Vivian Schiller ’83 will tell you that she learned everything she knows about management from her first job: as a guide leading tours of Russia. Those skills are being put to the test in her role as president and CEO of NPR (formerly National Public Radio). The veteran media executive took the helm a year ago, when the nonprofit news organization was coping with layoffs and a drop in corporate underwriting; now, Schiller is helping NPR find its way in the Internet age.
Turning the microphone on NPR's president and CEO
By Beth Saulnier
A year ago, Vivian Schiller '83 became the first woman to head NPR (formerly called National Public Radio), taking the helm at a time of both good news and bad for the nonprofit media organization. Although NPR has cut dozens of jobs in response to a drop in corporate underwriting, in 2002 it got a $230 million endowment from the widow of McDonald's founder Ray Kroc— and in an era when many media outlets are struggling for audience share, its listener numbers and membership contributions are on the rise. A former New York Times senior vice president in charge of NYTimes.com, Schiller spent a decade at Turner Broadcasting and served as head of long-form programming for CNN. She lives in Bethesda, Maryland, with her husband and two teenagers.
Cornell Alumni Magazine: How do you get your news?
Vivian Schiller: Of course, I listen to NPR. I always have. But like most news consumers, I'm pretty promiscuous. I read the New York Times in print; even though I worked at NYTimes.com, I'm a print fanatic. But I have about a dozen news sites and blogs that I check obsessively. I get news alerts, and I learn about stuff from my Facebook feed and people e-mailing me.
CAM: What's NPR's strategy for survival at a time when so many media outlets are struggling?
VS: One thing is local journalism. Local newspapers are shrinking or going away. There is an opportunity for us to better serve local audiences by working with our 550 member stations to increase the quantity and the quality of content. Second, there's more we can do here at NPR. We just hired a senior editor for investigative reporting—again, as more news operations walk away from it. More foreign coverage, more in-depth coverage on important issues like health care, energy, the economy. And third, building out our news delivery on other platforms. We're very strong as a radio network, but we need to be equally strong on every platform, so public radio stations can also be relied-upon portals for news and information online, on the iPhone, on the BlackBerry, whatever.
CAM: Given the fragmentation of media, why do you think that your listenership has been increasing over the past decade?
VS: We have no quantitative measure that points to the reason why, but I think it's a combination of factors, including the fact that many other news organizations are walking away from serious, fact-based, independent reporting. We have 300 journalists and seventeen bureaus overseas, which is more than ABC, CBS, or NBC. We have almost 30 million listeners from across the political spectrum. They're really engaged—they listen for hours a week and they give us money to the tune of $300 million a year. We're trusted, and we're beloved. So the brand is strong.
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'Radio is very intimate. You're in your car or trying to wake up, and it feels like it's being delivered to you.' CAM: But in the age of Twitter, how can you be so sure that there's a future for serious media in general, and NPR in particular?
VS: A lot of pundits say, "Attention spans are shot; people want to read only 140 characters at a time." I think that's totally not true; Americans are more engaged on issues than ever before. And unlike other forms of media, audio programs are not disruptable. The newspaper is disrupted by the Web, television's disrupted by Hulu, but there's no substitute for radio. When you're driving, you can't read the newspaper. There's always going to be a need for audio, and it's compatible with all the new devices and delivery systems.
CAM: With so many nonprofits hurting nowadays, how have your membership contributions actually gone up?
VS: It is incredibly heartening and motivating to me that even as people are getting hit in the pocketbook, more of them are giving to public radio. I think they know that quality information is at risk, and if they don't step up and support it—even if it's just $10—it may not be there. I like to say we have the oldest pay model in broadcast media. And it's successful because it's voluntary; people feel like they're part of the NPR community.
CAM: Why do you think that is?
VS: At the risk of sounding like a pop psychologist, I think it's the power of radio, which is very intimate. Radio tends to be a solo experience. You're in your car, in your bedroom getting dressed or trying to wake up, and it feels like it's being delivered to you. And because of that, there's an incredible loyalty. People develop an attachment to our hosts and reporters. I cannot tell you how many people say, "This is my constant companion."
CAM: In October, the Times announced it was cutting one hundred newsroom jobs. Are there more cutbacks to come at NPR?
VS: You can never say never, but we have absolutely no plans to cut—in fact, the plans on the drawing board are about growing. We did take some painful hits last year. This was before I got here, but the team did exactly the right thing: rather than nickel-and-diming our news organization, we eliminated two shows. We did a second round of cost-reduction in the spring, and fortunately very few people lost their jobs. Instead, the entire staff made a sacrifice in the form of furloughs and unpaid holidays. Everybody's giving up their annual raises, and the executive team took an additional hit. We did finish the past year with a deficit, but we're on a good trajectory now.
CAM: Why didn't Joan Kroc's $230 million gift solve your financial woes?
VS: There are a couple of misconceptions about the funding of NPR. One is that we're funded by the government, which is almost entirely not true. The other is that we got "that hamburger money" and now we don't have any problems. Mrs. Kroc did a very generous, extraordinary thing for us—but it was a restricted gift for the endowment. It is not to be touched for operating costs. We do use the earnings for operating expenses, but it benefits us in the single digits of millions of dollars a year, on a budget of about $160 million.
CAM: What advice do you have for young journalists who are graduating in this economy?
VS: It terrifies me to hear people say they're not going to go into journalism because there's no career in it. We need the next generation to be engaged, active, smart—to invent forms of storytelling that don't exist today. Journalism is not dying; it's the business model that's broken. It needs to be fixed, and we need more journalists, not fewer. The Internet is the greatest thing that's happened to journalism since the printing press.
CAM: What did running the New York Times website teach you about new media?
VS: One thing that had a profound influence on me was the notion of "test and learn." When I worked in television, if you were going to launch a new series you'd develop a show, there'd be meetings, you'd hire an executive producer and a staff, you'd get clearance, and all this would take months. Then you'd launch it, and it would either succeed or fail, hundreds of thousands— if not millions—of dollars later. It doesn't have to be that way. You can try stuff, incubate ideas. If something fails, cut your losses quickly, celebrate a good idea that didn't work out, and move on.
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CAM: There's a stereotype that NPR is too far on the liberal end of the political spectrum. Is it true?
VS: I should answer by forwarding you all the phone calls, e-mails, and Q&A sessions that consist of people telling me, "Why are you still defending the Bush Administration's policies?" We get it equally, left and right. Because our audience is so engaged, they're very vocal. They tell us what they love, and they tell us what they don't love.
CAM: Classic question for the working mom: Can you really have it all?
VS: There is no "have it all." I've missed out on a lot of moments in my kids' lives, no question. And if it weren't for the fact that my husband is willing to pick up a lot of the slack, and the fact that he works from home—he's a free-lance documentary producer—I don't think this would have been possible.