A Timeline of the 50-Year History of NPR

From a Washingtonian story by Andrew Beaujon headlined “NPR at 50”:

Today NPR is one of Washington’s most familiar and influential media companies, operating out of a gleaming, ultramodern broadcast facility on North Capitol Street. Its radio programs, online content, and podcasts reach millions of people around the world. But when it launched 50 years ago, in April 1971, National Public Radio was a decidedly scrappy enterprise.

How did a modest radio project from a bunch of audio idealists evolve into the multimedia behemoth that we now spend countless hours listening to? To celebrate NPR’s anniversary, we’ve put together a look at its history and transformation.

February 26, 1970
National Public Radio is incorporated, with some 90 public stations as members. It’s an initiative of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which was established by the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967.

April 20, 1971
NPR produces its first content for member stations: coverage of a Senate committee hearing about the Vietnam War.

May 3, 1971
NPR produces its first content for member stations: coverage of a Senate committee hearing about the Vietnam War.

September 28, 1977
Cokie Roberts delivers her first newscast. She’s the last of NPR’s four “founding mothers” to join: Linda Wertheimer and Susan Stamberg were there from the start, while Nina Totenberg came aboard in 1975.

February 8, 1978
The US Senate, which previously allowed only broadcasts of committee hearings, permits NPR to capture floor debate on the Panama Canal Treaty. (It helps that WAMU is then-senator Robert Byrd’s favorite station.)

November 5, 1979
The first Morning Edition airs, intended as a morning counterpart to All Things Considered. It’s hosted by Barbara Hocter (who doesn’t last long) and Bob Edwards (who does).

June 20, 1980
NPR completes a satellite network, which lets stations easily share programming (even if NPR isn’t directly involved). That allows A Prairie Home Companion—which NPR passed on—to become a major national hit.

September 4, 1982
Sylvia Poggioli files her first report for NPR. Her lyrical sign-off (“I’m Sylvia Pa-JOE-lee”) is such a hit with fans that somebody later names a restaurant after her in Oregon.

April 19, 1983
NPR president Frank Mankiewicz steps down amid a funding crisis. Staffers organize the “Drive to Survive,” NPR’s first fundraiser. It raises $1 million, though some member stations are appalled that the network asked listeners for money.

January 16, 1987
All Things Considered airs the first of nine profiles of Archie Harrison, a 31-year-old New Yorker diagnosed with HIV. His obituary airs on August 9, 1988.

January 16, 1987
Car Talk debuts. Hosted by a pair of entertainingly folksy auto gurus, it’s an unexpected hit.

October 6, 1991
Reporter Nina Totenberg breaks the story that Anita Hill is accusing Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment.

December 23, 1992
Unknown humorist David Sedaris’s “Santaland Diaries” appears on Morning Edition and This American Life. “My life changed overnight,” he’ll later write of that moment.

September 1994
NPR launches its first general website. Previously, only Weekend All Things Considered had a presence on the web, with the URL www.clark.net/pub/watc.

October 28, 1994
Chicago lawyer Barack Obama appears on All Things Considered to discuss Charles Murray’s The Bell Curve.

February 16, 1995
New House speaker Newt Gingrich threatens to “zero out” funding for CPB. “There’s nothing public about it,” he says. “Rush Limbaugh is public broadcasting.”

January 3, 1998
The quiz show Wait Wait . . . Don’t Tell Me! airs for the first time.

January 21, 1998
Taking advantage of a previously scheduled interview, Mara Liasson and Robert Siegel are the first reporters to ask President Bill Clinton about the Lewinsky scandal.

April 2003
NPR CEO Kevin Klose attends a birthday party for Joan Kroc, the widow of McDonald’s visionary Ray Kroc; Klose has been pursuing her as a donor. After Kroc dies, she leaves the network $220 million.

March 23, 2004
NPR replaces Bob Edwards as host of Morning Edition, inciting unanticipated outrage from fans. The decision stands, however, and Edwards moves to satellite radio.

September 7, 2008
Planet Money debuts, pointing toward the future. It’s designed as a brand, not a specific radio program. Planet Money segments air during other shows, and it’s available as a podcast.

March 9, 2011
A right-wing activist secretly records an NPR exec badmouthing the Tea Party. Resulting accusations of bias toward conservatives lead to the resignation of CEO Vivian Schiller.

June 5, 2016
NPR journalists Zabihullah Tamanna and David Gilkey are attacked and killed while on assignment in Afghanistan.

October 28, 2016
Neal Carruth is named the network’s first general manager of podcasting. Hit podcasts such as It’s Been a Minute With Sam Sanders become a core part of NPR’s programming.

November 1, 2017
Senior vice president for news Mike Oreskes resigns amid accusations of sexual harassment.

December 1. 2020
Apple Podcasts names Code Switch its show of the year. Soon after, the program—which is hosted by Gene Demby and Shereen Marisol Meraji—becomes part of NPR’s roster of traditional radio offerings.

Andrew Beaujon is a senior editor of The Washingtonian. He joined The Washingtonian in late 2014. He was previously with the Poynter Institute, TBD.com, and Washington City Paper. His book A Bigger Field Awaits Us: The Scottish Soccer Team That Fought the Great War was published in 2018

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