NPR CEO Vivian Schiller Live at D8: There’s a Reason We’re Not Called National Public Radio Anymore
Radio was supposed to be gone by now–wiped out by iPods, on-demand streaming and an endless buffet of personalization options. But the digital wave doesn’t always break the way people predict, and it turns out that National Public Radio’s audience has grown through the Web era: It now attracts a record 28 million listeners a week.
There’s still plenty for CEO Vivian Schiller to worry about, though. Like how to hoover up the donations that power her nonprofit in a recession. Or how to cover international news when it’s increasingly risky to do so.
But this isn’t Schiller’s first time at a media company facing big challenges. Her last gig was at the New York Times, where she ran the publisher’s flagship Web site.
Prior to Schiller’s appearance, we’re treated to a gag reel: Your favorite NPR personalities trying out inappropriate digital memes: A Karl Cassell iPhone app, Scott Simon in a motion-capture suit, etc. Good stuff.
Kara: Before we get to your current job, tell us about your old gigs.
Schiller: Walks through bio: NYT.com, cable, Russian interpreter, etc.
Kara: Okay, back to radio. Where are you?
Schiller: First of all, note we don’t call ourselves National Public Radio anymore. We’re NPR. That said, we’re still growing our radio audience. We have 34 million listeners a week. But our job is to inform citizens, via universal access. That used to mean radio, but we don’t think we should be limited to that anymore.
Schiller: This wasn’t done in response to declining audience, by the way. We just wanted to reach more people, on more platforms. We want to make it as widely available as possible. So all our RSS feeds are full-text. And we’ve got a very robust API, etc., which allows us to do cool things like the iPad app, which we made very quickly. And an Android app, which a developer built on his own. We just made the code for his app totally public.
We get over a billion requests on our API. Very few media organizations can say that. So we’ll see more cool stuff. Like combining NPR stories with information from local stations and creating “news products” that track trends, like the oil spill or the flu epidemic. “We don’t know what could be created, but we know things will be.”
10:43 am: Kara–How hard is it to change a radio organization into a multimedia organization?
10:44 am: Schiller–Within NPR, they were already starting to do it when I came on board. You don’t want to force people into it. You let early adopters show the way. There were concerns that we were taking resources away from traditional radio to go into digital, which was not the case. We put all 300 journalists into a digital training course, though.
10:46 am: Schiller–Outside of NPR, at the affiliates, it was a different story. Some smaller affiliates weren’t really set up for digital, so we had to provide tools for them so they could be part of the process. Some of this was tools for photos, etc. But fundamentally, helping them deliver audio streams. Radio towers are going away within 10 years, and Internet radio will take its place. This is a huge change and we should embrace it. Mobile will play a big part.
10:47 am: Our biggest shows are “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered.” Those are tent poles. We produce and distribute those. Others we only distribute, like “Fresh Air.”
10:49 am: Kara: So do these shows become Internet shows or radio shows?
10:49 am: Schiller: I think of them as shows. We’re agnostic about the way they listen to it. All of our revenue streams work equally well with each delivery method. And to the listener’s ear, it’s identical. So why should we care? Forty percent of weekday listening is in the car, which makes sense. When cars are Internet-enabled, that should be the same thing.
10:51 am: Kara–Will you ever charge for this stuff?
10:51 am: Schiller–Nope. That’s our mission, to provide this stuff for free. We ask our listeners to contribute, and about 10 percent of them do, pretty consistently. That said, on a B2B level, this could change. Our stations don’t pay for our Web programming right now, but that could change. They get it free with the radio license fees they already pay.
10:52 am: Kara–Do you think commercial radio will be able to charge for their shows on the Web?
10:53 am: Schiller–Question of the moment. There’s a disconnect. Do publishers need the money? Yes. Do people want to pay? Not in large numbers.
10:53 am: A memory trip back to NYT.com and its Times Select pay wall experiment.
Schiller–We got up to 200,000 subs, $10 million a year. But that was a pittance compared with ad revenue we were generating. And we had to weigh that against the audience weren’t reaching. We figured the $10 million wasn’t worth it. So we dropped the wall, and within a couple of months, our unique monthly users went from 12 million to 20 million. Did that immediately translate into revenue? No, not right away. But eventually.
10:55 am: Schiller–What they’re doing now, by the way, is not the same thing. It’s not going to cut off Tom Friedman from a kid in a Bangalore Internet cafe. So I think that could work.
10:56 am: Schiller asked to talk about Web news in general. A bow in the direction of “creative destruction”–in this case, laid-off journalists creating interesting stuff on the Web. The problem is that all of these sites, like the one in San Diego, etc., don’t have enough reach. So we should be able to partner with them, and create a “supernetwork”–“not a mega-portal” but partnerships between the smaller regional stations and the mother ship, etc. We already doing that with Pro Publica, etc.
10:58 am: Kara–What devices are most important to you?
10:59 am: Schiller–Of course, I need to praise the “magical device.” It’s “all things to all people.” I do wonder if it’s going to obsolete the iPod touch….We’ve had 300,000 downloads of the NPR iPad app. The trick is to create an app that takes particular advantage of the device.
Is there a way to support NPR without supporting the local station?
Schiller: No, not really. The lifeblood of NPR is the local station. You’ll note we always route the membership drives through the local station. However, we do have a philanthropic support through the NPR Foundation, but that’s not for small individual donations.
But the listener can go directly to NPR in the Web model, and doesn’t need to go to the local affiliate. So what’s the local affiliate’s role in the new paradigm?
Schiller: The fact that so few journalists are covering state and local news is scary. We’re committed to providing that local coverage via the affiliates. “We’ve got to have that local coverage, and NPR can’t do it….To the extent that [local coverage] doesn’t suit your needs, then we have to work together to make it meet your needs.”
Would NPR consider working with for-profit organizations to help solve the local news problem?
Schiller: We’re not constitutionally opposed to working with commercial entities. But I also think that some of the small, local nonprofits we’ve been talking about can make this work, too. Especially if we can leverage our strengths, which is one way to generate more philanthropy.
Are we always going to be counting on philanthropy to fund news coverage going forward?
How are you working to develop new shows that will become your next “All Things Considered,” “Morning Editions,” etc?
Schiller: We used to have a sort of TV-like development process where we spent a lot of time and money working on new shows. Instead, we’re incubating smaller scale things, like “Planet Money,” which isn’t a full show, and isn’t supposed to be a full show. But it’s a podcast and a touring show, etc. We can help people iterate without committing a lot of money.
You mentioned that both commercial publishers and not-for-profits get about 10 percent of their users to subscribe or donate. Is that 10 percent a universal truth?
Schiller: I hope not. I hope we can increase those numbers. “I don’t know what the answer is, but we’re going to try everything and see what sticks.”
A note about our coverage: This liveblog is not an official transcript of the conversation that occurred onstage. Rather, it is a compilation of quotes, paraphrased statements and ad-lib observations written and posted to the Web as quickly as possible. It is not intended as a transcript and should not be interpreted as one.