Drive to survive: The ‘brightest and darkest time’ at NPR  

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NPR's Susan Stamberg holds up a sign during a June 7, 1983, interview on C-SPAN, showing viewers where to send donations to aid the network's financial meltdown.

An idealistic friend on the inside at NPR lamented that recent staff cuts, made due to a $30 million advertising shortfall, have been handled poorly and callously. The network, he sniffed, “was behaving like a corporation.”

NPR has, in fact, been a corporation since its inception as a scrappy, government-funded upstart in 1970. But it wasn’t until the arrival in 1977 of its third president, Frank Mankiewicz — the press secretary to Robert F. Kennedy, and son of the storied Hollywood screenwriter — that the network began to behave like a commercial broadcaster, soliciting corporate underwriting — and expanding so quickly that the place nearly cratered.

Under Mankiewicz’s big-thinking watch, NPR’s budget tripled, and 100 staffers had been added to the rolls.  In addition to its premier show, All Things Considered, he added Morning Edition, as well as over 100 hours of programs each week, including the Star Wars radio saga produced in conjunction with George Lucas. 

Off the air, Mankiewicz’s “Project Independence” focused on his goal of freeing NPR “from the government fix by ’86,” renting space on its state-of-the-art satellite system to Muzak, Mutual Radio and a telecom player in the rapidly developing business of beepers.

NPR seemed on a bright path in its second decade — until the cracks appeared in the form of an overlooked budget shortfall.

Suddenly, dozens of jobs were slashed. Bills, it seems, had not been paid: A quarter of a million dollars in back rent; a $20,000 phone bill. In order to make sure there was enough cash to make payroll, the CFO hadn’t paid Social Security and unemployment withholdings for months. The chilling words “death spiral” and “bankrupt” were bandied about.

No one had been paying attention to the tedious but crucial matter of balancing the books — even the people whose job it was to mind them. 

Day after day, plaintive headlines bleated out the troubles of the public broadcasting service across the nation: “Camelot in Crisis: The Dream Failed,” declared the Washington Post.

Feigning cheerfulness for the future, an angry Susan Stamberg — host of the flagship show, All Things Considered, and the most visible star of the network — acknowledged the woes of her employer to the nighttime audience. This, she said, was NPR’s “brightest and darkest time.”

A new, temporary regime stepped up, led by Ronald Bornstein, a man who’d worked in public broadcasting for so long he remembered its roots as plain-Jane “educational media.”

“Anywhere you turned, there was trouble,” he said, surveying the wreckage. “No amount of cutting could bring the budget into balance.”

Managing the stress of the member stations, then numbering in the hundreds, was a major task. At the time, none paid a cent for NPR’s services, but all relied on the network for its programs.  Many balked at the suggestion they guarantee loans or dig into their own coffers to pony up a life-saving donation — much less participate in a national “drive to survive” on behalf of the network.

“We do our own cash appeal four times a year,” explained the station manager of Dallas station KERA.  “I have my own station to think about,” said the manager of WEKU-FM in Richmond, Ky.

They and others fretted that listeners were already confused enough by the convoluted identity crisis of public broadcasting.  When people donated to their local station, they already thought they were giving money to the network.

Bewildered, devastated staff inside NPR’s headquarters felt betrayed and anxious at this sudden implosion. Farewell parties for pink-slipped employees punctuated their usual daily march toward deadline. Newsroom cynicism competed with the terror: Employees pooled their bets on just how gaping the financial hole would, in the end, turn out to be.  There wasn’t much in the way of a prize for the poor winner, who’d lost his job, so he took home a collage of photocopied business cards.

Bornstein pulled off an unimaginable, if temporary fix, finessing a half-million–dollar loan from a sympathetic local bank, as well as a million-dollar line of credit, in order to make payroll.

Before a House subcommittee alongside forensic auditors from Coopers & Lybrand, he assured lawmakers that NPR’s troubles weren’t due to “willful malfeasance” — just plain old-fashioned “bad judgement.”

Without an immediate infusion of cash, Bornstein told the committee, NPR would cease to exist. There was, it seemed, only $20,000 in the bank.

Mysteriously pricey full-page ads suddenly appeared in the New York Times and Washington Post, courtesy of a group called “Friends of NPR” and signed by a who’s who of luminaries from modern broadcasting — CBS’ Walter Cronkite, ABC’s Barbara Walters and Ted Koppel, NBC’s Tom Brokaw, Judy Woodruff and John Chancellor, PBS’ Paul Duke, Bill Moyers, Hollywood director Carl Reiner and writer George Will.

Seated next to Brian Lamb on C-SPAN, Stamberg — the first woman to anchor a nightly network news program — held up a cardboard sign on which she’d scrawled the network’s mailing address in bold letters.

After working in noncommercial broadcasting all these years, here she was, doing a commercial, she quipped, imploring listeners to send in their dollars.

But they couldn’t, technically. NPR wasn’t set up to receive donations directly from individual supporters as were its stations, all independent entities.

A resolution seemed impossible. Staffers were instructed to take their personal gear home, while company-owned equipment was being tallied up for liquidation purposes.  The end had arrived.  

After a 12-hour marathon session, at 3:30 in the morning on July 28, 1983, a deal was struck between Bornstein and representatives of CPB for a bailout loan. Until it was repaid, the radio network’s state-of-the-art satellite system would be transferred to a trust.  And with the required financial oversight came the explicit agreement that CPB would have no editorial control.

NPR had, miraculously, been rescued. Bornstein would forever more be known as its savior. But everyone who was left behind also knew something else: It would never be the same.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to WEKU as located in Louisville, Ky. It is in Richmond, Ky.

Lisa Napoli is the author of four books, including Susan, Linda, Nina & Cokie, about the creation of NPR, and Ray & Joan, a biography of philanthropist Joan Kroc. 

This essay appears as part of Rewind: The Roots of Public Media, Current’s series of commentaries about the history of public media. The series is created in partnership with the Radio Preservation Task Force, an initiative of the Library of Congress. Josh Shepperd, assistant professor of media studies at the University of Colorado Boulder, director of the LOC’s Sound Submissions Project and chair of the RPTF, is Faculty Curator of the Rewind series. Email: [email protected]

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