Rick Madden, who helped to reinvent public radio during 19 years at CPB, died of brain cancer Feb. 21. He was 56.
Madden died at his home in Rockville, Md., with his wife and two daughters close by. He had been diagnosed with the disease in December 2000.
Colleagues throughout public radio grieved his loss and lauded CPB’s radio VP as a passionate public servant who advocated sweeping ideas and took deep personal responsibility for the health and growth of both the system and its people.
During his time at CPB, pubradio’s average quarter-hour ratings more than doubled, and he consistently urged programmers to set the bar even higher. With his passing, CPB President Bob Coonrod called him “part champion and part provocateur.”
Madden rarely sought the limelight, but he formed tight and lasting friendships with producers, many of whom went on to create enduring programs with his support. They visited him frequently during his illness, and some successfully pressed CPB to break with convention and recognize one of its own, giving Madden its prestigious Edward R. Murrow Award last spring.
The tributes continued last week, when Fresh Air played the entire chorus finale from The Mikado in honor of Madden, who loved musicals and Gilbert and Sullivan. Marketplace host David Brancaccio read a brief obit: “Without Rick, public radio and, we like to think, our country would be the lesser,” he said.
“He was an amazing person, a true visionary in a world full of pretend ones,” said Marketplace creator Jim Russell. “He was strong-willed enough to make many of his visions into reality.”
“Rick loved new ideas and worked ceaselessly to nurture them,” said NPR President Kevin Klose. “Thousands of men and women in public radio and millions of listeners have been touched by his innovative ideas and constant push for progress. He told us, ‘Think as big as you can,’ and his vision will continue to shape the landscape of public broadcasting.”
“We’ve lost a real thinker, leader and friend — someone who always put the best interests of our field above individual interests. We will miss him deeply,” said PRI President Steve Salyer.
Radio captured Madden’s interest when he was a student at the University of Notre Dame, and he pursued it against his father’s advice. After earning a master’s degree in broadcasting at Ohio State University, he taught radio and television classes and managed stations in the Midwest and West Virginia.
In 1983 he left Ohio University’s public broadcasting complex for CPB. Three years later he founded its Radio Program Fund and for the rest of his career oversaw distribution of the agency’s public radio dollars. By the end, he had worked at CPB longer than anyone there.
No corner of public radio was untouched by his influence. He led three national station grant reviews that created financial incentives for rural and minority stations and later shaped a controversial policy adding audience and fundraising hurdles to the eligibility standards for station grants.
In the programming arena, he gave seed and expansion money to shows that became pubradio mainstays, including Fresh Air, Marketplace, Talk of the Nation, This American Life and NPR’s newsmagazines.
He nurtured and encouraged numerous independent producers who would create public radio’s most innovative and popular works, including David Isay, Jay Allison, Joe Richman, Davia Nelson and Nikki Silva.
By backing consultants such as David Giovannoni and the Station Resource Group, he advocated a more audience-minded approach to programming that built listenership while drawing criticism from some producers as well as advocates of community radio.
“He was very aware of public radio’s transformation from a subsidized to a self-reliant economy, focused on public service,” Giovannoni said. “Under his leadership and vision, CPB resources were applied in ways that they had never been before, and possibly never will be again.”
Madden broke with the stereotype of the desk-bound Washington bureaucrat by traveling the country to drop in on producers, visit stations and scout new talent. He noted that few other grantmakers would, as he once did, find themselves shoveling snow at a public radio outpost in Barrow, Alaska, the country’s northernmost city.
Violating a maxim of the times, he did take his work home with him. More precisely, he took it to his basement and the family car, where he listened to hours of recordings from applicants. Producers meeting Madden’s daughters for the first time were surprised to find that, though they didn’t know the two girls, the girls knew them, having grown up with their programs.
“These girls knew people’s work like other people know the lyrics to songs,” said Nelson.
She and others fondly remember Madden for his warmth, passion and a sense of humor that he enjoyed leveling at himself.
Larry Josephson, who often fought with Madden, remembered arguing with him over CPB’s support for World Cafe, a show Josephson thought did not deserve the backing it received.
They weren’t speaking, but Josephson received a fax: Madden’s own face mounted on a dartboard, sent by Madden himself.
“At the time when it was the worst between us, he faxed me the dartboard,” Josephson said. “It’s still up on my wall.”
Six months after his diagnosis of brain cancer, Madden joined fellow pubcasters at Giovannoni’s home for an evening in his honor. After dinner, Nelson recalled, the group decided to record Madden’s voice on one of Giovannoni’s antique cylinder recorders.
Nelson expected a speech, but Madden opted instead for a group sing-along — and led everyone in a rendition of “If I Only Had a Brain.”
“We were all so stunned, but everything with him had this humor,” she said.
Those who knew Madden also prized his generosity. He sometimes gave more than his grantees requested, knowing that they had underbudgeted or regretting that they would have to skimp on health insurance and other perks. When monologuist Joe Frank asked Madden for $35,000, Madden gave him more than twice that amount, recalled Josephson. [Earlier article: American Routes was another example.]
“Rick realized that Joe couldn’t do the project for the amount that was asked, and yet Joe was worthy of funding,” Josephson said. “So rather than give him what he asked for and let him fail, he gave him what he thought he should have. That’s a very sophisticated mind that could come up with that.”
When indies Barrett Golding and Scott Carrier sought funding, Madden upped their personal benefits by 25%. “It was the first and last time a funder has called to increase our appropriation,” Golding said.
It might seem inevitable that grantees would love a funder, but Madden’s beneficiaries say he became much more than a check writer to them by sharing his genuine enthusiasm for their work.
Independent producer Mary Beth Kirchner remembered a visit from Madden to announce her first grant from CPB. “The thing that I was struck by then, and with each subsequent grant, is how genuinely happy he was when he gave me the news,” she said. “He was almost as happy as you were yourself to hear that you had funding for some project you wanted to do.
“He found joy in letting that creative spirit free and saying, go and do it. I will never forget the two of us looking at each other — he was just so happy when I was happy.”
Madden’s funeral was to be held Feb. 25 at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Rockville, Md.