NPR’s President Talks about the Future of News
Tuesday, June 16, 2009
Photo by Roland Lizarondo / KPBS
What's the future of news, and where does public radio fit into that equation? We'll talk with NPR's new president and CEO Vivian Schiller about the changing media landscape.
DOUG MYRLAND (Guest Host): I'm Doug Myrland, sitting in for Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. What's the future of news, and where does public radio fit into that equation? We're going to talk with NPR's new president and CEO, Vivian Schiller, about the changing media landscape. Vivian Schiller comes to NPR from her job as senior vice president and general manager of the New York Times online website. And welcome to San Diego and to KPBS.
VIVIAN SCHILLER (President and CEO, National Public Radio): Thank you. I'm so happy to be here.
MYRLAND: Now I'm sure in your job interview you got asked more than one question about the future of journalism.
SCHILLER: I did. I got asked about all kinds of questions about the future of journalism.
MYRLAND: And you must have given them some pretty good answers because they offered you the job…
MYRLAND: …so maybe you can tell us a little bit about what some of your initial thoughts were and then I'm curious about how maybe you've changed your mind a little since you've been on the job for six months.
SCHILLER: Yeah, it's actually been quite a journey I've – these past six months. And, well, first of all, I wish I had all the answers about the future of journalism. Nobody does. I don't think there is any clear path. The one thing I know for sure, though, is I think we will look back at 2009 and say we were seeing history in the making and that this is the year that everything changed. It's really astounding the pace of change. Newspapers are shrinking or going under. Local television news, which used to be the profit center for local broadcast stations, is now a drag on the bottom line. Cable news is going more talking partisan. It's very, very troubling. And, you know, the democracy, a sound democracy relies on having many robust sources of news. I mean, it is the fourth estate that keeps public institutions and public figures to account. And it scares me. And, I think, you know, a lot of these trends were happening before I joined NPR but now that I'm here, it's really accelerated since I've been on the job. Having no relation to my being on the job, but it has accelerated. And how my thinking has evolved is, I always thought of NPR as just an astounding, one of the great news and information organizations in this country but I think I feel a larger responsibility than I did before I even joined now as one of the last few institutions that really is holding steady, that we need to not only keep going but we need to step up and fill in some of the gaps where other news organizations are backing away.
MYRLAND: Now you've worked for several respected, if not astounding, organizations: CNN, the New York Times and managing their website. You're used to being with organizations that have deep journalistic resources.
MYRLAND: Can you talk a little bit about the differences among those organizations and why it's important to have different organizations with different kinds of resources?
SCHILLER: Yes, well, it's been really – it's been a very interesting journey. My career has been an interesting journey in that I've worked now in every medium, in television, as you mentioned, at CNN, in newspapers and online. This is actually my first experience with radio and my first experience in a non-commercial organization, and it's been such an eye-opener for me. First, to speak about radio first, if I can, I've been a lifelong listener to NPR and to my local NPR member stations wherever I've lived. But it wasn't until I got here and I really started connecting with the audience and talking to people that I understood the power of radio. You know, of all of the sort of so-called legacy medias—by legacy, I mean television and print and radio versus online—I think it has the most staying power and, in fact, our numbers attest our audience is growing. We are – we have a larger audience. We are listened to by more Americans than any other news organization is read or watched. So it's pretty astounding. But I don't want NPR to be the last man standing. I want there to be competition. I want there to be multiple news organizations. This is not like another – any other kind of business where you want to beat the competition. I want everybody to stay strong. It's just too important a business, the business of journalism, for us to see it go away.
MYRLAND: And we're seeing people receive information in brand new ways and I'm not just talking about websites. I'm talking about Tweeting.
SCHILLER: That's right.
MYRLAND: I'm talking about our ability now to have broadband access almost everywhere we go. How do you get your mind around the needs of consumers when we're not even sure what devices they're going to be using to get our product?
SCHILLER: We have to pay close, close attention to the way the audience is receiving news and information. I actually find it very exciting. I think – you know, I'm an active Facebook user. I've been a little slow on the tweeting but I think all of these various new ways of really distributing content and receiving content, that's what we're talking about, is very good for an organization like NPR and for Public Radio because what it is, is it allows us to harness this astounding audience we have. There are over 32 million people that tune in to Public Radio every week, and it gives us an opportunity for them to participate in the experience whether it's Facebook or tweeting or even, you know, an old-fashioned medium like e-mail, to share that content, to share it with their friends. And it comes with a certain authority because when you get something from a friend, it is – you're more likely to look at it than if it just comes in over the transom. So this is wonderful. It's a way for our community, our very large, loyal community, to engage with us. So the key for us is to make sure that we stay on top of all new forms of media, that we provide an NPR experience on every single platform, and that we try to, you know, see around corners and make sure that we're right there where our audience is.
MYRLAND: Now people are still listening to the radio every day. You make that case very well. Do you envision a future for NPR in the relatively distant future that still includes primarily an audio service? Or are you really seeing a multiple platform service evolving quite quickly?
SCHILLER: Oh, well, I don't think those two things are mutually exclusive. We have no plans and will not back away from radio, or I should say audio, from the kind of quality audio programs that your listeners hear on your station every day. Now it may be that the delivery method for audio programs changes over times, you may listen to it over a broadcast signal, you may get it through IP—internet protocol—radio, you may get it on your iPod. We don't know how people are going to get it. But the medium and the power of audio is very, very strong and we will continue to adhere to it, to invest in it, to innovate, and make sure that we main – that we remain the leaders in news and information in audio, on radio and in audio. But that is not mutually exclusive with extending to other platforms. We have to, it's part of our mission to make sure that we are on every platform in every form factor that our audience cares to consume us.
MYRLAND: Now I want to shift gears a little bit and ask you kind of an inside baseball question because you've been on the job six months. NPR is an organization that depends on a—let's be kind and say—less than perfectly efficient infrastructure of member stations, the – and affiliate kinds of relationships. It's easy for the head of NPR to get pulled into a lot of governance kinds of system wide issues. It is, by nature and by the beginning, kind of a political system. It was designed so that every community has its own station with its own board of directors and its own set of needs and you're, in some ways, at the economic mercy of that system. How are you going to find your way through those kinds of things over the next years and still – and not have it occupy all your time?
SCHILLER: Well, the easy answer would be to clone the staff and the spirit here at KPBS in every community. This is a…
MYRLAND: Well, that's very kind of you to say.
SCHILLER: …we have a wonderful relationship with KPBS. And so – But since that's probably not going to be possible, the answer is, you know, to keep – The way that I -- You know, I try not to get sucked into politics because it's to nobody's benefit. And the fact is, any time we talk about internal issues and, of course, there are internal issues and, you know, it distracts us from the main thing, which is how can we best serve the audience. And so in speaking to NPR member stations around the country, that's what we're focused on. And, actually, I – you know, before I came on the job, you know, people said, oh, well, you know, this – the governance is very difficult. But I actually have found that in most stations everybody wants the same thing. We're all trying to figure out how to maintain our level of service, to grow our level of service, to best serve the audience, how to expand into digital platforms, and we're all in it together. I mean, I have no illusions that the NPR experience, when people – Wherever I go, I tell people I work for NPR and they're almost – universal response is, wow, I love that station. And the first couple times I heard this, I, you know, I explained to people, well, actually NPR is not a station, we serve the st – and I finally gave up and I just said thanks. But the point of that anecdote is that I understand that what people – when people love NPR and they say they love NPR, what they're talking about is the experience they get from their local station, whether it's KPBS here in San Diego, WAMU, where I live in Washington, so our audience is the station audience and that's what we're here to do. And even on digital platforms, what –we're now very much trying to figure out a way, and we're well down the road, of creating a national system whereby we can serve the stations in the local communities on digital platforms, as well, as who we are.
MYRLAND: And there has to be a way to create efficiencies and collaboration in these new ways even if the old system isn't as efficient as you would hope.
SCHILLER: Absolutely. I mean, we'll try to -- You know, we've been perfecting our, you know, despite its imperfections, we've been perfecting the national-local relationship in radio now for how many years? Thirty years. A digital platform is very different and it requires a different kind of relationship and a different kind of technology so, you know, we're working now to get it right. But it is vital that we continue to serve our audience on every platform. If I sound a little like a broken record, to use an old audio term, so be it.
MYRLAND: Well I want to ask you a couple of economic questions because I think one of the relationships that many people have with their local station is as a member. And people hear membership campaigns and they know that we're under constant challenge to meet budgets. The economic model that NPR works under is not all that different from a lot of nonprofits. You have the affiliated stations that pay dues to NPR and that pays a good part of your budget. You also have corporate support, grant support. It's a fairly normal kind of nonprofit model. Do you think it's sustainable or are you going to have to find some new and unusual sources of revenue in order to keep the enterprise strong?
SCHILLER: Yeah, it's an excellent question. And, as you can imagine, it's something I spend a great deal of my time thinking about and talking about and studying. My view is that the actual categories of revenue that come to NPR are the right ones. It's just a matter of how we grow them. I'm not sure that there is some brand new, unthought-of revenue stream that's never occurred to anybody before. Because of our public mission and because of who we are, we will, for instance, never charge people. We do charge a little bit for some of our archive but that's really the expense of digging it up until we get it all on the digital platform but our content will always be free on every platform. Our mission is to make our content ubiquitous and that cuts off certain revenue streams that may or may not be available to commercial entities. But I think that the fundamental model works, which is support from the stations. We, in turn, try to help the stations raise money. We will not do a pledge drive; that is the domain of the stations. I encourage all of your listeners to give to your local station because it's what supports both the local community news and activities and also NPR. So we want to help the stations to remain strong, to grow so that they can continue to support us. Our sponsorship model is a good one. It's a little bit difficult right now because of the economy. It will come back. I'm quite confident that this is more of a cyclical issue than a secular one. And philanthropy is still a big opportunity for us. I think that our – just like your listeners understand in pledge drive, I think the supporters of NPR also understand that this is a moment when, with the crisis that's happening in American journalism, when support to NPR is vital so that we can continue to grow our service, so we can expand our journalism and our modes of delivery. So that's where my focus is.
MYRLAND: Now for most of the history of NPR and Public Radio there have been real restrictions on stations' ability to commercialize their content. Everybody's familiar with underwriting messages and corporate support but the messages have to be restricted in such a way that it makes it difficult for stations to be competitive in the advertising market. Do you think that in this new media world, for NPR and for stations, that there will be more commercial opportunities so that those revenue streams can be explored more? Or do you think that it's important to hold to that noncommercial ideal even in media where you have more freedom according to the rules and regulations?
SCHILLER: Well, I think we absolutely must, not only by law but also by mission and by spirit and who we are, remain noncommercial and not become – not sound or look like, in any medium, like commercial broadcast. However, I'm quite optimistic about the revenue from that nonetheless because what we offer to our underwriters and our sponsors is not only an extraordinarily large audience but a highly educated, very desirable demographic. And what we also provide, whether it's on the radio or online or, in your case, on television, a very uncluttered environment which is very desirable to the advertisers that I used to deal with when I was at the New York Times or Discovery or CNN. This is a unique proposition and I think we could possibly do a better job in making sure that our sponsors and underwriters understand the value of our audience, understand the value of this very exclusive opportunity, uncluttered environment, but, no, we're not going to go more commercial.
MYRLAND: In the time we have left, I want to hear a little more about your personal story because I'm intrigued about you. When you were in college, you were focusing on Russian and Russian language and you got a bachelor's degree from Cornell and a master's in Middlebury College, and you ended up working as a simultaneous translator. How did you end up having opportunities then to move into the media and into journalism.
SCHILLER: Yeah, I didn't – I definitely didn't have a normal career path into media. But I was, I was – I fell in love with the Russian language and this was in the eighties when I finished school and I went to the Soviet Union and I spent the good part of five years over there, going back and forth between 1983 and about 1988, doing all kinds of things. I was a simultaneous interpreter, I led tours over there of Americans, showed them the country. And it was an amazing, wonderful experience. What – The transition into media was, in 1988 I was given an opportunity by Ted Turner at Turner Broadcasting who, at the time, had just launched the Goodwill Games and decided that he was singlehandedly going to end the cold war. And I actually would give him a little bit of credit for that. And he had all kinds of ventures going on with the then Soviet Union, sports, television programs, movies. And so they brought me in as a translator and as a – something that's called a fixer, which is basically someone that goes over to the country with the top executives and, you know, helps them get around the country and sort of work the bureaucracy. So once I got the media bug, that was it. I never looked back.
MYRLAND: Now I should remind our listeners that our guest is Vivian Schiller, who's the new president and CEO of NPR. And we can still introduce you as new; you've been there less than a year. It's interesting, your predecessor, Kevin Klose, was also stationed in Moscow for awhile…
SCHILLER: I know.
MYRLAND: …so you have that…
SCHILLER: It's a very strange coincidence.
MYRLAND: You know, speaking of predecessors, I wanted to ask you if you've gotten into a little bit of the history of NPR. I'm thinking of some of the people who have had your job and probably the most colorful character was Frank Mankowitz.
SCHILLER: Yeah, I've heard a lot of stories about some of my predecessors. Unfortunately, I haven't had the privilege of meeting most of them yet.
MYRLAND: Well, I'm sure you'll get the opportunity and you're certainly going to get an opportunity to meet a lot of donors and sponsors and you seem to have really embraced the idea of NPR. I'm interested in what surprised you when you came on board.
SCHILLER: There's a lot of things that surprised me, I think, so it's hard for me to select. One of them, on it may be a less serious note, is you know the expression that somebody has a face for radio. And, you know, I had become familiar with all these voices of NPR as a listener, Steve Inskeep and Renee Montagne, I'm talking about the national figures, Scott Simon and, you know, the notion of face for radio was always stuck in my head. And when I met them, I thought, wow, these people don't have a face for radio. These radio hosts are actually very good looking. Anyway, that's a not-so-serious surprise. You know, there's not that…
MYRLAND: But that's one thing that's different, I think, about this than your job at the New York Times. While people may recognize certain bylines and there are some columnists who – that radio really is a medium of strong personalities.
SCHILLER: That's right. It's one – It's one, I think, of the reasons why the engagement of our audience is so extraordinarily high. You know, I mentioned before, 32 million tune into Public Radio every week. Over twenty-seven and a half million people listen to NPR programming every week. That, in itself, is an extraordinary number but what's even more astounding to me is that the median listening across that twenty-seven and a half million people is four and a half hours. There is no news and information platform, not television, not newspaper, not online, that has that level of engagement by the audience. And I think there are many reasons, we could speculate, about that but part of it is the fact that people listen in their cars, they listen alone, they listen when they wake up in the morning, and you develop a very sort of intimate relationship with the voices that you hear. And I think it's very engaging and it makes people stick around. That, of course, and our terrific reporting.
MYRLAND: So what sort of people are you gathering around you to give you help and advice? I mean, when you first start a new job, everybody says, oh, well, she's going to come in with the big Rolodex and all the answers. And then you realize that you need to assemble a team. What…
MYRLAND: …what sort of characteristics do you – are you looking at to – in your advisors?
SCHILLER: Right. Well, I've spent, you know, a great deal of my first six months meeting the people of Public Broadcasting, meeting the stations, visiting stations like KPBS, talking to the people that work on the front lines, so to speak, getting to know the staff of NPR, getting to know our donors, getting to know our board of directors, getting to know, most importantly, our listeners and trying to understand what makes them tick and what it is that they love about NPR. We know people love it but what is it that they love about it? It's very important to understand that, especially as we try to replicate the NPR experience onto other platforms, that we don't lose that very essence. In terms of the people I like to have around me, I like to have around me people – the single most important characteristic to me in any human being is curiosity. And I also like people that will challenge me, that push back, that question. That's how we learn. I would rather be the dumbest one in the room. That, to me, is the greatest opportunity.
MYRLAND: You mentioned the board of directors and for the benefit of our listeners, they should know that it's made up of a lot of hardworking, intelligent members of the – of various communities and a bunch of crusty general managers. So…
SCHILLER: They've been a great guide to me.
MYRLAND: And when your board of directors evaluates you at the end of 2010…
SCHILLER: I know.
MYRLAND: …what do you hope that evaluation of your performance as CEO says?
SCHILLER: Well, the most important thing to me is that I continue to improve upon the experience of serving the audience. That is the number one criteria, that our radio programs were – took more risks, were more innovative, were more engaging, that we grow the audience, that we improve the NPR experience online, that I developed a greater level of trust with the stations so that we can work together to unlock the potential that is so unique in Public Radio of the national and the local and that we were able to bring some more money into the organization to be able to do what we want to do. If I can accomplish a fraction of all of those things, I will – I'll be very happy and hopefully they will too.
MYRLAND: Well, Vivian Schiller, president and CEO of NPR, welcome, again, to San Diego. Thanks very much for joining us. Hope you have a great time out here on the west coast. Good luck with your trustees' meeting.
SCHILLER: Thank you. It was a pleasure.
MYRLAND: You're listening to These Days in San Diego. I'm Doug Myrland.
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