By now, many have heard about the undercover video of NPR's outgoing Senior Vice President for Development Ron Schiller railing against Tea Partiers and how NPR would be better off without public funding. But what most don't know is that the comments, particularly the funding talk, theaten to derail a new social media campaign NPR was planning to launch—one aimed at saving the very government funding Schiller said NPR could do without.
Before the somewhat manufactured scandal, Fast Company had learned that NPR was about to ramp up a sophisticated social media strategy to rally its politically savvy audience—a plan that included enlisting many of its nearly 800 local member stations. The new scheme was a second phase, coming roughly three months after NPR joined on as one of the partners in a national Facebook campaign spearheaded by American Public Media and the Association of Public Television Stations called "170 Million Americans for Public Broadcasting" (named after the purported number of Americans who use "public media"). An official hashtag was already loaded into the firing chamber. (NPR has not been able to provide further details on the social media campaign since the scandal broke.)
Schiller, essentially NPR's fundraiser in chief, was caught on tape by James O'Keefe, the same sketchy figure who helped bring down ACORN with doctored footage, a pimp costume, and some help from pundit Andrew Breitbart. The video, below, (whose full context may still be revealed), shows Schiller with a group disguised as a wealthy Muslim Brotherhood philanthropic front organization, at a dinner to discuss details of an $8 million donation (seemingly the hoax's primary bait—NPR declined the donation).
NPR's response, condemning Schiller's statements and ousting CEO Vivian Schiller (no relation to Ron), has done little to quell the aggressive enthusiasm of Republican leaders renewing calls for public defunding. National headlines are both a blessing and a curse, as their social media strategy will attempt to galvanize millions of listeners to write checks and convince President Obama that public radio shouldn't be on his chopping block of conservative compromise.
Officially, NPR was "appalled by the comments made by Ron Schiller in the video, which are contrary to what NPR stands for." Republicans were quick to pounce on the moment of weakness, "NPR has admitted that they don't need taxpayer subsidies to thrive," said Republican Majority Leader, Eric Cantor, "and, at a time when the government is borrowing 40 cents of every dollar that it spends, we certainly agree with them."
Clearly, the firing did little to quell the most strident conservatives, "The issue about taxpayers funding public broadcasting isn’t about who gets hired or fired," said Senator Jim DeMint. "It’s about two simple facts: We can’t afford it and they don’t need it."
Ron Schiller's statement begs the question: why is NPR management so schizophrenic over its own public funding needs? Only 10% comes from the federal government, but it's a crucial amount, Vivian Schiller claimed, last Monday, before her ousting as CEO:
This money is particularly important for stations in rural areas. Their government funding is a larger share of revenue—30%, 40%, 50% or more. These are areas where listeners may have no other access to free over-the-air news and information. Modest as it is – government funding is critical because it allows taxpayers to leverage a small investment into a very large one. It is seed money. Station managers tell me that 10 percent plays a critical role in generating the other 90 percent that makes their broadcasts possible.
The national office could escape unscathed, but it would be debilitating for many local branches.
Ironically, the negative press could be a hidden blessing: prior to the scandal, NPR might have suffered a quiet death, buried underneath Middle East and Wisconsin headlines. Now, the loss of local stations becomes a very real, and very prominent, issue for millions of Americans. Social media, especially a trending topic, would be powerful right now, as Facebook and Twitter are major traffic-drivers—traffic that could point to donations and action requests.
Waiting is a double edged-sword: over time, critics may move on, but so will supporters.