NPT relaunches John Seigenthaler ‘A Word on Words’ online archive

On Nashville Public Television’s A Word on Words, renowned journalist John Seigenthaler held in-depth and informed discussions with authors over the series’ 40-year run (1972 to 2013). NPT has digitized 901 episodes of A Word on Words and made them available online at Mr. Seigenthaler’s many guests over the years extended beyond literary figures to include a wide array of historical and cultural notables such as astronaut Al Shepard, Rep. John Lewis and Julia Child.

The show’s host may have been its most fascinating subject, however. Mr. Seigenthaler served as editor of The Tennessean, founding editor of USA Today, assistant to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, and chair of the selection committee for the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award. He was a passionate advocate of the First Amendment and founded the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University in 1991.

“These are programs that we hope will be seen in many places over the years and maybe provide a little historical perspective on both Nashville and the country,” said John Seigenthaler, Mr. Seigenthaler’s son. To that end, NPT has shared the episodes with the American Archive of Public Broadcasting online archive, a collaboration between the Library of Congress and WGBH that includes more than 50,000 hours of public broadcasting programs and original materials. This database is searchable by title and guest and the show transcripts can be searched for words and topics.

NPT has already mined the newly available interviews for digital-first projects in conjunction with Ken Burns’ Country Music documentary series and this summer’s Apollo 11 moon landing anniversary.

According to NPT’s President & CEO Kevin Crane, who serves on American Archive’s advisory board, the A Word on Words digitization project got underway more than a decade ago when a cache of tapes was found in the station’s basement. “Some of them, we didn’t even have machines that could play them,” Crane said. Thus the station first made some of A Word on Words audio available online; now the entire shows are available for viewers to enjoy again.

Mr. Seigenthaler’s thorough preparation for each interview was legendary. Crane remembered how much authors appreciated that dedication. “I used to drive authors back and forth to the Southern Festival of Books and all the authors said the same thing: He really read my book,” Crane said.

“Dad spent longer doing the television shows at [NPT] than he did any other job in his life. He did it for free and he did it out of love for books and for the community. So these wonderful television programs are important us,” the younger Seigenthaler said. “There’s not a day that passes that I don’t hear from somebody almost who says, ‘I love to watch A Word on Words, I love to watch him talk to authors about their books.’”

NPT has shared the John Seigenthaler A Word on Words episodes with the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University. Mr. Seigenthaler’s papers are now part of the Vanderbilt University Library and a chair in his name is part of the university’s history department. “This is a wonderful addition to what, for us, is a real tribute to his life, but also we hope to be available to researchers and students to learn more about him, the country and the history that he lived,” the younger Seigenthaler said.

NPT also continues to build on Mr. Seigenthaler’s legacy with a reboot of his classic series. Hosted by Mystery writer J.T. Ellison and essayist Mary Laura Philpott, the new A Word on Words received a Midsouth Regional Emmy Award in January 2017 and was nominated for a second Emmy for the 2018 season.

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