National Press Club

Public Broadcasting Needs to Rethink Business Model, NPR Chief Says

March 3, 2009 | By Hope Katz Gibbs

NPR President Vivian Schiller accepts a Club mug from President Donna Leinwand

NPR President Vivian Schiller accepts a Club mug from President Donna Leinwand

Photo/Image: Noel St. John

Public broadcasting needs to rethink the business model, Vivian Schiller, president and CEO of National Public Radio told a Club luncheon Monday.

She said that although in the next 18 months more jobs will likely be trimmed at NPR, her goal is to increase NPR’s collaboration with other public outlets, step up NPR’s news-gathering efforts — especially in terms of investigative journalism -- and become a network that reaches more people on every media platform that they enjoy, from listening on the car radio, to receiving broadcasts on cell phones and iPods.

“I want NPR to become a constellation of news programs that can be accessed in many ways,” she said. “The people own us anyway, so now is the perfect time to rally the American public and bring them into the conversation about what we report on and how they want to receive it. We need to embrace change.”

Schiller, who took the helm of NPR on Jan. 5, is geared to take NPR into the digital age. Since May 2006, she served as senior vice president and general manager of Prior to that, she was the senior vice president and general manager of the Discovery Times Channel, and before that senior vice president of CNN Productions.

As the head of NPR, oversees all network operations, including partnerships with 800-plus member stations reaching more than 26 million listeners every week. It’s a job the woman that Schiller, whose documentary and series productions have won multiple honors, including two Peabody Awards, two Alfred I. DuPont-Columbia University Awards and five Emmys, says she relishes.

“I have always worked for companies with a strong public mission, but NPR is the first company I’ve worked for that is not beholden to financial stakeholders,” Schiller said. “It’s not lost on me that both groups can learn from each other.”

She outlined five lessons she believes NPR can learn from its commercial cousins:

  1. More bottom-line thinking about return on investment
  2. A sense of urgency, which will help it stay nimble in times of economic flux
  3. A focus on what the audience truly wants and needs from NPR programs
  4. Greater diversity of listeners; expanding programming so it appeals to Generation Y and African-American customers
  5. Shout from the hilltops about accomplishments and offerings. “It’s not ego, it is good business,” believes Schiller, who has come to embrace the title that MarketWatch Media Columnist Jon Friedman recently gave her: “Carnival-like barker.”

Schiller said newspapers and other for-profit media outlets can learn from NPR.

  1. Connection of head and heart. “After word got out that I had accepted this job, I received about 1,000 emails from just about everyone I ever knew or worked with and it struck me how similar all the notes were,” Schiller said. “The first sentence offered congratulations, which I truly appreciated; and in the second sentence everyone consistently told me what NPR meant to them. That is powerful, because it shows me that this organization has the power to reach millions and touch them in a profound way.”
  2. Develop a strong brand loyalty.
  3. Leverage the power of numbers. “All totaled, there are about 8,000 people working in public radio and another 15,000 in public TV,” Schiller noted. “That’s a large army of 23,000 people who are all motivated not by money but by a mission.”
  4. Study the non-profit financial model (although Schiller admitted adopting this model wouldn’t likely save newspapers like the New York Times).
  5. Build a national/local system. “This is the secret sauce.”