Washington -- When the telephone rang in Jeffrey Dvorkin's office at the CBC in Toronto in early 1997, he could scarcely know that it would bring an offer that would soon make him a leading figure in public broadcasting in the United States.
Overnight, as head of the news division of National Public Radio, Dvorkin would become a voice of change at a national institution, renewing its technology, enhancing its message, enriching its sound. To American public broadcasting he would bring the values of Canadian public broadcasting -- the CBC meets NPR -- and for that he would be applauded.
At the same time, Dvorkin would inherit an organization with a history of political infighting and fractious labour relations marred by allegations of discrimination, cronyism and favouritism, which is why some suggest that he is being shuffled to another senior position within NPR this week.
On the other end of the line that day was Susan Stamberg, a veteran special correspondent at NPR, who had long regarded the CBC with admiration. Your name has been mentioned, she told Dvorkin. Are you interested? she asked. Yes, he said.
When NPR came calling, Dvorkin had been with the corporation for 21 years. His title was managing editor and chief journalist at CBC radio news. After years of cost-cutting and blood-letting, however, things had soured.
"It was during those dark days at the CBC, and I felt I wanted to do something else," Dvorkin recalls. "The timing was right." Today, almost three years later, Dvorkin is vice-president of news and information at NPR. And while he is preparing to leave line management to become NPR's ombudsman, the timing is still right.
The CBC, reeling from layoffs this month and the promise of more later in the year, is still coping with austerity. Money is tight, morale is low, and the future of public broadcasting in Canada is in question.
National Public Radio, by contrast, is thriving. As it marks its 30th anniversary this month, NPR is flush with cash. Its audience has tripled in the past six years, reaching 15 per cent of Americans. Its network of stations is expanding.
Dvorkin doesn't take credit for the good news at NPR. But he is delighted to have arrived as its third-ranking manager (he was chosen from a short list of several candidates after a national search) at a time it was questioning its future.
"I was going to a very valued, small organization that had a lot of potential but was on the verge of trying to figure out what it wanted to be," he says. "The choices were that it could stay as a version of campus radio, an elite, Washington-centric organization. Or it could take its place in the multimedia world and become a primary contributor of news and information to Americans."
In short, Dvorkin's mandate was to "modernize" NPR, which is a private, non-profit corporation -- not a government agency -- funded primarily by the private sector. He wanted to create a more nimble news-gathering operation and to make it better known among Americans. "We're a well-kept secret," he says.
Change was daunting for NPR, the second largest radio network in the United States after CBS. It has a weekly audience of 14.6 million and an annual budget of about $90-million (U.S.). Like all organizations reaching adulthood, it also had a fiercely loyal following, who see NPR as a form of civic religion.
In a country of shock radio, jock radio and talk radio, filling the airwaves with obscenties or absurdities, NPR is an oasis of intelligence and sobriety. Its cultural and entertainment programming is contrarian and quirky; its news and information programming is comprehensive, reaping a harvest of awards every year.
Programs include Car Talk, hosted by Tom and Ray Magliozzi, two cheeky Bostonians who offer irreverent advice to callers with ailing automobiles. Or the folksy Garrison Keillor's A Prairie Home Companion. Or, in news, the eclectic Morning Edition and All Things Considered.
Dvorkin represented change in 1997. One priority was to introduce digital technology in news, which is now two-thirds complete. Another was to introduce "the values of radio" to a staff heavy with former print journalists more familiar with the written than the spoken word.
"The use of sound as an editorial tool and metaphor was something that needed to be brought into the building," says the cerebral, owlish Dvorkin in his bright office at NPR. "NPR had a drone that people complained about."
Dvorkin brought with him a lifetime of experience as a reporter, producer, writer, editor and manager in radio and television. At 53, his career had taken him from his native Calgary to London, Montreal, Ottawa, Amsterdam and Toronto.
In his vision of NPR, he reflects a perspective that he absorbed as a student of history at the University of Alberta, the University of Toronto and the London School of Economics.
To help change the culture at NPR, he hired "trainers" such as David Candow, a wry Newfoundlander who had spent 31 years at the CBC. Candow has held sessions with NPR's hosts and reporters, focusing on writing and presentation.
While some were skeptical, Candow is now known as "the host whisperer," the coach who helps stars shine. Of NPR, he says: "Its people labour at it, and they're good."
"Jeffrey encouraged us to put sound in our stories," says Stamberg, who has been at NPR since its founding. "It is what we ought to sound like."
Another of Dvorkin's initiatives was to integrate the member stations, two-thirds of which are affiliated with colleges. Dvorkin likens them and the network to "two solitudes, breeding a lot of mistrust."
He created regional bureau chiefs to visit stations and encourage them to try new voices on the network. Now reporters and editors in the regions produce as much as a quarter of its news and information programming. They are the future of an organization with a greying staff.
It means a broader, richer newscast, with voices from Muncie, Ind., and El Paso, Tex., places once unheard on NPR. The larger result is a more national radio service, reflecting the entire country. Just like the CBC. "He nationalized us," says Stamberg. "It's a major contribution. He has got us out of Washington and beefed-up national coverage."
Moreover, Dvorkin is credited with raising the brand name in a crowded marketplace, deepening its public identity. Now reporters sign off with their name, their location, and "NPR News."
Dvorkin also tried to make NPR more immediate by encouraging more live broadcasts. Moreover, he has shortened stories -- which were sometimes 11 minutes long -- in the morning.
"He's an advocate of radio as a medium," says Jo-Anne Wallace, vice-president and general manager of KQED-FM in San Franciso, the nation's second most popular NPR station. "He wants to take them to a place. He wants to take listeners into a story in an emotional way."
Of course, Dvorkin says he has to be careful. After all, he is the Canadian among Americans.
"I didn't want to say, 'you poor benighted American, here I come from the north with all these CBC tricks up my sleeve!' " There is a tradition of values that is as deep and abiding as those in Canada, and it is a balancing act."
These are the best of times for NPR. The success of KQED-FM seems typical. It held two annual fund-raising drives last year -- member stations raise money from listeners through these highly publicized campaigns -- each with a goal of $1-million. Both surpassed their targets.
With an audience growing at 5 per cent a year, NPR is increasingly attractive to corporate sponsors. They like the profile of its average listener -- usually male, in his mid-40s, sophisticated, affluent and highly educated.
But NPR doesn't have commercials, and will air no more than 1:36 minutes of corporate identification an hour. They are usually no more than Keillor's silky pitch, "Brought to you by Land's End, the people who put great casual clothes at your fingertips."
Any more might alienate listeners. Dvorkin says that NPR could take in double the contributions from corporate sponsors, which now comprise about 21 per cent of its revenue. (The other main sources include station dues, 51 per cent; foundation grants, 9 per cent; and government, 3 per cent.)
When NPR was founded in 1970 and went on air in 1971, most of its support came from government. That changed in 1994, when the Republicans took Congress and vowed to cut off NPR and its television counterpart, the Public Broadcasting Service. NPR resolved then to reduce its government funding.
Its decision underscores one of the differences in public broadcasting in the two countries, which both see as an agent of citizenship.
"In Canada, there is an expectation that something will be provided," says Dvorkin. "Here there is a greater sense of self-reliance. There is a distrust of government largesse because it often has strings attached."
NPR is not without its critics. Too much corporate sponsorship. A liberal bias. A bad employer, discriminating on the basis of sex and race.
Lynne Bernabei, a lawyer in Washington, has represented grievances from some 15 employess at NPR over the past 12 years, some of which have gone to court. She says that Dvorkin treats minorities no better than his predecessors.
"It's gotten worse," she charges. "People have left in frustration. If anything, NPR has fewer minorities now."
Dvorkin, who was named a defendant in an ongoing lawsuit two weeks after he arrived, says there have been none on his watch. He argues that in hiring and managing staff, he has created "a fairer environment, which is seen to be fairer."
Bernabei is unpersuaded. She claims he confronted a black journalist in the washroom and threatened to fire him if he didn't settle his lawsuit out of court. Dvorkin calls that "nonsense."
Still, Dvorkin concedes that being in management these days is tough; in the hothouse of NPR, it may even demand calming an unhappy employee threatening to jump off the roof.
So, when NPR president Kevin Klose announced that Dvorkin had been named NPR's ombudsman, a job that existed briefly in the 1970s but has been unfilled since, the staff was skeptical. Why would Dvorkin leave news to listen to the public's complaints about NPR?
Predictably, in the shadowy office politics of NPR, they whispered that he was being "kicked upstairs" and "put out to pasture"; Bernabei called it "a demotion," though she had no evidence other than speculation that Dvorkin and the president didn't get along.
Dvorkin, for his part, calls it a lateral transfer, which will allow him to return to air and write a column for the NPR Web site. He says that for months he and Klose had been talking about creating a public advocate to heighten accountability. When the job was offered to him, he couldn't refuse.
"I had to put up or shut up," he says, "and I'm putting up."
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