NPR’s next president made one giant leap in the news business two years ago when she moved from long-form documentary production into digital media for the New York Times Co., but it wasn’t the first or the last of Vivian Schiller’s career.In the early 1980s, Schiller was living in the Soviet Union, working as a translator and guide for professional groups touring the country, when she was hired as a “fixer” for the Turner Broadcasting System. The job required her to do everything from translating during negotiations for TV productions to making dinner reservations, and it gave her an entrée into television. “I fell in love with media,” she said.
Schiller rose from entry level to executive v.p. of CNN Productions, an award-winning documentary unit. Her predecessor in the job was Pat Mitchell, who left CNN in 2000 to become PBS president. Schiller left two years later to lead the Discovery Times Channel, a joint venture of Discovery Communications and the Times. And in 2006, when the newspaper company left the partnership, shifting its video-production efforts to its own website, it brought along Schiller to help lead the way as senior v.p. and general manager of NYTimes.com.
Now, with 20 years’ experience in media, Schiller is leaping again, to the top public radio, to become the president and c.e.o. of National Public Radio.
At a time when NPR is struggling to find a digital content strategy that engages web audiences and also satisfies its 275 member licensees, it’s winning Schiller from the Times, where she managed day-to-day operations of the top-ranked newspaper website in the country. Under her leadership since May 2006, the Times website has added blogs, video and personalization tools, and dropped the premium subscription service TimesSelect.
“I needed to learn the fundamentals of the digital business, and my learning curve the first year was like nothing I’ve seen before,” Schiller said. Once she learned the Web’s technology, jargon and usage patterns, Schiller found that it shares “certain fundamentals” she learned from years in the TV business. “You think about the audience; you think about quality, listening to the audience and giving them something that meets the expectations of the mother-ship brand.”
Schiller anticipates a similar experience with the learning curve at NPR.
“She’s been in complex companies, and she’s always thrived,” said Coby Atlas, a CNN colleague who followed Mitchell to PBS and became a top programming executive there. Schiller has overseen top-notch productions and understands how to work with creative talent, Atlas said, yet as an executive she “knows how to grow a business and how to build an audience. Plus, she understands technology.”
Dennis Haarsager, interim NPR president and c.e.o., who had been a candidate to take the job on a permanent basis, said Schiller has “exactly the kind of background a modern media company needs going forward.”
Haarsager has agreed to stay for at least six months at NPR as an executive v.p. when Schiller officially signs on Jan. 5 [separate article]. Kevin Klose, who ended his decade-long tenure as president in September, is now president emeritus of NPR and president of the NPR Foundation.
Klose’s interactions with the late philanthropist Joan Kroc opened the door for her $235 million bequest to NPR in 2003. Klose, a former Washington Post correspondent and head of the U.S. government’s international broadcasting services, is also credited for leading NPR though a dramatic expansion of its operations and revenues, accomplishments that the news veteran shared with his longtime deputy, Kenneth Stern.
“She began to shine”
NPR announced Schiller’s appointment amid Nov. 11 meetings of its Board of Directors in Washington, D.C. The search committee, co-chaired by Milwaukee Public Radio chief Dave Edwards and Carol Cartwright, NPR Board lay director and interim president of Ohio’s Bowling Green State University, unanimously recommended her for the job. The NPR Board met with Schiller that morning and approved her appointment without dissent, according to NPR Board members. Schiller also met with the NPR staff and took some tough questions from legal correspondent Nina Totenberg, according to one staff member.
The search committee worked with the executive recruitment firm Spencer Stuart and reviewed resumes of 50 media executives before narrowing the search to 11, Edwards said. The “incredible applicant pool” included leaders from other media companies, public broadcasting and academia, he said. “Obviously, it’s the kind of job that a lot of people would want.”
The committee evaluated each candidate against a list of qualifications for the next NPR president, developed in consultation with public radio leaders. Network leaders were looking for “visionary leadership,” according to the list, as well as journalistic and editorial judgment, operational expertise, an inclusive management style and a proven ability to generate revenue.
“Every time we talked with Vivian, she was hitting every point,” Edwards said. “Through her attitude, enthusiasm and experience, she began to shine” as the top candidate for the job.
Schiller wasn’t looking to leave the Times but was asked to apply for the NPR presidency. “This position pursued me,” she said. Over the course of various meetings with the search committee and others and “looking into it heavily,” she said, “I really fell in love with NPR.”
“I’ve been a listener for decades, but as I got to know the people and hear their passion and the opportunities and even the challenges — which I find compelling — I really became very passionate about the opportunity,” Schiller said. “I’m going to the only other news organization that I can think of that’s passionate about the quality of the news brand.”
Another bonus for Schiller is that she won’t have to commute to New York every week. Her family lives in suburban Bethesda, Md., north of Washington, D.C., where her 14-year-old daughter and 12-year-old son attend public schools. Her spouse of 16 years, Phil Frank, is a freelance documentary producer she met at CNN.
Schiller said her first priority at NPR is getting to “know everyone and to really listen.” She will look at “how the staff is structured, what the strengths are and where they need help with strategies,” she said.
Funder relationships will be a “big area of focus,” Schiller said. She wants to present a case to NPR funders that the darkening economic outlook makes their financial support “more vital now than ever before,” she said. “It is an important time to support an organization that is shedding such light on what is going on in the economy.”
She’ll also spend time getting to know the NPR audience in a “macro way” — the habits of listeners and web users, what they love about NPR and how they use its content. “The most important thing a c.e.o. in an organization can to do is to stay as close to the consumer as possible,” Schiller said.
A hiring that makes a statement
With Schiller ready to helm NPR, many pubradio leaders have high hopes that the network will find ways to build its web audience. But station executives are divided over how much NPR should emphasize digital content, relative to its core business of radio news, and some don’t trust NPR to protect their interests in the digital era.
Selecting a president with Schiller’s digital media experience is “a very strong statement by the board about the emphasis they feel is important,” said Jon Schwartz, Wyoming Public Radio g.m. and a former NPR Board chair. “NPR is not poised to have the same impact on the Internet that it has had successfully on broadcasting.”
Despite growing expenditures on NPR.org, the website hasn’t cracked the list of the top 100 U.S. websites as ranked by the web analytics company Alexa, Schwartz noted. The top-ranked news site is CNN.com, at No. 15. NYTimes.com is ranked at 22, the Washington Post’s site at 55.
“I doubt that anyone disagrees that, for the long run, broadcasting remains a huge, central piece of what we do,” said Schwartz. “That is not going away.” But with listeners’ audio options proliferating — online and via satellite and wireless connections — radio faces the same audience fragmentation that limits the audience of most TV channels. If it is to survive, public radio must build its web audiences for both competitive and public-service reasons, he said.
Schwartz has been managing an effort by Western States Public Radio to devise a new approach for public radio’s online presence—one that integrates national and local web content via an interface similar to that of the Major League Baseball website, MLB.com. The idea was championed by Integrated Media Association Executive Director Mark Fuerst (Current, Feb. 21, 2006). Schwartz says it has gained support from Western States members and from major stations outside the region.
“We’re lamenting the lack of aggregation of our audiences on the Web,” Schwartz said. “We’re not where we need to be, and the status quo is not working very well. If we wait for consensus, we’re going to be waiting for a long time.”
This struggle is not unique to NPR, Schiller said. “The entire media world is struggling with the digital future. It’s a very fast-moving, dynamic situation — and this is before you add in the complications caused by the economic situation.”
She sees unique advantages for public radio in cracking the “code of so-called hyperlocal digital media” — digital jargon for robust websites of local news and other content. “A lot of startups have tried this and failed because they didn’t have the infrastructure and couldn’t support it,” Schiller said. “Local newspapers are under such duress right now that they can’t focus on it.” Neither the Times nor the Washington Post have made successful inroads in this arena, she added.
“NPR already has the infrastructure in every city, town and campus,” Schiller said. “There’s a level of trust in their communities that no other national or local organization has.” Public radio, she said, has a “unique opportunity to create a digital town square.”