NPR Turns 50! Its Hosts and Stars Share Their Favorite NPR Moments, Memories and Near-Disasters
National Public Radio has been on the air for a half-century of breaking news, explaining current events and keeping millions of people entertained and informed on their drives. Some of NPR's top names look back at the funniest, wildest and most memorable moments of their careers
Lulu Garcia-Navarro, Host of Weekend Edition Sunday
"Working in audio means you have to get up close and personal to the story – if you didn’t record it, it didn’t happen. NPR has always prided itself on the intimacy of its sound; we take you there and immerse you in a moment. Well, unfortunately, that need to be where things are happening has doomed a steady succession of my laptops.
My first NPR laptop lost its life when my car was strafed with gunfire on the airport road in Baghdad and it took a shot to the heart. My second laptop drowned in Cancun during a hurricane when my car flooded and I had to swim to safety and was rescued by the Mexican marines. I lost another laptop when the blast from a truck bomb which hit our compound smashed it to pieces. Yup, the folks in the IT department have always been my special friends over the years."
Ari Shapiro, Co-Host of All Things Considered
"As an Editorial Assistant on Morning Edition, one of my duties was to go through listener email and forward messages to the correspondents. There was plenty of sludge, less constructive feedback. So, when I became a reporter, and started getting my own hate mail, I felt like I’d arrived.
When I first guest hosted Morning Edition, a postcard arrived. It said:
Dear Ari, Please Butch up. I find a daily dose of your personality, annoying. I’m a person too.
D. Emerson, Miami, Fl
I framed it, and it has sat on my desk for more than a decade.
Although I haven’t butched up, I have gathered a collection of irate letters from listeners. There was the man (they’re often men) begging me to 'spare us the egotistical fluff.' The one who huffed, 'I wish you would be a bit more respectful of those with testicular fortitude.' And the listener who wanted to make sure I understood that a man may be hanged, and he may be hung, but the two words have very different meanings.
To me, these letters feel like a badge of honor. They’re a sign that people are paying attention, and that they feel a personal connection to what we do. I take it as a sign that they’re listening."
Terry Gross, Host of Fresh Air
"I was giving our executive producer Danny Miller a lift on my way home, radio tuned to All Things Considered, as we waited for a report that the war had begun. Halfway home, the U.S. launched its massive air attack on Iraq. It was January 1991, night one of the Gulf War.
In grim silence, we thought about the possible casualties and unintended consequences, and we worried about NPR’s Deborah Amos and Mike Schuster, who were reporting from the crowded basement of a hotel in Saudi Arabia, wearing gas masks in case of an Iraqi biochemical counterattack.
Deb and Mike survived and won awards for their reporting. Our show was relatively new to NPR then. For those of us safe in our Fresh Air offices, this was the first time we had to re-imagine our show to respond to too many wars, terrorist attacks, natural disasters and other catastrophes."
Bob Boilen, Host of All Songs Considered and Tiny Desk Concerts
"I directed All Things Considered during 9/11 and sang with Muppets at my desk. Tension and joy fill my 30 plus years at NPR. Let me focus on the joy.
I host concerts at my NPR desk, nearly a thousand Tiny Desk concerts since 2008. I’ve watched Tom Jones’ son wipe the sweat from his nervous brow, witnessed Mac Miller’s almost-last performance, and cried when Yusuf Cat Stevens played 'Father and Son.' But in 2019, Sesame Street was celebrating their 50th anniversary, and the Muppets set up shop at my desk.
We invited the children of NPR adults to watch, which I was thrilled to see, except the moment that Big Bird took off his head. The human inside gets pretty hot. I recall quite a few puzzled looks from the tiny people in the crowd. And it didn’t help when I said, 'This is like discovering that Santa isn’t real.' But the show went on, the magic ensued, and I got to sing with Grover!"
Ailsa Chang, Co-Host of All Things Considered
"A radio teacher once told me that if you’re recording sound in the field properly, you better look pretty weird. You’re lunging, stretching, sticking your mic into a dog’s face hoping he’ll sneeze again, or scurrying obsessively after someone’s feet so you can record them walking through grass. If you’re doing your job right, you should look ridiculous.
One of my most NPR moments was when I discovered a cow will not moo on command. For a city woman, this was a colossal discovery. I was in Vermont doing a profile of Bernie Sanders in 2014, hanging out in the Northeast Kingdom talking to some dairy farmers. I really wanted the sound of cows mooing in the background.
So, I waded into a muddy pen fully of manure, figuring the sound would be worth the stink. I spent the next several minutes cajoling and pleading with all the cows around me -- even imitating a few moos myself — delusionally thinking I could persuade them to moo. Finally, one of the farmers quietly watching this absurdity informed me that sometimes you have to agitate a cow to get it to moo. And he promptly pushed one to move forward. It mooed. And you can hear the evidence on NPR. You’re welcome."
Peter Sagal, Host of Wait, Wait ... Don't Tell Me!
"We flew into New York City to do our annual show at the Brooklyn Academy of Music right before the city was socked in by a massive February snowstorm, meaning Bill Kurtis wasn’t able to make it, and then we lost our special celebrity guest Lena Dunham.
At the last minute, Stephen Colbert agreed to fill in – on the condition that we ask him the same questions we had prepared for Ms.G Dunham. So it came to pass that I stood on a stage of a sold-out opera house, asking Stephen Colbert about faking awkward sex with Adam Driver, and thinking to myself, 'This… is NPR.' "
Susan Stamberg, Special Correspondent and Former Co-Host of All Things Considered
"It goes back to a very early day in the life of All Things Considered. I was an assistant producer, preparing tapes for broadcasts. One afternoon just after the program went on air, I heard a report and raced into the control room. 'The tape's BACKWARDS!!!' I yelled.
The engineer flipped the tape reel over, rewound it, and played it again. I breathed again. Until someone raced into the control room yelling 'It's Russian!! You're playing it backwards!!!' Flip again, rewind again. Breathe. And feel like a complete fool. It was like that, in the spring of 1971."
Tamara Keith, White House Reporter
"Being a White House correspondent for NPR means throwing a coat over your head and turning on your radio voice while in the back of a van moving 60 miles per hour in a motorcade, or under the bleachers at a noisy rally, or even on Air Force One. The coat creates a makeshift studio, dampening the background sounds so we can narrate our stories on the go, ending with 'Tamara Keith, NPR News, traveling with the president' as a cue to all that yes, we know this is not studio-quality audio.
The most gloriously strange makeshift studio of my career was the bathroom on a charter flight packed with reporters following President Trump on his first foreign trip. I had to get a story on All Things Considered and hadn’t had time to track on the ground, so I grabbed a blanket and went to the restroom, where I hoped to get away from the exuberant voices of my fellow journalists. Sitting on the closed toilet, static building in my hair, there was just one thing I hadn’t anticipated: the toilet’s automatic flush function! I have nothing but gratitude for the producer who had to figure out how to edit around the sounds of a flushing toilet."
Stacey Vanek Smith, Co-Host of The Indicator from Planet Money
"I had never seen oil before. I had spent more than a decade reporting on its price fluctuations, but I had never actually seen it. And there it was, coming out of a spigot in the ground in Kansas. 'The color of a good latte,' pointed out Jason Bruns, a preacher who had saved his pennies to buy a few small oil wells.
NPR’s Planet Money team — Robert Smith, Jess Jiang and I — bought 100 barrels of oil from Jason. We paid him with a briefcase full of cash in the middle of a field, surrounded by cows, and then followed our oil through a pipeline, to a refinery and, finally, to a gas station, where we pumped it into our rental car. After years of reporting on the global force that was oil, I actually got to see it--splashing in a bucket.
I reached out my hand and touched it. It felt warm and velvety. I thought about the fact it was millions of years old, made of prehistoric plants, and that it was woven into our economy and our lives in countless ways. At its best, journalism does this. It connects us to events, global forces and, ultimately, to each other. (Incidentally, I heard from many listeners and touching oil is, apparently, a terrible idea)."
Audie Cornish, Co-Host of All Things Considered
"When my parents left Jamaica for Boston in the early '80s, they immediately enrolled my sister and I in a school integration program called METCO. Every day instead of our neighborhood schools we took a long bus ride out of the city to a wealthy suburb of Boston. The kids pulled up in the Volvos people joke NPR listeners drive — and truthfully you could in fact hear NPR as they hopped out of those cars.
More than 25 years later I did a story about that program as host of All Things Considered. I went back to Boston and spent the morning with a family hustling to put their kids on a bus at 6:30 in the morning so they could have a shot at the kind of life they thought a better resourced school system would give them. I wasn't that kid anymore, but I am glad that I could amplify their voices."
Nina Totenberg, Legal Affairs Correspondent
(At left, with NPR's "founding mothers" Linda Wertheimer and Cokie Roberts in 1979 and again in the 2000s.)
"Among my most memorable moments as a reporter came the night after I broke the story disclosing that law professor Anita Hill had filed an affidavit with the Senate Judiciary Committee accusing then Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexually harassing her when she worked for him, and that the committee had kept the allegations secret.
I was on Nightline, along with Senators Alan Simpson and Paul Simon. When I left the studio, I went directly to the car that the show had arranged for me, but Senator Simpson came roaring out, grabbed the door to the car, refusing to allow me to close it, while he berated me for my 'unethical' conduct. After several minutes of this, I finally blew. I got out of the car, looked way up at the 6-ft.-7-in. Simpson, called him a bully and suggested he commit an unnatural act on himself. Then I jumped back in the car, and told the driver to 'go!' We rounded the corner, the driver pulled over, turned around, looked me in the eye, and said, 'Lady, you better get yourself a gun!'
I knew Al and I had to get past this. We were both professionals, so I invited him to the Radio and TV Correspondents dinner. He picked me up, even brought a corsage, and we were the belles of the ball. We have been good friends ever since."
Michel Martin, Weekend Host of All Things Considered
"It was just three weeks after Michael Brown had been shot in Ferguson, Mo., so it was already tense. Naturally a heat wave rolled in to make things even more uncomfortable … and then the air conditioning in the church where we were setting up decided to break down too.
St. Louis Public Radio asked us to come and help lead a community conversation in Ferguson about what had just happened, and they had decided, wisely, to host it in Ferguson, where a local pastor had offered his church.
Every seat was filled, including in the balcony. The crowd was mostly older and mostly white, but as more and more people heard what was going on, more and more young black people started to come too.
When it was over, after many sweaty hours, a lot of anger, a lot of grief, some tears had been shared. An older white man said to me he was ashamed that he knew so little about the lives of his neighbors. A young, black, teenaged girl, who had to be pried away from the microphone earlier, looked around, looked down and whispered , 'I didn’t know that many white people cared about this.' "
Mary-Louise Kelly, Co-Host of All Things Considered
"Live coverage is reliably crazy, but the night of February 3, 2020 – the Iowa caucuses – was something else. I was anchoring from our biggest studio, with a slew of NPR correspondents and outside guests on the line, when suddenly… we could hear nothing. Not each other, not the member of Congress I was in the middle of interviewing, nothing. Total tech meltdown.
The director, Casey Morell, and I began scribbling notes to each other with dry erase markers on mini-whiteboards. 'HEADPHONES = DEAD. VAMP!' he wrote, and held it up to the glass. I gave him a thumbs up, and Mara Liasson and I proceeded to hold the air for… many minutes. Eventually Casey burst into the studio, screaming, 'I need you to STAND UP AND RUN!'
So we did, sprinting to a new studio on the opposite site of the newsroom. Our brilliant engineers had gotten it online and connected to the satellite in record time. The show carried on, most listeners none the wiser. Only later did we learn the source of our woes: One of us had managed to kick a power outlet and disconnect every set of headphones in the original studio. Good times."
Korva Coleman, Newscaster
“Pronunciation is to broadcast journalism as spelling is to newspapers and online publications. That’s why I take great glee in occasionally finding the most difficult words possible to say during a newscast.
My all-time favorite is the 2010 eruption of Iceland’s volcano, Eyjafjallajokull. My producer, Kathy Rushlow, bet me a dollar that I couldn’t get through it and she had to pay up when I let it roll off my tongue three times in a row. It’s pronounced, AY-uh-fyat-luh-YOE-kuutl-uh (or you can listen here).
I stopped when a listener emailed, saying I’d made my point and would I please knock it off. I also won $1 newsroom bets for saying the names Papāhanaumokuākea Marine Park in Hawaii and Madagascar’s former president, Hery Rajaonarimampianina.
There’s no magic in finding out how to say things. A lovely government website helped me slowly pronounce the marine park’s name. As for the volcano and the Malagasy president, I did what every journalist does: picked up the phone and begged the embassies for help. When it comes to the big on-air moment, say it with feeling! You’ve already practiced 100 times in front of laughing but supportive colleagues.”
Guy Raz, Podcast Host & Editorial Director
"Every reporter can remember their big break. That moment when they broke through the invisible barrier that seemed insurmountable. For most of us, that moment was like our first kiss — messy, a little embarrassing, and bad.
Mine came in 1998 as a very junior production assistant on All Things Considered. I pitched a story to Sean Collins, the senior producer, about a new study explaining why the surface temperature of the sun is so much cooler than its surrounding plasma field, and he liked it!
I began working on interviews and pulling sound bites for the story — even writing copy for the host Robert Seigel. My deadline was 4:45PM. At 4:30 I rushed into the studio and asked Robert to record his lines. He politely declined. Unbeknownst to me, Robert had a strict policy that he only voiced reports that he wrote. I raced out of the studio, freaking out.
'What do I do?' I asked the line producer. 'You track it!' he replied. Somehow, despite what felt like my throat closing in on itself, I got the words out. Two minutes later, it was playing on national radio, and I was left feeling that I had ruined the show. When it was over, Sean Collins walked up to me, smiled and said 'Great work! Welcome to the radio!' "
Lakshmi Singh, Newscaster
"In the final weeks before my mother, Nancy, passed away in 2020, she barely spoke. So, I was floored when she adamantly shook her head ‘NO’ when I suggested I take some time away from NPR to help care for her.
I realized at that moment that Mom was personally connected to every high and low of my journey toward NPR, especially those moments when I had to speak louder than others simply to be heard. My parents introduced me to NPR when I was a painfully shy kid, a Latina/West Indian with a stutter, who hardly saw anyone who looked or sounded like her presenting the news.
Decades later, I had the rare honor of formally introducing my parents, Nancy and Jim, to NPR at a Syracuse University-sponsored event in 2015."
Bobby Carter, Producer of Tiny Desk Concerts
"Many quirky behind the scenes stories come to mind when I think back on all of the Tiny Desk concerts we’ve put out. Most artists are pretty thrown off by how small the performance space is. Many don’t even realize the desk is in a real office until they get there.
Daniel Caesar’s concert is one of my all-time favorites, and I'll never forget the look on his face when he saw the desk for the first time. Caesar recruited H.E.R., who wasn’t quite the superstar she is today, to perform as a special guest for his final song. She even showed up to the office early. How early? She was there before me, so I had to ask security to let her up and into the green room.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, I had to play the fun police during rehearsals when I heard Daniel and H.E.R. riffing for the end of 'Best Part.' The pair planned to segue into a very popular song, for which I knew we did not have copyright clearance. They quickly regrouped and changed it on the spot. The next time you watch at the 14:53 mark and hear them singing 'Love me, Love me, Love me,' you’ll know what I’m talking about. That was a special day."
Ayesha Rascoe, NPR White House Reporter
"One of my favorite things about working at NPR is that I’ve been able to travel all over the world, bringing the sounds and stories of presidential meetings with world leaders to the radio.
I’ll never forget recording a NPR Politics Podcast while sprinting to a van on it’s way to Air Force One after then-President Trump’s meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2018. I also got to witness a sumo wrestling competition in Japan, where Trump got his own special trophy.
But, one moment stands out. It was in Brussels for a NATO meeting in 2018. The world leaders gathered there were treated to some entertainment after their dinner that evening and reporters got to watch. The entertainment was a woman floating in the air, while attached to dozens of balloons, like the house in that Pixar movie, Up. It was surreal. It was weird. It was over the top and really a fitting harbinger of Trump’s diplomatic sessions to come. And I’ll never forget it!"
Steve Inskeep, Co-Host of Morning Edition
"In 2001 NPR sent me to Afghanistan, where I arrived just in time to witness the collapse of the Taliban. This led to years of international reporting; I went on to cover wars in Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen; uprisings from Gaza to Venezuela; elections in Iran; and the growing US confrontation with China. I also reported extensively from Pakistan, which was how I ended up in this picture in Karachi.
Young men on the streets of that stress-filled city will sell you a caged bird. Drivers stuck in traffic often buy one. You are to free the bird, and this act of generosity is to lift your spirits. When I bought a bird, it didn't fly off. It sat in my hand, and didn't seem to know it was free. I had to give it a gentle nudge upward before it took wing and disappeared."
Shereen Marisol Meraji, Co-Host of Code Switch
"I got my start at NPR not long after the transition from analog audio editing to digital. Gone were the days of razor blades, reel-to-reel tape and battle wounds from ‘cutting on deadline.’
That wasn’t the only technological shake up I’ve witnessed in my time as a journalist: blogging, vlogging, social media, podcasting. What’s stayed constant is what makes a story stick. That has little to do with technology and everything to do with humanity. The stories with heart are the stories that live on in the memory of our audience.
That’s what sets my work apart – the heart and humanity I bring to my coverage of race and identity on NPR’s Code Switch.”