The news last week that NPR's CEO, Ken Stern has left the company "by mutual agreement" with the Board of Director came as a shock to many employees.
It shouldn't have.
Stern, who I've known professionally for the ten years he was with NPR, was always regarded as a very smart but impatient guy, with strong ideas and a particular vision of where he wanted NPR to go. Unfortunately, his brilliance and his vision were not always communicated to the staff or shared by others in management. Most importantly, his vision seemed to go nowhere with the NPR Board. Finally, the Board decided that it was time to part ways with Stern.
Like senior managers in many news organizations, power and control once achieved, are difficult to convey downward. Without buy-in from the troops, even the most brilliant manager is doomed to fail. In the skeptical culture of news, staffers are frequently and openly unimpressed by bosses - a legacy perhaps of a strong union tradition in many media organizations. Power and control are often antithetical to news cultures and are usually more easily exercised and communicated in other more hierarchical organizations.
And news organizations are notoriously difficult to manage for a number of other historical and cultural reasons.
First, news organizations are still largely imbued with a tradition of apprenticeship. In spite of the best efforts of journalism schools to encourage a sense of professionalism, j-schools graduates are not considered journalists at the moment they receive their diplomas or even once they land their first jobs in a newsroom. Med school or law school graduates have absorbed a corpus of knowledge. They are in fact, doctors or lawyers upon completion of their studies. Not so with j-school grads.
Journalism school graduates are...well, they are still journalism school graduates. But they aren't considered REAL journalists by those who are already ensconced inside newsrooms.
That's because journalism - for all of its aspirations to professionalism - is a still a craft where one must go through a sometimes tough form of apprenticeship. It is not a profession, because, in spite of the efforts of excellent journalism professors and practioners, journalists are made, not born. They are made because they are expected to learn about the strengths and the weaknesses of journalism from an ad hoc system of mentoring that occurs inside news organizations. The credibility of journalists is enhanced and confirmed by just doing the job, by doing it better each day, and not by being only academically credentialled.
Young journalists are lucky if they find an editor or producer who does more than corrects the copy. A good editor is a coach and a guide. He or she is someone who pushes the young journalists to doing better each time and by deepening the ethical and craft-based skills that are essential to good journalism.
NPR's strength is that it has an excellent cadre of journalists, editors, producers and managers. They are the ones who understand the deepest values of radio journalism and convey the passion and the obligations that great journalism requires.
NPR's weakness is that is has too often undervalued the quality of radio-ness in building the organization. In effect, NPR has historically not trusted its own best values. Too frequently NPR has gone outside the public radio system and recruited managers and editors who have come from a non-radio and non-news background, believing (falsely, in my opinion) that true journalistic legitimacy is found among the world of newspaper reporters and editors.
It's true that some of my best friends are print journalists, and some of them have even made the transition to being great radio journalists. But others have not understood the unique culture of radio and the community is serves. That includes a fair number of NPR managers - past and present.
As NPR grew through the late 1990's and early 2000's, more and more non-radio people came in to help the organization grow. In many ways, these extremely talented people were successful. NPR grew unlike any other American news organization, doubling its audience to almost 30 million listeners a week.
Ironically, as NPR became more successful in terms of ratings, the clarity of purpose of the organization became more confused. Efforts are underway to create a new audience of online visitors, and that is a good thing and a positive legacy of the Stern years. But like many media organizations, as the quest for the holy cyber-grail of news audiences is pursued, without knowing whether or how the enormous amounts of time and money spent in pursuit of that goal will pay off.
Whatever success NPR has enjoyed, it was because it was not a media organization like the others. NPR remains rooted (too rooted?) in a sense of community...a community that is based in listeners who support and maintain their local stations.
The expression, "I heard it on NPR" is a now common catchphrase that indicates just how successful public radio, its values and the viral nature of its appeal to millions of Americans.
But the truth of that phrase is that without the stations and the community of listeners, NPR is less than it appears. Over the years, I visited hundreds of stations in my role as NPR's VP of News and then later as Ombudsman. I was always struck by the intense loyalty of listeners to their stations. They were grateful for NPR, but they also knew that without that connective tissue of the stations, NPR would be less than it seems. "CNN with a grad school degree," was how one listener described it.
Ken Stern's departure from NPR was caused, I assume, because his vision for NPR and the stations' vision of service to the listeners became increasingly separate. Inevitably, these competing visions were bound to clash. Managers who ignore the reality that at NPR, the customers (the stations) own the company, do so at their peril.
When it comes to the stations, attention must be paid. Managing a complex organization like NPR requires knowing how to bring all of the organization in a direction that can benefit as many of the stakeholders as possible. That includes NPR staffers, station management and of course, the listeners. And too often some stations have become complacent - overly content to accept the status quo of pledge-drive motivated and perpetually loyal listeners who have few alternatives for reliable information.
Managing in public radio, it is said, is like herding cats. It's can be difficult, often exasperating, but not completely impossible. Occasionally, it can even be quite satisfying. But it can also break your heart.