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A tribute to Linda Wertheimer, who's retiring after 5 decades at NPR

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Our colleague Linda Wertheimer is retiring after more than half a century at NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

ROBERT CONLEY: From National Public Radio in Washington, I'm Robert Conley with All Things Considered.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: On the very first day of the very first NPR news program in 1971, Linda was the director, the woman who signaled the men when to talk. In later years, she did the talking herself.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

LINDA WERTHEIMER, BYLINE: Americans wake up this morning to more dramatic news about the financial bailout.

INSKEEP: She was on the air for the Great Recession and decades of other news. She was a political correspondent, host of All Things Considered and an occasional guest host on this program, where I got to see another side of Linda because she chats in the studio when the microphone is off, telling you which foods go straight to your hips, which politician had a temper, or which person in the news was a beautiful man. On the occasion of her retirement, she was in our studios again.

Thank you for coming by.

WERTHEIMER: It's a pleasure.

INSKEEP: This might be a little less focused of an interview than some other things that we've done. I hope you have, I don't know, 30 or 40 minutes to talk.

WERTHEIMER: I have plenty of time.

INSKEEP: That's cool.

WERTHEIMER: I got nothing but time.

INSKEEP: So we talked about her youth in New Mexico, growing up in Carlsbad, which was a mining town in the desert.

WERTHEIMER: My father was a grocer. He built a grocery store, a little bitty grocery store. My mother was a housewife. She sewed and made all my clothes.

INSKEEP: Homespun.

WERTHEIMER: She was a mighty fine cook.

INSKEEP: Did you think about the wilder world when you were growing up?

WERTHEIMER: Yes, because we had radio.

INSKEEP: They listened to Edward R. Murrow, one of the first great radio newsmen. And when television arrived in the 1950s, Linda was surprised to see a newswoman.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PAULINE FREDERICK: A proposal by the Soviet Union for a world disarmament conference. This is Pauline Frederick, NBC News, at the United Nations.

WERTHEIMER: I said to my mother, that's a woman. And my mother said, very good, Linda.

INSKEEP: (Laughter) But it's meaningful. Go on. Why was it meaningful?

WERTHEIMER: Well, I didn't know women could do that work. So instead of my longing to be Edward R. Murrow's secretary, I suddenly thought, I don't have to be anybody's secretary. I can talk on the radio myself.

INSKEEP: She went from Carlsbad to college to newsrooms to NPR News, where she eventually covered politics.

WERTHEIMER: And it was great. You know, if I'd gone to work for The Washington Post, I would have had to strangle David Broder in order to cover politics.

INSKEEP: Great political columnist.

WERTHEIMER: It would have been a terrible thing to do.

INSKEEP: Understand. So you ended up at NPR, which has been known since the beginning as a place that is much more welcoming to women than, perhaps, some other companies or news organizations.

WERTHEIMER: It's extraordinary and true.

INSKEEP: Why?

WERTHEIMER: Partly, it was for the sort of ugly reason that women were cheap. As Frank Mankiewicz, one of the former presidents of NPR, said at one point, you get more bang for the buck with the broads.

INSKEEP: Linda became one of the founding mothers, as they're often called, who defined much of NPR's sound and influenced its course.

WERTHEIMER: It was me, Susan Stamberg, Cokie Roberts and Nina Totenberg, and we were privileged to be able to pretty much call the shots on our own work. And I can't tell you how much fun it was.

INSKEEP: Especially talking with voters, as she did in the winter of 2008.

WERTHEIMER: I remember once, the producer that I was working with said to me, here's something. Women, it's a group of women at the curling center. We were in Wisconsin, I think.

INSKEEP: OK, people who do the sport of curling.

WERTHEIMER: She had no idea. She thought it might have something to do with hair.

INSKEEP: Beauty salon.

(LAUGHTER)

WERTHEIMER: And I said, book them.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

WERTHEIMER: Nora Fuller (ph) took her turn at sliding the rock down the ice.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROCKS COLLIDING)

WERTHEIMER: Fuller also joined her teammates, furiously sweeping the ice ahead of sliding rocks.

(SOUNDBITE OF SWEEPING)

WERTHEIMER: She's a retired teacher. After the game, she told us she considered Obama but decided Clinton could better handle the job.

I once talked to a bunch of people who were snowshoers out in New Hampshire.

INSKEEP: OK.

WERTHEIMER: And I thought, you know, I've never done it. So I strapped on snowshoes, and they showed me what to do. And we went out to a nice sort of little dell, sat on logs and talked about the election.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

WERTHEIMER: The morning is bright. It's about 10 degrees out. Powdery snow is swirling in a light wind. About a dozen men and women follow Jocelyn Gaches (ph), wrapped to the eyes in assorted warm clothing, down a gentle hill and across a frozen beaver pond.

You know, I should have paid NPR.

INSKEEP: To have these experiences?

WERTHEIMER: Mm-hmm.

INSKEEP: Although the work could be excruciating, as it was when she was hosting All Things Considered on September 11, 2001.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

WERTHEIMER: This is Special Coverage from NPR News on today's terrorist attacks. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

NOAH ADAMS: And I'm Noah Adams. To bring us up to date...

WERTHEIMER: I think we were all terrified that it was going to expand, that something else was going to blow up. But, you know, one of the things that live radio teaches you is that you just forget all those kinds of things that you're terrified by and you keep talking, and you acquire information, and you convey that information. That's the job.

INSKEEP: Over many years, whatever happened on the radio was the story.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

WERTHEIMER: Was that the sound of gunfire?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: That is gunfire, yes.

WERTHEIMER: Is it right around where you are?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Maybe a block away.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE)

WERTHEIMER: That sounded very close.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Yes. I'm crouching on the floor now, so I don't think I can continue this interview.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLICK)

INSKEEP: Now, in talking about the art of interviews like that one, Linda Wertheimer recalled her father, the New Mexico grocer.

WERTHEIMER: My father was one of those people - he would say to people, so how are you doing? And they would tell him that they were doing OK but that their father had died. And he said, well, that's fine, 'cause he wasn't listening to anything...

INSKEEP: Right.

WERTHEIMER: ...They said. So I learned lesson there that my job, my serious job, was to listen.

INSKEEP: Linda listened to the people she interviewed, and the audience learned to listen for Linda Wertheimer, who is retiring after 53 years at NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.