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Post-Vivian Schiller, big stakes in NPR's next moves

Time to reinvent public radio? As NPR's board of directors launch search for new CEO after Vivian Schiller exit, big issues confront next leader. Among them: reputation makeover, public funding issue, and online presence.

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Another big issue is a growing divergence between the direction and interests of NPR and those of member radio stations. NPR has moved to bolster its presence online – an approach that local stations see as competition for the news audience. If news consumers shift to getting their NPR coverage online, that could mean fewer listeners for stations, which in turn could lead to fewer donors. Moreover, it's the local stations, not NPR itself, that receive disbursements of federal dollars.

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Ms. Schiller tried to walk the line between bolstering NPR's online presence while, as recently as this week, defending federal subsidies as a way to preserve member stations. Some take as much as half their operating income from government checks. Meanwhile, a social media campaign to rally listeners to the NPR funding cause has been at least temporarily sidelined by this week's resignations, says Mr. Levick.

"Bottom line: The stations’ interests and NPR’s interests are no longer aligned," says media pundit Jeff Jarvis of the Buzz Machine blog. "That has been the case for some years. It is the elephant in the studio. Schiller tried hard to find ways to improve the stations’ lot. ... But in the end, the stations will fear a stronger NPR."

It's not clear if NPR's federal funding is in imminent jeopardy. It is backed, after all, by the White House and a majority bloc of Democrats (and some Republicans) in the Senate. Under Ms. Schiller, NPR enlarged its audience, began a program to bolster coverage of state issues, and eliminated a $24 million budget deficit.

Perhaps NPR's most important decision is whether to continue to fight for federal funding, as it has vowed to do for the time being. Mr. Schiller acknowledged in the undercover video that NPR would be better off in the long term without federal funding – a point Republican lawmakers have noted with glee. The issue of federal funding has been a topic of conversation inside NPR for some time.

The board's nervousness about losing public funding, which would affect stations the most, may be keeping NPR from defending itself more vigorously against assertions that it is, as critics say, "a socialist adventure."

"Don't fight defunding," suggests Washington Examiner columnist Michael Barone. "Instead, work with Congress to get NPR ... off the public payroll. It may be painful in the short term. But in the long run, you will be a better organization – and you won't have to worry about pleasing politicians."

Some liberal listeners, though, see in NPR's actions a kowtowing to conservatives, and they aren't happy about it.

“A lot of people on the left aren’t really in the mood to defend NPR,” John Aravosis, founder of the liberal AmericaBlog, tells The Daily Beast's Howard Kurtz. “They feel NPR hasn’t been very liberal and hasn’t done a good job of defending itself.”

The institutional mind-set at NPR needs to be converted, through new leadership, into a more aggressive, confident stance, says Mr. Levick, the corporate crisis manager. "The first thing they need to figure out is, what do they want to be?" he says.

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