Inside NPR

NPR President And CEO Delivers Keynote Speech At National Press Club Today

NPR President and CEO Vivian Schiller delivered an impactful speech today to a crowded ballroom at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.

She addressed what public radio stands for, what "powerful journalism in the public interest" means to NPR, and how NPR is expanding its reporting and audience.

Schiller was joined by her public media colleagues: Paula Kerger, CEO of PBS; Patrick Butler, CEO of APTS; and Patricia Harrison, CEO of CPB.

The event was viewed widely through YouTube's new livestreaming platform in which NPR is a partner, and at the Press Club's site. C-SPAN also broadcast the event live.

The full text of Schiller's speech is after the jump.

(3/7, 4:46 p.m.) UPDATE: You can catch the video on CSPAN's website here.

Vivian Schiller

National Press Club

March 7, 2011

I want to begin by reading an email from NPR reporter Lourdes Garcia-Navarro – Lulu we call her. She sent it to her editor after she and a newspaper colleague made their way into Eastern Libya. They were the second team of western journalists to make it through.

She writes:

We basically pushed our way in. We walked across the border and were incredibly lucky to find people to drive us and guide us. Yes, we had an unfortunate incident at a looted army base where people were nervous about being photographed and we were surrounded and a photographer from the WSJ had his camera smashed. But that has proved to be the exception.

Everywhere else we've gone we've been greeted with tears and shouts. This is a country that hasn't been exposed to the western media. And everyone just said they were so relieved to see us. They were desperate to have their story told...

In Bayda, we were led to a huge hall that used to be the People's Revolutionary Council building where the first meeting of the new local government was being held. Everyone was stunned to see us. They gave us a standing ovation and started shouting and crying.

I know it's corny, but I've never been prouder to be a journalist.

Lulu's note is a potent reminder of the meaning and impact of a free press – and it's at the core of NPR's mission: powerful journalism in the public interest.

This is what I'd like talk about today. What NPR and public radio stand for. How we think about our audience. The nature of our funding model. And a vision for the future.

For well over a decade, the media conversation has been dominated by reports of shrinking newsrooms, collapsing business models, game-changing technologies.

But the breathlessness over the shifting media landscape can blur what the work of journalists is really about — reporters on the ground. Working sources and chasing leads to tell stories that have meaning and impact. And bearing witness — often at great personal risk.

All good news organizations, whether public or private, share in that critical work. For those of us in public media, it is our only mission.

It's been 44 years since the passage of the Public Broadcasting Act, which established the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

For those too young to remember, that was a time when the big three broadcast networks had foreign bureaus all over the world – not to mention deep reporting staffs, and slots on the network schedule for hour-long documentaries. Yet even then, there was concern that commercial interests would drive the networks away from quality news and cultural programming.

And so public broadcasting was born.

NPR EXPANDS ITS REPORTING

I don't need to tell this audience about the changes that have happened in our industry in the last 10 years – let alone the last 40. The economics of the news business are undergoing seismic change. Demand for news has never been higher. And yet mainstream news organizations continue to cut back the number of journalists available to report the news - particularly at the local level.

And so NPR has worked to try to fill that void in newsgathering capacity, and we're working with our member stations that do the same.

What does this look like today?

  • 17 bureaus overseas - far more than any of those "big three" has today. We are opening new bureaus – while still retaining a full-time presence in Iraq Afghanistan, Pakistan, Jerusalem, Cairo, East Africa, West Africa, China (two bureaus there actually) and other spots around the world. As we speak NPR journalists are in: Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Qatar and, as you heard a moment ago Libya – covering the world-altering events unfolding in the Middle East and North Africa.
  • Closer to home: we have reporters on just about every beat imaginable - race and demographics, food safety, education, religion, rural affairs.
  • We have entire units dedicated to science. To the arts – to books and music.
  • Last year we launched NPR's first investigative unit. It now has nine full-time staff.

We stay on the story when everyone else moves on.

  • NPR's Howard Berkes is still reporting on the Upper Big Branch mine of West Virginia —- where 29 workers died nearly a year ago.
  • NPR's Debbie Elliot lives near the Gulf of Mexico and continues to follow developments since the BP disaster.
  • Danny Zwerdling has stayed with the story of returning soldiers suffering from traumatic brain injury.

We are the opposite of parachute journalism ... our reporters have subject-matter expertise built up over years – sometimes decades.

And member stations have the same, filling the growing void in local reporting.

Over 900 journalists spread across nearly 800 NPR member stations, serving communities large. And small. And very small.

In fact, one - third of the stories you hear on NPR are produced by member station reporters. They define the character of public radio.

  • In Nashville, WPLN's Blake Farmer covers Fort Campbell – and the role it has played in the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts.
  • In Stillwater, OK, KOSU's Gail Banzet has reported on the resurgence of meth labs in the Midwest; cut backs in rural police departments, and cattle rustling, which has made a comeback in this tough economy.
  • Frank Morris of KCUR in Kansas City is NPR's go-to guy for agriculture – reporting on land prices, ethanol and the rivalry between 'family-owned' and 'corporate' farms.

Later this spring we are launching a project — called the "Impact of Government" — that aims to put at least two reporters in every state to examine the role of state government and it's real impact on people's lives.

But stations contribute more than just reporting. They provide critical, life-saving information in times of disaster – on the Gulf Coast, tornado alley and the fire and landslide zones of California.

This past January, a severe winter storm blanketed much of northern Arizona with as much as six feet of snow. NPR member station KUYI on the Hopi reservation lost power for 48 hours. The Flagstaff station – 120 miles away – was knocked off the air. BUT KUYI stayed on the air thanks to two diesel generators that were funded — with federal dollars. Without it, nearly 100,000 people over four counties would not have had access to vital information on emergency relief efforts, weather and road conditions. That's just one story – there are hundreds more like it.

With journalists on the ground and transmitters that reach far beyond major population centers – they provide the kind of vital service that only free over-the-air broadcasting can deliver.

GROWING AUDIENCE

The result of this work — is an expanding and deeply engaged audience.

Almost unique in American media, NPR's audience – the audience for our traditional core service, radio – is growing. And has been growing for the past decade.

We just got our ratings for last Fall – and I'm pleased to report they mark another ALL TIME HIGH in the top 50 markets. That's now four consecutive quarters of record ratings for NPR. 34 million people listen to an NPR member station every week. 34 million.

In the digital arena, we now reach 17 million people a month – 100 percent growth in the last two years. They come to us on npr.org, iphone, ipad, android and mobile. They connect to us on Facebook where we have a larger audience than any other American news outlet. And on twitter – where we reach over 3 million. And it's not just about the numbers, but about the impact. NPR's social media strategist, Andy Carvin has become something of a one-man news platform – serving as a hub for eyewitness reports out of hot spots like Libya and Egypt and anywhere else that news breaks.

We are also growing in TRUST. According to recent Pew report, NPR is the ONLY national news organization to see a meaningful increase in public trust over the last decade.

NPR's audience is not a left and right coast phenomenon. We are urban and rural; north and south, red state and blue state. Our listeners are equally distributed throughout every part of America – because of our unique network of local member stations. Rooted in their communities, locally owned, operated and staffed. These are citizens serving citizens.

Our listeners feel a personal connection to what we do. Not too long ago I was walking around a reception with Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep. Of course people don't know who he is by looking at him - - we're radio after all. But as we mingled and introduced ourselves, I was struck by the reaction people had when they realized who he was. Not merely a media celebrity, but someone with whom they feel a deep personal connection. And always the same joke: "Steve Inskeep! I wake up with you every morning!" He's a good sport about it – he laughs each time like it's the first time he's heard it. (By the way, Steve just arrived in Cairo this morning. You'll hear his reports from the region for the next two weeks.)

Our listeners tell us they appreciate the fact that our reporters — report! (In fact, as you just heard – so do our hosts.) Our listeners tell us they come to us for the craftsmanship, the civility of our programming, the range of opinions and diversity of stories.

Our reach has its limits of course, and our coverage — its critics. We are working to expand the diversity of our audience, our staff, sources and stories — to do a better job speaking to people across the spectrum of thought, experience and background.

And we're paying aggressive attention to our ethical decision-making — the standards and practices that journalism at our level demands.

In doing so we hope to develop an even larger following in the country – and better serve our mission to inform and enlighten.

Revenue model/De-Funding

Let me now shift to our funding model. I want to do this not because I think you're so fascinated with our balance sheet, but because it points to the depth and variety of our public support.

It is a success story – though often misunderstood.

NPR is successful, not because we're smarter than anyone else — we aren't. Nor because we have different values — we don't. And certainly not because we don't have to worry about the bottom line. Believe me, we do.

We are successful because of the investment that the American public has made in public media over 40 years and – this is critical– the way in which we've gradually been able to leverage that investment to build other sources of support.

Those sources include:

  • Listeners – whose contributions make up the largest share of station revenue.
  • Corporate underwriters, whose support is not simply a transaction; they want to be associated with the credibility and value of the NPR name.
  • We are supported by philanthropic individuals and institutions – who share our vision of an informed society.
  • And finally, we rely on continued government funding. Grants to stations from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting represent 10% of the public radio station economy. It is not the largest share of the revenue – but it is a critical cornerstone of public media.

This money is particularly important for stations in rural areas. Their government funding is a larger share of revenue – 30%, 40%, 50% or more. These are areas where listeners may have no other access to free over-the-air news and information.

Modest as it is – government funding is critical because it allows taxpayers to leverage a small investment into a very large one. It is seed money. Station managers tell me that 10 percent plays a critical role in generating the other 90 percent that makes their broadcasts possible.

The fact that we have four sources of revenue – listeners, philanthropy, corporate and government - helps ensure that public media is not beholden to any one source of revenue. Indeed it is through this diversity of funding that we are able to maintain our journalistic independence.

With the nation facing continuing economic uncertainty, it is both right and necessary to scrutinize all federal spending. But if the public value for the money spent is the prism through which spending decisions are made - public broadcasting stands strong.

The American people believe in federal funding for public broadcasting. A national survey conducted last month by a bipartisan polling team shows that 69% of Americans oppose the elimination of federal funding for public media.

Conclusion

At a time when our industry is cutting back; when punditry is drowning real news and thoughtful analysis, NPR is moving continuously forward with quality reporting and storytelling delivered with respect for the audience — what columnist James Wolcott recently called "The Sound of Sanity."

When original reporting is in increasingly short supply – we continue to build – and not retreat from – a 44-year investment.

As guardians of that public trust we have an obligation to address the current crisis in journalism and not simply fall victim to the turbulence of these times.

I'd like to acknowledge that NPR is not alone in this mission. Here at the head table with me are my colleagues from public broadcasting:

  • Patrick Butler, the President & CEO of APTS whose job it is to advocate for public television and why it is more vital now than even 44 years ago. More recently Pat has also taken on the mantel of president of the Public Media Association - which represents both television AND radio stations.
  • Pat Harrison - the President & CEO of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The private corporation created by Congress to serve as a steward of the federal government's investment in public media.

I'd like to thank all of them and my other NPR, public media and journalism colleagues for joining us here today.

In closing...

At NPR, we have charted a vision for the future – one built around high-quality journalism, radio craftsmanship and storytelling, smart use of social media, a seamless user experience across platforms – one that combines strong local and global reporting. It is a work in progress and always will be – but our growth in audience tells us we're on the right track.

I'd like to end where we started - in Libya. Recently on All Things Considered, Host Michele Norris spoke to a entrepreneur named Mohammed in the midst of a major protest in Zawiya, about 25 miles outside Tripoli. Throughout the conversation you could hear gunfire and chaos unfolding. It was riveting to hear and brought the story home with clarity and immediacy.

When the interview was finished, Mohammed asked what "radio station" he was talking to. Michele told him she was with National Public Radio.

"Oh," said the man. "NPR! I listen to that station most of the time. I have it on my waking clock!"

I love that phrase: a waking clock. Every day the women and men of NPR get up and go out into the world to bring back news that matters to people like Mohammed and people like you, and me. That is both a privilege and a responsibility. It's sometimes good to have a waking clock to remind us that what we do, matters.

Thank you.

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