One of the more perplexing situations in public radio is the
failure of NPR to find and develop strong executive leadership from within the
public radio system. It appears that that is unlikely to change as the NPR Board
selects its next CEO.
NPR has hired a headhunting firm that specializes in
recruiting for technology companies. Headhunting firms are typically hired for
their knowledge of a field. It’s not
unreasonable to assume that the NPR Board believes its next CEO will not come from
the station ranks.
On top of that, several sources close to the NPR board tell
us that the current and past CEO search committees have taken the position that
no one in public radio is qualified to manage the external relationships NPR
must forge to succeed in the digital age. I hope that’s not that case. It is a weak starting position for a search
given the difficulty recent CEO’s have had managing the internal relationships
NPR must repair to succeed in the
The NPR-Member Station relationship is the foundation of
NPR’s business model. It is widely
understood these days that the NPR-Member Station relationship, and
consequently, the NPR business model are in great need of repair. Yet the vision, skills, and experience to
affect those repairs don’t appear to be part of the hiring criteria for NPR’s
It is unlikely that a headhunting firm will find those
skills in the tech world. Wikimedia CEO
Sue Gardner lamented in her recent speech at the Public Radio Programming
Conference that Silicon Valley isn’t funding start-ups with public service in
mind. It’s all about profit. So viewing NPR’s leadership needs through a
technology lens could make it doubly difficult to find someone who can be the keeper
of the industry’s public service flame and cultivate healing relationships with
Meanwhile, across the country, there are many stations that
have built strong local radio services while developing original content and improving
public service, marketing, and engagement through new digital technologies. And
not all of them are in large markets.
Leaders at these stations are forging the kinds of external
relationships an NPR CEO would be expected to develop. They’ve proven quite
capable of getting in front of foundations, major donors, and potential
business partners and articulating the current value of public radio as well as
a compelling vision for the future. They’ve proven quite capable of raising
money in a difficult fundraising environment. They’ve proven quite capable of
managing complex budgets, handling challenging business relationships and
decisions, and managing large, diverse staffs.
They know how to develop original content. Many have experience as
national program producers and distributors. And they are quite knowledgeable
about the difficult audience and revenue issues facing NPR and it Member Stations.
There are many station leaders who have helped build public
radio into the success it is today. Much of that success has come in the
digital age. But for some reason, past
NPR search committees have deemed that success insufficient for leading
This sets up an interesting dichotomy. NPR’s Board searches
for leaders who want to build on public radio’s great success, but does not think
the leaders who are very much responsible for creating that success are good
enough for the job.
It’s as if public radio has an inferiority complex; that the
incredible success of public radio stations is somehow inferior to the success
of other leading businesses and non-profits. Why? Perhaps they believe it is because of NPR
programming; that the qualities of great station leaders are diminished because
they have the benefit of NPR content. Or perhaps they believe that station accomplishments
are less meaningful because they are in radio and not some other field, like
television or newspapers or digital. That
couldn’t be further from the truth.
NPR and public radio stations, together, have built a
significant public service, one that has enjoyed exceptional growth as newspapers
and Public TV have been in decline. The public radio system is widely admired
for its contributions to improving society, its editorial and business
integrity, and its current revenue model. This didn’t happen by accident and it
isn’t just because of NPR programming.
Until satellite radio, there was no such thing as a national
audience to an NPR program. The national audience for NPR News was exclusively
an aggregation of audiences to local stations. Most of the growth that NPR
claims for its programs over the past few decades is really the growth of local
station audiences. And today that
aggregation remains, by far, the most significant source of listeners to NPR.
That audience success, the success so admired by the outside
leaders who aspire to win the NPR CEO job, is a product of leadership at local
stations. Believe it or not, it is easy to mess up an NPR News station. It happens all the time. Audience success at top performing stations is
a result of acumen and intent beyond scheduling NPR programs at the best times
The same holds true for membership fundraising, major giving, underwriting
sales, and creating value in the digital space.
The best stations in each of these areas are successful because of
strong leadership, innovation, and a commitment to being, and staying, the
best. Those leaders are at the foundation of any success that NPR can claim for
itself. There’s no NPR success story
today without strong station leadership over several decades.
It is fallacy to assume that success leading a growing
public radio station can’t translate into success leading NPR. And given the failure
of NPR’s last few CEOs to address the core problems harming the NPR-Member
station relationship, it is fair to question whether hiring outside of public
radio again will get a different result, especially if the new CEO lacks a
strong public service background.
Any new hire to the position is going to have to grow into
some parts of the job. NPR’s recent CEO
failures raise the legitimate possibility that a highly qualified station
manager has a better chance of growing into the external CEO role than an
external candidate has of growing into a successful public radio system leader.
There are several highly qualified individuals in public
radio for the NPR CEO position. When it comes to recruiting potential
candidates, their success should count more because it is in public radio, not