NPR’s inevitable conflict

Vivian Schiller, CEO of NPR, was just forced to resign by the network’s board. I don’t know what the spin will be, nor am I privy to the internal politics. But I will say that this is an indication of more trouble ahead for NPR on a few fronts.

First, the network lost a visionary leader who I know, first-hand, was doing great things. I told her executives that they were enjoying their work entirely too much while others in the news industry all have the worldview of Eeyore these days. NPR is initiating new journalistic endeavors around the country with Vivian’s leadership and support.

Second, this act reveals the NPR board as ballless in the face of pressure. Yes, the Juan Williams firing was bungled by NPR’s head of news but Schiller apparently forced her out and also let the buck stop at her. Yes, rightwing NPR haters entrapped chief fundraiser Ron Schiller in a kerfuffle of their making but he is gone. But that was not cause for Vivian Schiller to go. I’m afraid to see how they will acquiesce to pressure in the future.

Third, I say this is why NPR should get rid of federal funding so it gets rid of political strings and pressure. That leads to the biggest problem:

Fourth, look at the NPR board. It is comprised mostly of local stations. That made sense when the stations distributed NPR programming and paid for it. But today, NPR the network does not need the stations when it can distribute online, which is how radio will be distributed more and more. The stations that don’t add real value in their markets — such as WNYC does in mine — are screwed as their value as distributors diminishes. The stations’ audiences are going to shrink and with that their revenue. Most of them have no real local presence other than their towers. The stations also depend heavily — more than NPR does — on government support, so they cannot easily give it up and buy their independence. The board fired the last NPR CEO because he pissed off the stations. Now Schiller is gone. Who the hell would take this job next?

Bottom line: The stations’ interests and NPR’s interests are no longer aligned. That has been the case for some years. It is the elephant in the studio. Schiller tried hard to find ways to improve the stations’ lot. That’s why she created new content initiatives in their backyards, to have them create more value. But in the end, the stations will fear a stronger NPR.

This is parallel to what is happening at the Associated Press, which newspapers own. Its board, too, is run by local affiliates. But the majority of the AP’s revenue no longer comes from the papers but from other news outlets, broadcast and online. The newspapers won’t allow the AP to do what it must do to survive online: build its own brand and distribute widely on the internet. The newspapers, like the stations, face shrinkage and so they complain about the AP’s costs and try to beat it down. They are locked in inevitable conflict.

This is the untold story of the future of two important journalistic institutions in this country. There is a strategic cliff ahead. But no one dare speak of it. Watch out.

  • Jeff,

    You have certainly put your finger on a source of tension in the NPR system, but I disagree with your analysis and your prediction.

    Schiller (Vivian) got tremendous mileage during her tenure precisely because she did NOT think like this. Her predecessor (Ken Stern) did.

    The point is that NPR is a mission driven organization that provides news programming to stations and the public. The stations are also mission driven organizations that provide programing to the public and to NPR. This is more than a business model, it is an ecosystem.

    Having strong station membership on the board is key to offsetting the power that NPR has in “the system.”

    Stations are the focus of tremendous opportunity and challenge right now. Rather than write their obituaries prematurely, you should help define their growing role in news delivery at the local level. This is a huge concern and stations are planning to do their part. The federal taxpayers remain a significant component of this effort and rightly so, in my estimation because commercial media have vacated the public service journalism space.

    I regret the loss of Vivian Schiller because she was SUCCEEDING in balancing the forces you identify. Unfortunately, politics is part of the accountability process in using public dollars… and we in public media can handle that.

    • Bob Mahoney

      >”…and we in public media can handle that.”

      Apparently not, when tempest-in-a-teapot politics trumps success.

  • Dan

    Great analysis, however I have one question. You say “…this is why NPR should get rid of federal funding so it gets rid of political strings and pressure.”

    In order to completely be rid of federal funding, wouldn’t they have to eschew station funding, where a portion of those proceeds are from the federal sources? Will there continue to be political pressure on NPR even they receive federal funding indirectly?

  • Laura

    Actually, I think many, many people still listen to NPR over the air via their local stations, particularly in their cars. That’s where I listen most.

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  • Stan Hogan

    I would think NPR relies more on the local stations than you’re stating here. Though your statement “NPR the network does not need the stations when it can distribute online, which is how radio will be distributed more and more” may foretell radio’s future it is not its present.

    To pull the plug on your distribution system before your audience has shared in this future would guarantee at least a short term of streamlining, or whatever you want to call it when you slash your payroll. With fewer employees trying to build a viable and economically sustainable online audience there is a very real risk NPR ceases to be what it is, contributing to a predictable downward spiral.

    As far as AP, it gets about 20 percent of its revenue from newspapers, no small figure. Imagine CUNY undergoing 20 percent budget reductions. But more significantly, AP gets a huge amount of its content from member newspapers. Cut that off and AP’s digital offerings become far less attractive and economically viable.

    The member newspapers are rightfully upset with AP direction. They pay a great deal of money for that AP content and back in the olden days that content was often unique to their core audiences. Now, AP distributes its content widely where people can access it for free. Its value to the member newspapers has plunged dramatically while AP has made token concessions on pricing.

    All of this has yet to really shake out but I find your analysis rather simplistic and even naive.

    • I agree, to an extent that local stations rely on NPR a little more then the article may state.

      I would like to say that I listen to NPR, mostly online. Now, I currently do not have a car and when I did, NPR and the local affiliate were on the preset menus. Even so, I am more inclined to listen online. In fact, my first thought when I heard they forced out Vivian Schiller was what would happen to the digital content and the site. It would never occur to me that it effected the smaller stations.

      On the other hands, like many of the media markets in the new millennium, local stations are going to need to create and find their own strong content if they wish to stay afloat, in case there is a withdraw from the main NPR station.

      Heck, could we see state by state sites relying on hyperlocal outlets to provide content? Would be interesting. This would mean that those local stations would have to re-imagine their ecosystem of media.

      I wouldn’t say the view is naive, rather it is focusing on Schiller being forced out.

  • Bob Mahoney

    I think his analysis is spot on.

    It’s appalling that NPR caves in to this sort of manufactured nonsense, and if fear of losing public funding keeps driving NPR to self-mutilate and self-censor, they will only succeed in acquiescing themselves into irrelevance.

  • Never mind all the naysayers and car radio listeners, Jeff. They’re on the wrong side of history at this point.

    I’ve advocated for radical restructuring of the pubradio system for years along the lines you describe. It’s the only way to save the news mission, long-term.

    The stations are populated by small thinkers. Vivian was a generous big thinker. It was never going to work out. And woe to the next fool willing to take the job.

  • Jake Trendt

    Car radio listeners are on the wrong side of history?

  • PatB

    NPR and the stations are in the same boat even if they don’t realize it yet. The internet destorys the need for middlemen. Eventually their will be content producers and content consumers. Individual shows won’t need NPR and more than they will need the towers.

  • Brent

    Cars are on the wrong side of history, for that matter.

  • Jake Trendt

    Babies are also on the wrong side of history. They don’t tweet or Facebook, and they’re easily amused by keys.

  • Brent

    Babies Facebook. They just don’t realize it.

    Interesting article and I applaud the author’s use of the word “ballless.”

    Let’s face it; NPR sucks at PR. Especially damage control.

    • Nahtan

      Yeah, how many words have three ls in a row?

  • An interesting anecdote regarding a lifelong NPR listener.

    My 66 year old mother wakes every morning, turns on her computer, and then turns on a local NPR station in Minneapolis, Minnesota which she plays all day in the background till she heads to bed.

    This may not be remarkable, but she is a transplanted New Yorkers living in Wilmington, NC. She will bypass the local NPR station to listen to one 1,000 miles away because the content is more suited to her tastes.

    • Rick

      You hit it on the head, but public radio in North Carolina is far better in the east than it is in the west where I live. In Charlotte, it’s nothing but news and business drool. That’s not what made public radio great back when it WAS great.

      I enjoy the programming of WFDD (Winston-Salem) and WUNC (Chapel Hill) and have gone to lengths to receive it over the air from Charlotte.
      South Carolina’s public radio was also very good until Governor “Murray Antoinette Argentina” wrecked it by slashing budgets. It’s a pathetic vestigial shadow of its former self now.

      All that having been said, when I listen online to stations in the NE corridor or Seattle (particularly those that resist abandoning music programming) I realize how far we have to go. But, to borrow a pretty ignoble quote from elsewhere, now is not the time to retreat, but to “reload”.

    • EB

      Yes, but that LOCAL station has to exist first, then she can enjoy the streaming.

  • Gene

    Uhh, Vivian had a few choice comments and acknowledgements. Given that 24 hours earlier she had dared reporters to “find any evidence of bias” at NPR at the National Press Club… In a Prepared Speech… Awesome…

    He best quote in the meeting was when she exclaimed “I like that!” when told that those in the Muslim Brotherhood call NPR the National Palestinian Radio

  • Miguel Macias

    Great analysis.

  • Accused of a liberal bent,
    Today NPR will repent
    Its ways prejudicial
    With lambs sacrificial
    By giving up Schiller for Lent.

    News Short n’ Sweet by JFD8

  • Mark Regan

    In rural Alaska the 15 or so public radio stations (a) are a strong community presence beyond their towers — consider the Yup’ik news on KYUK (Bethel) — and (b) serve a public that doesn’t have reliable speedy Internet access. It is parochial for city people to dismiss us as car radio listeners on the wrong side of history.

  • Paul

    All the free broadcasting but weather, traffic and emergency whether public or private should be eliminated. The specter should be auctioned for digital paid subscription based services. There will be no more complains about any biases and everybody will be able to listen whatever they want and like.

  • I used to listen to and support the notion of NPR; I used to even be on NPR.

    But it has moved far to the left and is now very much a consolidated bastion of “progressives” i.e. the mixture of stealth socialists and New Age collectivists who insist on themselvse as “the center” these days — which they occupy only if you consider radical anarchists to be an acceptable left, and the Tea Party to be the “extreme right” (i.e. instead of Christian militias).

    I can no longer support public broadcasting in this form. It is not unbiased; it is not mainstream; it is not trying to be neutral in covering stories, while remaining critical. Instead, it is on an increasingly biased and unfair mission not to inform the public, but bludgeon the public with a politically-correct leftwing agenda. It must be reformed and does not deserve the public’s money.

    Jeff, your idea of taking away autonomy from local radio stations that might actually have local support for covering issues of interest to people locally, and replacing it with Internet distribution is part of nationalizing/federalizing the progressive movement aggressively wherever possible. But this has failed as a gambit by the Gov 2.0 gang, they’re now retreating into “local” (by which they mean invading localities and putting in connections to nationalizing open source software “thought leaders” like O’Reilly).

    It’s ok for audiences to shrink, Jeff. That’s the marketplace of ideas. You lefties think you can keep demanding special visibility and then “the people” will “drop their false consciousness” and the masses will be “educated” and give up their “guns and religion”. But…they don’t. You’re not persuasive. Therefore you should only be one of many voices. There is a role for public broadcasting if it can be a credible public steward — NPR is not.

    I don’t think you’re right about trying to destroy the local market for AP, either, by demanding that the Internet kill it some more. I really marvel at you with this “Internet can save us model” when you appear to oppose paid content and when the Internet has gutted and destroyed most content businesses precisely because of the California Business Model you promote, i.e. platforms where free content is mandated, where copyright is violated, and where everyone is pushed to upload free content, regardless of the intellectual property rights involved, so that your friend Google can sell ads.

    • Paul Davis

      There’s so much wrong with this post that I don’t really have time to tackle all of its mistakes. I’ll settle for the most obvious one. I am not a stealth socialist – by the standards of most Americans I’m a clearcut, straightforward out-in-the-open socialist (a full description would be more significantly more nuanced than would make sense here). I listen to NPR a lot, and its incredibly rare that I ever come across anything in its news reporting that does anything to advance, propagate or even just explain my view of the world. Oh, sure, programs like “This American Life” do manage to convey some of the complexities of existence that I view most conservative ideology as ignoring. Programs like “On The Media” do manage to raise the question “should you believe what the media is saying?” but with barely any of the vitriol that Fox manages to bring to that same kind of assessment. The only senses in which my experience of NPR as a left-lent person tells me that they have an anti-conservative “bias” are (1) they deliberately take a “what if…” view of the world in their news coverage, and asking about change and whether or not things could be better is an inherently anti-conservative stance (2) they do not spend very much time tackling the things that tend to irk right wing activists, something that i attribute to NPR’s attempts to remain evidence-based – the overwhelming majority of right wing issues of the day/month/year seem to melt back into assertions from the gut (or some interpretation of a holy book) when examined with a strong demand for actual data to back them up. I should stress, perhaps, that this is true to an extent (a lesser extent) of some of the left’s issues of the day/month/year too, but then as I said at the opening, NPR doesn’t talk about them very much either.

      What I hear most of the time on NPR are thoughtful people who are aware of that fact that there are many disagreements about right and wrong in our society (and around the world), and that even in areas where life is not about right and wrong, life is still deliriously complicated and exquisitely exceptional. Just acknowledging these things about the world already moves you quite a long way from the conservative stance.

    • Rob

      Pretty much in agreement on all points. I would certainly not control free content and any further defense of IP however. Content providers have to figure out how to provide it for the price the market is willing to pay, if not do something else.

  • Vincent

    For public broadcasting to succeed, it needs to better reflect America as a whole, particularly in these contentious times. Keep federal funding for NPR and PBS — but with funding proportionally allotted to states by population, and with its national programming also emanating from a similar proportion. No more dominance by WGBH in Boston, WNET/WNYC in New York, and the rest of the Ivy League power structure (which isn’t liberal or conservative — just the establishment). I’m certain stations in “flyover” have the sufficient talent to produce the stimulating, thought-provoking programming that’s been the hallmark of NPR and PBS, but have it come from fresh sources, ones other than the “usual suspects.”

  • joe patti

    What the Republicans wish to do is cut funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. This is because they equate ALL “public” broadcasters with NPR and PBS. The general public does as well. But this is not the case.

    NPR is a radio network used and paid for by only a portion of public radio stations. There are very many “public” (more accurately, “non-commercial”, the descriptor the FCC uses) stations who are not a part of the NPR system, or only a very small part of the system. Cutting funding for the CPB will harm these stations as well.

    I work for one of those stations. WRTI, Temple University’s radio station in Philadelphia, is committed to keeping both Classical music and Jazz alive and on the radio in our region. That is and will always be our primary mission. While we do carry very few of NPR’s hourly five-minute newscasts, we do not carry any of their news magazines or long-form news programming. We are a music intensive station. NPR could close-up shop and we’d still be on the air doing what we do best.

    But, we do receive some funding from the CPB. De-funding that source would put us in a bit of a bind, even though, in this controversy, we’re on the outside looking in as it were.

    And now that Pennsylvania’s new governor has decided that Temple University’s state funding will be cut by over 50 percent, that CPB funding could be even more critical to us depending on how the university handles the state cuts.

    We’re not the only ones in that situation either. There are hundreds of non-commercial radio and television stations that are serving their communities admirably keeping arts, culture and community issues in front of the public. Many of these stations, many being “shoestring” operations, many being the only broadcast service in their area for miles around, will literally disappear if the CPB is de-funded.

    So please, be careful what you wish for. NPR is NOT representative of all “public” broadcasters.

    • EB

      Here in the Pgh area, WDUQ was sold… But the new company has not taken the reins yet, so the current jazz fare may be changed for some other programming…. We don’t know yet. But they are still on the air with pledge drives asking for money, when no one knows what will be on the air in a few months. A horrible way to run a railroad. Thank goodness for TWiG and my other favorite podcasts. If NPR goes the way of the dodo bird, perhaps podcasts will prevail in that void.

    • Rob

      How can government’s fund “culture” when they can’t pay for the basics of public service and education?

  • Roger Bruce

    Professor Jarvis,
    Yesterday on my commute I picked up your on-air remarks via NPR via WXXI in Rochester, NY, hastening here to read the full text with comments. In retrospect, that brief interview remains the more powerful of these experiences because of its simple metaphor — comparing NPR and the Associated Press. For me, the aptness of the comparison matters less than its implicit question. Now local papers and radio news can be viewed as not yet dead. It may be time for an amen to the online chorus of, “Here Comes Everybody.” Thanks for leveraging the teachable moment.

  • jerry shapiro

    I have often thought that PBS should also take it’s marbles and go home. That is, continue producing the wonderful programming it creates, but syndicate the shows. Become a producer of quality tv rather than a network. The costs of maintaining a TV network are prohibitive (radio is cheaper, but it’s still serious money). That’s why the endless fundraisers. NPR really has no serious challengers. PBS has many. It’s time to take a serious look at the mission statement and redefine the mission for the future.

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  • Andrew

    Jeff, if what you say is true, then I fear more than ever for local news. NPR stations and AP affiliates are valuable in so far as they provide a local perspective that their parents can’t. A strong NPR corporate won’t fill the dearth of local coverage in cities nationwide.

    We need more organizations like the Bay Citizen to take the local news reins and develop content and syndication partnerships with the big news orgs. Can’t see any other way that local will be preserved at this point.

  • Richard K

    …NPR should get rid of federal funding so it gets rid of political strings and pressure…

    Some of us who don’t hate NPR and aren’t rightwingers believe that NPR should get rid of government funding because it isn’t the government’s business to fund journalism, radio or any other instance of public-communication media.

    • Bob

      Uhm, what about Voice Of America or Armed Forces Network, shall we get rid of government funding for that as well?

      • Rob

        All government funding of journalism should end. If propaganda is needed for defense purposes (it should be funded as a defense budget item – Voice of America probably fits this)

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  • Jeremy

    “Yes, rightwing NPR haters entrapped chief fundraiser Ron Schiller in a kerfuffle of their making…”

    OK, but really, did they truly trap him? Jeff, you have been saying over and over how important being more public is in our society. So why should Ron Schiller be held to the same standards of ‘fairness’ in public? Now, I’m not a tea-party lover by any stretch, but neither am I a lover of everything NPR/PBS and left-wing simply because they ARE in fact doing some of the best work in media lately with their integration of TV, radio, and website media content. I will grant that NPR on the one hand has done some excellent infrastructure work, but their content isn’t always on the up-and-up in terms of fairness, balance, and depth of content.

    So if a bunch of tea-party activists catch Mr. Schiller ripping into right-wingers, and the majority of NPR listeners don’t like that kind of unfounded bias, then yes, they do have a duty to ax Mr. Schiller and his superiors who condone of his behavior. This is exactly why people are so uncomfortable with ‘publicness’ in today’s society – they don’t know how to bridle their tongue. It may be a shame that Mr. Schiller and Ms. Schiller (no relationship) had to learn this lesson the hard way, but perhaps they could have thought of that before letting their own biases run wild.

    • Roger D. Kennedy

      Very true. Excellent observation. An important component that Jarvis neglects with his idea of “publicness” (trip, stumble, fall over), is that people have very different “public” and “private” selves. Which one is truer? I think what Jarvis really means by “publicness” is that we should get used to having things we would have preferred to have been private now being public. Out tolerance for what we allow as public will increase. That’s probably true, but I don’t see it as a significant benefit for society.

      It will cause a starker contrast between “public” and “private,” with that which is “public” deriving its value by feeding in a sense on that which is “private” causing the revelations (transfer from “private” to “public”) to become increasingly scandalous to counterbalance “public” as increasingly, mundane, frivolous, and trivial.

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  • Amos

    Day late, and a dollar short for the comments here, but …

    In one episode of TWiG, JJ toke a couple of cheap shots at Glenn Beck, even though JJ said he did not listen to him.

    I wonder if you know that Glenn Beck was the one, and only one (that I know of, and I checked around quite a but) that examined the entire unedited video of Ron Schiller, and found he was not entrapped, but smeared with cleverly edited video taken out of context.

    Glenn Beck posted this information to his multimedia web site, A number of lame-stream media sources reported this, including NPR. Some, including NPR, actually correctly mentioned who did the original work.

  • Jake tripper

    Half of all radio audiences are in their cars. I realize that from your NYC bubble that terrestrial radio may seem passé, but we aren’t there yet.

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