda machine. But after she had lost her coin and was delivering the machine a swift kick along with a four-letter epithet, a camper’s mother turned to her with shocked delight. “I know your voice,” she piped. “You’re Susan Stamberg!” Fans within earshot pick out Stamberg immediately, for although she has the frazzled look of a substitute teacher in a reform school, the nasal New York accent is an automatic giveaway of the anchorwoman of National Public Radio’s sophisticated nightly news show All Things Considered.
For 90 minutes on weekday evenings and an hour on weekends, four million Americans tune in to All Things Considered, co-hosted by Stamberg, 40, and Bob Edwards, 32. A lively mix of hard news, interviews, offbeat features and surprising iconoclasm for a government-supported network, the Washington-based program has won the DuPont-Columbia and Peabody awards for journalistic excellence. Fred Friendly, a former president of CBS News, calls it his favorite news program, TV or radio.
It is not so much her anchoring as Stamberg’s off-the-wall asides and interviewing skill that have won her a following. Her inquisitorial style is gentle and halting but effective. When John Ehrlichman came into the studio at the height of the Watergate hearings he refused to discuss the subject. “So I kept asking him soft questions,” she recalls. “By the end we had talked about nothing else but Watergate—without ever referring to it directly.” For the most part she avoids politicians—”because they sound like prerecorded cassettes”—and showbiz celebrities. “I can’t understand why Barbara Walters interviews so many of them,” she says, adding, “Barbara was much tougher and better before she was famous.”
Stamberg is herself self-trained. Susan Levitt (as she was born in Newark) majored in English at Barnard College, tried grad school for three months, worked on magazines like the New Republic and learned radio production at the American University station in D.C. She was there because her husband, Lou Stamberg, was an official with the Agency for International Development. When he was posted to India, Susan became an assistant to the wife of U.S. Ambassador Chester Bowles. Then, back in Washington in 1971, she wound up as a tape editor for the newly formed National Public Radio. When the host of All Things went on vacation that September, Stamberg sat in and received a sensational response from the listeners. “They even clapped for me in the control booth,” she says. Three months later Stamberg became the first woman to anchor a network news program.
Eight years later, as she sits in her street-level Washington office pulling nervously on her hair and washing down handfuls of cashews with diet cola, Stamberg still lacks the image-conscious air of a modern anchorwoman. Her off-mike life is equally casual. She, Lou and son Joshua, 9, live in (and rarely leave) a small home in Chevy Chase. There is a part-time housekeeper, but, notes Stamberg: “The way I live I never forget that I am a wife and a mother and that I’m trying to stretch a salary [around $30,000]. That,” she says pointedly, “makes me very much like my listeners.”