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NPR President Vivian Shiller: What Public Broadcasting can learn from commercial media - and vice versa [National Press Club]

By Hope Katz Gibbs
Article for National Press Club
Truly Amazing Women blog
March 2, 2009

With only eight weeks under her belt as the head of one of the 39-year-old media organization, Vivian Schiller, the new president and CEO of National Public Radio, is to many an ideal choice to take NPR into the digital age. Since May 2006, she served as senior vice president and general manager of NYTimes.com. 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, Schiller – who took the helm on January 5 – will oversee 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 told the Club’s luncheon audience. “It’s not lost on me that both groups can learn from each other.”

She went on to outline 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 then identified five other lessons she believes 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 1000 emails from just about everyone I ever knew or worked with and it struck me how similar all the notes were,” Schiller shared. “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 distribution network. “This is the secret sauce.”

As for the future of NPR, and for public broadcasting in general, Schiller said she believes the industry needs to rethink the business model. She noted that although in the next 18 months more jobs will likely be trimmed at NPR, but long-term and short-term 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 concluded. “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.”

Hope Katz Gibbs is a freelance writer in Northern Virginia who has been a member of the National Press Club since 2007.

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Contact HOPE KATZ GIBBS by phone [703-346-6975] or email.

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