CURRENT ONLINE

In Buzenberg's time,
NPR News became "a very different place," says Suarez.
In the old days, NPR would do some stories by calling a talking head in Washington.
"Now, we cover worldwide stories with our own people....
We cover them with NPR people, and we cover them thoroughly."

Buzenberg's contributions to NPR news department 'can't be measured,' colleagues attest

Originally published in Current, Feb. 3, 1997
By Jacqueline Conciatore

Bill Buzenberg served longer as news vice president at NPR—seven years—than anyone before him. Perhaps this is because there was so much going on. Buzenberg ran the news department as it came into full flower, becoming a major news competitor by building its capacity to cover events globally, and focusing more on hard news. In the process, NPR programs won 10 George Foster Peabody awards and nine duPont-Columbia silver or gold batons.

The news department's growth helped spur NPR's and public radio's. During Buzenberg's tenure as v.p. for news and information, NPR's station membership grew by 42 percent, and the number of people tuning in to NPR news programs weekly grew by 43 percent—to 12 million. The development department significantly increased its intake, and the company bought its own building, complete with improved studios.

"What Bill Buzenberg has done for NPR news, it can't really be measured," says one staff member. "Any way you look at it—quantity and quality—news went up on his watch. And frankly, Bill's got a big contribution to make in the rest of his career, for some lucky place."

Buzenberg, whose last day at NPR is March 3 [1997], says he may return to NPR as a reporter. Or he may not. He's still sorting out whether he wants to return to his first love, reporting, or find a management position somewhere, he says. For six months, he'll work on a book he's writing with his wife, Susan, about the late president of CBS News, Richard Salant.

Buzenberg, 50, has said he needs a break after seven years, though there is speculation that differences between him and NPR President Del Lewis also led to the parting.

The departing v.p. initiated Talk of the Nation, Weekly Edition and Sounds Like Science and led the initiative to expand All Things Considered to an earlier, 4 p.m. Eastern start time, something stations requested. He oversaw the expansion of the newscast service to 24 hours.

He was known for wanting to make NPR the radio network of record, and he pushed the operation in the direction of harder news. "NPR was not a major league news organization when Bill took it over," says John Dinges, once his managing editor at NPR and now a Columbia University professor. "It had aspirations to be, it was on the path, but the decisions Bill made really catapulted NPR into the reputation it has. The main decision was to go in a more hard-news direction and to expand, expand, expand the reporter cadre so we would report stories abroad and at home as they're happening and not just do second- and third-day analysis."

Says Talk of the Nation host Ray Suarez: "The system is a very different place than it was when he came in. We have covered as a news organization stories that in the old days NPR would call a talking head in Washington to talk about. Now, we cover worldwide stories with our own people. ... We really cover the Ebola virus in Zaire and ... the Bosnian war and the Somalian deployment. We cover them with NPR people and we cover them thoroughly."

NPR's coverage of the 1991 Gulf War is seen as a turning point for the network. As a result of the comprehensive war coverage, listenership increased by 15-20 percent, according to Dinges, and "changed qualitatively the whole attitude listeners had toward NPR." Stations together raised $700,000 for the coverage, and CPB contributed $300,000. Not only did the war coverage "put NPR on the map," but the dollars helped NPR further build its news operation, because the brevity of the war left a surplus, according to Dinges.

Covering the war was "a very conscious decision and a gamble," Buzenberg says. "It proved the point to me, that good investments in news programming pay off in terms of audience, recognition and growth."

According to Neal Conan, when NPR decided to send a team of reporters to Riyadh to cover the war, Buzenberg said, "Figure out what we want to do, and I'll figure out how to pay for it." Conan marvels that Buzenberg was able to step back and let him run the Gulf War coverage. "It must have been so tempting to run this himself," he says. "He's a newsman from a long time ago. For him to accept with such prescience the idea that he needed to administrate this and that other people needed to run it. . . "

NPR had never covered a war from the field of action before, and had to grapple with a lot of new questions, says Conan, the biggest one how to gauge the danger to correspondents. Conan himself eventually covered the war. When he was captured with a New York Times journalist by Iraqi soldiers, Buzenberg worked night and day, lobbying officials here to work on his release. "It was a horrible eight days," Buzenberg says.

Of his accomplishments, Buzenberg says he is most proud of the fact that "we have grown and expanded but not lost our integrity and core editorial values as a news organization. In fact, those have been strengthened." He also likes to look back on the fact that three years ago, when he participated in overseeing the design of and NPR's move to a new building, the news department made the move without "missing a single deadline."

A lot of people inside NPR say they are sad to see Buzenberg stepping down. He has been one of NPR news' strongest proponents and defenders. Says Morning Edition host Bob Edwards: "[Buzenberg] believed passionately in what we do here. He was very good at getting out and speaking very articulately about that. He had it very clear who we were, what we were about, and believed in it."

Even at the announcement of his resignation Jan. 17 [earlier article], an emotional gathering with news staff members, Buzenberg championed the department. "There are many great days ahead for this organization," he said. "You will win lots more awards. You will gain audience." Earlier, he said that "the brand 'NPR news' is as bright as anything in broadcasting today."

Conan observes that NPR is the enterprise to which he and Buzenberg have given the bulk of their adult lives. "I just think," he says, "that NPR news specifically, and public radio in general, owe a great deal to Bill Buzenberg."

 

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Bill Buzenberg, head of NPR News for seven years, steps down

Originally published in Current, Jan. 20, 1997

NPR Vice President Bill Buzenberg is splitting from NPR after 18 years with the network, seven running the news department. "I'm ready to take a break," an emotional Buzenberg said. "This is an all-consuming job I poured my body and soul into. I do still believe passionately in what we do. And I think the NPR brand shines as bright as anything in broadcasting today."

Buzenberg will begin a six-month sabbatical March 3 to complete a book about late CBS News President Richard Salant. He is co-editing the book of memoirs—Salant, CBS, and the Battle for the Soul of Broadcast Journalism—with his wife, Susan. Buzenberg says he may return to NPR after the sabbatical and take some other job, perhaps as a correspondent.

Buzenberg joined NPR News in 1978 as a foreign affairs correspondent, reporting on Latin America. From 1987 to 1989 he was London bureau chief, reporting from Europe and the former Soviet Union. In 1989, he became managing editor of NPR News, and in 1990, v.p. He is the recipient of the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service Edward Weintal Prize for Diplomatic Reporting, the World Hunger Media Award, the Latin American Studies Association Award and the Robert F. Kennedy Award. He was a journalism fellow at the University of Michigan, and studied at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Italy. Prior to his graduate studies, he was city editor of the Colorado Springs Sun and served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Bolivia.

Bill Buzenberg

 

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To Current's home page

Related article: Insiders speculate that NPR management held open the exit door for Buzenberg, whose department had been criticized for job discrimination in several recent lawsuits.

In a 1995 commentary, Buzenberg defines what distinguishes NPR news from most broadcast journalism.

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