NPR Scandal Explodes Plans for New Social Media Campaign

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.

Follow Fast Company on Twitter. Also, follow Greg Ferenstein on Twitter or email him.

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16 Comments

  • Dave Stevens

    An organization that wants to broadcast nationally should be able to budget their dollars to hit even the poor, rural areas. With or without public funding.

  • William H. Magill

    Interesting, the loss of Federal dollars is only going to effect small rural stations. It won't bother the NPR staff in Washington.

    One wonders why only FEDERAL dollars go to these rural stations... Can't the NPR big whigs in Washington give up some of their limousine and catered services to spread the wealth around?
    Or is this just like the Financial Community --- spend Other People's Money, and leave us to get fat on the rest.

    Maybe the entire NPR organization needs a lesson in how to budget -- or maybe they don't really give a damm about these rural stations - they are more interested in living high-on-the-hog in Washington.

  • hemidude

    NPR is one of a 1,000 things that our tax money should not be spent on. With $0.40 of every dollar these kooks spend being borrowed, the cuts need to be made now, and they will certainly cost jobs and services.

    What I really do not understand is those that think there is an endless supply of other people's money to spend, and how not cutting subsidy to organizations who do not need our tax dollars is somehow the wrong direction.

    Rant and rave all you want about corporations not paying enough taxes, bottom line is that the democrats are in charge, and they don't seem to mind the current system nor the benefits that it provides them. If you want to win over taxpayers to donating their money to your cause, you at least have to try to look like you care about our money – currently, neither party seems capable of that, and that is why the Tea Party exists. Not because of racism, not because of bigotry, so hate them all you want, most are simply tired of seeing more and more people not working, or being highly overpaid for the little work that is done, all on our dime.

  • Bob Jacobson

    PS Fast Company and other media get government subsidies as services for which it's unlikely they pay full freight, grants, and contracts. Just dig a little deeper. No one complains (much) because most are amiable and non-controversial (most of the time). We like getting what they serve up at a price cheaper than it would be without those subsidies. In fact, there's not a sector in which that's not true. Even porn. Even drugs. The secret is not to say anything that scares the tender-skinned ones. Imagine if FOX was left, it would be burned to the ground. Oh yeah, it gets corporate welfare, too.

  • Bob Jacobson

    Now, about NPR. Schiller got took. Probably because he's either not very clever or too clever by far. In any case, what he said was right, absolutely correct. Does being balanced require not telling the truth? Are we really that far into _1984_ territory? If so, this is one rotten society we're cooking up where you have to be politically correct -- as the reactionaries define it -- or risk losing your job, your reputation, possibly even your family if the assassination is really thorough. As Leonard Cohen sings, "Everybody knows that the dice are loaded." So what if the Tea Partiers feel hurt. That's their feelings. Meanwhile, a lot of regular folks are getting really hurt -- losing their jobs, their homes, their family cohesion, their hope for the future -- because of Tea Party madness. NPR's not suppposed to cover this blatant reality? How utterly corrupt can you be?

  • Bob Jacobson

    Oh god, here come the Victimhood Conservatives whining about giving pennies to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, most of which goes for keeping small stations alive where otherwise FOX Radio, ClearChannel, and maybe a dozen local preachers are the staple. Boo hoo, poor conservatives. Hey, you sad sacks, no one asks non-conservatives if we should dump millions into a hundred worthless programs championed by conservatives or billions -- no trillions -- into saving the banks owned by conservatives and that make them wealthy, and the military industrial complex. Just keep that in mind, you cry babies.

  • Phil

    Argue that it's a "manufactured" campaign all you want but that doesn't deflect from the fact that NPR has done an incredibly poor job of fulfilling their mandate to the very people who fund them. If they're going to accept public funding (even 10%) they need to reflect the wide ranging perspectives of that audience. This push back from Conservatives is completely justified and not surprising at all - unless you're wearing incredibly large blinders. We need to have an adult conversation about this issue. When I accept clients money for the programs I produce, I need to have a vision that's in sync with that client. It's not about "freedom of expression" - it's about honoring the audience that supports what you do.

  • Mark Walker

    Ferenstein's article sounds like just another typical liberal response to any crises that exposes who they really are: Try to smear the source of the bad news. In this case, he tries to discredit the innovative work of James O'Keefe with no substance at all to his accusations. O'Keefes work has stood up to all tests. Why can't he accept the hard truth that when liberals are caught speaking their private thoughts and true positions, much of the general public is astounded at what is being said.

  • Ken Rowland

    NPR, um, public broadcast quality and programming, will survive. Ironically, this successfully 'dumbed-down' society needs it, despite what Ron Schiller thinks. His thoughts are worth about what a shilling may have been worth in the day (inflation adjusted, i.e. about 24 cents), certainly less than a quarter for HIS thoughts, but I digress. NPR and TV Broadcast folks...in the aggregate... really should lose the accents and the elitism when on stage begging for our dumb-ass money.

  • Michael Cylkowski

    @ Jack Ring: It must be disheartening for Ferenstein to learn that the first two commenters find his article as biased as if written by an NPR staffer.

    I am one of the "170 Million" listeners to NPR not because I like what they're saying , but because I want to know the biases they're proselytizing and what the left consider factual.

  • Mrs. Rhonda Fitzpatrick

    Mr. Ferenstein, are you seriously suggesting that NPR is not a Liberal Media outlet? Are you also suggesting that "conservatives" have no right to complain that their tax dollars are being used to promote Liberal agendas? The word public implies all people's views not just a certain segment of people, NPR does need to include views of all people and not slant their reporting or they shouldn't be funded by "public taxes". Churches lose thier tax-free status if they support a certain candidate or political party. NPR should not be funded by public taxes if they slant their support toward certain candidates and political parties. Do you think that if NPR slanted their reporting toward the conservative view that liberals would not protest? We can try and spin all we want about the "other side" but the cold, hard, truth is that any group that the government is giving our hard-earned money to needs to be neutral and non-controversial, if there is such a thing. Better yet, let us keep more of our tax dollars so that we can donate to whomever we want to.

  • Jack Ring

    Why doesn't Fast Company need government funding?
    Despite writer Greg Ferenstein's gratuitous biases, i.e., manufactured scandal, sketchy figure, bring down ACORN, and doctored footage, the issue is very clear --- should I be required to help enable the behavior of NPR?
    No.
    If local stations are locally relevant and significant then local voluntary funding will flow.
    The destiny of National Propagands Radio is clear --- time wounds all heels.

  • Tyler Gray

    Thanks for the comment, Jack Ring. Forget whether the end result is left- or right-leaning. Let's examine that language you point out. Was this scandal not manufactured? Have you watched the video? This is the *edited* version. And still, in 11:38 of footage, a grand total of about 5 seconds stand out as being potentially controversial. Schiller didn't go out and write a press release on this stuff. Great contortions were performed, and a decent amount of money was spent to create this scene (right down to the "stretch" limo). That's called manufacturing. Also, a guy who uses doctored video footage to drive his agenda, dresses as a pimp for the same video stunt, engages in illegal wiretapping, invites a female reporter alone onto a boat filled with adult props ... That's sketchy. Geraldo wouldn't party with this guy.

  • Dave Stevens

    Tyler Gray, are you talking about Michael Moore? What does he have to do with this article?