If it wasn’t for the common cold, National Public Radio’s Susan Stamberg might never have gotten a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
“Radio was the glamour medium of my childhood,” Stamberg tells Variety, recalling her airwaves-obsessed, pre-TV youth. “I loved getting a cold, because I could stay home and my mother would move that radio out of the kitchen into my bedroom, and the two of us would sit and listen to all the soap operas.”
Stamberg discovered a passion that would burn brightly as her radio career flourished in tandem with NPR’s five-decade ascent — from host of such evergreen programming as “All Things Considered” and “Weekend Edition Sunday to her current role as special correspondent. She will receive her Hollywood star on March 3.
Stamberg recalls how a “boring” early gig as a magazine typist led her to sniff out an opportunity at a just-launched regional radio network that would be the precursor of NPR. “They were looking for a producer and I said, ‘What does a producer do?’ The answer was ‘A producer is someone who doesn’t take no for an answer.’ And I thought ‘I can do that!’” she says.
Indeed, she may have been born to it, infamously driven by a constant sense of curiosity. “I have a friend from high school who told me that she hated coming to my house for sleepovers because I would keep her up all night asking questions, and I guess I was practicing for this work,” she says. “I loved finding things out all my life, and I found a way to get paid for it.”
Stamberg quickly proved herself in the medium, but also realized that there were no women at the forefront of broadcast news to model herself after. “I had a good deal of radio experience by the time NPR came along,” she recalls. “I ended up, it turned out, having more radio experience than anybody on our staff, but certainly not in doing news and certainly not being an anchorwoman.”
As she became the first female anchor of a nightly network news broadcast, “the only models I had were men, and in the beginning I tried to imitate them and speak in a deep, authoritative tone,” she says. Now, she mocks her serious intonation, which was corrected by NPR co-founder and original programming director Bill Siemering, who’d hired her to co-host “All Things Considered.”
“He said to me, ‘Be yourself. Don’t try to be anybody else. That’s why I wanted you to do this.’ Nobody tells you that! Only Mr. Rogers! Everyone else says, ‘Lose five pounds, stand up straight, fix your hair,'” she says.
Stamberg’s relaxed, conversational tone and lack of bias or agenda cemented a warm, intimate and trusted bond between herself and her listeners, establishing her alongside the impressive women broadcasters — including Nina Totenberg, Cokie Roberts and Linda Wertheimer — who’d become known as NPR’s “founding mothers.”
“I made up that name — the others may really hate it, but I think it’s terrific,” she confesses, acknowledging that she became the role model for others that she never had herself. “So many women, and especially the long-timers, will tell me that they came because they heard me on the air and they thought, ‘I could do that,’” she says. “They were listening to something they hadn’t heard before and could see themselves doing it. And so many have, and so many are flourishing.”
At this point, Stamberg has conducted along the lines of 50,000 interviews (she guestimates), and of course has no clear favorite. “I always feel the last interview was always my favorite — if it’s gone well,” she says.
But she does admit to a particular fascination with the workings of Hollywood. “I had the dream of movies as a kid and I have never lost it,” she reveals, suspecting that dream was also inherited directly by her son, actor Josh Stamberg of “The Affair” and “Nashville,” who’ll be speaking at her Walk of Fame ceremony. “I said, ‘You can’t tell any mean stories about your mother, but please do stand up, because you’re so handsome.’”
Stamberg has opted out of celebrating with the cranberry relish recipe she’s shared on air for ages. “No, I think the cranberries will stay home,” she laughs. “I’m going into Musso [and Frank Grill] and having the world’s best martini.”
The only imperfection she says in her unexpected Hollywood achievement? “They’re going to have the wrong name on the star,” she says. “The name should be NPR, because that’s been what has been behind me, and what I’ve been behind over all of these decades.”