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How will NPR CEO’s departure impact funding for public broadcasting?

Marketplace Staff Mar 9, 2011

How will NPR CEO’s departure impact funding for public broadcasting?

Marketplace Staff Mar 9, 2011


Kai Ryssdal: We didn’t have to go too far to find today’s top story. It comes to us from right here in the world of public radio. The board of directors at NPR asked President and CEO Vivian Schiller to resign last night after a video tape of NPR’s chief fundraiser disparaging the Tea Party became public. It’s the latest in a series of missteps for the company and comes at a time when public broadcasting writ large — thanks in part to what’s happened at NPR — is caught in a political fight.

We’ve called Jeff Jarvis for more on what’s next for NPR and public broadcasting. He teaches at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. Jeff, good to talk to you.

Jeff Jarvis: Thank you.

Ryssdal: Has the board at NPR done what it clearly hopes to do now and put this political issue of funding for public broadcasting behind it with Vivian Schiller’s departure?

Jarvis: Quite the contrary. The board, I think, has shown that it has acquiesced to pressure and there will only be more pressure. At an NPR level, I wish NPR would give up federal financing so they can give up this pressure. The problem is the local stations can’t afford to do that.

Ryssdal: This is, speaking of local stations, the second CEO in a row who’s been dismissed by a board that you pointed out in a post this morning, at BuzzMachine, that is controlled by member stations.

Jarvis: Right. And there’s a conflict inevitably coming there. The local stations have been valuable to distribute, among other things, NPR programming. But with the Internet — with us getting radio through all kinds of things, including our phones — NPR won’t need the stations as much and the stations know that. And so a stronger NPR causes problems for the local stations. Because the local stations, there are some great ones around the nation, like WNYC here in New York that add a lot of value, but there a lot of stations that pretty much run records of NPR programming. And as the value of distribution sinks, which it will, the value of that station sinks.

Ryssdal: But public radio, as you know, is a small place. There are people from the company that produces Marketplace, American Public Media, who sit on NPR’s board. Isn’t there a way, shouldn’t there be a way, that they can align their interests somehow?

Jarvis: Can’t we all get along?

Ryssdal: That’s right.

Jarvis: I don’t know. I think that if you look at the rest of the media business, it’s going through bloody upheaval. Why won’t NPR as well? Because you’re all nice? Sorry, that’s not going to protect you from the business realities that are out there, even as a non-for-profit.

Ryssdal: How do you explain, then, how NPR — at the network level — is doing so well? It is expanding its foreign coverage. It is expanding its domestic news coverage. It is now, basically, financially solid. How do you explain that in the face of these problems that we’ve pointed out?

Jarvis: All these pressures on the local stations work in NPR’s benefit because NPR now can have its own distribution directly to the audience around the stations. “This American Life” gets huge amounts of money now, or good amounts of money, from people giving directly to the show because they have a podcast.

Ryssdal: This is one of those fraught questions that will get stations upset if NPR does it, but will the board now say, you know what, maybe you’re right, maybe federal funding isn’t for public broadcasting and let’s move on without it?

Jarvis: I don’t think the NPR board will do that because the local stations depend so heavily on government money. That’s the conflict in the business models here. The Associated Press is owned by newspapers, who now are not the major clients of the Associated Press and who don’t like where it’s headed. They don’t want to let the AP be the AP. Well, the real question here on the NPR board is will the local stations let NPR be the most it can be by using the Internet to its maximum? Will it let it be independent of federal funding? I don’t think it will because the local stations are not in the same good position. And that means, my friends, trouble for NPR unless it can find a way to separate itself from the local stations. And that’s too hard to do.

Ryssdal: Jeff Jarvis. He teaches journalism at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. Jeff, thanks a lot.

Jarvis: Thank you.

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