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You’re familiar with the stereotype: humorless, ever so slightly imperious, Birkenstock-wearing brown-rice enthusiasts. These are the women of NPR, forever etched into America’s collective consciousness by Alec Baldwin, Ana Gasteyer, and Molly Shannon in a classic Saturday Night Live skit known as “Schweddy Balls.” Despite its reputation for earnestness, the organization seems to be in on the joke. Even Nina Totenberg, the longtime justice reporter whose legendarily soothing voice almost surely provided inspiration, laughs about it. “I like that Saturday Night Live makes fun of us,” she says. “It’s better to be noticed than not noticed at all.”
Today Totenberg is the dean of the Supreme Courtpress corps; NPR progamming reaches an audience of nearly 23 million—a 70 percent increase from 1998, the year the skit first aired—and has more foreign bureaus than any other American broadcast network. But it hasn’t always been that way, and Totenberg knows what it means to go unnoticed. She joined the fledgling broadcaster in the early 1970s, when it was carried by just 90 stations (that number has since increased a hundredfold). It was a period in which most news outlets were openly hostile to the very notion of hiring a female correspondent. “All of us have stories of being told, outright, ‘We don’t hire women’ or ‘We have our woman,’” she says.
In part, Totenberg says, NPR had no choice: salaries were so low that few men were willing to take jobs there. The inadvertent result was a roster of young female talent now considered among the most respected names in radio: Totenberg, Cokie Roberts, Linda Wertheimer, and Susan Stamberg, a group affectionately known as the “Founding Mothers.” “It was a novel experience, being looked after [by colleagues] and not being hit on,” Totenberg says. The Old Girls’ Club, as she calls them, sat in a corner of the newsroom the men referred to as “the fallopian jungle,” and swiftly became the broadcaster’s earliest stars. In 1972, Stamberg became the first woman in the country to anchor a daily national news show.