We chat with journalist and author Masha Gessen, whose newest book explores the complicated family history behind bombings at the 2013 Boston Marathon.
NPR CEO Vivian Schiller announced her resignation Wednesday morning, a day after the organization was stung by secretly-recorded comments made by an NPR executive. Kojo talks with Caryn Mathes, general manager at WAMU 88.5, about Schiller’s resignation and what it means for public radio.
- Caryn Mathes General Manager, WAMU 88.5
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, it's Food Wednesday. We'll find out how to turn an urban jungle into a bountiful garden. But first, leadership crisis and controversy in the world of public broadcasting. The head of NPR, Vivian Schiller, resigned this morning. NPR's David Folkenflik is reporting that she was forced out by the NPR board.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIHer departure follows the release of a video yesterday in which an NPR fundraiser criticized conservatives and questioned whether NPR needs federal funding. Public radio and television stations around the country, including this one, are closely watching the controversy. And joining me now to talk about its potential impact is WAMU 88.5 General Manager, Caryn Mathes. Caryn, good to see you.
MS. CARYN MATHESHey, good afternoon Kojo. Thanks for having me. If I didn't have her on the show, I'd never actually see her. But allow me to make this personal. About 90 percent of the time, when I am introduced to people, the person who's doing the introducing, and this includes friends and even relatives, sometimes say, Kojo works for NPR or his show airs on NPR. Sometimes I correct it, sometimes I don't bother. It generally doesn't do any harm except in situations where the confusion can become truly important, like when Ron Schiller said in the video tape or the tape or the tape that everybody's been listening to, essentially that NPR would be better in the long run without federal funding.
NNAMDIAnd that member stations are the ones that need the money more. Can you talk, if you would, about the amount of money the WAMU 88.5, for instance, gets from federal funding and how that money's used?
MATHESSure. Why, I'm glad you made a point about the blurred identity because that something that's here to stay and it's not going away. People have very personal relationships with their local stations, but the identity between the network and the member stations often is quite blurred.
NNAMDIEspecially since the network happens to be based in Washington, D.C. and that's where we are.
MATHESExactly. But the Corporation for Public Broadcasting is a non-profit through which the federal appropriation is distributed. So it's a leveraged grant. A lot of people don't realize that we just aren't handed a grant. That federal grant through CPB is leveraged by money given in our local communities. So right now, CPB matches about five cents on the dollar for each non-governmental, non-federal dollar that we're able to raise locally. WAMU is a very successful station.
MATHESOur listeners and donors are very generous so we received close to a million dollars, that was the size of our grant this year about $993,000. So half of that has been paid out. We're waiting for the remaining four-hundred and some thousand and hoping that the discussions on the hill about zeroing out federal money for public media go our way. But that's how we're funded. It's a general appropriation that's then leveraged by local gifts.
NNAMDIHere's a good example of the confusion. We got an e-mail from Sandy in Rockville, Md. And it says, "The idea of defunding NPR is ridiculous. To do so would be a national catastrophe. That's because well over a 100 million people listen to radio on any given week and the news on commercial radio is pathetic. NPR is the only free radio source in the United States that gives extended coverage to news stories. Our republican form of government requires and informed public. Commercial radio does not and will not provide it. NPR does and will.
NNAMDIBritain and Canada have much more extensively, publicly funded news organizations and there is wide acceptance of that. If NPR leans too far to the left for some people, the answer is to hire more right wingers or some other move that could have the same effect. Losing NPR would be a national disaster. Again, one has to point out that NPR is a network to which not all public stations necessarily belong."
MATHESThis is true.
NNAMDI"Public broadcasting also includes stations that are not necessarily affiliated with NPR."
MATHESAbsolutely, there are close to 800 stations that are members, either primary or secondary members of NPR and then there are about another 150 stations that purchase NPR programming but they're not full-fledged members. But it is the second largest media group in the country after Clear Channel, Inc. So it is a very large media group but it's made up of these independently run public stations. Two-thirds of those 800 some stations are licensed to colleges and universities. And the remaining third are licensed to, usually community boards, occasionally state governments.
MATHESSome of them are jointly licensed with television stations. But, I think, part of that confusion, again Kojo, is fueled by the fact that 60 percent, roughly, of NPR's operating money comes from the programming fees that individual stations pay. So that further blurs the lines.
NNAMDIWe're talking with WAMU 88.5 General Manager, Caryn Mathes, inviting your calls at 800-433-8850, especially if you have questions or comments about Corporation for Public Broadcasting funding and its relationship, not only to NPR, but more especially to local public broadcasting stations. We have not even mentioned PBS, which has local affiliates all over the country, again, which rely to some extent on funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
NNAMDISesame Street, anyone?
MATHESOne point I would like to make, Kojo, is that people may think, oh, you get almost a million dollars through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and that's all you spend on content. WAMU 88.5, where the mind is our medium, we spend about $10 million a year on either making content or acquiring content through various providers, NPR, American Public Media, PRI, the BBC and so we use our grant to defray some of that 10 million.
MATHESBut listener dollars are really pulling the weight of making money available to create content because even though it's a relatively small percentage of our content, making or acquisition budget, a million dollars is still a lot of money. Our average gift in this last on-air campaign was about $135 and we had a little over $3,000 first time contributors, people who had never contributed before. So to supplant that federal money with new donors, we'd have to garner between 7,000 and 8,000 brand new, never before contributors to supplant that CPB grant. It's a daunting amount.
NNAMDIWhich is why she spends her time being general manager because she knows how to crunch numbers and I spend my time listening to people. Speaking of crunching numbers, the listeners and members of WAMU have been quite generous over the years and have helped a lot. That is not necessarily the case for small radio stations, small public broadcasting stations, both radio and television around the country. Which tend to depend more on that CPB funding, do they not?
MATHESThe various between what percentage of a station's operating budget is contributed by their CPB grant is very wide. And WAMU's case, it's about five percent. There are stations where it constitutes 40 or even 50 percent, perhaps more of their operating budget. So losing our federal money would be a serious dent in us and it might cause us to have to make some tough programmatic choices. But it can be a question of life and death for some smaller stations that don't have the population or the other resources to ramp up quickly to supplant that lost money.
NNAMDIOn to the telephones. Here is Andy in Washington, D.C. Andy, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ANDYYeah, hi, Kojo, good program, glad to be hearing this. I'm wondering how much of a crisis it would be for WAMU and how much of it -- well, you're saying it's not. How much of a crisis it would be for those other stations? I'm also wondering how much...
NNAMDIWe didn't say it would not be a crisis for WAMU 88.5. We were saying that it was said that it would not be a crisis for National Public Radio. We're trying to explain exactly how important it is for WAMU 88.5. But go ahead.
ANDYYeah, I mean, I'm -- what I'm concerned about -- I'm pretty anti-corporate and I'm appalled at how much money -- how much sponsorship there seems to be of WAMU by Chevron, which is not my favorite company and some of the other ones. I'm wondering how much -- if the federal money disappears, how much surviving stations would be -- how much you get from corporations right now and how much you'd be pushed -- how much you'd have to increase that and...
NNAMDIWell -- go ahead. Yeah, allow me to have Caryn Mathes answer two questions. Both the one you asked and about the firewall that you have to establish here at WAMU between business operations and our editorial operations?
MATHESWe're at our core. I mean, our mission is to provide service to inform, enlighten, help people navigate both their local communities and find their place in the world, authentic representation of presentation of arts and cultural content. So, you know, we would do our best to continue presenting that, whatever happens on the financial landscape. Currently about 48 percent of our operating revenue comes directly from individual givers and that's about $9 million annually. About 83 -- or 8.3 million, 44 percent of our operating revenue comes from corporate sponsorships and this is various, you know, from small firms to large entities to foundations.
MATHESAnd so, you know, the comparison that I gave is that losing $900 some thousand if we were to make that up or attempt to make that up, through individual givers at an average $135 gift per person that would be probably close to 8,000 new donors we would have to obtain and sustain. And that's, you know, sustaining donors from year to year is quite a challenge of getting people to repeat their gift so that would be very challenging.
MATHESYou know, this is very -- it's all intertwined because strong individual member stations make a strong network, NPR gets 60 percent of its operating funds from member station programming fees. So we weaken stations would be a -- mean a weakened network and then if the content would diminish in its quality, then that's a cyclical effect and it doesn't deliver as much audience to the individual stations and then we can't raise as much money. So it's all connected but I think it's important to know that, you know, the last thing that we would let financial adversity touch would be the content on air.
MATHESWe would try to find all kinds of ways, greater -- we're always looking for efficiencies of scale but we would try to protect the on-air product and the content service that we provide to you, above all.
NNAMDIAnd the question that Andy has stemmed from a concern that some people have, that if you are in anyway involved with corporations at all, then it may lead to bias your coverage, your content in favor of that corporation. I'm glad he brought it up with you, it gives you the opportunity to tell Andy and others that you have a background in news before you came into management.
NNAMDII made my living many, many, many years as a reporter and I still bring those sensibilities to the table as a manger. And there is an absolute firewall at this station and at public stations around the country between the content makers and development fundraising work. The only time the content makers touch fundraising in any way shape or form is in the on-air campaigns. When Kojo and the other hosts come on air to talk to you basically about the great content that’s been delivered to you and hoping that you'll place a value on that and support it.
MATHESBut, no, I mean, there are times when we will share information with a contributor if they've contributed toward a certain kind of programming, environmental programming or education programming. We will do reports to them about how we have deployed their money. But, no, there's a firm separation between the content makers and the funding.
NNAMDIAnd the set-up for the story that ultimately led to the resignations at NPR was the notion that there was an organization that was willing to contribute $5 million to NPR and so these fundraisers went to lunch with this alleged organizational leadership, which turned out to be completely false. How do you, at WAMU 88.5, try to make sure that our business department does not get led astray by people who are not genuine?
MATHESWell, you know, we leave the fundraising to fundraising professionals and I never go out on a call without having been fully prepped by our staff here, our development staff. They vet individual prospects and group prospects very thoroughly. They don't use just one source, you know, they use the Internet and phone calls and really get a profile on who we're speaking to, other things they've supported, what their values are, do their values line up with our values?
MATHESBecause you can get yourself into very, very deep trouble if you don't maintain your strategic vision and your goals and your values and you accept money just because it's money. You have to make sure that there's alignment between you and the prospective donor. So I guess I’m scratching my head along with a number of people, Kojo, because from what I have read, there was vetting done and there was some suspicion about this organization and yet Ron Schiller still took the lunch.
MATHESAnd so there's a question in my mind about why that lunch was taken and the other issue is, you know, you never, never, never take off your work hat and say, well, now I'm just speaking just as me. Can't be done. I can't separate myself from WAMU. It's always, you know, the voice and face of the station so in these days and times, you have to be very, very careful.
NNAMDIAnd speaking of lunch, you should know you're cutting into our "Food Wednesday" here and let me tell you...
MATHESI can't do that.
NNAMDI...I can only take one more telephone call. Here is Rich, in Arnold, Md. Rich, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
RICHYes, good morning. I'm concerned about the funding situation. I wonder what it would take and what kind of an effort it would take to get completely out of the government funding altogether. I know it would hurt some of the smaller stations and Caryn, I thank you for the information you gave. It's been very enlightening.
RICHI'd really like to have a greater -- some place we could all go to find out if our PBS get its money, where it goes to you and how, you know, how we separate Kojo out from NPR. I'm a retired fundraiser and raised a lot of funds in my lifetime. I know it's a tough job, but it can be done.
RICHIf the product is worth it, then these 170 million people were talking about here, the 170 million Americans, should step up and just take it over and say, look, we've had enough of this. We're not going to fool with Congress anymore. We'll just cut you loose and we'll just deal with all of that completely on our own.
NNAMDIWell, given that we don't exactly know what's going to happen in Congress, obviously public radio stations around the country are looking at all of the possibilities for opportunities in the event that there is no longer any federal funding. But here's Caryn Mathes.
MATHESWell, you know, I'm of two minds about that. Of course, I would love for more listeners to become engaged with us. We have almost 800,000 listeners weekly in the Washington, Baltimore region so, you know, getting more than eight or nine or 10 percent of them to give even a modest gift would be a goal. But I think that we deserve to be in the federal funding mix.
MATHESI mean, how bad -- I know times are tight and there's deep deficits, but how bad do things have to get in order to make you abandon your core values? I mean, universal access to education is a core value in our society and public media is all about learning and life-long learning and understanding the world and being an informed citizen and informing how you vote and how you move through your community. That's a pretty basic value to pull out of the federal funding mix. So I want to see both. I want to see us continue, to have our place at the table in the federal funding mix and I would love to see more of the people who consume our content step up and a place a value on it and dig deep.
NNAMDICaryn Mathes is the general manager of WAMU 88.5. We're going to take a short break in order to allow Caryn to get back to her office so she can listen to our urban gardening segment coming up next because she is an avid urban gardener herself.
MATHESAvid gardener, yes.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. You can call us if you are interested in urban gardening starting right now. 800-433-8850, we'll be talking with Ed Bruske. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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