Social media has become another hot spot for NPR and all of public radio, with its intensely loyal audiences. Scott Simon, host of Weekend Edition Saturday, has more than 1.3 million people following him on Twitter. He usually has a running stream of tweets on Saturday mornings. “Read the transcript of Rev. Robertson on Haiti, seeming to blame quake on pact w/ devil. Can he still be called a man of God?” he tweeted on January 15. “There’s every reason for us to be in the advance of this,” Simon said in an interview. “It’s communication. It’s what we do.”
To support member stations in building their own Web sites, NPR secured a total of $3 million in grants from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Knight Foundation to fund a pilot project—involving a dozen or more stations—in which each station will create digital content on a specific topic. Wilson is spearheading the project, dubbed “Argo” for the mythological Jason and the Argonauts who searched for a golden fleece. Although final agreements with the stations aren’t yet signed, the funding should pay for one or two new hires at each station’s Web site, who will focus on creating blogs and curating content around a specific topic. Oregon Public Broadcasting, for instance, will focus on building out more content about the outdoors and the environment, said Bass, the CEO there. WAMU will focus on societal divisions over race, gender, age, education, socioeconomic status, and the like. The idea is to make each station’s Web site a center for unique and deep content that can be promoted across NPR’s platforms. The reporting from each station will both enhance national stories done by NPR reporters and also bolster local stories with national examples.
WNYC’s Walker is participating in Argo and credits Schiller with creating “new ways of partnering that are about the whole system,” and not just NPR-focused. “It’s in NPR’s interest as well as our interest to help newsrooms around the country become stronger,” Walker said. “In this world, public media should band together as partners. We’re all too small to do this alone.”
Schiller’s own assessment is that the most important accomplishment of her first year has been getting NPR on firmer financial footing. The benefit givebacks, on top of the layoffs and significant expense cuts, were big parts of narrowing the budget gap. At the all-staff meeting in December, she shared numbers that showed that NPR’s deficit for fiscal 2009 was $10.1 million, considerably less than the $15 million deficit that the board had set as the maximum allowed. NPR’s current operations budget is $156 million. She thanked everyone for the sacrifices they had made. “We could have been on a path to a terrible place,” she said. “These are sacrifices we needed to make.”
She said the financial situation was a little brighter for the fiscal year that started in October, in which the board has approved running NPR’s operations at a deficit of $8.6 million. “We are on track to do better than that. How much better it is too early to tell, but we are encouraged that we are heading in the right direction,” Schiller said at the meeting. She told the staff she would restore one of the three unpaid holidays scheduled for the year as a sign that as conditions improve, all would share. When representatives of the two unions within NPR pressed to have more benefits restored, Schiller said the cuts were “baked into the projections.” The board has asked NPR to have zero deficit in fiscal 2011.
Keeping costs down won’t be easy. Contracts with the two unions that represent NPR employees—one for journalists and the other for engineers—both expire this year. And while Kevin Beesley, president of the NPR unit of AFTRA, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, said he’s been “blown away” by Schiller’s fresh approach, that doesn’t mean negotiations will be a cakewalk. “Her style was a huge success and was one of the reasons they got the money they needed from us” in the 2009 benefit givebacks, he said. Beesley, who is NPR’s European editor, reckons he personally gave up about $8,000 in benefits in the form of cuts to the company’s health and retirement contributions, as well as mandatory furloughs and unpaid vacations. “For the last year, we’ve felt management has been spending our money,” he said.