Vivian Schiller, CEO of NPR, was just forced to resign by the network’s board. I don’t know what the spin will be, nor am I privy to the internal politics. But I will say that this is an indication of more trouble ahead for NPR on a few fronts.
First, the network lost a visionary leader who I know, first-hand, was doing great things. I told her executives that they were enjoying their work entirely too much while others in the news industry all have the worldview of Eeyore these days. NPR is initiating new journalistic endeavours around the country with Vivian’s leadership and support.
Second, this act reveals the NPR board as ballless in the face of pressure. Yes, the Juan Williams firing was bungled by NPR’s head of news but Schiller apparently forced her out and also let the buck stop at her. Yes, rightwing NPR haters entrapped chief fundraiser Ron Schiller in a kerfuffle of their making but he is gone. But that was not cause for Vivian Schiller to go. I’m afraid to see how they will acquiesce to pressure in the future.
Third, I say this is why NPR should get rid of federal funding so it gets rid of political strings and pressure. That leads to the biggest problem:
Fourth, look at the NPR board. It is comprised mostly of local stations. That made sense when the stations distributed NPR programming and paid for it. But today, NPR the network does not need the stations when it can distribute online, which is how radio will be distributed more and more. The stations that don’t add real value in their markets — such as WNYC does in mine — are screwed as their value as distributors diminishes. The stations’ audiences are going to shrink and with that their revenue. Most of them have no real local presence other than their towers. The stations also depend heavily — more than NPR does — on government support, so they cannot easily give it up and buy their independence. The board fired the last NPR CEO because he pissed off the stations. Now Schiller is gone. Who the hell would take this job next?
Bottom line: The stations’ interests and NPR’s interests are no longer aligned. That has been the case for some years. It is the elephant in the studio. Schiller tried hard to find ways to improve the stations’ lot. That’s why she created new content initiatives in their backyards, to have them create more value. But in the end, the stations will fear a stronger NPR.
This is parallel to what is happening at the Associated Press, which newspapers own. Its board, too, is run by local affiliates. But the majority of the AP’s revenue no longer comes from the papers but from other news outlets, broadcast and online. The newspapers won’t allow the AP to do what it must do to survive online: build its own brand and distribute widely on the internet. The newspapers, like the stations, face shrinkage and so they complain about the AP’s costs and try to beat it down. They are locked in inevitable conflict.
This is the untold story of the future of two important journalistic institutions in this country. There is a strategic cliff ahead. But no one dare speak of it. Watch out.
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