Despite her desire to run a tight budget, to meet her ambitious goals for NPR’s journalism Schiller needs money. Lots of it. So one of her most significant hires has been Ron Schiller (no relation) as senior vice president for development. Fresh from the University of Chicago, where his team raised $2.5 billion over four years, he thinks big. “I believe we can raise substantially more for NPR by raising substantially more for public radio,” he told those gathered at the December all-staff meeting. He pledged to work together with member stations to meet the highest-end philanthropists. “Our givers see us as interdependent,” he said.
Echoing his boss’s vision, Schiller believes public radio has an opportunity and responsibility to serve the country’s information needs, and that big donors and foundations will support that. He likened the public-radio system to Harvard University, with its prodigious fundraising power. Harvard doesn’t beg that it needs money, he said; rather, “it produces. It’s a winner. It’s a place people are proud to affiliate with.” NPR is in the same boat, he said, but has never approached big donors to consistently make the pitch to support the public-radio system. Now it will, he said, pursuing “game-changing” gifts—numbers with plenty of zeros behind them.
NPR was able to land such a gift once, the 2003 Kroc bequest. But some others in the public-radio world didn’t see that as the start of the trend or a model to be repeated. They saw it as a fluke, the result of a personal relationship that stretched back two decades between Kroc and Stephanie Bergsma, the associate manager of KPBS in San Diego.
Kroc had been a frequent contributor to NPR, and her relationship with Bergsma deepened after the death of Bergsma’s husband. When it became clear that Kroc was making major decisions about her own will, Bergsma brought in NPR’s Kevin Klose, and the two of them talked to Kroc about what a gift to public radio could accomplish. Their efforts secured $5 million for KPBS and $235 million for NPR.
“People said, ‘Don’t you feel upset she didn’t give more to KPBS?’’’ said Bergsma. “I said, ‘No. That didn’t make sense.’ Eighty percent of our programming schedule comes from NPR. NPR isn’t a threat to the stations. Helping NPR ultimately helps us all.”
Not everyone thinks that way, however. American Public Media’s Kling, for one, said that, “Had I been in San Diego, I would have worked hard to convince Joan that she had the opportunity to create a model public-media service in San Diego.” Why not $100 million to KPBS?
“If I found a $10-million donor and Ron Schiller came to town and said, ‘Let’s split that,’ I’d say no,” Kling continued. “Here the most important thing to do next is to get Minnesota Public Radio up to its full potential in professional news collection and dissemination.” Kling said the publisher of the Minneapolis Star Tribune recently said he thought in five years his biggest competition would be public radio. “If he’s right,” Kling said, “we’ve got a long way to go. We’d probably have to triple the investment we make to news to get there.”
Kling has a point about local public radio stations needing more money—especially if they are attempting to fill some gaps created by the death of local newspapers. He hosted a confab in November at Minnesota Public Radio on the future of regional journalism and released a study of public-radio news resources titled “In Service of Democracy: Achieving Public Radio and Public Media’s Potential” (PDF). It found that Minnesota Public Radio had the biggest public-media newsroom in the country, with nearly eighty people reporting local news on a $76 million budget. All other stations in the top twenty-five markets spent less. In Dallas, for example, the public radio station has a station budget of just $2 million, Kling said. And many local public radio stations have no newsrooms to speak of; they run on shoestring budgets and are essentially repeater stations for content created by NPR and other national networks. They serve local communities as best they can; without them, some places would have nothing in terms of quality news services.