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Now the Details

Media, ethics, and journalism. What works. What doesn't.

Jeffrey Dvorkin

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Why Is Managing NPR So Damn Difficult?

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.


  1. Nice post. In your opinion, was Ken's legitimacy within the organization compromised by the fact that he took off time to work on Bill Clinton's presidential campaign?

    As a working journalist, and I would definitely lose respect for my organization if it allowed senior management -- or any employee -- to cycle in and out of politics like that.

    As a listener, it makes me think less of NPR.

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  3. Dear Sticky - Ken was involved with the DNC as legal counsel for the inauguration of the first Clinton administration. That was before his time at NPR. In my experience, I never felt any political pressure from him in any way. Throughout the time he was at NPR, I never heard a word that he was involved politically. Actually NPR does a good job at keeping the employees from engaging in active politics, appearances on Fox notwithstanding. Staffers of course have a 1st amendment right to their opinions, but they don't have a 1st amendment right to work for NPR.

  4. You should think well of NPR for ridding itself of Stern, a highly-flawed, morally-challenged human being. Before Stern went to NPR he worked with my neighbor, who refers to Stern with a word Jeffrey would not want to see in his blog. I'm saving my words for a book.

  5. Let me say at the outset that I don't see myself as a person who likes NPR. Rather I like a number of programs and people that broadcast on NPR. But as much as I appreciate those programs I think one of NPR's biggest weaknesses is that it suffers from a serious lack of political balance. As a political independent, I can't help but notice the overwhelmingly liberal bent in its programming. Someone would do well to introduce fare like the late Bill Buckley's "Firing Line." It would be a welcome change and intellectually much more stimulating.

  6. Don't forget that NPR is a non-profit organization, so unlike commercial media,there are no comparable ad sales or ratings targets, making management/performance metrics hard to establish and benchmark against.

  7. I don't think there's any particular conspiracy going on here, but I do see a chance for the "stars to align" in a certain way that could be disastrous to member NPR stations.

    Namely, that before too much long, organizations like RIAA and ASCAP/BMI/SESAC will finally manage to force radio stations to pay new royalty fee structures.

    These fees will be obnoxious at best for most public radio stations...they might even be really painful...but they will be DEADLY to the hordes of college radio stations out there. Suddenly the campus radio station will go from a $15,000/yr minor nuisance to a $50,000/yr (or more, possibly six or seven figures more) huge expense with little benefit for the college. After all, how many students come to campus with a radio anymore?

    A handful of colleges will realize that they need to grow or die, and will sink the money in to make their stations more fiscally self-sustaining. But the vast majority will no doubt decide they don't need the headache. Not when there's dozens of potential buyers out there, all willing to pay millions for that license.

    The obvious winner here is religious outlets; they have the cash and the insatiable hunger for new licenses.

    But there's another suitor out there, and its name is American Public Media. And if NPR is helmed by someone so inclined, they'll follow APM's lead and bid to buy as many of these stations as they can. While the Joan Kroc donation is meant to be an endowment, I believe there's nothing stopping NPR management from tapping it if necessary. $50 or $100 million could easily get a dozen medium-sized NCE licenses in most of the major and medium markets.

    All the more so because some, if not many, of these colleges would much rather sell to NPR for less money in order to help blunt the inevitable criticism from alumni.

    A move like that could, if executed on a wide enough scale, ensure NPR's future by providing them with pure-profit "affiliates" that will never give the headaches the local affiliates do now.

    And you can claim listener loyalty to a local affiliate until you're blue in the face, but we all know better: unless that local affiliate is doing substantial unique programming (like a WBUR or WAMU) they'll be virtually indistinguishable from the nationally-owned "affiliates".

    Of course, this will do more than just enrage local affiliates - it will destroy the entire model. Suddenly NPR will have less incentive to take affiliate fees for Morning Edition from a local station than it will to allow ME to ONLY air on the NPR-owned station and fundraise directly off that.

    I imagine a move like this is SO outrageous that it's unlikely any head of NPR would have the fortitude...or the even try it. But that doesn't mean it wouldn't happen...APM certainly has shown they're willing to buy up major signals in major markets. (and local affiliates have been strangely quiet about that, too)

    In the end, whether or not an idea like this works for NPR...if it's attempted, there's no way the local affiliates can come out ahead. Either NPR will succeed and they'll be left in the dust, or NPR will fail and the entire enterprise will have been destroyed in the process.

  8. " ... appearances on Fox notwithstanding ..."

    Why notwithstanding?

    I was, and remain, extremely disappointed that NPR allows its employees to appear on Fox News as representatives of the left.

    It falsely paints NPR as a left-leaning and partisan organ.

    It brings NPR down to a coarse and uncivil level.

    It stamps Fox News with an unearned and undeserved legitimacy.

    I know this has been brought up before. But since you raise the subject, Mr. Dvorkin, I must remind you how deeply offensive those appearances are to the average NPR listener.

  9. Dear All -

    Thanks for the comments, and or course for reading.

    Bob Edwards - you are in a far, far better place and as we have spoken, sometimes life IS fair.

    Rob - You would be amazed at the number of listeners who wrote to me when I was Ombuds to complain about how right wing NPR has become.

    I agree with Lloyd Trufelman. Public service journalism needs other benchmarks other than rating to determine effectiveness. My older alma mater, the CBC designed something called the "enjoyment index." It was a clever way to determine whether a program succeeded. News programs got higher ratings but a lower "enjoyment index." Six hour documentaries on Jane Austen got lower rating but a huge "enjoyment index." That might be a better way to assess programming. And after all, who likes to hear only bad news?

    Aaron Read - many have suggested that NPR buy up under-used licences and program the stations directly. But that would contravene the articles of incorporation. NPR can only be a content provider. It may not be in competition with the stations that it serves. So until that changes, we won't hear an all-NPR station. And I don't believe it would serve the public better than it does already.

    Jumpin' Jack - I couldn't agree with you more. Perhaps the next NPR CEO will enforce the company's own own ethics code.

  10. But that would contravene the articles of incorporation. NPR can only be a content provider. It may not be in competition with the stations that it serves.

    I see. That leads me to think of two questions, perhaps they are just rhetorical, though:

    1. Just how difficult is it to change the articles of incorporation? I imagine the answer is "quite difficult"...but is it "difficult, but not impossible" or "difficult as in it will NEVER happen no matter what"?

    2. Why doesn't American Public Media have a similar restriction? In the sense that why aren't affiliate stations demanding it? And if affiliates AREN'T demanding it, what does that mean - if anything - for the any political will behind NPR changing its own rules? And if stations would demand that of NPR, but not APM, why the double standard?

    Is this like asking "Why is the sky blue? :-)

    It's all quite relevant to me, though...I run an affiliate station and I have a real problem paying for APM programming given their efforts to buy and control their own stations. I would have the same problem if NPR or PRI did it, albeit much more so since right now our station only airs one APM program (American Routes).

    FWIW, I can think of at least a few stations/regions where if NPR owned & operated the stations directly...they almost certainly would do a better job than the existing management. That is less a critique of the local management and more a critique of their overly-competitive nature with nearby NPR outlets, which often leads to massive duplication in programming.

  11. I understand the historical / legal argument that NPR cannot compete with its stations, and with the fact that today NPR draws much of its operating cash from the stations. But the notion that NPR cannot pursue direct distribution to the public and direct relationships with the public is not reasonable if NPR wants to remain a success going forward.

    Media and community markets are shifting so completely to new models (online) that strict adherence to the old distribution and engagement models is, if not a death sentence, at least a declining value and relevance sentence.

    NPR must build direct relationships with consumers to be viable going forward. The individual stations are not (broadly) managed well enough to move to future business models with uniform success. If NPR waits for the stations to figure out how to move forward, NPR will have missed its opportunity to successfully transform to meet the new digital age from a position of strength and success.

    Stations need to learn to focus their media efforts locally, directly on the communities they serve. NPR will never be successful in local markets and local community efforts, so there's plenty of opportunity for localized media outlets. Stations: let NPR do what it needs to do to survive. Both local and national can be successful, and they need not fear one another.

    Whether Ken Stern was the right manager for NPR at this stage is a matter for debate. But I don't think there's viable debate to be had over whether stations should control NPR for the purposes of protecting their (failing) NPR pass-through business models.

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