N.Y. Times Executive Chosen as Head of NPR

By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 12, 2008

National Public Radio reached into the new-media industry yesterday to find a new chief executive, hiring a top manager at the online operation of the New York Times to run NPR's growing news and information franchise.

Vivian Schiller, 47, will take over as president and CEO of Washington-based NPR at a time when many media companies are under severe economic stress due to declining advertising support and rapidly shifting consumer tastes. The noncommercial organization has bucked those trends, though, buoyed by a popular programming operation and solid financial footing.

"I consider this one of the finest news organizations in the land," Schiller said yesterday by phone, adding that she sees a bright future for radio in general, and for NPR in particular.

Schiller takes over an organization, however, that has been roiled by internal disagreement. Former chief executive Ken Stern pushed NPR into such new ventures as satellite radio and online music vending, upsetting the hundreds of noncommercial radio stations nationwide that rely on NPR for programming, and which supply the bulk of NPR's revenue in the form of annual dues.

Many station managers perceived Stern's initiatives as new sources of competition for their listeners, who provide much of the stations' funding through pledge drives. Making NPR's programming available via podcast or on its Web site, for example, allows would-be listeners to bypass their local NPR station.

Stern left NPR in March -- after less than a year and a half in the job -- when the organization's board, which is dominated by station managers, declined to renew his contract. Dennis L. Haarsager has been serving as interim chief executive since Stern's departure.

Schiller will also assume the president's job, which Haarsager also has been filling on an interim basis. It was previously held by Kevin Klose, one of the chief architects of NPR's expansion over the last decade. Klose, who preceded Stern as NPR's chief executive, stepped down after his contract expired in September. He continues as head of the NPR Foundation, a fundraising arm.

Schiller will join NPR in January from NYTimes.com, the newspaper's online operation, where she is senior vice president and general manager. She also has held senior management posts at the Discovery Times Channel, a joint venture of the Times and Discovery Communications of Silver Spring; and at CNN Productions, a unit of Turner Broadcasting that produces documentaries and TV series. Before that, she was a simultaneous Russian interpreter in the then-Soviet Union.

The NPR job will be Schiller's first in radio and in public broadcasting. Among her first priorities, Schiller said, was "to learn the [local] stations' problems and aspirations. I want to build that trust back up, to the extent it was broken."

Schiller, a Bethesda resident, has been commuting to New York for her job at NYTimes.com.

NPR's board chairman, Howard Stevenson, said Schiller was picked from among 50 candidates. Despite her lack of radio credentials, Stevenson said, the choice of Schiller "is certainly not a signal that we are de-emphasizing radio" for new-media ventures.

"I think the board has been very consistent in its message that we are a system," said Stevenson, a Harvard Business School professor. "You can't have healthy public radio stations without NPR, and you can't have a healthy NPR without the stations."

NPR had revenue of $214.8 million during fiscal 2007 (the last year from which figures are available), up 26 percent from the year before. It listed liabilities of $78 million and assets of $505.7 million.

About 6 percent of NPR's annual revenue comes from interest on a $200 million bequest made in 2003 by Joan Kroc, the widow of McDonald's mogul Ray Kroc.

"We're looking forward optimistically," said Ruth Seymour, the general manager of KCRW-FM, an NPR member station in Santa Monica, Calif. Seymour added: "It is vital to recognize, especially at this time in our history, that the strength of NPR is journalism, and that core journalistic mission should take first priority."

Programming produced by NPR reaches an estimated 26 million listeners a week. Its signature programs are the daily news shows "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered."

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