Last year, Vivian Schiller was a well-regarded executive in charge of the digital operations of the New York Times Co. (NYT). She was so happy with her job that she welled up with emotion when she told her boss Arthur Sulzberger that she was leaving to become the chief executive of National Public Radio.
Her stress had only begun. Her predecessor, Ken Stern, who had pushed NPR into new areas of media including satellite radio, was fired because, an NPR story on the matter explained, he had not convinced local stations "that he saw a clear and healthy role for them in the digital future."
Officials were further outraged that Stern, NPR's leader since October 2006, received a $1.3 million payout due under the terms of his employment agreement. (Other public-broadcasting executives, including the head of Philadelphia's WHYY, have also been criticized for their high pay.) "She knew what she was getting into," an NPR representative says.
Chastened by its experience with Stern, NPR did not offer Schiller an employment contract -- an unusual move at large nonprofits, and even at for-profit corporations, where contracts customarily guarantee payouts if the CEO and board of directors part ways. But NPR has had to tighten its belt. Facing a projected $8.5 million deficit in FY2010, it's eliminated 102 positions and currently employs 840. Staff, including NPR's senior VPs, have agreed to five days of unpaid furlough.
For the last two weeks of the fiscal year, Schiller and NPR's top management earned no payment; Schiller even cut her own salary, which amounts to two more unpaid weeks this year. NPR calls Schiller's working for free "an important step to take" to show solidarity with its unionized workforce.
Schiller, "arguably the nation's most powerful woman in media" per More magazine, has also worked at overhauling NPR. She has added new VPs of development and strategic operations, and its revamped Web site lets nonprofits post its archival footage free of charge.
NPR did not disclose Schiller's salary, but pays its top talent less than commercial media does. Steve Inskeep and Renee Montaigne, co-hosts of NPR's Morning Edition, each earn more than $300,000 a year, according to IRS filings provided by Guidestar. By comparison, Brian Williams, anchor of NBC Nightly News, earns roughly $6 million annually, according to The Boston Globe.
The public radio network, though, remains on strong financial footing, thanks in part to a $200 million bequest by Joan Kroc, widow of McDonald's Corp. (MCD) founder Ray Kroc, in 2003. NPR expects its financial picture to begin improving in the second half of 2010, and to be at or near a break-even point by 2011.
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