As Schiller digs into her second year as boss, she holds fiercely to the vision of NPR as a central point in a web of partnerships to build a stronger public media. “I truly believe partnership is at the center of all we do,” Schiller said. “It’s at the center of our strategic plan. I charge all division heads, your job responsibility is NPR and the system as a whole: digital, news, fundraising, diversity. Everything is about the system as a whole.”
If this were a radio script, I might write this transition: But holding everyone together won’t be easy (audio: fading applause).
NPR was created in 1970 at the urging of a group of fiercely independent public-radio stations. Public-radio owners were committed to rules requiring them to serve their local communities, but each went about that mission in a different way, as free-spirited or as fussy as suited their pleasure and audience. Most agreed on the need for a daily news show, so National Public Radio was formed to produce and distribute that news. Eventually, an arrangement was worked out: each station would pay NPR a fee to fund that newsgathering, with the stations raising the money from listener contributions collected in local community pledge drives and grants from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. In forty years the system has grown to 268 public broadcasting license holders that run 784 NPR member stations reaching more than 32 million people a week, according to Arbitron, a radio-ratings company. About 26.4 million of them listen specifically to NPR programming, as of spring 2009, the most recent figures available. To this day, NPR’s board is dominated by local station heads.
But not all stations are the same. Many, like WAMU and KCRW, are run by universities. Others are run by municipalities. Some are independent nonprofits. WNYC, for example, used to be operated by New York City until current president and chief executive Laura Walker raised enough money to buy the license from the city and run her own operation, governed by an independent board. Still others run both radio and television stations, like WGBH in Boston. All four of these examples, meanwhile, are NPR stations that also produce original programs that have their own national and international following—and compete with some NPR programs.
Then there are organizations like the one run by public radio giant Bill Kling, who was a founding director of NPR. Kling is now chief executive of American Public Media, a St. Paul-based independent public-radio programmer that competes with NPR in offering stations original shows, like A Prairie Home Companion and Marketplace. APM is also the parent of three NPR member station groups, including Minnesota Public Radio. Meanwhile, Kling helped found what’s now called Public Radio International, which competes with both NPR and APM in distributing programs like This American Life.*
“Each organization plays its role,” Kling said. He grants that NPR is “one of the most important news organizations in the country,” but says that PRI “was necessary to broaden its outlook” after NPR rejected several stations’ ideas for new programming (including This American Life). “APM we’ve kept in-house,” he said, “to produce programming, to act much quicker. Each in its own way has made a significant contribution to public radio.”
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.