The Road Less Traveled  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   February/March 2009

The Road Less Traveled   

Vivian Schiller’s circuitous route to the top of NPR

By Megan Miller
     


Of the countless ways to begin a journalism career, Vivian Schiller took the long route. The new president and CEO of National Public Radio, who started her job in January, started in a very different field, with no ambitions to work in the media.

It all began during Schiller's sophomore year at Cornell University, with a language requirement she had to fulfill to graduate. She decided to take a Russian language course, since, among other reasons, the class didn't meet at 8 a.m.

That mundane decision started Schiller, 47, on a professional path that's literally taken her all over the map, from working overseas as an au pair to running the New York Times' Web site.

"I've never had a five-year plan for my own career," she admits. Instead, it seems to have grown out of a combination of curiosity, professional enthusiasm, interpersonal skills and some good luck.

That convenient language class at Cornell sparked Schiller's fascination with the literature, history and culture of Russia. She earned a bachelor's degree (and later a master's) in the subject, but graduated from Cornell in 1983 with no definite plan except a notion that she wanted to get to know the country better. "I had no idea what I was going to do with it," she says with a laugh.

In order to spend time in the Soviet Union, she first took a job as an au pair for a diplomatic family in Moscow, with some side work in a nursery school at the U.S. Embassy there. Schiller then found a position as a tour guide – another fortunate twist of fate, and one she credits with teaching her many of the fundamental skills she still uses today.

"I was a troubleshooter, an interpreter, a tour guide, an entertainer, and all that. I actually think that experience really laid the groundwork for me for a career in management," she says. "I think when I retire I'm going to write a book called 'Everything I Know I earned as a Tour Guide,' including how to lead the conga line."

For four years, Schiller met groups of American doctors, lawyers and other professionals at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City, traveled with them to the USSR, and led them through travel, meetings and conferences in locales including the then-Soviet republics of Uzbekistan, Georgia, Armenia and Ukraine. Schiller's groups could be as large as 150 or 200 people, and the trips usually lasted two weeks.

The position presented some formidable challenges. On one trip, an elderly man in her group died of a stroke. Schiller handled arrangements with the man's family, navigating a sea of red tape.

Still, Schiller says she loved the work, and the longer she did it, the more doors opened for her. It was while working as a tour guide that Schiller came across a job opportunity with Turner Broad-casting Company.

"At the time, Ted Turner went through this period of deep fascination with the Soviet Union..and they hired me to be a translator/production assistant/'fixer' – which in production terms is some- body in a foreign country who 'makes it happen,'" Schiller says. (See , "The Fixer," page 18.) "The cool thing was that because they were depending on me for my Russian skills, even though I was a flunky I got to travel and spend time with the highest-level executives in the company... So I was able to learn so much about the media business by sitting in with some of the most impressive people in media at the time, in the mid- to late- '80s."

The Turner Broadcasting gig launched Schiller's media career. Through "a hundred twists and turns," she says, she wound up staying under the umbrella of Turner Broadcasting from 1988 until 2002. By the time she left, she was in charge of long-form programming for CNN and CNN International.

"And," she jokes, "I stopped being a Russian translator somewhere along the line."

It's not hard to imagine that the same skills that allowed 22-year-old Schiller to shepherd large tour groups through the Soviet Union helped her in subsequent leadership roles at the now-defunct Discovery Times Channel, NYTimes.com and, now, NPR. She has 21 years of media experience, although she's never worked as a reporter.

Michael Oreskes, the Associated Press managing editor for news and a former Discovery Times Channel board member, says Schiller's lack of reporting experience hasn't held her back.

"She's got a journalist's temperament," says Oreskes, a former International Herald Tribune executive editor. "She's very curious, and interested in the world, and I think she loves the explorations of journalism. She loves the storytelling." At the Discovery Times Channel "she really believed in and understood what it meant to do good journalism."

He also praised Schiller's high-energy approach to leadership. "She focuses as well as anyone I've ever seen on the goal of bringing people together around a mission," he says.

Those skills are critical in today's difficult media environment. Shortly before Schiller's January 5 start at NPR, the organization announced it would cut 64 jobs, leave 21 open positions unfilled and cancel the radio programs "Day to Day" and "News & Notes." The 64 eliminated jobs equaled about 7 percent of NPR's staff of 889.

Schiller says despite news of the cutbacks, she was eager to get started. "NPR, like just about every other media organization, is not immune to what's happening in the economy right now," she says. "I think that I can bring some things to the table that will help NPR survive and thrive in the long run."

One of the things that Schiller brings to the table is several years' experience in new media, particularly in her last role as senior vice president and general manager of NYTimes.com. She speaks proudly of her work there and of the site's "very innovative ways of storytelling" – through features like interactive graphics, audio snippets, short-form video, interactive timelines and slideshows – that "really flowered in the last couple of years." During her last year there, the site's traffic increased 40 percent, Schiller says.

Many see her success with the Times site as a sign that she can help NPR continue to move forward in the digital age. Bob Lyons, director of new media for NPR member station WGBH in Boston, says he looks forward to the leadership of someone with proven success in an industry in transition.

Her hiring is the latest sign of NPR's commitment to reinventing itself as a multimedia company (see "The Transformation of NPR," October/November).

Schiller "has the right skills and strengths to successfully navigate the company through a multiplatform world where the traditional broadcast business and content businesses on the Internet are central to long-term success," NPR board member and search committee co-chair Carol Cartwright said in a release.

Schiller notes that NPR will continue to focus, first and foremost, on radio.

"The audience fundamentally knows us as radio, and for us to abandon that and to not keep a single-minded focus on serving the radio audience would be crazy, right?" Schiller says. "I mean, that's what NPR is."

Jeffrey Dvorkin, a former head of NPR News and a former ombudsman for the network, says previous NPR management made the mistake of trying to move toward new media without bringing member stations along. "Without the agreement of the customers [the member stations] it's near impossible," he says. "The customers own the company."

"It's a tantalizing prospect that NPR can somehow be one of the big dogs at a time when there are a lot of big dogs out there," Dvorkin says. "And now all these big dogs are being put back in their cages by the economy, so everyone is trying to think of new approaches."

And although Schiller has no previous experience in radio, she's not letting that hold her back. Her vision is to create a "seamless national-local experience" for the NPR audience, using both radio and the Web.

"I've been proselytizing a little bit about the incredible opportunity that NPR has that no other media organization has, to create a constellation of hyperlocal sites that provide inhabitants of communities with national news, local news and information tools for their communities," Schiller says. "This has been sort of the Holy Grail for many media companies..and I think NPR's the only organization that's positioned to do it."

Her professional shift to NPR headquarters in Washington is a welcome personal move for Schiller. For the last three years, she has commuted to New York City from the Washington, D.C. area, where she lives with her husband, independent TV documentary producer and writer Phil Frank, and their two children, ages 12 and 14.

It's been a long, unexpected road from where she began, but Schiller seems enthusiastic and ready to meet the challenges ahead. Reflecting on her unusual path, she muses that journalism is the field where she can indulge all her interests, and the right place for her to be.

"It's funny, when I think of how I ended up in journalism, I never thought, 'This is what I want to do,' " she says. But, she adds, "Everything that I was always interested in throughout my career, when I look back now, I see that it all kind of led me to journalism."

Megan Miller (write.meganmiller@gmail.com) is an AJR editorial assistant.

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