Douglas Bennet tries to get the money ball rolling again at NPR

Recently, a tall handsome model from the Wilhelmina Agency, dressed in top hat and tails, carrying an object on a silver tray, arrived at the office. He presented the object to me - an early-model Sony Walkman stereo with a cassette inside on which was taped a message from George Plimpton inviting me to a caviar brunch and croquet game at the Palm Court of the Plaza Hotel.

The reason for the event was a bit vague. I could only tell that it involved the St. Andrews Country Club of Boca Raton, Fla., the Croquet Foundation of America, and, would you believe, National Public Radio.

Mostly out of curiosity - and a taste for caviar - I attended the press event. The caviar was so-so, George Plimpton was warm and friendly. I did not play croquet on the two courts set up in the lobby of the Plaza (I was too busy eating caviar). But I did discover that all the brouhaha had been arranged to announce the St. Andrews/NPR Celebrity Croquet Tournament - a nationwide benefit for National Public Radio and the Croquet Foundation of America.

According to the organizers, a maximum of 40 celebrities from motion pictures , television, sports, politics, and business will captain as many as 40 foursomes in a ''Croquetathon'' on March 17. The remaining three positions in each foursome will be available to individuals and corporate donors for a minimum contribution of $7,500. There will be other events continuing into the next day, and it was explained that all proceeds (except for up to 17 percent for expenses) will be split between NPR and the Croquet Foundation on a 75-to-25 -percent basis.

Among all the celebrities present at the Plaza (more at the caviar tables than the croquet courts), I found the new president of National Public Radio, Douglas J. Bennet, the man chosen by a search committee only a few months ago to lead NPR out of the doldrums of near-bankruptcy in which it found itself. He is a charming man who has served in major administrative posts with the federal government and in foundations for many years.

I asked him why NPR, an organization that depends on grass-roots support, had chosen to ally itself with such an elitist group.

''Croquet is not elitist,'' he insisted; ''there are millions of Americans who play in their backyards.'' But then he retreated a bit. ''Of course, people who pay $7,500 to play might be considered elitist.

''But the fact is, NPR must go to those who can make substantial contributions as well as to the member stations and those who make small contributions. We certainly will take large contributions from people who wish to make them, although we would much prefer there were better long-range methods to fund NPR.''

We talked a bit more at the brunch and continued the conversation a few days later by telephone when he returned to Washington.

Mr. Bennet is pleased to report that there is currently a balanced budget at his organization, although there are still debts to be repaid. The federal government through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting allots only around $ 10 million to NPR, which has a total annual budget of around $20 million. The difference must be made up with the fees and contributions to NPR from its 284 member stations, as well as money from foundations, corporations, and individuals.

He says he is most proud of ''Morning Edition'' and ''All Things Considered, '' the popular morning and early-evening public-affairs programs. ''Although radio audiences have tended to remain fairly stable in proportion to the population in recent years,'' he told me, ''our listenership has doubled. People who listen to NPR listen to much more radio than other radio listeners.''

Bennet regards as his biggest challenge the need to reassure the public that NPR is a responsible organization, ''carrying on the process of providing Americans with first and foremost the kind of fair and informative public-affairs programming which commercial radio seems unable to provide.''

When I mentioned that during NPR's recent troubles it had become apparent to me as well as to many other Americans that NPR had a much more loyal and persistent constituency among the public and in Congress than anybody had realized, he seemed especially pleased. ''When people were presented with the choice of having NPR or not having NPR they made it clear they wanted us to continue,'' he said proudly.

Can we look forward to new and original programming on NPR in the near future?

''I'm afraid there isn't time for much of that right now. We must wait until enough funds are forthcoming for new projects. But meantime we will concentrate on current public-affairs programming and, of course, coverage of the upcoming elections.''

What will make his tenure (he serves at the pleasure of the NPR board) a success in his own eyes?

''I hope to be able to show the public that NPR is sound and immaculate financially and can make a substantial contribution to public information about the political process. Our society shouldn't shortchange itself. With adequate funding, National Public Radio can be an information, education, and entertainment system that all the public can profit from . . . and enjoy.''

Douglas J. Bennet is an impressive executive, earnestly determined to make certain that NPR regains a nationwide pecuniary reputation to match its on-air public-affairs reputation.

Just one word of advice, Mr. Bennet, from someone who wishes you and NPR well: If you're looking for grass-roots support, better scratch the caviar and croquet from the public relations campaign. Make it baseball and hot dogs.

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