Paul Farhi on pop culture: All Things NPR, more

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Paul Farhi and Vivian Schiller
Washington Post staff writer and president and CEO, NPR
Tuesday, November 10, 2009; 1:00 PM

Washington Post staff writer Paul Farhi was online Tuesday, Nov. 10, at 1 p.m. ET to talk about the latest news and topical issues in the pop culture world of TV, radio, movies and trends.

Today: Love it or hate it, National Public Radio -- the folks who bring you "Morning Edition" and "Car Talk" -- has grown into an indispensible news source, with a growing audience of millions. Join us today on as we consider all things NPR with special guest Vivian Schiller, NPR's new chief executive.

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Paul Farhi: Greetings, all. Thanks for stopping by...Today, on a very special episode, we welcome guest star Vivian Schiller, the president and chief executive of National Public Radio. We'll get to your questions, complaints and NPR adulation in a minute, but first some background. Vivian is one of the most experienced and accomplished media executives in the country, having worked in senior management jobs in TV (CNN, Turner Broadcasting, Discovery Channel), digital and now radio. She was named NPR's top executive almost exactly a year ago, after running running a little web outfit called NYTimes.com. I can't say her timing was great; she stepped right into NPR at the bottom of the recession, and has had to juggle layoffs, furloughs and salary cuts (her own) for the past year. On the other hand, NPR may be the only news organization that is still growing, or at least not sinking alarmingly. Its news programming reached record audiences last year (the election helped, but still...) and its new-media operations are expanding smartly (full disclosure: a good friend, former Postie Linton Weeks, works at NPR digital). One cool thing (of many) about Vivian: She got her first media job, with Turner Broadcasting, as a simultaneous Russian interpreter, doing documentary work in the Soviet Union.

So, we're almost a year in to the Vivian Schiller Administration at NPR. What kind of report card would you give yourself?

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Vivian Schiller: I'm actually 10 months in...but hey, who's counting. I'd give myself a B+. I've gotten a lot done, but not nearly as much as I hope to over time!

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Paul Farhi: Your predecessors (Kevin Klose and Ken Stern) poured money into new media (the web, satradio, podcasts, etc) that did a lot for NPR's national profile but didn't do much for your member stations, which pay the dues. You have a digital background. How does NPR reconcile its new-media aspirations with its obligation to be a plain old radio broadcaster?

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Vivian Schiller: This is Vivian: Digital media and "plain old" radio are NOT mutually exclusive. Nor is digital media at NPR and the interests of the stations. In fact, most of our efforts to date are in the broad interests of the public radio system as a whole. Our new NPR iPhone app for instance gets you quickly to any station stream in the country thru GPS technology. Our newly relaunched Web site can be co branded with your local station. And we're enhancing our API (application programming interface for you non-wonks out there) that means any pub radio station in tourney can pick up our content and call it our own. I could go on if you're interested

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Paul Farhi: Vivian, please put a stake through the heart of the NPR-tilts-left mantra once and for all...

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I will always love NPR: But, I do want to keep hearing the experienced older voices I know and trust. Some of the new reporters used too much slang and sound 12. I'm too young to be a cranky old lady, so keep my peers around longer and encourage all to beef up on grammar and usage. Radio is the last vestige of the eloquently spoken voice as an example to learning kids.

Vivian Schiller: Not to worry. We have a lot of those voices you "know and trust" still around. Cokie Roberts, Nina Totenberg, Linda Wertheimer, Susan Stamberg, Robert Seigel, and Scott Simon to name just a few. But I hope you give our new voices a chance. Ari Shapiro for all of his early-30s years is one of the most exciting and talented broadcast journalists of his generation So is Adam Davidson. And many others.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Hi Vivian: Big fan of NPR...and also a big fan of the tiny desk concerts. They are absolutely brilliant. Keep up the good work!

Vivian Schiller: Thank you for giving me a chance to talk about NPR music! I'm a "news" gal from way back and that's where my passion lies. But our live concerts, "first listens" (of new album releases) and concert performance from festival and member stations across the country have brought in a new passionate internship (and Web usership) and continue to grow. Though on a personal level, the tiny desk concerts take place one floor immediately below my office, so I try to be out of the office for the heavy metal bands.

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Falls Church, Va.: In a world of multiple news outlets and countless niche media, what is the rationale for continuing to expend taxpayer funds on NPR? Particularly since NPR is proving so successful, why not cut the cord to the government and become an independent entity?

Vivian Schiller: There is a lot of misinformation about NPR and government funding. Some folks think we are largely or even entirely funded with taxpayer dollars. Someone even asked me what branch of government we report to! (Have they heard our coverage?) So please allow me to set the record straight. NPR gets less than 2% of it's funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), and even those grants are competitive. (i.e.. it's not an automatic allocation). The rest of our revenue is from stations, underwriting, philanthropy, interest income and the like. Will we cut the cord? Probably not anytime soon. First of all, stations get slightly more from CPB as a percentage of their budgets than we do (in the range of 5% - 12%), and rely on that money to keep operative. And further, the grant money that NPR receives from CPB often goes towards important broadcast infrastructure services that are needed to make sure that our signals can be heard effectively over the public airwaves.

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Paul Farhi: Vivian, we seem to have lost one of your answers (technical difficulties, on the web? Noo!). Could I try again: Please address the criticism that NPR has leftward bias...

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Vivian Schiller: NPR tilts left! NPR tilts right! Frankly, we hear it equally from both sides -- or should I say from ALL since most issues are not that linear. The fact is, NPR takes NO sides. Our job is to report the news and provide our listeners with the information they need to make their own decisions. We DO however, interview people who have a point of view and things to say on all aspects of an issue. So sometimes a listener might tune in, hear only one side of an issue and assume that it's NPR editorial position. That's one of the perils of broadcast journalism; people can listen 24 hours a day, though we would certainly like them to!

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Alexandria, Va.: Do you think more stations will do as WETA-FM did last year and drop NPR in favor of locally produced programming (e.g., classical music)? It seems to have worked out well for WETA, in terms of audience support.

Vivian Schiller: Dear Alexandria, WETA has been tremendously successful with the classical music format. and offers a wonderful service that well complements what WAMU does in news and information. We're proud to call BOTH of them NPR member stations. There seems to be a resurgence of classical music listening -- and in many markets those once-commercial stations are coming into the public radio family. That's happened in New York with WNYC's purchase of WQXR, as well as in Boston with WGBH. We support and applaud their efforts.

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Leftward bias: Paul, have you ever listened to "Wait Wait ... Don't Tell Me"? They NEVER say anything critical about Obama, they're still making stupid Bush, McCain, and Palin jokes, and Peter Segal never says anything that is against the (Democratic) party line.

Paul Farhi: My problem with "Wait, Wait" isn't that it's biased. My problem is that it is, very often, not as funny as it seems to think it is. Sorry, Vivian...

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York, Pa.: Paul and Vivian, thank you for hosting this chat -- this is a rare opportunity to speak to someone who actually has power. "Wait Wait" is egregious; Peter Sagal is the most biased personality you have on staff. He routinely takes cheap shots at the GOP, but refuses to go after Democratic figures. No wonder people say NPR is nothing but a liberally-biased organization.

Paul Farhi: A) I haven't done the content analysis to know that this is true; and B) even if it were true, would it make the show much funnier if he also took "cheap shots" at Democrats?

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Leesburg, Va.: Look I love NPR, but isn't it time to drop the "pledge week nonsense once and for all?" Back before NPR could run commercials I understood it, but now? You have almost as much ad time (excuse me -- "extended sponsorship IDs") as a normal station, and even have a full-time underwriting (advertising sales) dept.

With all this extra revenue why are you still nickel and diming listeners?

Vivian Schiller: Dear Leesburg, It may come as no surprise that very few listeners stop me on the street to say how thrilled they are with pledge week. We know it gets in the way of enjoying the programming you come to us for; that is lost on one. But in fact, support from "listeners" like you" is the single biggest and most essential source of revenue to stations as a whole. Without it, many stations would go under. It may surprise you to learn that stations in aggregate collect $300m a year in listener support (that's across 500+ stations) and may also surprise you to learn that that represents less than 10% of all listeners! Most people, who listen, don't give. In terms of our "commercials" -- they are not what I'm used to from the commercial world. They are short (10 seconds) and have no 'call to action" or competition claims or many of the other hallmarks of advertising. Further there are far fewer of them than in commercial media. It remains an important revenue sources, though unfortunately it's down significantly from last year. The last point I want to make is that journalism costs money. It has to be paid for somehow. And we're delighted that our members recognize that value and support us with their wallets. I hope you will too.

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Funding: So, in other words it's a shell game. You say you only get 2 percent from CPB, and the rest comes from member stations and philanthropy. Yet member stations also get CPB money. In other walks of life, we would call this "money laundering."

Vivian Schiller:

"Money laundering"- - that's a good line! Too bad it's not true. I gave you the numbers and the percentages. Even if you add NPR and the stations together its still a small percentage of revenue.

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NPR has gotten far more conservative: That series, "This I Believe," was just an excuse to push fundamental Christianity. I always had to rush home before I heard another person rave about how God gave them this and that. It was like a tabloid TV show where they all make sure to thank god for getting them through the ordeal.

Vivian Schiller: "This I Believe" is a not an NPR show, though it does air on many NPR member stations. I'll pass your comments along.

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I don't mind pledge week: Our Richmond, Va., station GM makes up funny lyrics to popular songs... I wait all year to here "give us money" sung to "Gilligan's Island" theme song.

Paul Farhi: Very creative! I would note that one of the trends in public-radio fundraising is to offer to shorten the pledge drive if people give X amount by X date. Very merciful!

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Falls Church, Va.: So government funding is not an issue because it's such a small part of your revenue, but government funding is crucial because you rely on the money? It's interesting to see two such contradictory thoughts expressed in the same paragraph; maybe that's why people have "misconceptions."

Vivian Schiller: It didn't actually say that it wasn't an issue. I just gave you the facts. That's what we do at NPR. Personally, I'd be more comfortable taking no money from the government. But that day is not yet here.

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Houston, Tex.: OK guys, calm down. Apparently, "Wait, Wait, don't tell me" is the cutting edge of the liberal agenda for socializing America.

Paul or Vivian -- does anyone ever get that they can change the channel if they don't like what they are hearing?

Paul Farhi: Amen.

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Just a THANK YOU for saving my life! : Thank you, thank you for the NPR toolbar for the computer -- and for being the only good news org to bring an app for the BlackBerry! Thank you.

Vivian Schiller: We're very happy to be there for you. But I'm afraid you're a little ahead of yourself with the BlackBerry app as we haven't launched one yet (much to my chagrin as I'm the world's heaviest BB user). But we do have a great new iPhone app, and we'll soon be on android and symbian. We'll get to the Berry soon-ish. I promise.

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Leaning left: Click and Clack always tell people how to fix their cars. If they were REAL Americans, they'd tell them to buy new cars.

Paul Farhi: Is it that liberal bias thing again?

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Derwood, Md.: Why do you keep Dan Schorr around? His analysis is reliably faulty, liberally-biased, and mean-spirited (yeah, I guess I'd feel the same way after what Nixon did to me). But still -- he really knocks down any credibility you have of being 'unbiased', especially since he is a part of the news wing, not entertainment.

Vivian Schiller:

Dan Schor is a liberal commentator. I will not deny that is true. So what do we do about that? We balance his views with those of conservative guest commentators who frequently appear on our airwaves. Granted, they are not staff and you may think that makes a difference. But their voices are heard on our air, and I'm comfortable with that. We're not planning to make 93- year old Dan Schor a freelancer at this point.

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Centreville, Va.: We do not give to NPR. Here is why -- We gave once -- 15 years ago. We were beseiged with "renewals" within 3 months. The letters never stopped coming. We still get them. We love NPR -- also public television. But the merciless fundraising machine is so irritating and sensational, we dropped out. Sorry. That may make me a bad person. But my blood pressure is better.

Vivian Schiller: Dear Centerville. I am saddened to hear that we've lost you as a member. (I hope at least we have not lost you as a listener). Irritating our most loyal supporters is not the goal. So your feedback is helpful. While NPR is not directly responsible for membership solicitations, we do work the system on best practices. So with your permission, I'll share your feedback. Maybe then you'll reconsider your support.

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Falls Church, Va..: "does anyone ever get that they can change the channel if they don't like what they are hearing?"

It's the fact that I can't stop paying for it that bothers me. Trust me, Paul, if NPR started broadcasting politics that you didn't like, you'd feel the same way.

Paul Farhi: I dunno. I hear a lot of things on public radio and television that I don't like. But it never occurred to me that that's a reason to stop funding them. More important, I hear and see a lot of things on public broadcasting that I don't hear or see anywhere else in the media, whether I like it or not. That seems to be a pretty good reason to keep funding 'em.

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McLean, Va.: If as dumb and dull a show as "Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me" is the liberal's tool for spreading socialist propaganda over the airwaves, then liberalism in America has no future. Why do stations pay to air such drivel?

Paul Farhi: Well, I have my opinions and so do you, but others--and I'm talking about a few million listeners a week--disagree with both of us. "WWDTM" is one of NPR's fastest growing shows and is quite beloved (and I'm not just saying that because Roxanne Roberts, a semi-regular on the show, sits right next to me at the Post).

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Baltimore, Md.: I wish Vivian or Paul would take a moment to explain to folks just how NPR works -- witness the comment on "This I Believe." It's not an NPR-produced show, but since it airs on public radio stations that carry NPR programming, people assume it's from NPR. I run into this all the time -- people think NPR is a network, like the old NBC radio network, for example, when in fact it is a content producer. Local public radio stations pay NPR to carry Morning Edition, for example.

Vivian Schiller:

First let me acknowledge that our system is VERY confusing. So Let me try to explain. NPR is a new organization, a distributor, and a membership organization (we're a few other things too -- but let's save that for another chat). As such we produce 7 news shows (ME, ATC, Talk of the Nation, Tell me More and their weekend cousins, plus top of the hour newscasts). We DISTRIBUTE many other shows that we do not produce (e.g. car talk, Diane Rehm, Fresh Air, From the Top, etc.) And we support our MEMBER STATIONS in business issues, programming advice, fundraising support, etc., etc. We are not a station (except on Sirius/XM).

The member stations -- which number in the 500s -- are each independently owned and operated. They make their own decisions about what to air. They might pick up NPR shows or newscasts. And/Or they might buy shows from PRI, which distributes This American Life and BBC World. And/or they might pick up shows from APM, which distribute Marketplace and Garrison Keillor. And/or they might pick up shows from independent producers. And/or they might produce and air their own local shows. Every station is different and they make this own decisions.

Does that help? Hope so.

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The best part of NPR: Has been learning about things I thought I'd never be interested in because they were so well discussed (sports, RIP Red; Business)

Paul Farhi: I gotta say it: I've felt this way for years.

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Vivian Schiller: I'm afraid I have to run. Thanks very much everyone (and Paul!) for the great questions. Look forward to doing this again soon. Keep listening and yes, please do support your local stations. Vivian

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Paul Farhi: A big round of applause. Thanks, Vivian!

And let's continue a bit longer...

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Washington, D.C.: "I hear and see a lot of things on public broadcasting that I don't hear or see anywhere else in the media"

But what about the things we're not hearing because NPR stations take up so much of the airwaves? You'd think that the Washington area ought to have at least one college radio station that can be heard off-campus, but WAMU is an NPR affiliate, and a while back there was talk of taking away the Univ. of Md.'s frequency for yet another NPR station.

Paul Farhi: There's an argument to be made that public stations rely too heavily on NPR and other syndicated programming, that they should be producing more of their own stuff. But I'd make the same argument about commercial media. Why don't commercial TV stations produce more local programming?

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Richmond, Va.: My life is richer and more knowledgeable as a result of listening to NPR, This American Life, Red Barber, Frank Deford, Marketplace. They all pushed me to learn about things I thought I wasn't interested in.

Paul Farhi: Red Barber really didn't expose me to any new facts (except perhaps that there is something called a "crepe myrtle" tree). But he did exemplify some beautiful human qualities--friendship, humor, the joys of a vivid life and memory.

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Reston, Va.: She's gone...now we can talk about her.

Just kidding -- Vivian was a good sport to put up with the public flogging.

I wonder why NPR takes so much heat for having government funding. There are all kinds of organizations, both liberal and conservative, that are receiving public funding. Why the ire for NPR?

Paul Farhi: Excellent point. The answer, I think, is because of NPR's success. It's so visible...Okay, not visible but audible. It has a weekly audience exceeding 25 million. It is hugely popular and uniquely informative, whether people like it or not.

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Anonymous: You'd better duck Paul, before Rox starts throwing punches...

Paul Farhi: I think I can handle her. Um...maybe.

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Bowie, Md.: "I can't stop paying for it" -- in a representative democracy, that statement could apply to a lot of different things for a lot of people. I don't know that I want to single out CPB as the lone representative for government programs that not all of us agree with, when there are much larger line items. And CPB seems to have more supporters than many other programs. If you don't like it, work through your congressional representatives to get the funding yanked. Otherwise, stand down.

Paul Farhi: It's true. CPB takes a disproportionate amount of grief for the teeny, tiny sliver of the federal budget that it receives. I'm not saying we shouldn't debate federal subsidies of pubcasting, but, man, do they catch hell for it.

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NPR Bias: The way I see it that the NPR news division isn't necessarily biased, but the entertainment shows are. "Wait Wait" is a big example, and the unfunny Garrison Keillor is another. Thoughts?

Paul Farhi: Here's my thought on Garrison Keillor: He's a national treasure.

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Paul Farhi: Folks, that's all the time I've got this week. Let's pick up the discussion again (or not) next week, when we'll do this again. Thanks for coming 'round this week, and for mixing it up with Vivian Schiller. As always, regards to all! --Paul.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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