NPR's president and CEO on Bob Edwards, blogging, and the uber-coolness of NPR - April 27, 2004—
Yesterday NPR's president and CEO, Kevin Close, was visiting OPB (the local public radio and TV station and NPR "gem" as Close called it). As one of a select group of people who give obscene proportions of their money to public radio, I was invited to attend one of his talks.
To begin with, my overall impression of Kevin Close is that he looks and behaves more like the dean of a southern college than a CEO. Not to say he doesn't have that all-important CEO-esque presence, or he doesn't know business - it was more his attitude and his sentence structure and his habit of looking over the heads of his audience when he talks (oh, that drives me bonkers!). Sure, he used lots of big words, and he had lots of smart things to say. But all in all I found him pompous and, like many people who believe that their Way is the Only Way, utterly dismissive of anything but NPR.
I've met a lot of CEOs in my life, and have been trained as a financial and marketing analyst. I think the number one easiest way to figure a company out, and see into its future, is to analyze the CEO. This one had a complex I have seen a number of times before, especially in those heady boom years of 1998 and 1999, the one I like to call the "we have no direct competition complex." (full disclosure: I have been known to become infected with this complex from time to time but try not to reveal it to general audiences.)
What does that bode for the future of a company? Usually, it means that hubris gets in the way of spotting other decent companies who might be competitive, it keeps you from watching the other players in the market for great features that you might employ, or obvious pitfalls to avoid. It gets in the way of SIGHT. I wouldn't go so far as to say that it spells doom: it's more appropriate to say that CEOs suffering from this malaise will often make hasty, thoughtless judgments. That could be terrible, or it could just lead to a weird period for the company's development, with some big ups and some uncomfortable downs.
The complex is really easy to spot because those who suffer from it usually repeat the phrase, "we have no direct competition." Mr. Close sure did, in a number of ways, a number of times. Sure, he has some excellent reasons to feel superior. Public broadcasting received 6 of 12 awards from the Columbia school of journalism in 2003. NPR has more correspondents in more places than all the major networks (he didn't compare to CNN, which I would imagine has way more). NPR does really, really excellent reporting, and public television is really fantastic TV.
I obviously agree with his primary point, "public broadcasting is great." Actually, I agreed with most of his points. It was just his delivery that threw me. He would finish an eloquent description of one of the public television award-winning programs with a derisive, DRIPPING with scorn jab at one of the network award winners. Come on, man, have some grace. He topped off his description of the Bob Edwards demotion (from host of Morning Edition to "senior correspondent"), veiled mostly in vague "management decision" language, with a quote from the LA Times (which I couldn't find today) where Bob reportedly said that "it was an ego thing, I wanted to be the number one guy." Well, the point that it was Bob's decision, he didn't like the idea of being a co-host, was an important one to make. It didn't need to get ugly with the "EGO" word. It really made Bob seem like prima donna.
We all get the idea that the Bob Edwards move was a really, really messy situation that was handled badly. The cardiologist sitting next to me, who asked the question on everyone's minds, said that the press release "looked very much like a Bush administration press release." The sort where, you're sure, somebody f***ed up bigtime behind the scenes, where a nice little chat about "this great new opportunity for you to really shine!" turned into a shouting match and an ultimatum. A threat, and a bluff that, once called, turned out not to be a bluff. We sure didn't leave with any other impression.
Kevin Close was just too defensive. He brought up the age issue before any of us had a chance, going on and on about all the 56-year-olds NPR employs. I really don't think NPR is being age-ist. It's just that his statement about 56-year-olds seemed very much like a "but, some of my best friends are black!" statement. You know what I mean.
I gave him a chance to make good. Since I've been doing so much research into hyperlocal blogs, indymedia and other "citizens media," and he had made some relevant points, I asked a question that went something like this:
Given your observation that radio consolidation has taken away the individual's ability to interact with the local media, and your statement that NPR is lacking in investigative reporting, what do you think of the "citizens media" like local blogs and indymedia? Is that a resource, or a threat?
I knew he wasn't going to tell me that it was a threat, I mean, come on, that was just an opening for him to say what a great resource it could be. (oh yeah did I mention I'm biased here?) But he didn't do that, no, not mr. "there is no competition" man. He went into a smear-campaign against the Internet, where he brought up the problem of commercial enterprises publishing "news" portals that were basically infomercials, bias, bias and more bias, and wrapped it up by saying that, when it all shakes out, we will realize that the only good media is edited media.
Well, in that I definitely don't agree. I've been reading blogs all kinds for a year now (I know, I'm a newcomer). The good blogs are not edited by some outside person named "editor" but are nonetheless quality. The great bloggers have the ability to self-edit. The great ones have a keen sense of what their readers are looking for, present the argument with grace, facts, and a surprisingly little amount of bias. The blogging greats are better reporters than a lot of reporters who are paid by media organizations and edited extensively. I thought of people like elizabeth lane lawley and danah boyd and Portland's b!X and hey, how about me?
So Kevin Close missed the mark, there. A smart man I know wonders where this entitlement comes from, in the era of Jayson Blair and Jack Kelley. I'm sure that Mr. Close won't get his head out of the sand...after all, he's got that complex. Let's hope his sandy white hair doesn't get NPR into too much more trouble. Well, as long as he doesn't put the kabosh on Wait Wait Don't Tell Me or Whad'ya Know or any of my other weekend favorites, I'll keep giving money. Oh yeah and if they keep giving me cool mugs and hats and totes ;)