He’s especially admiring of Schiller’s focus on what’s happening in the news business outside NPR, which helps guard against a too-insular view and keeps people thinking about how to push forward in fast-moving times. She throws out ideas and asks others what they think about them. She started a “Mogul” series inside NPR, in which she invites other media chiefs to stop by when they’re in Washington for an open conversation with the staff about what their organizations are doing and what NPR should be doing. The Daily Beast’s Tina Brown was one guest, as were The Associated Press’s Tom Curley and Craig Newmark from Craigslist. Schiller also asked Clay Shirky, the futurist (and her self-described personal guru), to talk to the staff. She delighted in a “Digital Think-In” last fall, an all-day seminar that brought together more than sixty tech leaders and others in Silicon Valley to help NPR imagine public media’s digital future.
“I’m not a command-and-control person,” Schiller said, over tea at a Washington sandwich shop. “I lead by building consensus, by getting people excited.” Many people I interviewed described Schiller as having little ego. She herself laughs about an interview she did with a local glossy magazine about working mothers. “They did ask me, ‘So, who do you wear?’” Schiller said. “I mean, look at me. Who do I wear?”
Schiller’s style has succeeded somewhat in piercing NPR’s infamous bureaucracy. NPR correspondent Adam Davidson saw this firsthand when Schiller and he accomplished in one meeting what he had been unable to do for months inside the NPR management maze.
Davidson had participated in a rare NPR collaboration with a reporter from another public-media organization—Alex Blumberg of This American Life, which is produced by Chicago Public Radio and distributed by PRI—and the result had been a hit. “The Giant Pool of Money,” a masterfully clear and lively hour-long report on the causes of the housing crisis, aired in May 2008 on This American Life, the popular weekly show hosted by Ira Glass, and won an immediate outpouring of praise and several journalism awards. All Things Considered ran a shortened version of the story. Blumberg and Davidson proved radio could do long-form journalism about economics and finance that could excite and engage a broad, general audience. They wanted to keep doing it. But how?
Davidson and Blumberg came up with a concept for what they called Planet Money; it would be part blog, part podcast, part radio-reporting team. Davidson was NPR’s global economics correspondent but Blumberg, a producer for This American Life, didn’t work for NPR. And the multiplatform unit was neither a show, like All Things Considered or Morning Edition, nor was it a desk, like the business-news desk or the science desk. NPR is organized into shows and desks, apples and oranges. Planet Money was a kumquat.
NPR’s news chief, Ellen Weiss, believed in the duo’s reporting and was determined to find a place for it to flourish despite NPR’s rigid structure. Weiss freed up a handful of people to join the Planet Money team and told Davidson to just start producing journalism—they would figure out how to fund it within the corporate structure later. The Planet Money site, with its blog and podcast, launched on NPR.org and its first story aired on All Things Considered and Morning Edition on September 9, 2008, just as the government began bailing out financial institutions to prevent a system meltdown. Needless to say, the project took off strong and continues to grow in popularity. One of its biggest fans is Schiller.
“She liked the Planet Money content,” Davidson said, “and, more importantly, she instantly understood that several things embedded in the Planet Money experiment were truly important to NPR’s future”—namely, the power of collaboration and entrepreneurship that produces passionate journalism with a dual radio-Web focus. “The old broadcast model was inherently only top-down. The ideas all had to be big ideas, with huge funding and huge pressure to be a success,” Davidson continued. “She saw at least one path to success here for NPR more broadly—to make everybody feel excited, that they can and should be dreaming big and exploring new ideas.”
Still, despite the good feelings and strong audience support for Planet Money, by spring 2009 unresolved issues had piled up and begun to press. Was this a permanent unit, or would Davidson and the others at some point return to their old jobs? How many stories should the unit do for This American Life and NPR’s news shows? Was there an expansion plan? What exactly was its relationship with This American Life? “Even to schedule meetings with the right people was impossible. It wasn’t happening,” Davidson said. He began to fear NPR’s bureaucratic process could take years.