New tax documents show former NPR chief executive Ken Stern was paid more than $1.3 million for the company's fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2008, the period in which he was dismissed.
Stern previously had been NPR's chief operating officer for seven years, during which NPR expanded in ambition, audience and income. He was rewarded with the top job in 2006.
Stern pushed aggressively for a multi-platform media strategy that unnerved leaders of some member stations. They were concerned that his vision for making the network's programming available online and on other channels would undermine their relationship with listeners. And the member stations control a majority of seats on NPR's board, which ousted him in March 2008.
Stern's compensation was included in the IRS 990 tax forms that not-for-profit organizations, including NPR, are required to file and ultimately make available to the public. The actual cost of the buyout was not broken out in the documents for the fiscal year ending on Sept. 30, 2008. But in the previous year, Stern earned about $426,000. So the tax records reflect a payment beyond that of an additional $900,000.
Stern's dismissal occurred before the recession. A subsequent drop in revenues from underwriting, member station dues and investment income has triggered staff layoffs and furloughs, as well as the cancellation of three shows at NPR.
Stern said Thursday night he had been promised the ability to pursue his agenda for the length of his four-year contract.
"When I negotiated my CEO contract," Stern wrote in a statement, "I wanted assurances that I would have the time to implement this plan and undertake what would be very difficult political, cultural and operational shifts. To that end, I sought a contract that offered me duration rather than salary — in fact, I said that I would take whatever salary the Board deemed appropriate."
He continued, "When the Board chose to exercise its right to change CEOs in 2008, despite the fact that NPR was exceeding every financial goal and audience growth target online and on-air, it did so with the knowledge it had the legal obligation to make good immediately on the terms of my contract."
An NPR spokeswoman declined to comment for this story. But the company took pains to put the disclosure of the payment in context. In a statement to employees, NPR said no taxpayer dollars were involved in buying out Stern's contract. NPR receives less than 2 percent of its income directly from federal sources.
In addition, current NPR CEO Vivian Schiller wrote that the company no longer signs long-term contracts with executives, including herself.
She added that NPR's leadership is mindful of the painful cuts caused by the economic downturn.
"Please know that going forward cost containment will continue to be our watchword," Schiller wrote. "Please don't let this document lead you to believe otherwise."
Ken Greene, an official with the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, a union that represents hundreds of NPR employees, said he was not in a position to comment because he had not reviewed NPR's new tax documents. The company intends to post the tax forms publicly on Aug. 15.