NPR’s next CEO faces 4 key challenges as staffers, stations, funding needs escalate and conflict

March 11, 2011
Category: Uncategorized

NPR’s next CEO faces an enormous set of challenges. Whoever the NPR Board of Directors eventually chooses for this position will assume leadership of an organization that in recent months has lost its CEO, its senior vice president for fundraising and its senior vice president for news while its federal funding has been challenged.

And there may be more fallout from secretly recorded phone calls revealed Thursday in which Betsy Liley, NPR’s senior director of institutional giving, told a man claiming to be the trustee of a fictitious Muslim organization that the charity could make its proposed $5 million donation anonymously and be shielded from a government audit. (NPR, which has placed Liley on administrative leave, said in a statement that her remark was “factually inaccurate and not reflective of NPR’s gift practices.”)

So, how is a new CEO to handle all of this?

Folks from NPR and member stations told me what they think the next CEO needs to do to move the organization forward. They also elaborated on some of the challenges they believe the CEO will face and explained what they’re looking for in this new leader.

Embracing change while also upholding NPR’s values, history

Several leaders of NPR member stations said they hope the new CEO has an appreciation for the digital initiatives that former CEO Vivian Schiller helped create. They don’t, however, want to see NPR turn its back on its culture, values or history in an effort to make the organization a “multimedia company.”

“We need someone in this position who has the basics, framework and cultural heritage of NPR under her or his belt, but is also comfortable dealing with the breadth and depth of this change and can head all the wagons forward in a well-thought-out direction,” said John Weatherford, chief operating officer of Public Broadcasting Atlanta.

Weatherford expressed admiration for the leadership qualities of Kevin Klose, a former president and CEO of NPR who is now dean of the University of Maryland’s School of Journalism. “I hope to see someone of his caliber running NPR again,” Weatherford said.

So would Slate Media Critic Jack Shafer, who indicated that Klose “could have been president — of the country.”

“If the NPR board were smart, they’d stop fretting about the short-term and concentrate on the long,” Shafer wrote on Thursday. “Then they’d reappoint Klose and give him the power to stabilize the network. But they won’t. Because they aren’t.”

Dave Edwards, chairman of NPR’s Board of Directors, said he’s forming a transitional team of board members who will eventually define what the board is looking for in a new CEO. Edwards shared his personal belief that it will be important for the next CEO to embrace change.

“Someone at NPR once told me that the running joke is that the best time in NPR’s history was about one year before you started working there. That’s because NPR is a dynamic, ever-changing organization that must keep evolving,” Edwards said via e-mail. “The broadcast business has changed, and you can’t roll the clock backwards. Our listeners demand content on multiple platforms and NPR must respond accordingly. It must be available on as many platforms as our listeners/consumers use.”

The new CEO will likely have to address questions about these multiple platforms and NPR’s overall purpose. Is it an outpost for investigative or narrative journalism? Is it a broadcast-first organization? Or is it digital first?

“Our priority is to provide more of our excellent news and information to more audiences wherever they are looking for it,” interim CEO Joyce Slocum said in a phone interview. “Most of our audience finds our programming through radio. A growing audience finds it through digital. Neither of those is more important than the other; they’re synergistic.”

NPR Special Correspondent Susan Stamberg said she thinks NPR has been making a mark digitally, but is not sure whether the organization’s digital efforts will ever catch up to its broadcast/radio efforts. In a phone interview, Stamberg advocated for a new CEO who understands the digital world and has a healthy respect for the complications of broadcasting.

“We’ve had good people from print in the past,” she said, “but they have been limited when it came to the contributions they could make to radio.”

Restoring morale at NPR and member stations

Given the recent controversy surrounding NPR, some member stations said they want a leader who can help restore a sense of calm.

“The past couple of events feel a bit destabilizing,” said Sam Fleming, managing director of news and programming at WBUR in Boston. “I think what we want, and what our colleagues at NPR want, is to be able to focus on the news and get back to doing what we do best, which is journalism.”

The need for stability presents the next CEO with an opportunity to reach out to leaders of member stations and get a sense of whether their interests and NPR’s interests are “no longer aligned,” as Jeff Jarvis argued earlier this week.

Slocum said she has already heard from some member stations who expressed their support for her, and hopes to reach out to more of them. In the short time that she’s been interim CEO, Slocum has met with staffers to figure out what they want and need, and plans to continue doing so in the coming weeks.

“I think they need a steady hand on the tiller — somebody who’s passionate about what NPR does and who can speak somewhat articulately about that — someone who listens to them,” she said, noting that she doesn’t plan to apply for the CEO position. “I am in full listening mode.”

Addressing arguments for — and against — federal funding

The next CEO will no doubt have to address federal funding, which has become even more of a hot-button issue in the wake of Ron Schiller’s suggestion that NPR would be “better off in the long run” without it.

Slocum contradicted Schiller’s statement, saying that federal funding is a critical part of many member stations’ operations, particularly smaller ones that rely heavily on it.

“It would be a real tragedy for those member stations in particular, but for all our member stations, to lose that component of their financing,” she said.

Jarvis and Jay Rosen have argued that NPR should renounce federal funds so it can rid itself of political strings and pressure. In a related blog post, Rosen suggested that NPR create a committee to investigate the organization’s fundraising efforts — an idea that the Board and the next CEO may have to consider.

There’s also some concern that NPR has focused on fundraising to a fault.

“I think it’s an institution that has become very much focused on monetary concerns to the exclusion of maximizing core competencies,” said Torey Malatia, CEO of WBEZ-Chicago. “Investing in core competencies builds the integrity of the mission, and when that happens, perceived value goes up and money comes. It just seems to be turned around lately.”

Some member stations noted that recent events at NPR have affected their fundraising efforts. PBA’s Weatherford said the day that NPR fired Juan Williams — the first Thursday of PBA’s fall pledge drive — the station was down about 1,500 pledges and $120,000 compared to the first Thursday in its previous spring pledge drive.

Weatherford took several calls that day from listeners who disagreed with NPR’s decision to fire Williams, and said he continues to take them six months after the fact. Ron Schiller’s disparaging comments about conservatives have not helped, Weatherford said.

“Looking ahead, the new CEO will need to be a leader who reassures the public, NPR staff, and NPR member stations that NPR’s commitment to fairness, accuracy, diversity and transparency is not affected by the unfortunate developments of the past few months,” said Raul Ramirez, KQED‘s executive director for news and public affairs.

Responding to criticism of NPR’s governance

WBEZ’s Malatia, who referred to NPR as “a highly conflicted organization,” said he hopes the next CEO will figure out how to simplify and clarify NPR’s governance.

“NPR is an institution that is in fact positioned to be the premier newsgathering and news reporting organization on a national level … and yet it has a governance structure which, in an antiquated way, involves member stations who are customers of the institution,” Malatia said. “I don’t know why you would ever have that strange situation where people who are purchasing your product as a vendor would be actually running the place.”

Slate’s Shafer criticized the board for its handling of recent events.

“I don’t know whether the NPR board has hired the wrong people or, after having hired the right people, has failed to back them up. Or a little bit of both,” he wrote. “But this much turmoil in such a short time span can be attributed to either the water supply or to the board. I prefer to accuse the board.”

Jarvis expressed similar sentiments, saying the board — which is comprised of member stations — caved under pressure when it agreed to let Vivian Schiller go. He also argued that NPR should have more listeners on its board than stations.

In an ideal world, Malatia said, NPR’s next CEO would re-evaluate traditionally held beliefs and practices within the organization.

“There are certain advantages to living with the status quo, and some of those advantages may go away” once changes start to be made, Malatia said. “But after that, what’s left may be something powerful. Someone who comes in and deals with problems that have been put off — that’s the kind of leadership that changes institutions.”


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