Time to Confront the Brutal Facts

To my colleagues in Public Radio:

This is a post that I could have written last week before the news of Gary Knell’s departure from NPR, but since public radio is back making news as opposed to reporting it, I’d like to suggest that it might be a timely conversation for us to have right now.

Whenever NPR makes the news, the reports always seem to include the terms “challenging” or “tension” as it pertains to the governance of the organization.  But yet, time and time again, we seem ignore those pesky outsider views as they really don’t know the importance of maintaining the historical precedence and importance that NPR’s current governance structure has in the public radio system.

Right?  Right.

With Gary’s departure and the board working on finalizing an updated Strategic Plan, I think that perhaps it’s time for NPR and its member stations to come to grips that our current structure is broken and that we need to look at a new model that will address how our industry can provide the best public service in a media environment that is very different than what it was even ten years ago.

Perhaps we begin by using Jim Collins’ theory from Good To Great of Confronting the Brutal Facts.  Leadership coach Mark Cundiff writes:

One of the key flaws many organizations have in common is their inability to deal in the reality of their current situation. Many times there are emotional connections to methods, programs or processes that have been created by the current leadership that are no longer effective, but due to the emotional connections involved the leadership of the organization fails to recognize the actual facts of the current reality.

The current reality could be that these methods, programs and processes are no longer effective at moving the organization forward and need to be changed or abandoned. Leadership at many organizations are blinded by their emotional connections to these practices.

What is your organization continuing to do due to your emotional connections to it despite the brutal fact that is no longer truly effective at moving the organization forward?

When the leadership of the organization either fails to see the facts of the situation or if they do see them, choose to ignore them, they cause the organization a great deal of harm. It is incumbent of the leadership of any organization to have a clear understanding of their present reality so that they can effectively move the organization forward based on sound decisions arrived at by understanding the brutal facts of their current situation

I’ll start with asking a few questions, keeping in mind that providing the greatest public service to the American people should be the reality we want to achieve:

  • Is there any consensus that the current Governance structure at NPR provides the most effective and efficient public service to the American people?
  • Does anyone not see significant changes in how our audiences will receive content in the future and how those audiences will pay for that content?
    •  If NPR were unhinged from its current governance structure, what would it do differently?
    • Would it go directly to audiences to raise money, both in major and smaller gifts?
    • Would it immediately put Morning Edition and ATC live on Satellite Radio and its own web stream?
    • Would it build a board of national civic leaders with the sole focus of achieving NPR’s organizational objections?
    • Would it continue to serve as the Representation organization for Public Radio?
    • Would it continue to operate the Public Radio Satellite System?
    • How would it interact with local stations?
    • How does this change the current business model where station’s provide the largest share of NPR’s budget?
    • Would the American people be better served by these changes?
  • If NPR were unhinged from its current governance structure, what would stations do differently?
  • What would be the optimum governance structure for NPR to provide the most effective and efficient public service to the American people?

These may or may not be the questions we should be asking, but I fear that unless we start asking the most difficult questions facing NPR and its Member Stations – and begin to answer them through action — that we will continue to be making the news far more often than we should be for the wrong reasons.

And the most important thing to remember is that this is not something that the NPR Board or its CEO can solve on its own.

If it were determined that if significant and dramatic change in the governance structure at NPR were required to better serve the American people, this change needs to be approved by the Member Stations of NPR.

This is a time for us to have a bold dialogue about our future with the courage to commit to change for the betterment of the service we aspire to bring to the American people.

I’m in for this discussion.  How about you?

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2 thoughts on “Time to Confront the Brutal Facts

  1. These are the key questions that have run in background for 6+ years. I agree that they have to be surfaced and explored. For is not the system like a couple in a bad marriage? Where the conflict on the surface is driven by deeper feelings and issues that the couple – on their own – cannot surface.

    Such a conversation does not mean that the system goes one way or another – BUT the disclosure itself brings the ability to see the way ahead.

    The process has to be an open one too for it to have the trust that is required.

  2. I’m glad someone is asking the questions. However, I fear the emotional connections you point to will remain in place.

    I used to be a heavy user of public media. But over time it’s lost all hold on me. Public TV went first, with programming that’s far out of touch with the mainstream and too fractured to draw any audience beyond children. Sadly, the explosion of online news and commentary — much of it very good — has obviated my need for NPR audio programming.

    I think there’s a place for online news content with an NPR sensibility (smart, sensible, fact-oriented), but online the goods are too slow to arrive and are too bland. And audio for news? That’s fine if I have a long commute (which I don’t) but not for much else.

    Best wishes on deeply exploring some big changes. And be sure to do some big launches / relaunches if big changes are made. I’d definitely try NPR again if the media matched up better with my online needs.

    Oh, and P.S.: I still recommend NPR focus first and foremost on News (with a capital N) and stop spending money on anything outside that mission. I’m beginning to wonder if Al Jazeera America might just eat NPR’s lunch in the news department (except for their very unfortunate name).

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