On a day in late April, Schiller, wearing a purple blouse and a blue pinstriped suit, greeted a visitor in her office with a warm smile and a firm handshake. Over the course of an hour, she was in constant motion in her sixth-floor office, with a conference table for 12, a purple rug, pictures of her children by her desk, and two barren bookcases waiting for books.
The selection of Schiller, who came from the world of digital media and had no background in radio, took some NPR veterans by surprise. Correspondent Claudio Sanchez, interviewed in May at the Education Writers Association meeting in Washington, said many NPR workers are still waiting to see if she’s the right person to bring NPR through these trying economic times. So far, though, Sanchez said that Schiller had impressed the news staff with her availability and her ability to communicate.
“It’s a good sign that she’s accessible,” said Sanchez, who joined NPR 20 years ago. “She’s plain spoken, in a good sense, and she’s clear. She has inherited a system that’s not so transparent, and whether she can change the culture, only time will tell.”
Veteran television journalist Frank Sesno ’77, the incoming director of the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University, says the “creative hothouse” at NPR is the perfect fit for Schiller.
“She has boundless energy, total enthusiasm, an infatuation with journalism and the media, as well as a spongelike brain that is constantly learning and asking questions,” Sesno said recently. “She is simply unfazed to plunge into unfamiliar territory. What would be intimidating to most, she welcomes as tomorrow’s challenge.”
Sesno has also seen Schiller’s personal side—the affectionate mother who dotes on her children and challenges their intellects. By coincidence, the Sesno and Schiller families were on the same ship cruising through the Sea of Cortez off Baja, California, over the December holidays, just before Schiller began her new job.
“She would swim in the morning, study all the inside scoop on NPR up on deck before lunch, then get back to swimming with the sea lions and seeing the blue-footed boobies,” he said. “She’s also quite addicted to her BlackBerry. She’s always in touch, and she seemed to be suffering from withdrawal symptoms with no signal in the Sea of Cortez.”
A few years ago, Schiller was in the Poconos, visiting her daughter at summer camp, when she bumped into Alan Miller, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, who used to work for the Los Angeles Times. Schiller and her husband, Phil Frank, became fast friends with Miller and his wife, and several months later, Miller told Schiller about the News Literacy Project, which brings journalists into middle and high schools to teach students how to navigate today’s media landscape.
Schiller now chairs the organization’s board, and in June, held a fund-raising reception at her home. The New York Times, CNN, and NPR are all participating in the project, and Schiller takes seriously her role as board chairman. In an e-mail to Miller in early May, written at 3.40 A.M., she noted two changes she wanted on the event’s invitation. Miller thanked her for her thoroughness, and, noting the hour, wondered if she were in Asia.
“I was in the ancient land of Insomniastan,” she wrote.
Schiller didn’t think she’d end up in journalism when she set off from Westchester County for Cornell University in the mid-1970s.
At Cornell, she took an introductory course in Russian from Kevin Moss, a graduate teaching assistant on his way to earning his doctorate and, subsequently, coming to Middlebury, where he now chairs the college’s Russian department. She became so enthralled by the language and the culture—“Kevin was an inspiration; he changed my life, introducing me to this incredible love for all things Russian”—that she decided to major in Russian and Soviet studies.
Upon graduation, she got a job working as a guide for American tourists in Russia. She also enrolled in Middlebury’s Russian School, where she earned a master’s degree during intensive summer immersion sessions and a semester abroad in Moscow.
“It was an intense, communal experience, with everyone speaking Russian,” said Schiller. “We had professors from all over the country, and because they were staying with you, the professors and the students got to hang out. We went swimming together. We had parties together. We spoke Russian all the time. It was a whole mix of social and academic learning.”
Between the summer semesters, Schiller worked as a tour guide in Russia for a company that brought doctors, lawyers, and nurses on two-week excursions that included professional development courses in their fields for continuing education credits.
Schiller, then 22, was the guide who led the trips, did the translating, and negotiated with Russian tourism officials at a time when the Cold War was still quite chilly. Meanwhile, she was renting a windowless room in a Manhattan apartment where she would crash for a few days after her two-week trips, and then meet another group at the terminal at JFK International Airport to take off for another tour. She chuckles when recalling those times. “I didn’t have much of a [social] life,” she says. “But I didn’t care.”
While in the Soviet Union, she never ran afoul of the authorities, she said, but she did take precautions. When visiting Russian friends at their weekend dachas outside of Moscow, and beyond the five-mile limit imposed on visitors to travel on their own, Schiller would take trains to one station, get off, and board another, to make sure she wasn’t being followed.
As a tour guide, Schiller believes that she learned everything she ever needed to know about management.
“Whatever stage fright I may have had, I lost when I had to address 150 people,” she said. “There was crisis management, prioritizing, and working with a diversity of personality types. It was the greatest training ground.”
After earning her master’s, she eventually turned to television, joining Turner Broadcasting in 1988 to work as a production assistant. She describes her first job as “a flunky, a fixer, and a Russian translator” for media magnate Ted Turner and other Turner executives. Turner, who had established the Goodwill Games to help defuse Cold War tensions through sport, was often in Moscow, speaking with high-level Soviet officials, with Schiller in tow. There, she would help Turner develop and negotiate movie and television deals between TBS and Soviet television.
“The cool thing was that I was a know-nothing kid, I was invisible, but I got to be in the room because they needed me to translate for them,” she explained. “It was quite an introduction to the media world.”
She quickly found a place in Turner’s expanding media empire. In less than a year, she was working at Turner Original Productions, helping to produce programming on a broad range of topics. By 1990, she was the executive in charge of production for the Tom and Jerry Kids Show. In that role, Schiller would develop ideas with producers, secure funding for the projects, and manage the project’s distribution on home video and through international syndication, while also reviewing scripts and working with Turner’s public relations team.
From kids programming, she moved on to documentaries and was a senior producer of the Oscar-nominated Hank Aaron: Chasing the Dream. She concluded her 14-year stint with Turner as senior vice president of CNN Productions, the network’s documentary division.
In 2002, she was recruited to launch the Discovery Times Channel, a joint venture between the New York Times and Discovery Communications, which featured current-affairs documentaries. The channel won numerous awards but wasn’t profitable enough, so the partnership ended in 2006.
Executives at the Times, however, were impressed with Schiller’s management skills and tapped her to be the vice president and general manager of nytimes.com, just as the Times was integrating the Web site into the newspaper’s overall operation.
Schiller was in charge of the site’s business function, and she worked alongside deputy managing editor Jonathan Landman, who handled the site’s news content. Landman and Schiller collaborated closely as they worked with software developers and product managers to develop the kind of package that would attract advertisers and viewers. “It’s a complete pleasure working with Vivian,” Landman said in a recent interview. “She’s fun, she’s smart, and she has ideas. People respond to her, and they trust her. Her integrity is absolute.”
When Schiller arrived in 2006, the Times was trying to figure out whether its semi-pay-wall experiment, called TimesSelect, was the best approach. The paper was charging Web users $50 a year for extra content created by its renowned columnists. By 2007, the feature was generating $10 million a year. But Schiller convinced executives to open up the material to viewers for free, to increase viewership and “remain dominant and relevant.” Since ending TimesSelect, Landman says page views have doubled and overall advertising revenue has grown.
“It was the right move,” said Schiller. “I’m an ardent opponent of ‘first entry’ pay walls for general news. The amount you lose in audience and ad revenue is not worth the subscription dollars.”
What Schiller learned at nytimes.com is helping her lead NPR in the rapidly changing media world. She has pledged to support NPR’s core news operation while bolstering its investigative reporting efforts. She also wants to build NPR’s online presence as well, expanding the reach of NPR’s traditional radio audience with online news and information as well as podcasts, blogs, and streaming audio. During this spring’s swine flu outbreak, for example, one of NPR’s bloggers kept readers apprised of breaking news while the radio reporters readied the audio report for its on-air news programs.
Some local station officials are wary of Schiller’s online initiative, fearful that it will drive listeners directly to NPR.org, bypassing local stations and their local Web sites. But Schiller says NPR needs to change, to keep pace, and continue to grow.
“They are right, it should not be NPR’s place to short-circuit the stations, which are NPR’s lifeblood,” agreed Schiller. “But we need to do the same thing in digital as we do on public radio—bring the national and local element together. We are moving towards it, but it will take some time.”
To remain healthy, NPR needs to embrace other media platforms, like streaming audio and Web-only content, Schiller said, in order to best distribute the high-quality news and entertainment that draws millions to NPR each day. She has witnessed the demise of newspapers in the 21st century and believes radio has the will and the ability to prosper in the new age.
“Radio will be around for a long time, but it won’t only be coming from a radio signal from a radio tower,” she said. “Even though we are going strong, it would be foolish to not look at how people are using media today and say that the only way we can provide information is over the airwaves. It’s our responsibility to become our own disruptors and to make sure that we move aggressively to understand the
David McKay Wilson is a New York-based freelance writer. He profiled Dean Corren ’77 (“Prince of Tides”) in the spring 2007 issue
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