This story originally ran in the March/April 2010 issue of CJR.
If I were writing this story for All Things Considered, I might open with some audio: the sound of applause. The clapping would come from hundreds of employees gathered for an all-staff meeting at National Public Radio’s downtown Washington headquarters in December, as they acknowledged the tenor being set by Vivian Schiller in her first year as NPR’s president and chief executive. Staff members were thanking Schiller for leading them out of the mess they had been in a year earlier, when they had gathered in the same auditorium. At that 2008 meeting, an interim chief executive and his number two had perched nervously on stools in front of the room, shocking the staff with announcements that they were canceling two NPR-produced shows and firing sixty-four people, 7 percent of the staff, in order to deal with a projected $23 million budget gap torn open by the recession. These were the first budget-related mass layoffs to hit NPR since the early 1980s.
It wasn’t just that the news was bad. The executives’ impersonal and awkward manner of delivery—one fiddled with his BlackBerry while the other talked, a staff member recalls—left other managers queasy and the staff reeling. NPR’s nonprofit status had not protected it from the cataclysm that was decimating commercial media, and the place felt rudderless in the storm, the NPR board having ousted the previous chief executive nine months earlier after his aggressive maneuvers had alienated many.
Schiller arrived in January 2009 from the general manager spot at the New York Times’s online operation, exuding an attractive combination of confidence and humility. Deteriorating finances forced her to preside over a second round of cuts in March, but the process was less painful, both because the cuts weren’t as deep as in 2008, and also because of her approach to making decisions. Schiller shared detailed data with the staff about the frightful falloff in corporate sponsorships and other revenue that make up a big chunk of NPR’s funding. She asked for suggestions about how to cut, eventually opting to negotiate with NPR’s unions for temporary benefit cuts, furloughs, and a freeze on merit raises (top management took even deeper cuts) in order to preserve more jobs. Her open style won the trust of some of previous management’s most potent critics.
Indeed, Schiller has animated the place with the energy of renewed ambition, a rededication to producing serious journalism. Her strategy rests on three pillars: expand original reporting at the national and local levels; provide free access to public media content regardless of platform; and serve audiences of all backgrounds and interests. To do all that, she wants to work in partnership with NPR’s member stations as well as independent producers and some of the new nonprofit journalism units springing up around the country.
“I’ve never been more optimistic about NPR than I am right now,” said Ellen Weiss, a twenty-seven-year NPR veteran who is senior vice president of news. Although she mourns the destruction at traditional media like newspapers caused by shrinking revenue and fleeing readers, Weiss sees a yawning gap that can be filled with the kind of public-service journalism that is NPR’s sweet spot. “We occupy a unique place in the cultural and journalistic ecosystem,” she said. “It’s an opportunity, and we want to seize it.”
This excited buzz is not easy to maintain, especially at a time when the economy is struggling and NPR is projected to lose money again this year. Internally, some NPR journalists fear the focus on multiple content platforms will dull the concentration on NPR’s radio excellence. Externally, managers of some member stations believe NPR will attempt to bypass them altogether and reach listeners directly online, potentially upsetting their base of funding.