Rick Madden, who helped to reinvent public radio during 19 years at
the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, succumbed to brain cancer Feb.
21. He was 56.
Madden died at his home in Rockville, Md., with his wife and two daughters
Colleagues throughout public radio grieved his loss and lauded CPB’s
radio v.p. 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
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
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 percent. “It was the first and last
time a funder has called to increase our appropriation,” Golding
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
“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.