Current Online

Award honors not only a leader,
but also a philosophy of service

Originally published in Current, May 28, 2001
By Steve Behrens

With this year's Edward R. Murrow Award, CPB not only honored Richard H. Madden as key leader in public radio, but also affirmed a set of ideas closely identified with him, which he helped move from the edge to the center of thinking in the field.

During Madden's three decades in the field, and especially his 18 years at CPB, public radio had overcome its earlier aversion to ratings data, allowed numbers to enter its objectives and learned how to build a focused format and a larger, appreciative audience.

"We're not a 'smaller is better' enterprise anymore, and none of us can think with that mindset," Madden said in his acceptance speech May 17 [2001] during the Public Radio Conference in Seattle.

NPR President Kevin Klose reported supporting evidence during the conference--that public radio's weekly full-day cumulative audience had doubled in a decade, from 13.9 million in 1990 to 29.5 million in 2000.

CPB did not readily select one its own v.p. of radio for the 25th annual Murrow Award. The corporation was appropriately reticent to do so, according to Tom Thomas, co-director of the Station Resource Group, but he said the reticence was overcome by but "massive persuasion" by people in the system. Madden said he recused himself from the awards process. But he took note of the calls and letters.

"It is remarkable," he observes, "how much that is felt--as much by the family as by me."

Madden's health crisis last winter surely figured in the timing of the award. His doctors diagnosed a malignant brain tumor on Dec. 4, 2000, and operated on Dec. 11, he told Current. He endured 33 sessions of radiation therapy and had his first chemotherapy just before the PRC.

The Murrow Award recipient is a man with the spirit to quote Nelson Mandela in his acceptance speech [text] — and the impulse to insert bullet points in Mandela's rhetoric, just to make sure people catch each part.

"He's consistently focused on results and output and performance, across a lot of different dimensions—from the minutiae of grant administration to starting multimillion-dollar competitive funds," says Thomas, a frequent consultant to Madden and advocate of his selection for the award. Madden, he says, asks questions like, "How will this advance public service in some way? Are people listening? What's your business plan?"

"Part of Rick's contribution at CPB has been to push for a clarity and a consistency and core principles," Thomas says.

As of June 1, with the retirement of longtime executive assistant Alice Robinson, Madden says he will become CPB's longest-term employee.

"I think what impresses me is his tenure," says Jack Mitchell, a Wisconsin pubcaster now writing a history of public radio. "Most executives don't stay very long because . . . the more they lead, the more they alienate various factions." But Madden hasn't been chased out.

"Even those of us who have been turned down for money, you still continue to respect him because you know there's an integrity there," says Mitchell. "It's not an ego trip going on. He thinks of the consensus of the system."

The longevity is all the more impressive because Madden came to wear more and more hats over the years--eventually becoming pubradio's all-purpose grantmaker.

In 1986, three years after arriving at CPB from the WOUB complex in Athens, Ohio, Madden became the first director of CPB's Radio Program Fund--and the corporation had him continue to oversee program grants as it gave him new tasks.

He oversaw reviews of station grant rules in 1992, 1995 and 1998--adding special aid to rural and minority stations in 1992 and controversial ratings/fundraising standards in 1995. And he supervised grants to an array of demonstration projects and research studies as head of the System Development Fund and later the Radio Future Fund.

Madden in 1987

David Brugger, who was CPB's director of broadcast operations when he hired Madden 18 years ago, likes his businesslike, patient, even-tempered manner--an asset for grantmakers who must constantly say no to supplicants.

"He could stand in front of a group of managers or independent producers, and no matter what they threw at him, he could methodically answer back," says Brugger.

("Part of it may be that I was the middle child of five when I was growing up," Madden says.)

Opponents hotly disputed many CPB policies put forth by Madden. When CPB stopped supporting NPR directly in the mid-'80s, station execs were upset, for instance, because it then held back some radio programming money for CPB to spend instead of giving it all to stations, according to Brugger.

A decade later, community radio folks were outraged when CPB added ratings or fundraising criteria to determine who would be eligible for station grants. Fearing they would lose CPB aid, a number of stations dropped eclectic program and focused their formats to raise their ratings to meet the new, though relatively modest, CPB standards.

Some community radio leaders still bridle at the thought of public radio employing Arbitron ratings--originally a tool for selling commercials--to determine which stations get federal help.

"Rick Madden's priorities in dispensing CPB funds have been skewed for the past decade toward big stations and large public radio entities--and away from small, local, efficient community stations," says Marty Durlin, g.m. of KGNU in Boulder and co-organizer of Grassroots Radio Conferences in recent years.

"Madden has packed his task forces and committees with people from the biggest stations and organizations, with representation of community stations limited to the executive directors of the NFCB and Pacifica," says Durlin.

Though some pubcasters are appalled at the 1996 station performance standards, others say Madden had led appropriately.

"Rick has been the most effective person for radio in CPB's history, with the possible exception of Al Hulsen, who was the very first [radio director]," says Jack Mitchell. Thirty years ago, Hulsen also angered many pubcasters by setting staffing and funding minimums that gave CPB aid only to stations with the best chances for professional service.

Decisions from Madden's office generally come out of task forces of station managers or peer review panels of producers, but he plays a large role in setting the stage by assembling the panels. Perhaps more importantly, he shapes the system's philosophy--notably by regularly backing research projects by Thomas and audience analyst David Giovannoni. They also put forth the ideal of "significant programs for significant audiences," for instance--an aspiration that implies not only excellence but decent ratings.

In Madden's time, CPB has backed the development of many staple pubradio series such as Marketplace (which got a total of $2.7 million over seven years) and This American Life.

At the same time, Madden has backed one-off documentary specials despite low ratings, says Steve Rowland, president of the Association of Independents in Radio. "Rick has groomed new talent, given opportunities to producers facing challenging crossroads, and supported people during dark hours." Madden encouraged producers to be "both fiscally responsible and creatively daring."

Madden himself enjoys the times when he meets with promising young producers.

He remembers meeting indie star David Isay for breakfast a decade ago on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The peer panel had backed Isay, but Madden wanted "to see if he could pull it off." After breakfast, Madden thought so. Isay soon got his first grant, $96,000, and by now has received a total of $728,000 from CPB.

Madden rejects the "smaller is better" mindset in his speech at the Public Radio Conference.

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Earlier news: -
Related text: Madden's Murrow Award acceptance speech.
Later news: Madden dies, February 2002.

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