The man at the helm of National Public Radio discusses the effect the computer
age is having on the medium and talks about the need to stand firm in the face
of political changes in Washington.
Delano Lewis knew that taking over National Public Radio would be a a tough
job. But he didn’t know quite how tough. A former administrative assistant to
Congressman Walter Fauntroy of the District of Columbia, he left behind 21 years
as a telephone executive in the Washington area and started his new job as NPR chief
executive officer two years ago next month. That gave him only a brief honeymoon
before the GOP gained control of the House of Representatives last fall and, talking
revolution, put funding for public broadcasting in the cross hairs.
Lewis, 57, was enough of a scrappy Washington insider to know when to pick a
fight — and when to avoid one. He tried to turn the debate over public
broadcasting away from highly charged rhetoric, relying instead on
dispassionate argument and the support of people around the country speaking
up for their programs.
House Speaker Newt Gingrich has stopped talking about “zeroing out” public
broadcasting’s funding, and its budget cut for fiscal 1998 is expected to be
modest — roughly $250 million, compared with $260 million for fiscal ’97.
Lewis trimmed NPR’s staff of 400 by roughly 5 percent to cut costs and says
more cuts may be necessary. He has lobbied to create a $4 billion trust fund
that could remove public broadcasting from the merry-go-round of annual
federal support, and the Senate has recently begun to study the idea.
Lewis, interviewed recently at a San Francisco hotel, was considered as a
candidate to take over the NAACP, but he took his name out of the running so
he could concentrate on his current job. He wishes he had been given a shot at
the job earlier in his career — and doesn’t rule out future interest.
Q. How would you describe your vision for NPR at this point?
A. I came to the
organization thinking about expansion, new delivery systems, our bureaus, our
network, our stations, different kinds of programming, expanding on the good
things we do, increasing our audiences, getting more minority listeners, more
younger listeners. I was in sort of a growth mode, particularly with the
advent of new technologies and how that’s going to fit.
What hit me were a couple of things. No. 1, a culture that was more entrenched
than I thought, a culture I didn’t really know, which is obvious after 21
years in the telephone business and 10 years in the federal government. So I
had to learn the culture. I had to gain the respect of those in the industry.
And the other thing, obviously, was the funding fight and the challenges on
Capitol Hill, which began to take up a lot of time. That began to put the
reality of the grist mill there that I had to take care of those things. But
the vision still holds.
Q: You talked about the advent of new technologies. What are NPR’s plans for
A: The exciting thing that NPR has is we’re not just broadcasters, we’re
content and context providers. If you look at yourself that way, the horizon
becomes extremely bright and broad. We’re the best at what we do, content
wise, and we do offer context you don’t get anywhere else, varying
perspectives, different angles.
Now I also say that there will be people who will still use the radio. People
will continue to do that. When TV came in radio didn’t die. And I think that
with all the computer technology, plain old radio will probably be alive. What
we have to do is understand that but mix in and take advantage of the new
We have a home page on the web (www.npr.org/index.html) and we’ve been in
contact with America Online and we’re making some arrangements with them now.
You can tune into the Internet and download NPR programming and hear the
programs in real time. We’re doing that now along with ABC News.
Written by: Steve Kettman – Published 4:00 am, Sunday, December 31, 1995