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.

Lucas Jackson/Reuters
A seat saved for Vivian Schiller, President and CEO of National Public Radio (NPR), sits empty during the 2011 Bloomberg Media Summit in New York on Wednesday, March 9. Post-Vivian Schiller, as NPR's board of directors search for new CEO, big issues confront next leader.

The short, tumultuous leadership of Vivian Schiller is over at NPR, leaving public radio employees shellshocked, wounded, and peering into an uncertain future.

Her departure – coming less than a day after an undercover video showed an NPR fundraiser, whom she had hired, belittling tea party Republicans and conservatives in general – is the third top-level exit in recent months. The fundraiser, Ron Schiller (no relation to Ms. Schiller), is also gone, as is longtime producer Ellen Weiss, who was forced out as senior vice president of news after the controversial firing of news analyst Juan Williams in October.

The exodus has left NPR shaken and buried in controversy. Its 17-member board of directors, which includes 10 heads of member public radio stations, says it is putting together a search committee to find NPR's next leader. But whoever gets the job will take the helm of an organization whose journalistic reputation has been tarnished, that seems conflicted about the need for continued federal funding for public broadcasting, and that has big unresolved points of tension between itself and local public radio stations across the US.

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At stake is not only the future of NPR, but also perhaps American journalism itself.

"I see a lot of big stakes for NPR as an institution, but also for American journalism, in what's going on here," says Ferrel Guillory, a journalism professor at the University of North Carolina, in Chapel Hill. "None of us want to say that the country can't get along without any one organization like NPR.... But if we lose NPR, even if you don't listen regularly, our country and our public realm is diminished by not having that kind of strong journalistic presence on a daily basis, providing something that commercial networks don't do anymore."

Ms. Schiller addressed two of those points when explaining her resignation after the sting video, acknowledging that it dealt another blow to NPR's reputation and may have imperiled NPR's efforts to hold onto $90 million in indirect federal funding. "We took a reputational hit around the Juan Williams incident, and this was another blow to NPR's reputation. There's no question," she told the Associated Press.

Mr. Williams's firing came after he said during an appearance on Fox News that flying on airplanes with people in "Muslim garb" made him nervous – a response that many conservatives derided as a knee-jerk bow to liberal political correctness.

Then, in February, NPR falsely reported that Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D) of Arizona had died in the mass shooting at a public event in Tucson.

The sting video, with its derision of conservatives, further cemented an image of NPR brass as elite and condescending liberals – just as conservative critics have long complained.

The challenge ahead is for NPR to repair its reputation, rally an estimated 170 million listeners to its cause, and better explain to the public – and to Congress – its core values and importance to American democracy.

"Everyone for the last couple of years has been talking about the NPR model, where media purchasers pay directly for broadcasts, but in the past couple of months NPR has squandered its lead, and it started with the Juan Williams fiasco," says crisis management consultant Richard Levick, a longtime NPR listener in Washington, D.C. "Since that time, they've been playing defense, and we've seen Ellen Weiss offered as a human sacrifice and now Vivian Schiller as another human sacrifice ... to show that they're fair and balanced."

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.

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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