Not sure if this is an effort to relieve or relive my sadness over the events of the past few days at NPR. Or, it may just be a way to answer the dozen or so people who wrote or called yesterday to ask what I thought of Vivian Schiller’s departure as president & CEO, Ron Schiller’s (SVP development and no relation) videotaped meeting with bogus potential donors and subsequent departure, and what it all means for public broadcasting.
By way of disclosure, I was a senior VP at NPR until retiring at the end of December and, although I’ve gone on to work half-time for a public television organization, I still have a big part of my heart living there in the person of friends and colleagues and their daily work. By way of further disclosure – and more significant for what I’m writing here – I was chairman of NPR’s board three years ago this month when we had a parting of ways with Vivian’s predecessor, Ken Stern, and I took over for 10 months as interim CEO and later interim president & CEO. I wrote about it at the time on this blog. I’ve been on many other boards over the years, including the executive committee of the PBS board when we had a parting of ways with its then president.
Having communicated with no one on the NPR board or with the executives directly involved, I can say I know nothing about the specific circumstances of the current NPR situation. I’m going to write instead from the perspective of one who’s seen how many boards work and how public broadcasting functions over 41 years.
First, if you don’t know about this situation, here are links to some good coverage: David Folkenflik at NPR. Mark Memmott at NPR. Karen Everhart in Current. Staci Kramer in paidContent. Ben Nuckols for Associated Press. Jeffrey Brown for PBS NewsHour. Or, browse Google News on the subject. Update 3/11/11: Also see a review of the week's news at Nieman Media Lab.
Boards and CEOs rely on mutual trust and confidence. Boards and CEOs part ways when this is out of whack. It’s that simple and that complicated. It’s tempting to speculate beyond this, as the Washington Post did when I took over in 2008 and as Jeff Jarvis, who I highly regard, did in a post today (by the way, I think his interview by APM’s Marketplace tonight was good). But this speculation is almost always wrong.
In his post, Jeff stated, “The board fired the last station because he pissed off the stations” and implied this was true of Schiller’s departure as well. In March 2008, Paul Farhi wrote in the Post that the “Stern and the…board had clashed repeatedly over several of Stern’s initiatives, including NPR’s expansion into new media.” From personal first-hand knowledge, both statements are just flat wrong. As CEOs, Ken, myself as an interim, and Vivian were all strong proponents (most effectively Vivian) of digital investments and there was an acceleration of those investments throughout three administrations of NPR because it was and is the right thing to do. The board supported each of us with leadership and approved budgets.
I have never seen, in the case of NPR nor any other board on which I’ve served over many years, a split in policy between station managers and lay reps. It doesn’t happen that way. And it’s been my experience that lay reps are especially valuable because of their corporate experience when it comes to making a leadership change. So what’s the significance of station managers having a slight edge in representation? It’s a non-issue in the governance of our national public broadcasting organizations.
Yes, any organization’s leader in a similar situation has some stations that push back and some stations that love them. It’s impossible to generalize. By the way, commercial broadcasting networks and retail franchise operations experience the exact same push and pull. That’s life in the real world.
Jeff is absolutely right to say, “There is a strategic cliff ahead.” Vivian saw it – so did Ken – so did I. We invested in solutions which the board supported. But NPR isn’t going to make the jump to internet distribution without writing off 90% of its listeners and be forced to win them back over the long slope of wireless growth. The audience isn’t ready for it; the mobile internet won’t scale to that level of use (just do the math) for many years, if ever; and local journalism and community outreach – plus more mundane but necessary things like local traffic and weather – depend on tax-based support and the income that audiences attracted to NPR programs voluntarily subsidize. The reality of operating public radio in the 200 or so markets in fly-over country is probably not apparent from our major cities, but it’s arguably more important to citizenship and quality of life in those communities than it is, because of alternatives, where Jeff and I live.
So, was the NPR volunteer board “ball-less” when it did whatever it did – appearing to some as dismissing its CEO to appease Republican critics? No, I think they were working to regain confidence in their ability to govern the organization and move it and public radio forward in the face of “Christensen disruptions” and challenges to funding. That is their tough job.