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The Best Of Experimental Radio: Favorite Pieces From The NPR Archive

Even in the more earnest pieces, you can hear a sense of humor and a spirit of playfulness.
Art Silverman
Even in the more earnest pieces, you can hear a sense of humor and a spirit of playfulness.

We are marking a milestone, 50 years of NPR, with a look back at stories from the archive.

When NPR began promoting its first original programming in 1971, it billed All Things Considered as a "radio revolution." Bill Siemering's 1970 National Public Radio Purposes stated the network should "produce materials specifically intended to develop the art and technical potential of radio." From the beginning, NPR pursued this goal through experimentation.

NPR's early exploration had many influences, from the BBC Radiophonic Workshop and Radio Nederland to recordist Tony Schwartz and composer Maryanne Amacher. Tactics ranged from layering and electronically manipulating sound, to more narrative devices like experimenting with poetry, dialogue and sense of place. Even in the more earnest pieces, you can hear a sense of humor and a spirit of playfulness.

The network featured content from NPR reporters, freelancers and member stations, such as the National Center for Audio Experimentation (NCAE) at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, which shared staff and resources with WHA (Wisconsin Public Radio). The NCAE produced radio dramas and other explorations of sound, including the All Things Considered theme, composed by Don Voegeli.

In addition to segments featured on All Things Considered, programs like Earplay, Options and Radio Experience offered radio artists a platform for challenging the sound medium. This sample of pieces represents just a few of the many radio artists who helped shape the NPR sound during the network's first two decades.

In burning orange that changed to softer hues, the sun — in all its majesty — descended, attended by a company of clouds.

From All Things Considered (May 7, 1971)

We have, from the National Center for Audio Experimentation in Madison, Wis., another of the center's "eco-dramas." Those are aural dramas, radio plays, about ecological subjects.

From All Things Considered (May 25, 1971)

Hey, guys, I've got a great idea for this show this week. Listen: let's get a grand piano — a big grand piano and drop it down a flight of long steps. Wouldn't that be wonderful? Listen, where can we do it from? Let's drop it from something really spectacular.

From Weekend All Things Considered (July 22, 1979)

The joys of summer are many: long vacations, the beach and basking in the warm sun. An evening at an outdoor concert with friends. The camping trips, the barbecues. Sounds great, but summertime certainly would be a lot nicer if we didn't have to deal with a tiny perennial pest.

From Weekend All Things Considered (July 25, 1981)

Somewhere in the world, a Tupperware party is held every 20 seconds.

From All Things Considered (December 18, 1981)

David Letterman is a very tactful man. He's also a very funny one. Four nights a week on NBC, I think David Letterman is the funniest man on television. Letterman's funny at 12:30 at night. But when I interviewed him at 12:30 in the afternoon, I had my work cut out for me.

From All Things Considered (July 19, 1982)

Pride in your history and your culture can sometimes take an unusual form. And it did in Utah this past weekend. Some of the longtime residents of that state decided to get together and hold a festival in a Salt Lake City park. A celebration of what they think makes them unique. Their festival was dedicated to a substance that they consume more of on an average than people anywhere else.

From All Things Considered (September 22, 1983)

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Nicolette Khan