Friday, December 13, 2013

Does Public Radio Have a Leadership Inferiority Complex?

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 digital age.
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 new CEO.
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 Member Stations.
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 NPR.
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 of day.
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 less.