New NPR CEO Suited For The Challenge

In January, Vivian Schiller became President and CEO of National Public Radio during a turbulent era for American media. Although NPR's audience is experiencing record growth, the company still finds itself impacted by the recession. Schiller discusses the challenges of her new role, and the future of NPR.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Just ahead, have you heard that old saying about what happens when we assume? I have some thoughts about that in my weekly Can I Just Tell You commentary.

But first, a newsmaker interview. Throughout March, we've been recognizing Women's History Month by highlighting women history-makers and newsmakers. Today, a newsmaker in our own backyard, Vivian Schiller.

In January, she became president and CEO of National Public Radio. She's one of very few women to head a major media outlet in this country, but she takes the job in what has been one of the most turbulent periods for American media in recent memory, NPR included.

Over the weekend, it was reported that NPR's financial condition is so dire it is considering a national, on-air fund drive. Schiller issued a statement saying that is not true, but when she stopped by our studios earlier last week, I asked her how it was possible that NPR could have both record ratings and still be suffering financially.

Ms. VIVIAN SCHILLER (CEO, National Public Radio): Well, this is the classic best-of-times-and-worst-of-times moment for NPR. You are correct in that we just announced record audiences. It is extraordinary. We have over 27 million people that tune in to NPR programming every week.

You know, MORNING EDITION, just to give you an example, is larger by 40 percent than "The Today Show." CAR TALK has twice the audience of "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report" combined. It is an incredibly powerful vehicle.

MARTIN: And I should mention that "The Today Show" is the top-ranked morning network news show.

SCHILLER: Yes, exactly, thank you. But unfortunately, just the reality of the economy is that large numbers of listeners or online users don't correlate necessarily directly to revenue.

We are fortunate in that we have several revenue streams. So that helps insulate us from a tough economy, but two of them are down, and that's where the problems come. And they are the two categories that are down across all of media, especially commercial media, and for many Americans.

And that is number one, our underwriting and sponsorship is down, which correlates to advertising and commercial media. And our investment income, which was a significant revenue stream for us, is also down - just like investments for average Americans is down. So it's a tough time.

But the fact that we have such a large audience means as we get through this economic turmoil, we'll be just fine.

MARTIN: We talked last week on the program about the concern that some workers have that so-called work-life or family-friendly policies will go out the window under the pressures of the recession, but some people have the same concern about diversity.

You recently addressed this issue during an appearance at the National Press Club here in Washington. Concern was expressed about the fact that NEWS & NOTES, a program meant to showcase the interests of African-Americans, was cancelled.

Of course, another show was cancelled, DAY TO DAY, and prior to that, a third program, BRYANT PARK PROJECT, before you came, was also canceled. That was mainly distributed online.

But this is part of a longer exchange where you talked about diversity, how public radio could do more to attract diverse listeners. I want to play a short clip of an exchange that followed. Here it is.

Ms. DONNA LEINWAND (Reporter, USA Today): Tavis Smiley and Ed Gordon and now-ex-host of the canceled show NEWS & NOTES, Farai Chideya, all leveled against NPR the charge that the company was closed to ideas that would attract more diverse listenership. Does that claim hold water? Why not?

SCHILLER: Well, no.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SCHILLER: No. I don't - you know, it certainly doesn't hold water for me, and based on the team - the wonderful people that I work with - I just can't believe it held water with them, either. I know it doesn't now, but I can't imagine even prior to my arrival that was the case.

We have - look, I'm telling you like it is. We haven't gotten this right yet.

MARTIN: The first voice you heard was that of Donna Leinwand, the moderator of the event. Of course, the second voice was yours, Vivian. Why do you think we haven't gotten it right yet? And I will say you had some very nice things to say about my program.

SCHILLER: Yes, I did. We haven't gotten it right yet because we are not reaching diverse audiences at the levels that we should. That's just a fact, and we have to keep trying.

Unfortunately in this economy, as you mentioned, we've had to shut down some shows, including NEWS & NOTES, which specifically dealt with particularly African-American issues and other issues of people who are not our average listeners, and this is not an environment in which we can launch new shows.

When the economy gets better, we can certainly look at that. In the meantime, we have got to do a better job of both reaching more diverse audiences with our main programs, especially our two big drive-time programs, MORNING EDITION and ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. And we've got to do a better job covering issues about those audiences as well.

Now, there are a lot of bright spots. I think we do a pretty good job, I think, you know, - if you - relative to other mass media, I think we do an excellent job, but I think generally I would give all of media a, you know, a C on that.

MARTIN: And why is that? The diversity of the American population is indisputable, and yet a lot of people see the American media as following and not leading. I mean the commercials in many ways are more diverse than the programming that they support on commercial radio.

Ms. SCHILLER: Yeah.

MARTIN: Why is that?

Ms. SCHILLER: Well, speaking of commercial media, I hate to be cynical but I think it's an economic issue which is the demands of the marketers, the people that buy the ads calls the shots and there is - you know, it's the same problem with age demographic. You know, we all know that people 55 years and older -baby boomers - have a lot of disposable income, or rather they did before the economic crisis, and spent money, yet advertisers, agencies still have no interest in reaching audiences over 55 because they feel that they will not spend money on their products. I think it's the same thing with diverse audiences. It goes against the grain of everything we know to be true, but it's one of the anachronisms in media.

MARTIN: One more question on this before we move on to other things. There's this ongoing debate about - you mentioned that there's of course an ongoing effort to make sure that the main drive-time programs are as diverse as they should be, but there's this - also this ongoing debate about whether there should be so-called targeted programs. And there are those who express the point of view that such programs are patronizing. But I have to say that there are others, sometimes the people who are in these targeted groups who say, well you know, excuse me, we happen to sometimes have different priorities. From the news standpoint, we perhaps might culturally or stylistically enjoy something different. What's your take on that question?

Ms. SCHILLER: Well, ideally we would do both. You know, NEWS & NOTES was an example of a show that was specifically targeted to diverse audiences. Unfortunately, as you know, we had to take it off the air. I think your program, Michel, TELL ME MORE, is a news talk show that reflects a lot of diversity of opinion, a lot of diverse views. That's very helpful. I think it's more broad and more mainstream, or at least that's the way I look at it, but I think it's closer to dealing with these issues than perhaps some general news and information programs that are on our air and on other people's air. But I do think it's very important that in our main programs - when I say our main, forgive me, I mean our programs that have the largest audiences because they are during drive times.

MARTIN: Your tent pole programs.

Ms. SCHILLER: Yes, tent pole programs - need to reflect more diverse points of view. Like I said, I think we do a pretty good job, but we could do a lot better job and we need to figure out a way to reach more diverse audiences that way.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Our guest is NPR President and CEO, Vivian Schiller. Now, of course, one wants to say congratulations, but part of me wants to say condolences - as we mentioned, very tough time in the media right now. What exactly drew you to this job?

Ms. SCHILLER: What didn't draw me to this job? NPR, I consider, is one of the most important and robust news organizations in this country. I mean I feel very fortunate that I left a news organization that I loved very much and is still very dear to me, which is the New York Times, but when the opportunity came along to be the President CEO of NPR with its extraordinary audience and its even more extraordinary potential - that was just too good an offer to give up.

MARTIN: My favorite thing about your resume, in addition to the fact that you are also a mom is that you were a translator - a Russian translator.

Ms. SCHILLER: Yes, it feels like a different lifetime now, but back in the '80s my first job out of college was as simultaneous interpreter, Russian interpreter, in the Soviet Union. So that…

MARTIN: (Foreign language spoken)

Ms. SCHILLER: (Foreign language spoken)

MARTIN: Is there any part of that job that is useful now? I think some people think that, you know, the media speaks its own language.

Ms. SCHILLER: Yeah.

MARTIN: Is there any part of that that translates?

Ms. SCHILLER: Actually, the funny thing is, is I was a simultaneous interpreter while I was a tour guide taking groups of American doctors, lawyers, professionals around the Soviet Union. And I've often joked that everything I learned about being in media I learned as being a tour guide because it is communications, it is crisis management, it is flexibility, it is dealing with hardship, embracing opportunities, so it was great training ground for a very young woman that I was at that time.

MARTIN: As I mentioned, we're wrapping up on Women's History Month. So many prominent women out front in the media - of course the diva of divas, Barbara Walters, Katie Couric, and yet as I also mentioned there are very few women media executives in the top positions, gate-keeping positions. Why do you think that is?

Ms. SCHILLER: Yeah, I agree there's a lot of women on the air, more than ever and that's very promising. There are fewer women in the executive ranks of news organizations, although there are many, many notable exceptions. Some of my role models are some of the most extraordinary women in news are people like Jill Abramson at the New York Times, Katharine Weymouth at Washington Post.

There are strong women. But certainly we are by far the minority at the top of the executive ranks. You know some habits die hard, what can I tell - oh by the way I didn't mention our head of news, Ellen Weiss, of course, is a woman as well. I take great pride in that, and she's absolutely wonderful. It's been a male dominated industry and times are changing, but they are changing slower than I would like to see.

MARTIN: You mentioned Katharine Weymouth, Chairman of the Washington Post Company. She was a guest on the program and I asked her and I said look I'm not sure I'd be asking you this if you were a man, but I am going to ask you because a lot of women - a lot of people want to know - how do you do it all? I mean she is mother of young children. You're a mother of young children, a lot of travel on this job. You have a tremendous amount of responsibility - you have for quite some time. As you mentioned you were at the New York Times before and you've been a news executive for some years.

Ms. SCHILLER: Well, it's tough and it comes back to the expression it takes a village, which is you cannot decide that you can do it all. I can't do it all. I have tremendous support. I do have two teenage kids, and I have an incredibly supportive husband who picks up a lot of the slack, much more of the slack frankly than I do, in terms of running the household, even though he is also working. And I rely on a close circle of friends who also have children and we support each other.

MARTIN: Forgive me I - I don't mean to - bringing up any confidences but I asked you this at a staff meeting. I want to ask you this because I think other people want to know the answer to this question too. So, what do you say to young folks who might be considering entering this field who want to make a difference, but who look at the landscape and say, gee I don't see a lot of choices out there for work that is meaningful, impactful, makes a contribution to society on which I can support a family? What's your message to them right now?

Ms. SCHILLER: I've heard that too and every time I hear it, it sends chills up my spine, because I think the future of journalism is absolutely dependent on a new generation, the digital generation coming up the ranks, learning the fundamentals of good journalism but figuring out in a way that - I'm sorry frankly Michel, you and I and many people of our generation are probably not going to be the ones that reinvent journalism in a multi-platform world.

I think we do the best we can, but we need the imaginations and the passion and the dedication of the next generation to reinvent this business which is so vital to our democracy. And is the business model sorted out? Can I look a young person in the face and say don't worry you'll make plenty of money? No. But one of the things that's been really wonderful to watch evolving in this country in the last few years is the fact that there is - I feel a resurgence of public service in many ways. And I'm hoping that that public service instinct will drive a lot of people into journalism which is a profession of passion as you know. It's never been about making a lot of money, frankly.

MARTIN: So finally, how will you know if you have succeeded in this job?

Ms. SCHILLER: Oh God. I'll know we will have succeeded - first of all when we stabilize our bottom line, I mean, just to be on the most practical level. We are looking at deficits right now. When we've figured out ways to bring new revenue into the organization to support what we do, to make sure that we can continue to have robust domestic international news gathering as we have today - so that's of course a must do. But what will give me the greatest satisfaction is to see us continue to innovate and bring more listeners, more online readers and users to us on many platforms, so that the essence of what makes NPR and NPR programs great - and programs like yourself's - can be captured in any way that the listening audience or the consumer wants to consume it.

MARTIN: Vivian Schiller, she's the President and CEO of National Public Radio. She was kind enough to join us here in our - her studio in Washington D.C. Vivian, thank you so much for joining us. Come back and see us.

Ms. SCHILLER: Thanks for having me.

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