True, but serving the needs of such a disparate system makes for one gnarly management assignment. Public radio is “inherently anarchic,” said KCRW’s Ruth Seymour. Her station is known for its promotion of eclectic music; Seymour lovingly describes it as quirky. “For people who cannot abide cacophony, they cannot abide the system,” she said.
The system that Schiller walked into last January, though, was a proud but sullen place, sort of like a family sulking after a Thanksgiving Day fight.
NPR itself, after an initial three decades of making “a virtue of being threadbare,” as former president and chief executive Kevin Klose put it, landed a $235 million bequest from Joan Kroc, the wife of the McDonald’s founder, in 2003. This capped a decade of strong growth under Klose’s management, with the number of listeners doubling—to 26 million—and a couple dozen new news bureaus opening around the country and the world. NPR was pushing out on all fronts, building NPR West, a cutting-edge production facility in Culver City, California, and funneling cash to NPR.org, its Web site. The network set its sights on becoming a mondo, multiplatform content provider.
Yet many stations felt they were being run over, not catered to. Klose retired as chief executive in 2006 and for each person who describes him as “charming,” another person describes his successor, Ken Stern, as “tough.” Stern stepped up from his long-time position as Klose’s number two just as war was breaking out between NPR and its stations. NPR’s expansion plans needed more cash and its fundraisers were making incursions into local-station territories, seeking deep-pocketed donors. Ideas were bandied about to put a button on NPR.org’s site to allow listeners to donate to NPR directly. At the same time, universal access to podcasts of some NPR programming on the site made it easy for online listeners to bypass their local stations. Alarmed and upset, the board dismissed Stern in March 2008 and began a search for his successor. And as if to prove that things could get worse, the recession started to bite and corporate underwriting dollars began to evaporate. Cash reserves and earnings from the endowment funded largely by the Kroc gift helped cushion the blow, but couldn’t counteract its full force.
NPR’s board selected Schiller out of an initial field of 150 candidates. Although she had never worked in radio, she had broadcasting cred—and the awards to prove it—from her years at CNN and the Discovery-Times Channel, a short-run partnership between suburban Washington-based Discovery Communications and The New York Times Company. And her tenure running nytimes.com, a digital news leader, capped the package, as the board sought a leader who could get public radio onto satellite and into iPhones.
“Our problem was not the quality of what we were doing on the radio,” said Howard H. Stevenson, a Harvard Business School professor who chairs NPR’s board. “Our problem was how to make the system more than the sum of its parts. How to build the power of public radio . . . as a cooperative venture rather than competitive ventures.”
For her part, Schiller said she hadn’t sought the job, but the more she learned about it, the more she liked it. “What dawned on me as I read and talked to a lot of people,” Schiller said, “was that this was like the job of my dreams. By the end, I really, really wanted it.”
Schiller confesses to sleeping with her BlackBerry next to her bed. She wakes at 6 a.m. to a flood of e-mails most days, and checks some thirty Web sites even as she spends time with her two kids as they get ready for school. On the drive to the office, she uses a headset: “I never actually dial or text, except at a red light.” She tries not to schedule early-morning meetings. “I need that mind-space time. I get too stressed out if I can’t get to those e-mails,” she said, then added with a smile, “but that’s for me to discuss with my psychiatrist.”