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.
The union has been disappointed by what it sees as a larding of the management ranks. Beesley cited two recent hires to underscore his point. Keith Woods, a respected diversity expert who had been dean of faculty at the Poynter Institute, was brought on as vice president of diversity, a more senior title than NPR’s previous director of diversity and thus presumably with more clout. “That’s great,” Beesley said, “but what we desperately need are more young people from diverse backgrounds to bring their experience into our journalism. We don’t need another vice president to go to meetings and recommend more diverse hires only to be told, ‘There’s no more money. We spent it hiring you.’” The other new hire is Susanne Reber, deputy managing editor for investigations. She is an award-winning journalist who headed up an investigations unit for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, and will oversee NPR’s first-ever investigative unit. NPR should pursue more investigations, Beesley said, but “management did not hire more investigative reporters. They hired a manager, and she can’t even edit because she’s not in AFTRA.”
Beesley’s concern is that too much money is being spent on managers, leaving little to improve the lot of the people who create NPR’s content. And although she has promised that no one is discussing more layoffs to reduce the budget, Schiller won’t rule out more job losses over the next five years as technology advances lessen the need for some positions.