Just a year ago Douglas Bennet, who described himself as a novice to broadcasting, took on one of the toughest jobs in public radio, the presidency of National Public Radio. At the time, the network was struggling to regain its financial bearings after coming close to bankruptcy with a multimillion-dollar deficit.
Recently reelected president of NPR, Bennet assessed his first year of on-the-job training as intense. But he's optimistic. "I think we have cleared the decks and are now ready to continue the course at NPR," he said. The internal crisis and the erosion of confidence in the network, he believes, are now behind the 304 member stations and the 272 network staff in Washington. "We now have reliable financial management systems. The 1984 fiscal budget came in precisely on target."
Even so, it's been nip and tuck with some of the network's news coverage. "I didn't know until three weeks ago whether we would have enough money to cover election night," Bennet said. "We had been hand-to-mouth all year. We did it with little contributions. I went to a college classmate and said, 'We need some help.' " The network had budgeted $100,000 for the total campaign coverage but ended up spending $1 million, most funded by grants and contributions.
One of the major problems Bennet faced was the network's debt. At first he advocated a direct mail or on-air drive to accelerate repayment of a $7.1 million loan from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The member stations objected to the national drives on both practical and philosophical grounds, believing this would injure their own fund-raising base, and they agreed to take on more of the debt. They paid $1.6 million the first year. In fiscal 1985 they must meet their largest commitment of the payback schedule, $3.2 million, and another $2.2 million in fiscal 1986. (NPR will pay approximately $1.6 million.)
In general Bennet is viewed as a cautious president, one who has spent his time putting things in order rather than bringing in programs with his own imprint. Some station managers, including Nina Kern at WAMU-FM (88.5), think he has done a good job but think the issue of local stations' identities should be examined. "Where is the strength of the system -- via a national organization outward, or is the leadership and direction from the local stations and going toward the central network?" asks Kern, who objected to a direct appeal by NPR. Last year WAMU paid $10,000, and this year might pay as much as $26,000.
At WETA-FM (90.9), general manager Kim Hodgson believes Bennet has responded well to the stations. "Doug has done a really terrific job. His strength has been in communicating to stations that NPR is truly responsive to them," he said. WETA paid $15,000 last year, and estimates it will pay $30,000 this year.
To support the stations' efforts, the network is devising ways to help a national on-air week next April, from personality spots to advertising to programs. Bennet is also tackling the issue of audience-building. "The number of listeners in general seems to have plateaued," he said. "We are seeing the aftereffects of the severe funding cutbacks that hit the stations in 1980 and 1981."