Robert Conley, First Host Of 'All Things Considered,' Dies

Nov 19, 2013
Originally published on November 19, 2013 4:01 pm

Robert Conley, the first host of NPR's All Things Considered, died over the weekend.

It was Conley who on May 3, 1971, set the tone for NPR's flagship newsmagazine. As one of the show's current hosts Robert Siegel explains, Conley established that the program would be different.

To begin that first broadcast, for example, Conley launched into an unscripted, five-minute riff that introduced a 23-minute piece covering a massive anti-war protest in Washington.

NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg, who was a producer in 1971, shared this remembrance of Conley:

"Bob was a seasoned newsman with a deep-barreled voice that was made for radio. But he didn't much like some of radio's requirements — like working within the program's time constraints. So he ad-libbed his introductions to reporters' pieces, rather than reading from a pre-timed script. He was marvelously articulate but drove the director crazy when his ad-libbing put a news segment into overtime.

"His writing was superb. I remember, 40-plus years later, his description of the status of Vietnam peace talks in Paris: "Trying to follow the Paris negotiations is like trying to keep track of a kitten, playing under a rug."

"Robert Conley didn't always broadcast with stopwatch precision, but he made a grander contribution. He got us off to a start, and helped put in place the radio program you listen to now."

Conley came to NPR after stints at NBC News and The New York Times, where he served as a correspondent and bureau chief in places including London, Rome, the Middle East and Africa.

Conley died Saturday surrounded by his family at his home in Virginia.

He was 85 years old.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

When ALL THINGS CONSIDERED debuted 42 years ago, its voice was the assured baritone of Robert Conley.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)

ROBERT CONLEY, HOST:

From National Public Radio in Washington, I'm Robert Conley with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BLOCK: That was ALL THINGS CONSIDERED's very first host introducing our very first broadcast on May 3, 1971. Bob Conley died this past weekend at age 85.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

On that first broadcast, Conley established that this was a program that wanted to be different. His introduction to the lead story was a five-minute extemporaneous riff. And that first story: 23 minutes covering the tumultuous events of the day, a massive antiwar protest in Washington, D.C.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)

CONLEY: Rather than pulling in reports from all over town, we thought we might try to take you to the event, to get the feel, the texture of the sort of day it's been through a mix of sounds and events..

BLOCK: Forty years later, on the occasion of the show's anniversary, Conley remember those early days as seeped in the Vietnam War.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)

CONLEY: We started ALL THINGS CONSIDERED almost a year to the day after the terrible anti-Vietnam protest at Kent State University in Ohio, where the National Guard fired live ammunition and killed four of the students.

SIEGEL: Conley came to NPR after an illustrious career with NBC News and The New York Times, where he'd been a correspondent and bureau chief in places including London, Rome, the Middle East and Africa. He especially relished his time interviewing and covering Nelson Mandela. He'd also worked for The Washington Post and National Geographic.

BLOCK: Long-time ALL THINGS CONSIDERED host Susan Stamberg was a producer on the original staff in 1971. Here are her memories of the news veteran.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)

SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: Bob was a seasoned newsman with a deep-barreled voice that was made for radio. But he didn't much like some of radio's requirements, like working within the program's time constraints. So he ad-libbed his introductions to reporters' pieces, rather than reading from a pre-timed script. He was marvelously articulate but he drove the director - it was Linda Wertheimer then - crazy when his ad-libbing put a news segment into overtime.

His writing was superb. I remember, 40-plus years later, his description of the status of Vietnam peace talks in Paris: Trying to follow the Paris negotiations, he wrote, is like trying to keep track of a kitten, playing under a rug.

Robert Conley may not always have broadcast with stopwatch precision, but he made a grander contribution. He got us off to a start and helped put in place the radio program you listen to now.

SIEGEL: Susan Stamberg remembering Robert Conley. He died Saturday night surrounded by his family at his home in Virginia.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)

CONLEY: Thanks. This is Robert Conley. You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED on NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.