The State of Public Broadcasting, Part Deux

The last time I mention about public broadcasting, I was talking how public media should be funded and how as public media employees and supporters must help. Two weeks after I wrote that post, things have changed.

If you do not follow the public media inner circle, you heard of the secret tapings of NPR fundraisers, including Ron Schiller, about accepting $5 million form a fictitious group. This sting has cost not only Ron his job, but CEO Vivian Schiller‘s (no relation) job. Include Ellen Weiss’s exit at the beginning of the year, NPR does not have a President, Senior Vice President of Programs (in this case, News), and Senior Vice President of Fundraising/Development for its Foundation. It is not the question if how NPR and the local stations should be funded, but the question of what will NPR do?

Those answer, if you like it or not, have to come from the NPR Board of Directors. There has been controversy of how the Board reacted to the “resignations” of the three people. If you want to have an outsider’s view of how public media supporters feel, check Jeff Jarvis’s post and to see the insider’s view of how the Board works, read Dennis Haarsager’s post (he was an interim CEO at NPR). In this instance, the board has to decide what direction it is heading.  There are five directions the board can go:

1. The Inner Circle

The board could select a station manager since 1) the boards is mostly consist of station managers and 2) stations have the biggest to lose if Congress does defund public media.  Putting a station manager to handle NPR would help put influence to local stations, but can this station manager transition to head of an 800-employee organization where you have to not only deal with the news department, but the many departments inside NPR, plus traveling to events to speak and network and dealing with Congress?

2. Broadcasting Governing Board

The board could go to the Broadcasting Board of Governors or the International Broadcasting Bureau to find someone since they are a government agency and should know the politics of what is going on in Congress. It might work short-term with influence Congress to regain some (or all) of the money, but in the long-term, how this affect the news would and development department if the board hired that person just to regain trust in Congress. The board has gone this route and selects Kevin Klose, who was CEO of NPR for 10 years before stepping down in 2008.

3. Blast from the Past

Speaking of Kevin Klose, the board might want to consider someone who help bring NPR back like Klose or someone in the radio news industry who have been in the business for a long time. It might boost morale and influence for the short-term, but will they have an open mind of the trends going on like technology and the pace the business is heading?

4. An updated Vivian Schiller

When Vivian Schiller was CEO, she helps put the NPR budget back in the black and move the organization to the digital age. However, if there was a downfall, it was her attention to detail that failed her from the Juan Williams fiasco, to the fundraiser sting, and to the Rally to Restore Sanity memo confusion. A great candidate would be Jim Brady who has the same pedigree as V. Schiller working with a big newspaper and made him famous in digital media. What Jim had an advantage over Vivian is that he understood community relations, hence the TBD Community Network for bloggers. V. Schiller probably understood the concept, but didn’t implement it since she had to deal with both NPR, as an organization, and the local stations who think Vivian was focusing too much on the NPR. Jim would be a great candidate since he has a chip on his shoulder after the falling out with Allbritton (who owns TBD), but since there was no VP of News and he’s relatively young, would the board take a chance at him?

5. The Frontrunner

Poynter points out the new NPR CEO will have four key challenges:

  1. Embracing change while also upholding NPR’s values, history
  2. Restoring morale at NPR and member stations
  3. Addressing arguments for — and against — federal funding
  4. Responding to criticism of NPR’s governance

Put it this way: NPR wants to kill four birds with one stone (sorry animal activists). Also, NPR is in reset mode since there is no CEO or a Vice President of News. Is there anyone that fits the bill who can cover all four? In the Poynter article, it mentions Kevin Klose a lot and insiders think NPR should re-hire him to take control of the organization. Kevin might be great, but what if he’s not available? There is one person out there who can come close to match Kevin Klose’s credentials: Jim Farley of WTOP/WFED in Washington, DC.

If the board wants to get serious about NPR and their local station agenda, Jim Farley is the right person. Jim has been in the news radio business for 45 years. For the last 15 years, he is Vice President of Programming and News at WTOP and brought the station from very low ratings in 1996, to the number one station in the D.C. area, plus brought in the second most revenue of any station in the United States (behind KIIS-FM in Los Angeles) in 2009. He also helps Federal News Radio (WFED) transform from an online stream only station to a broadcast outlet on multiple formats. He also understands the trends going on radio and journalism. This is Jim in a Media Solutions Lab session on what was his one takeaway:

Jim has been successful on multiple formats from news, classical, industry-specific, Top 40, and others. Also, Jim dabbled with the NPR-style journalism as his company (Bonneville International) and the Washington Post launched Washington in 2006. It was supposed to challenge NPR on the storytelling format, but with the exception of The Tony Kornheiser Show, the format was…utter crap. The marriage didn’t last, but at least he tried and knew NPR-type stories are best done by NPR journalists.

If you’re wondering if Jim does become CEO, how would he boost morale for both the organization and the local stations?

For the organization:

He immediately brings credibility to the newsroom as WTOP has won nine Edward in the last two years and made WTOP the number one station in D.C. He knows how to expand staff and knows to transition to a bigger newsroom since NPR will be moving to a new building next year. However, there might be an adjustment on the development side as Jim dealt on the corporate side with sales and advertising. Since NPR is a nonprofit, Jim has to deal with sponsorships and underwriting. It might be an adjustment, but pulling $50 million+ in revenue with WTOP, I think Jim understands how to pull in the money.

For the local stations:

Jim knows not only news radio, but the concept of radio. He immediately becomes the face of public radio and would help out the smaller stations on establishing themselves. He understands different cities have different needs. In an interview with All Access last year, Jim said about how stations (and online streams) can work in particular cities and industries:

“A radio station could do this by hiring smart people who already cover that industry to do it online. Hartford with the insurance industry and Detroit with the audio industry come to mind.”

Jim further explains how online will help stations grow,

“Remember, an online news operation potentially reaches everybody connected to that industry, whether they live in your signal area or not. It is not limited by the radius of your on-air signal.”

Also, he has done radio at the local and national level so he knows what works best or does not at each level.

The only downside about Jim is his age and it would look like a short-term move, but I will say NPR needs a long-term vision and this calls for someone who has clear vision of what NPR needs to be and what role local stations play, plus there’s no CEO and no VP of News, so they need someone to implement a plan for the next 5-10 years and Jim can do that, if the board let him.

Final Thoughts

Politics moved NPR from “if the organization should be funded?” to “what’s their next move?” Right now, it’s fair to say the NPR staff and stations are demoralize and do not know what will be coming up next and include the top two positions vacant; it’s time for NPR to reassess. Some said the “firing” of Vivian Schiller will put NPR in the downfall. It could be true, but we have no idea who the board wants. However, the only thing we know is the board decision on the CEO will determine where NPR goes. NPR has to realize everyone is watching their next move and if they make a false move, everyone will jump all over them. Everyone, including NPR’s own peers, has pushed them to this point. It is time NPR to make an offensive move. In my opinion, I hope that move is Jim Farley.

One response to “The State of Public Broadcasting, Part Deux

  1. Thank you for your very kind words.
    Jim

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