As a 7th grader in suburban Larchmont, New York, Vivian Schiller gave an ambitious answer to her school’s end-of-term yearbook question, “Where will you be in 2001”? (a date that seemed unimaginably distant thirty-five years ago). “I wrote, ‘Part-time veterinarian, part-time archaeologist, part-time something else,’” she recalled over morning tea at Starbucks in midtown Manhattan. “And then I said, ‘part-time president of the United States!’”
Today at 48, she holds what she considers an even more enviable title: president and CEO of National Public Radio. “Shh! Don’t tell anyone,” she cautions, laughing. “I have the best job in the world.” She’s felt that way her entire career, from tour guide in the former Soviet Union, to programming at TBS to running a documentary unit at CNN and most recently as the head of NYTimes.com. But Schiller’s move last January to NPR, as the first female to head the nearly thirty-year-old network, makes her the only woman running a major American news organization. The challenges, at a time when newspapers are dying and industry-wide profits are wobbling, are daunting: She has had to cut staff and salaries, including her own. Still, NPR, with 27.5 million listeners every week, remains a robust enterprise, “the most consumed news and information source in this country,” Schiller boasts. Which makes her, arguably, the nation’s most powerful woman in the media. Her commitment to this celebrated institution with its passionate, loyal listeners goes beyond numbers and ratings: She also wants to help save journalism, through the unique intimacy of her network.
Lynn Sherr: For fans of NPR, your job is like dying and going to heaven.
Vivian Schiller: Shh! Don’t tell anyone. I have the best job in the world. I’ve been in four positions since 1988, and each job I’ve had, I’ve thought, this is the best job ever. I’ve left each one reluctantly, only because something so cool came along that I had to take advantage of it.
LS: You were at NYTimes.com, right? What did you learn there?
VS: The lesson I learned from my experience at the website was the notion of nimbleness, the idea that you test and learn. You try something and you put it out there. As long as the journalistic integrity is in place, you take risks. If people take a smart, well-thought-out risk, even if it fails, you applaud that.
LS: What has surprised you about NPR?
VS: I didn’t appreciate the depth of feeling people had for NPR. It’s extraordinary, wherever I go, people talk about it like they own it. They’re protective of this relationship, their NPR, and I’ve thought about this a lot: What is it about NPR that makes people feel so passionate, so loyal? And it’s this connection to the heart. When I run into people at my kids’ school and I say, I work for NPR, the funny thing is—people go, I love that station. Well, it’s not a station, but I’ve given up explaining. I just say, thank you! Give to your local station, please.
LS: And then you had to make some tough decisions, some cuts.
VS: The unions conceded to make significant sacrifices: furlough days, unpaid holidays. I have taken a pay cut and a pay freeze. I’m working almost four weeks without pay.
LS: What was your childhood like?
VS: I grew up in Larchmont, New York, and went to Cornell because my sister went there and loved it. My father was a journalist and my mother was a homemaker. I was in 12th grade, I was asked what I wanted to do and I didn’t have a clue. Not even remotely. And I didn’t figure it out in college either.