NPR Amps Up

Can Vivian Schiller build a journalism juggernaut?
March 4, 2010

If I were writing this story for All Things Considered, I might open with some audio: the sound of applause. The clapping would come from hundreds of employees gathered for an all-staff meeting at National Public Radio’s downtown Washington headquarters in December, as they acknowledged the tenor being set by Vivian Schiller in her first year as NPR’s president and chief executive. Staff members were thanking Schiller for leading them out of the mess they had been in a year earlier, when they had gathered in the same auditorium. At that 2008 meeting, an interim chief executive and his number two had perched nervously on stools in front of the room, shocking the staff with announcements that they were canceling two NPR-produced shows and firing sixty-four people, 7 percent of the staff, in order to deal with a projected $23 million budget gap torn open by the recession. These were the first budget-related mass layoffs to hit NPR since the early 1980s.

It wasn’t just that the news was bad. The executives’ impersonal and awkward manner of delivery—one fiddled with his BlackBerry while the other talked, a staff member recalls—left other managers queasy and the staff reeling. NPR’s nonprofit status had not protected it from the cataclysm that was decimating commercial media, and the place felt rudderless in the storm, the NPR board having ousted the previous chief executive nine months earlier after his aggressive maneuvers had alienated many.

Schiller arrived in January 2009 from the general manager spot at the New York Times’s online operation, exuding an attractive combination of confidence and humility. Deteriorating finances forced her to preside over a second round of cuts in March, but the process was less painful, both because the cuts weren’t as deep as in 2008, and also because of her approach to making decisions. Schiller shared detailed data with the staff about the frightful falloff in corporate sponsorships and other revenue that make up a big chunk of NPR’s funding. She asked for suggestions about how to cut, eventually opting to negotiate with NPR’s unions for temporary benefit cuts, furloughs, and a freeze on merit raises (top management took even deeper cuts) in order to preserve more jobs. Her open style won the trust of some of previous management’s most potent critics.

Indeed, Schiller has animated the place with the energy of renewed ambition, a rededication to producing serious journalism. Her strategy rests on three pillars: expand original reporting at the national and local levels; provide free access to public media content regardless of platform; and serve audiences of all backgrounds and interests. To do all that, she wants to work in partnership with NPR’s member stations as well as independent producers and some of the new nonprofit journalism units springing up around the country.

“I’ve never been more optimistic about NPR than I am right now,” said Ellen Weiss, a twenty-seven-year NPR veteran who is senior vice president of news. Although she mourns the destruction at traditional media like newspapers caused by shrinking revenue and fleeing readers, Weiss sees a yawning gap that can be filled with the kind of public-service journalism that is NPR’s sweet spot. “We occupy a unique place in the cultural and journalistic ecosystem,” she said. “It’s an opportunity, and we want to seize it.”

This excited buzz is not easy to maintain, especially at a time when the economy is struggling and NPR is projected to lose money again this year. Internally, some NPR journalists fear the focus on multiple content platforms will dull the concentration on NPR’s radio excellence. Externally, managers of some member stations believe NPR will attempt to bypass them altogether and reach listeners directly online, potentially upsetting their base of funding.

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Consequently, not everyone is happy to come on board. “There’s a lot of talk at different conferences about how we can collaborate and all become big destinations, but I see the opposite,” said Ruth Seymour, who was scheduled to retire in February after thirty-two years as station manager of KCRW in Santa Monica. “We see it as inherently competitive. We aren’t swayed by what wave is supposed to lift all boats.”

Yet others do see a new era of collaboration on both the journalism and fundraising fronts. “We’ve finally got a relatively fear-free environment,” said Caryn G. Mathes, general manager of WAMU in Washington, D.C.

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.

Yet many stations felt they were being run over, not catered to. Klose retired as chief executive in 2006 and for each person who describes him as “charming,” another person describes his successor, Ken Stern, as “tough.” Stern stepped up from his long-time position as Klose’s number two just as war was breaking out between NPR and its stations. NPR’s expansion plans needed more cash and its fundraisers were making incursions into local-station territories, seeking deep-pocketed donors. Ideas were bandied about to put a button on NPR.org’s site to allow listeners to donate to NPR directly. At the same time, universal access to podcasts of some NPR programming on the site made it easy for online listeners to bypass their local stations. Alarmed and upset, the board dismissed Stern in March 2008 and began a search for his successor. And as if to prove that things could get worse, the recession started to bite and corporate underwriting dollars began to evaporate. Cash reserves and earnings from the endowment funded largely by the Kroc gift helped cushion the blow, but couldn’t counteract its full force.

NPR’s board selected Schiller out of an initial field of 150 candidates. Although she had never worked in radio, she had broadcasting cred—and the awards to prove it—from her years at CNN and the Discovery-Times Channel, a short-run partnership between suburban Washington-based Discovery Communications and The New York Times Company. And her tenure running nytimes.com, a digital news leader, capped the package, as the board sought a leader who could get public radio onto satellite and into iPhones.

“Our problem was not the quality of what we were doing on the radio,” said Howard H. Stevenson, a Harvard Business School professor who chairs NPR’s board. “Our problem was how to make the system more than the sum of its parts. How to build the power of public radio . . . as a cooperative venture rather than competitive ventures.”

For her part, Schiller said she hadn’t sought the job, but the more she learned about it, the more she liked it. “What dawned on me as I read and talked to a lot of people,” Schiller said, “was that this was like the job of my dreams. By the end, I really, really wanted it.”

Schiller confesses to sleeping with her BlackBerry next to her bed. She wakes at 6 a.m. to a flood of e-mails most days, and checks some thirty Web sites even as she spends time with her two kids as they get ready for school. On the drive to the office, she uses a headset: “I never actually dial or text, except at a red light.” She tries not to schedule early-morning meetings. “I need that mind-space time. I get too stressed out if I can’t get to those e-mails,” she said, then added with a smile, “but that’s for me to discuss with my psychiatrist.”

Schiller mixes her time in the office with plenty of trips around the country to meet with foundations and other donors, as well as NPR member stations. She previews her plans and appointments for each week in a blog she posts on Sunday nights, which is available to the entire NPR staff and its board of directors. “I’m surprised by what she puts in there—‘I’m meeting with this foundation’ or ‘I’m dealing with this issue,’” said Steven M. Bass, an NPR board member and president and chief executive of Oregon Public Broadcasting. “She has a way of dealing with people openly, honestly, and candidly.”

Those who work for her describe an almost-constant bombardment of e-mails from the boss. She estimates she sends about a thousand a week. “I didn’t interview with Vivian for this job, but I got an e-mail from her about fifteen minutes after I was hired,” said Mark Stencel, managing editor for digital news. Then, he recalled, came the deluge. “She conducts e-mail conversations about what’s happening at the executive level, at the staff level, at the station level, in the industry. We’re all talking about what everyone else is doing.” Stencel said he revels in this free-flowing dialogue, which obviates the need for endless meetings.

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.

He talked to Schiller about his frustrations and she agreed that the ad-hoc nature of Planet Money’s existence had to end. They set up a two-hour meeting in her office—scheduled in back-to-back, half-hour increments—with each department that needed to weigh in. For example, the finance department figured out how to move the team’s funding to the permanent budget, and the general counsel committed to working out the specific legal relationship with This American Life.

“I think everyone left the meeting feeling like they had been heard,” said Davidson. He recalled Schiller’s words as she closed discussion on one contentious issue after another: “Done and done.” He was stunned.

Before Schiller’s arrival, Davidson said, management had sent out several pronouncements on how the staff had to get on board with new initiatives, embrace technology changes, work in a different way. “We were sort of culture-change-fatigued,” he said. But in Schiller’s first year, “the real culture change I’ve seen is amazing.”

Just a few months after Schiller’s arrival, Fast Company magazine dubbed NPR “the most successful hybrid of old and new media,” quite a compliment after many acrimonious starts and stops in the digital realm. NPR went from nowhere in digital media to one of the savviest users of social media sites like Twitter and Facebook, to providing apps for phones that run on the Android program, to producing the popular Web sites NPR.org and NPR.org/music, and to building a digital infrastructure that allows member stations and members of the public to pick up NPR content and weave it seamlessly into their own Web sites and playlists.

“We were slow to the game,” said Kinsey Wilson, NPR’s senior vice president and general manager for digital media, who was hired in October 2008 from his position as executive editor at USA Today. He said NPR is not attempting to play catchup to build a portal-like news Web site; rather, it’s creating digital media infused with NPR’s sensibility, available on multiple devices. Using a $1.5 million grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, awarded in September 2007, NPR is putting its entire newsroom of 334 journalists, plus another fifty or so staffers, through extensive digital training, ranging from two-day sessions to in-depth, five-week programs.

Wilson and others acknowledge that the tension between the traditional radio mission and the digital future still exists within the NPR newsroom, and in NPR’s relationships with its stations. “One of the reasons the transition to new platforms is hard here is because of the dedication to craftsmanship. NPR online is not as perfect or honed as NPR on the radio,” said Dick Meyer, NPR’s executive editor, who described the newsroom as “mostly like a giant workshop of craftsmen who are incredibly devoted to old-world values and new-world goals and visions.”

Melissa Block, co-host of All Things Considered, said the “workload has shifted dramatically” as NPR produces radio programs “that have tentacles in the digital realm.” Although online components of radio pieces can be fun, interesting, and helpful in producing the story, Block said, “last time I checked, no more hours have been added in a day.”

“My fear is that we neglect radio,” she added, even though it’s the radio audience that has doubled in the past decade. “We can’t forget what our engine is as we reach out to the new world.”

Wilson said the successful launch of NPR’s iPhone app in August 2009 is easing radio-digital tensions a bit, especially because the format emphasizes listening to radio reports instead of handing off a script to a Web team to rewrite a story for a text-based site. As for stations’ fears that audiences will bypass them to get to their favorite shows directly from NPR, Wilson said he has directed his development teams to keep member station needs foremost in their minds as they work on new applications. For example, Wilson estimated that at least 25 percent of mobile traffic is going to member stations’ pages that offer streaming audio, so those listeners can be counted in the stations’ online traffic totals. Any podcasts of flagship shows like All Things Considered will use the local station version of that program, including the local content. Launching those podcasts has been delayed by the need to get rights to the bits of music stitched in between each story, Schiller said.

As mobile extends public radio’s traditional drive-time audience, Wilson sees opportunity for huge growth. “Mobile is the ideal platform for audio and NPR is the unquestioned leader in the news space in terms of audio,” he said. Wilson cited statistics showing that NPR’s mobile traffic increased nearly tenfold after the iPhone app launched, and that mobile users spend an average of fourteen minutes each time they open the NPR app, considerably more than Web users do.

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.

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.

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.

Thus, NPR pilot projects like Argo can only go so far in boosting local reporting. Schiller says she knows that, and in part for this reason she is also supporting other efforts at sharing resources. NPR economic editors and reporters, for example, now sometimes work with local reporters on stories about the recession’s impact. And one of the tasks of the new investigative unit is to team occasionally with local station reporters. Some stations are teaming up, too. WNYC won a grant to fund transportation reporting and sends part of that money to WAMU for reporting in D.C.

WNYC’s Walker is a prodigious fundraiser, having recently launched a $15 million campaign with a $5 million kick-off gift, on the heels of completing a $62.9 million capital campaign in April 2009 to fund a major upgrade of its news operation, including a move to a new space. “Where and if it makes sense, we’ll work with NPR,” Walker said. “But not all the time.”

“I personally like their approach,” Walker said, referring to what she calls “The Schillers,” Vivian and Ron. “They think in a different way, to raise money for the greater good.” But, Walker said, she has spoken with both of them and unless Walker agrees to work with them on a case-by-case basis, “NPR has made a commitment they won’t come into our area and fundraise.”

WAMU’s Mathes, in Washington, D.C., seems more willing to gamble on the benefits of partnership. She has shared a prospective donor list with NPR. “I’m stepping out on faith here,” she said with a laugh. “So far, I haven’t been burned.”

Mathes recently worked with Vivian Schiller to co-host a meeting with a major WAMU donor at NPR’s downtown headquarters. They met for a lunch of wrap sandwiches and salad in Schiller’s office and then Ellen Weiss, the head of news, took the donor on a tour of NPR, being careful to point out production teams that were covering issues the donor cared about. “This person has a lot of personal savvy about the media and wanted to see the sausage getting made,” said Mathes. “I came away from that experience thinking that it should have always been like this.”

If Schiller gets her way, perhaps now it will be. 

*Correction: This story originally reported that Public Radio International helps distribute the program Fresh Air. It does not. The relevant sentence has been revised accordingly. CJR regrets the error.

Jill Drew is a 2009-2010 Encore Fellow at CJR. She was an associate editor at The Washington Post until August 2009. For nine of her fourteen years at the newspaper, she was assistant managing editor for financial news.