With the media industry in turmoil, does Vivian Schiller, M.A. Russian ’85, have the magic touch at National Public Radio?
The day after the Baltimore Sun eliminated one-third of its news staff, Vivian Schiller, M.A. Russian ’85, president and CEO of National Public Radio, sat cross-legged in a purple suede chair in her office, lamenting the decline of print journalism.
The newspaper industry meltdown comes at a time of heady growth in listenership for NPR, the nonprofit corporation that has developed one of the nation’s strongest newsgathering operations both at home and overseas.
“We have taken market share, but it’s hard to be gleeful about that,” she said. “With what’s happening to the rest of journalism, it’s not like, oh good, we can take over. It’s more like, oh my God, we have a responsibility to step up and fill in the gaps. That’s the way it feels. We have financial issues, too, but unlike the rest of the news media, our audience is skyrocketing. Our long-term health and viability are very strong.”
Schiller, 47, arrived at NPR on the sixth leg of her journalistic career that has touched down in print, television, digital media, and now, radio. She was first published in print, writing a column on teen life for the Daily Times in suburban Mamaroneck, New York, while a high school senior. She worked in cable television at Turner Broadcasting and CNN, launched the award-winning Discovery Times Channel, and then headed up the industry-leading, digital portal at nytimes.com
At NPR headquarters in Washington, D.C., she heads up the nonprofit corporation that produces and distributes news, talk, and entertainment programming to 880 noncommercial public radio stations around the country. The programming runs the gamut—from its award-winning news programs such as All Things Considered and Morning Edition to the radio game show, Wait, Wait . . . Don’t Tell Me! . . . Today, more than 27 million people listen to public radio each week—up from just 2 million in the early 1980s. Morning Edition’s average daily audience, about 7.6 million, is now 60 percent larger than the audience for ABC television’s Good Morning America and about one-third larger than NBC’s Today show, according to the Washington Post.
“Audio is an incredibly nimble form of media,” Schiller told NPR’s Tom Ashbrook on his show, On Point. “Of all the legacy media—print, radio, and television—audio has the most staying power. There are so many ways to experience audio while doing other things—live broadcasts, live streaming, or downloads to your iPod.”
Even with a growing listenership—up 7 percent in 2008— NPR has suffered during the economic downturn. Just before Schiller’s arrival, NPR eliminated 64 jobs—about 7 percent of the workforce—and cut two shows produced in Los Angeles. To stave off further layoffs, NPR employees, including Schiller, will take a five-day furlough by the end of September, to make up for a decline in revenue from NPR investments and corporate sponsorships. NPR’s annual budget of $155 million comes from member stations, about 40 percent; corporate sponsorships, about 40 percent; and the rest from individual gifts, investment income, and foundations. Less than one percent comes from the taxpayer-funded Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
“These rollbacks will help us get through the next 18 months,” said Schiller. “We are all suffering in the down economy. But we have protected, and absolutely will protect, our core news operation. We have full-time reporters in India, Pakistan, Iraq, and Afghanistan. We have a full-time reporter in Mexico City. This costs a lot of money, but we have to do it.”
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