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NPR Arts & Life

The Inauspicious Start To Susan Stamberg's Broadcasting Career

As part of a series called My Big Break ,All Things Considered is collecting stories of triumph, big and small. These are the moments when everything seems to click, and people leap forward into their careers .

Susan Stamberg is a big name in public radio. One of NPR's "founding mothers," she was the first woman to anchor a national nightly news program when she co-hosted NPR's All Things Consideredfor 14 years. Listeners hear her reports as a special correspondent, and every year at Thanksgiving, her mother's cranberry relish recipe returns to the air.

But Stamberg's career began its ascent with a nervous mistake.

"My big break occurred essentially at the moment I made my radio debut," she says.

Stamberg was working at a local station in Washington, D.C., producing a daily program when the weather girl called in sick. Stamberg says the format called for a weather forecast.

"There was nobody else to do it," she says. "It was up to me."

Back in those days, Stamberg says, you would dial WE 6-1212 on a phone to get the weather report. She was supposed to write down the forecast and bring her notes into the studio for her live report.

"But I was so nervous I forgot to call," Stamberg says. "So I go into the studio, the on-air light comes on, and I think, 'I don't know what the weather is because I didn't make the phone call.' "

She thought she could just look out the window — but the only window in the studio was out of reach and covered with curtains.

She was in the dark.

"So I did the only thing I could think of to do," Stamberg says. "I made it up."

The earliest photo of Susan Stamberg at a microphone, age 25. Later, as the host of <em>All Things Considered,</em> she was the first woman to be a full-time anchor of a U.S. national nightly news broadcast.
/ Courtesy of Susan Stamberg
The earliest photo of Susan Stamberg at a microphone, age 25. Later, as the host of <em>All Things Considered,</em> she was the first woman to be a full-time anchor of a U.S. national nightly news broadcast.

She says it was in the middle of February, but she was so nervous, she said the temperature was in the 90s.

"And that the barometer was — I didn't even know what that meant," she says. "And then the format called for me to repeat what the weather was. And I couldn't remember what I had said because I was so nervous."

So Stamberg made it up again.

"Now I say it's 62 degrees and the wind and the velocity is 109 and I went on and on and on," Stamberg says. "Mercifully, got off the air and happily our three listeners did not call. So nobody noticed that, anyway."

But Stamberg says her not-so-glamorous on-air debut taught her a couple things about being on the radio: Never go on the air unprepared and never lie to your listeners.

"I think I was so petrified and so relieved when I was finished," she says. "But yeah, something in the back of my head said, 'You know, this could be fun.' So this was the beginning of my inauspicious broadcasting career."

We want to hear aboutyourbig break. Send us an e-mail at mybigbreak@npr.org.

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