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What comes of big ideas
After taking many to air, Salyer will leave PRI

Stephen L. Salyer, president of Public Radio International, is trading a job he’s loved 17 years for one where the last two guys lasted nearly as long. Being president of the Salzburg Seminar in Austria will require a regular schedule of bending his long body into airliner seats to cross and recross the Atlantic, continuously ask foundations for money. As he has done all this time for PRI.

He is totally psyched.

Salyer meanwhile is making another commitment, getting married this past weekend to Susan Moeller, a University of Maryland journalism professor he will see when he’s not in his offices in Salzburg or Middlebury, Vt., or visiting with somebody who has money or ideas or both.

The new job will have Salyer developing and fundraising in-person programs instead of radio shows, with an elite audience of achievers from around the world. Salyer himself was a fellow in 1974. Hearing such lecturers as Fred Friendly and Charles Guggenheim in Salzburg prompted him to redirect his career from population-growth issues to pubcasting, joining WNET in 1979 and PRI in 1988.

He wants the Salzburg Seminar to lead more directly to action on difficult problems around the world, such as reconciliation between opponents in civil wars.

Lawrence Wilkinson, a co-founder of the Global Business Network consulting firm, will chair a search committee to find a new PRI president before Salyer leaves this fall.

For some onlookers in pubradio, PRI’s loss of Salyer raises doubts about the future of the program syndicator, particularly since Minnesota Public Radio/American Public Media took on distribution of most of its own programs last year. Marketplace is the last to go, departing June 30 [2005].

Though PRI’s catalog now lacks A Prairie Home Companion and other APM programs that accounted for 40 percent of its total listener-hours, PRI is now in good shape, Salyer says. It sends out 400 hours of programming a week, including This American Life, From the Top and new talk shows with Tavis Smiley and Christopher Lydon.

The distributor keeps 734 station affiliates, down only slightly from 746 last fiscal year, says spokesman Dan Jensen. PRI’s revenues and expenses this year, after the APM pullout began, stayed around last year’s levels of $26 million, though Jensen points out that this year’s figures are plumped somewhat by PRI’s adoption of Public Interactive as a subsidiary in FY05.

From the years with PRI, including early years when it was known as American Public Radio, Salyer is proudest of his matchmaking and fundraising for partnerships with producing stations — going beyond a distributor’s role — that made ambitious projects happen:

There were also some big hitches, such as the dot-com collapse, which nearly did in Public Interactive, and some flops as well, such as America One, an attempted overseas broadcast service packaged jointly with NPR.

Marita Rivero, g.m. of WGBH-FM/TV in Boston, remembers the PRI Board discussing the need for a show like The World and watching Salyer shape the idea, incubate it, find the first $15 million for it and help get it on 189 stations—“that’s 189 conversations.”

“He’s very good at making concrete the big idea,” says Rivero.

She notes that the distributor, APR and then PRI, was able to help producers treat daily life in new ways on the radio — before Salyer with Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion and in 1996 with Ira Glass’s This American Life. NPR rejected both shows and both became monster hits.

Lacking the proprietary sense of a unitary producer like NPR, PRI hasn’t needed to impose a single editorial viewpoint, Salyer comments.

“They’re going to find it hard to replace Steve Salyer,” says Jim Russell, who built Marketplace into a daily presence that now coexists with NPR’s big products. “He’s one of the best salesmen I’ve ever seen,” Russell says, recalling meetings where Salyer helped make General Electric the major underwriter of Marketplace for a decade.

“What got him through in so many cases was that he wasn’t Mr. Slick,” says Russell. “He was often Mr. Earnest. Even though we in public broadcasting take a lot of heat for being earnest, in the end most folks respond to that.”

The Marketplace partnership between PRI, instigator and distributor of the show, and the University of Southern California, where Russell produced it, survived for years in part because Salyer stayed out of editorial matters and never transmitted pressure from funders to the producers. “He was an ideal insulator,” says Russell. “He took all the heat.”

PRI’s biggest partnership did not last, however. MPR was disappointed in 1994 when PRI selected WGBH instead as production partner for The World’s three-way alliance with PRI and the BBC. It was further alienated by bitter conflicts over MPR’s purchase of Marketplace in the late 1990s. Relations soured with Minnesota Public Radio President Bill Kling, Salyer's predecessor as APR/PRI president.

Kling led the creation of APR in 1982, expecting that NPR wouldn't put much effort behind distributing Keillor’s show and other programs made outside the network’s Washington studios. He broke off with PRI in 2004 for much the same reason, several close observers said. PRI repped multiple programs competing for the same time periods on stations.

“MPR wanted 100 percent attention to the distribution of its programs,” says Dale Spear, a PRI executive for a decade. “Obviously, you can’t do that if you have other producers.”
Kling credits Salyer for strengthening PRI’s already strong board, opening doors to new funding sources and letting listeners hear the wider world. “He brought a true passion to his vision of public radio and, while different from mine, he added immeasurably to public radio’s service mission,” Kling said in an e-mail.

By making a go of PRI, Kling and Salyer were instrumental in fostering a market for national programming in public radio, which not only added to stations’ options but also helped NPR become more responsive to stations’ needs, says Bruce Theriault, a pubradio consultant and former PRI exec. When PRI brought The World to weekday afternoons, it prompted NPR to pay attention to stations that had been begging for an earlier start for All Things Considered. Though NPR’s “tough, competitive” shift of ATC to 4 p.m. slowed the progress of The World, Theriault says, it was the right thing for NPR and for the audience.

“This has just been an incredibly challenging and wonderful time for me,” Salyer says of his time with PRI. He had resisted earlier offers for other jobs but said he could not turn down the opportunity to lead the Salzburg Seminar.

Since three G.I.’s founded the seminar in a rococo Salzburg palace after World War II, its fellows and guests have included seven Supreme Court justices, artists as diverse as novelist Saul Bellow, mime Marcel Marceau and film director Jim Sheridan, statesmen including Paul Volcker and Hans Blix, pubcasters Jay Allison, J.J. Yore and Kevin Klose, and Salyer’s new spouse, Susan Moeller.

Web page posted Jan. 22, 2006. Revised slightly after publication.
Copyright 2005 by Current Publishing Committee

Steve Salyer, tieless in his PRI office

Salyer moves funders not by being slick, Russell observes, but by being earnest. (Photo: PRI.)

EARLIER ARTICLES

APR becomes PRI and announces plans for The World, 1993. The program debuts, 1996.

In a Current commentary , Salyer describes his vision for pubradio's future, 1999.

Lawsuit against MPR defends PRI's claimed role in Marketplace, 2000. PRI and MPR resolve suit, remain partners but not pals forever.

Minnesota Public Radio pulls out its programs to rep them itself, taking two of PRI's strongest series, 2004.

LATER ARTICLES

The departing PRI president suggests what public radio can learn from PRI's experience, September 2005.

PRI promotes Alisa Miller to succeed Salyer, January 2006.

LINKS

Public Radio International.

Salzburg Seminar.

 

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