This analysis was written by MarketWatch media columnist Jon Friedman
When Vivian Schiller talks about National Public Radio, the network's new president and chief executive displays the fervor of a convert. You might say she is, having joined NPR last month after serving as the general manager of the New York Times' Website.
As I listened to Schiller evangelize the virtues of NPR, I half expected her to close her eyes respectfully, place a hand over her heart and declare: "God save National Public Radio!"
It might not be a bad idea for a media chief to look for some sort of divine inspiration or even heavenly intervention. Amid the crippling recession, media companies are laying off employees in droves and cutting back on the news they publish and broadcast.
Schiller recognizes the tenor of the times but she can still talk the NPR talk like some sort of carnival barker. Then again, given NPR's strengths, Schiller is justifiably proud of her new home.
I asked Schiller why she ultimately was tempted to abandon her perch at the Gray Lady's Web business -- a position that combined the prestige and stature of the Times with the pride that comes from running the fastest-growing business sector at the corporation.
She didn't flinch -- heck, she barely paused to take a breath once she got on a roll.
"You can count on one hand the number of really important news organizations in this country," she said, perhaps not recognizing that the newspapers, magazines and broadcasters who didn't make Schiller's private cut might be a tad offended.
"NPR one of those organizations," she told me, in staccato fashion. "It has an incredibly powerful audience -- more (so) than any other media organization."
Schiller, as it turned out, was just getting warmed up. When she discussed NPR's ability to pull off the rare feat of offering local, national and international news coverage under one roof, she proclaimed: "We're the only ones who can."
I qualified that by asking if she intended to imply that NPR was the only organization in its medium that can accomplish this feat.
"In of media," she said, adding dismissively, "Forget about radio. The television O & O's [owned and operated stations] can't do it. The AP [Associated Press] is perfectly fine but it's a wire service."
On the innovative list
Why shouldn't Schiller brag about her new employer, anyway?
NPR, indeed, has the juice in the media world. The magazine Fast Company ranks it 28th in its survey of "The World's 50 Most Innovative Companies," placing third in the entertainment category. NPR produces and transmits news and cultural programs with a particularly strong reputation in advancing the nation's political discussions in such popular and well-regarded shows as "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered."
These two shows have been among the most popular radio shows for the past decade. NPR, in its own right, ranks at or near the top of the most-trusted news sources in the nation.
What exactly is NPR, then? It's a nonprofit membership outlet that, contrary to popular belief, gets virtually all its funding from private sources. It serves as a national syndicator to more than 850 public radio stations nationwide.
According to NPR spokeswoman Danielle Deabler, 43% of NPR's operating revenue comes from membership dues and programming fees paid by member stations; 29% from corporate sponsors; 15% from grants from foundations and supporters' gifts; 8% from NPR's investments and 5% from non-programming sources. Out of that entire revenue pie, roughly 2% comes from government grants, Deabler says.
NPR was created in 1970 after Congress passed the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967. The act established the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and paved the way for the creation of the Public Broadcasting Service.
"We have over 25 million people tuning in every week -- that's extraordinary," she said.
"The quality is there. The audience is there. The national/lcal mix is there. (But) I don't feel that NPR has exploited -- no, what's the right word -- manifested its brand."
Schiller said her top priority now is to meld NPR's capabilities with the loose network of big, small and college radio stations under its huge umbrella -- and become a bigger presence in the Web universe.
"We want to extend that (influence) to digital platforms," she said. "The Web. Mobile. So you get that full range."
You can't underestimate the attachment that public radio's audience has to the institution. To say the listeners cherish NPR is an understatement.
Still, NPR's reputation for being self-serious can be glaring and maybe even a little grating to some. In the hilarious best-seller, "Stuff White People Like," author Christian Lander pokes fun brilliantly at public radio's image.
Lander wrote: "Public radio provides white people with news and entertainment that has the proper perspective (their own)."
But Schiller pooh-poohed the notion that NPR is overtly liberal in the way it presents the news everyday.
"Listen to our news coverage," she challenged me, with a smile. "You tell me if it's liberal. No, it's not liberal -- it's a news organization."
MEDIA WEB QUESTION OF THE DAY: Do you trust what NPR presents, or is it too liberal or too conservative for your listening taste?
By Jon Friedman