NPR should start a national conversation on Muslims

On Oct. 1, Texas Public Radio (TPR) made major changes to its programming. Anticipating a passionate reaction, they spent two months developing a written communication strategy to explain why the changes were made.

“We wanted to be prepared for the backlash because we knew it would be controversial no matter what,” said Albert Salazar, TPR’s communication specialist. “I wanted the entire organization to be well-prepared.”

The people at Texas Public Radio wish NPR had done the same for them last week when management abruptly fired NPR news analyst Juan Williams.

NPR’s decision to fire Williams was made and executed in a day. Like NPR and other member stations’ staff, TPR learned last Thursday at 12:25 a.m. that after 10 years at NPR, Williams was terminated over the phone for troubling comments he made on Fox News.

My office was deluged. But so were dozens of public radio stations around the country that were deep into their pledge drives with volunteers answering phones and processing donations.

Donations are the lifeblood of public radio financing, accounting for 30 percent or more of their budgets.

The staff and volunteers at Texas Public Radio in San Antonio, where I visited Monday, say they were blindsided. They are not feeling so loyal to NPR and in particular to Vivian Schiller, NPR’s CEO who took responsibility for firing Williams.

“The fact that there seemed to be no thought put into how the handling of this situation would affect the stations makes me less inclined to want to help Schiller,” said Laverne Pitts, TPR’s development director. “She said we should all stand together. Well, she didn’t stand with us. We were in the middle of a pledge drive, and she handed us a huge mess which we were expected to handle locally with no information until late on Thursday.”

To Schiller’s credit, she has apologized to NPR staff and the 897 public radio stations for the way it was handled. Schiller also had a handwritten apology couriered to Williams for suggesting that he should have kept his thoughts between himself and his psychiatrist.

Volunteers bore the brunt of NPR’s decision. The phones rang off the hook at TPR . But many were calling to vent their anger at NPR — not to donate to the station.

All stations were flooded with complaints when the news broke, but not all suffered financially.

Stations in St. Louis, Cleveland, Washington, DC, Pittsburgh, Amherst,MA and other areas broke records. And in some areas, stations actually benefited from a backlash against the backlash; listeners said they wanted to support NPR against what they perceived as a Fox-News generated attack.

Pitts was forced to hastily write a script for volunteers to combat the vitriol. Many stations asked for help Thursday morning, but didn’t get a suggested response from NPR until 5 p.m. that day, as NPR was fighting its own PR battle.

Texas Public Radio’s script attempted to explain the unique relationship between NPR and member stations.

• Local stations have no control over NPR’s personnel decisions.
• Every public radio station puts out 24 hours of programming – NPR is only a fraction of it.

In the hundreds of calls and 22,769 emails the Ombudsman received, many said the same thing: “NPR, you’re fired.” Or, “I’m never donating to NPR again.” Some asked for pledge money back. [NPR, as a matter of policy, said it wouldn’t share how many emails it’s received.]

Most of the backlash against the stations results from a common, persistent misunderstanding about how public radio works.

One doesn’t donate to NPR. One donates to their public radio station, which then uses that money to buy programming from NPR and other sources, repair equipment, hire staff and do other things.

NPR does not produce or have direct control over such shows as Car Talk, Fresh Air, Marketplace, The Diane Rehm Show, On Point, To the Point, On the Media, Here & Now, This American Life, Le Show, the BBC, Prairie Home Companion and many others.

Several stations – WBUR in Boston and WOSU in Columbus – felt the need to put disclaimers on their websites clarifying that NPR and their station are totally separate entities.

“It is important to note that NPR and WBUR are separate entities. Content on WBUR comprises a variety of national and local sources, one of which is NPR.”

“From a marketing perspective, this really messed with our Texas Radio brand,” said Pitts. “Everyone thinks we are NPR.”

NPR doesn’t run the local stations. And the stations are not involved in NPR’s day-to-day management, (though NPR is run by a board largely of station managers.) NPR and the stations try to work in concert, but that’s it.

Here’s some important facts:

• Only about 10 percent of a station’s budget comes from taxpayer funds appropriated by Congress to the Corporation of Public Broadcasting (CPB.).[UPDATE: 10 percent is average. For some stations it may be 3 percent and for others more like 30 percent.]
• CPB is the largest funder for public radio stations and gets about $400 million a year from the government. About $90 million goes to radio stations.
• NPR doesn’t get any money directly from Congress. About $1.6 million of NPR’s $166 million operating budget for FY10 came from NPR applying for competitive federal grants. (The figure was $2.5 million in FY09, according to NPR.)

The stations are justified in feeling angry at NPR’s management. As are NPR staff members, who also feel under siege. The negative publicity from the poorly handled firing far outweighs voices of support for letting Williams go for repeated violations of NPR’s ethics codes.

NPR has been damaged – at least temporarily and possibly for the longer term – by the negative fallout resulting from the Williams firing.

When Schiller first joined NPR in January 2009, she inherited a network that was reeling financially because of the recession and thrashing about – like all journalism organizations – trying to figure out how to survive and prosper in the new digital world. Repeatedly in interviews Schiller said, “This is a crisis we will not waste.”

And she didn’t. She has made remarkable strides in getting NPR back on secure financial footing, expanding NPR’s online presence and creating a much improved working relationship with the stations.

Now, there is a new crisis. And a new opportunity.

Williams’ remarks about how Muslims are viewed in relation to terrorism may have been relatively benign in the full context of his appearance on the Bill O’Reilly show. Williams said he gets nervous when he goes on an airplane and sees a Muslim in “full garb.”

Many people told me they could relate to what he said. He spoke to fears, misunderstandings, and prejudices that many Americans share.

Williams raised valid points about prejudices and not legislating policy based on emotion. The problem was the venue. If you watch the clip, Williams was struggling to make his point, and O’Reilly, as is his method, kept interrupting him.

His comment on that one occasion – as I’ve stated many times – was not the sole reason why he was fired. Instead, it was the last straw because his appearances on Fox News had become a frequent source of embarrassment to NPR.

NPR should salvage a bad situation by turning the underlying points Williams raised, about the widespread concerns, suspicions, and prejudices about Muslims in America into a national conversation.

Leading up to the 2008 election, NPR did a prize-winning illuminating series on race that explored the hidden fears, stubborn prejudices and commonalities of people in a small city in Pennsylvania. That could be the model.

What if NPR in the next few months started a thoughtful, probing conversation airing and addressing our fears, rational or not, about Muslims? What if NPR skillfully explored areas many of us are uncomfortable talking about?

What if it were done throughout the network with local public radio stations exploring the issue locally with interviews and stories?

What if the non-NPR produced – shows such as The Diane Rehm Show, Fresh Air, This American Life, On Point and others –stayed with the theme and tried to advance the conversation?

It could be a way forward to mitigate a bad situation.

This column was originally published on on Oct. 29, 2010.

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