From projects to people

By Ken Banks, Ashoka fellow, Stanford Social Innovation Review |

Bill Siemering was about to jump in his cab to make an airport pickup when his home phone rang. It was the vice president of the MacArthur Foundation. “I was shocked,” said Bill, “when he told me I was being awarded a MacArthur Fellowship.” That phone call proved to be the turning point of his life.

He never did make that airport pickup.

Years before, Bill had been the director of programming of National Public Radio (NPR), where he had created the first signature program in public radio, All Things Considered. He had also crafted NPR’s first mission statement, and while vice president at WHYY-FM in Philadelphia, he was instrumental in bringing Terry Gross and Fresh Air from a local to a national audience. Not bad, you might think.

Despite blazing a trail, though, Bill had eventually found himself out of work; at that time, there just weren’t many opportunities in his sector. As he put it: “I’d spent over 30 years practicing the art and craft of my profession and had no way to use it. I felt like a pianist who lost the use of his hands.” Out of frustration and the need for a job—any job—he started training to be a driver for a car service at Philadelphia airport. He was about to go on his first driving assignment when he got the MacArthur call.

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