NPR chief executive John Lansing says he intends to retire at the end of 2023. His four-year tenure will be defined by his handling of the extreme challenges of the pandemic, a racial reckoning, and headwinds in the podcasting industry that led to severe layoffs.
“I haven’t accomplished everything I wanted to accomplish, but I feel good about the time I had here,” Lansing says in an interview.
Lansing says the network is currently back in the black, stabilized in part by additional subsidies from the NPR Foundation. And he says it’s poised to prosper after making tough but necessary moves, including the job cuts and a reorganization of the network’s executive ranks.
Despite some bitterness and recrimination among newsroom staff over the layoffs, including sharp questions about executives’ strategy in podcasting, the top official of NPR’s largest union has consistently praised Lansing’s leadership.
“I thought he did a good job,” says Pat O’Donnell, executive director of SAG-AFTRA Washington-Mid Atlantic local, which represents more than 500 employees. “He did the best he could. Crisis after crisis — oh my God.”
She cites Lansing’s constant communication with staff during the pandemic, his conciliatory approach to union negotiations, his emphasis on diversity, and his willingness to ensure the network offered laid-off employees more generous severance terms than required under the existing contract.
During Lansing’s tenure, NPR’s journalists reported on the pandemic from all over the globe even as the network grappled with how to broadcast live during it; it covered crises challenging the state of the nation’s democracy, severe economic turbulence, mass protests around the country, and war in Ukraine. NPR won its first Pulitzer Prize in 2021 among other leading journalism recognitions.
“Our work has never been more important. Our shows and journalists are world-class and are serving the American public with the most professional, contextual and truthful information when it has never been more important in our country,” Lansing says. “I couldn’t be more proud.”
Under Lansing, NPR expanded its entrepreneurial efforts, too, striking a deal with Amazon Music to run the Guy Raz podcast How I Built This exclusively for a week before it is released to the public. Similarly, NPR has now licensed its Tiny Desk Concert format in South Korea.
A year of tumult
Lansing’s announcement Tuesday comes after months of turbulence and turnover at the network’s highest levels, with many key positions vacant, newly filled, or held by someone on a temporary basis. The top news executive, promoted to that post in July on a permanent basis, is additionally serving as NPR’s interim chief content officer, a newly created position above news and other content.
NPR’s top news executive left last fall. Then, after the layoffs in the spring, NPR’s chief financial officer and chief operating officer departed. The chief executive over podcasting is leaving in December, like Lansing (although he says he will stay until NPR lands a new CEO). Chief operating officer Will Lee, who became chief executive of Adweek, will not be replaced; Lansing says Lee’s duties will be parceled out to new CFO Daphne Kwon and the as-yet unnamed chief content officer.
“We are all immensely grateful to John for his principled and tenacious leadership through a turbulent time for NPR, our system and our nation,” NPR Board Chair Jeff Sine says in a statement. “No time for goodbyes yet.”
Lansing, 66, had a five-year contract set to expire at the end of next September. He says he and his wife want instead to spend significant time traveling next spring to see their daughter, who will be on a study program abroad.
He says his last months will involve a laser-like focus on NPR’s future.
“We’re digital first,” he says. “We understand that the new, younger audiences prefer on-demand content. Whether that’s local television, broadcast television [or] radio, it’s a secular shift in the way people are consuming media.
“We need to examine our approach to content and journalism production with that in mind. Otherwise, we’re really consigning NPR to a very difficult future as the audience ages.”
Seeking more diversity
Lansing joined NPR from the U.S. Agency for Global Media, the federal parent to the Voice of America and other government-backed broadcasters abroad. He had previously a long career in commercial television – starting as a studio technician and videographer for a television station’s news team in Paducah, Ky., the Monday after his high school graduation in 1975. He rose to be a top television executive at Scripps and the E.W. Scripps Co., overseeing their portfolios of cable television networks and local television stations, respectively.
Upon his arrival at NPR in fall 2019, Lansing made diversifying the network’s staff, offerings and audiences a hallmark of his leadership, defining it as both a moral and a business imperative.
That he did so nine months before the outrage that followed the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis enabled him to navigate the waves of protest for social justice in the streets and in U.S. newsrooms more adeptly than many of his peers.
“Currently, our audience on radio does not nearly reflect the demographics of the United States,” Lansing says now. “Our name is National Public Radio and ‘national’ means everybody.”
NPR’s leadership went from 9% people of color to 42% during his tenure, according to the network’s figures; it similarly stands at 42% for the entire workforce, up from 33% in 2019.
“It’s a commitment that I believe is now in our DNA,” he says, “and I think that’s a really big thing.”
Even so, tensions roiled as some prominent female journalists of color departed for jobs elsewhere. Lansing became personally invested in an effort to elevate the pay of NPR’s female hosts to parity with those of their male peers; Several of the women journalists involved felt that initiative then set a cap on how high their pay could rise at NPR even as other outlets courted them (as they almost invariably did). He stepped in once more, promising to take part in all host negotiations.
Shifting to remote work
Four months into his tenure, the coronavirus pandemic reached the U.S. While the network had been covering the growing threat, it was not prepared for what would be required of it. Lansing says his top logistics aides told him it might take six months before NPR could broadcast fully remotely, with hosts live from home studios.
They got it done in a week. Lansing and his then top corporate communications executive, Emily Littleton, decided to hold weekly all-staff meetings.
“That little tiny decision she and I made together was the glue that held the culture together during a time when the mission had never really been more important,” Lansing says.
He says that the network’s top officials sought to be present – even over Zoom – and consistently be responsive to staff concerns as they covered a deadly health threat, a plunging economy, the war in Ukraine and more.
Foreseeing financial troubles
At first, NPR’s finances had been buoyed by soaring revenues in podcasting sponsorship, masking questions of whether it had proved innovative enough following its early dominance in audio. As the industry expanded, NPR found itself competing against media giants such as the New York Times and iHeartRadio, as well as a sea of smaller and more nimble rivals, all of which sought to hire professionals from NPR and other public radio outlets.
NPR’s fiscal year begins Oct. 1, a relic of a past era of dependence on federal finances. In recent years, the largest share of the network’s revenues, about 40%, has been derived from corporate sponsorships, according to official figures. Less than 1% comes directly from the federal government, including the Corporation from Public Broadcasting and other agencies. The company was making more from podcasting than from its radio news magazines – the tent poles on which the network has conventionally operated.
The audiences for the podcasts are markedly younger and more diverse, sketching a path to a digital future as radio audiences wane and age.
By last fall, however, major corporations were slashing advertising budgets for podcasting, anticipating a recession that has not to date arrived. Lansing and his team sensed trouble, predicting flat revenues for the year ahead.
Lansing decided he could no longer tolerate the frequent friction over strategy and budgets between his chief news executive, Nancy Barnes, and his top executive over podcasts, music and other programs, Anya Grundmann. He announced he would bring in a chief content officer to oversee and unify the divisions.
“It occurred to me about this time last year when somebody said for the umpteenth time something about news and programming – some tension between them – and I thought, you know, if we’re starting today, it would all be one thing,” Lansing says. And that thing, he says, is journalism.
“The only difference is, it’s journalism on radio. Journalism on podcasting. Journalism on YouTube. Journalism on social media,” Lansing says. “It’s just bespoke to those platforms, but it’s still all journalism.”
Recognizing the shift was a demotion, Barnes announced she would leave. She was named editor in chief of the Boston Globe in November.
The flat revenues from podcast sponsorship became a steep drop by the end of that month. NPR froze most travel and hiring budgets. In February, Lansing announced layoffs. Ultimately, NPR laid off nearly 10% of its workforce, eliminated other jobs, and cut four podcasts.
Grundmann, who has been heralded as a pioneer in NPR’s online offerings in music and podcasts, announced last month what was characterized as her voluntary decision to leave. A chief content officer has yet to be hired but Lansing says the search has been renewed after a top choice took a job at the Washington Post instead. Edith Chapin, NPR’s editor in chief, was named to lead content on an interim basis.
NPR is not unique in such staff reductions. Vox Media, a new competitor in podcasts, cut 7% of its workforce. The Los Angeles Times eliminated 13% of its newsroom. The Texas Tribune, which is considered to have an exemplary business model for non-profit media, just laid off 10%. Spotify, and ad-dependent tech giants including Google, Meta, and Twitter also embarked on significant layoffs. CNN experienced major layoffs in killing off the nascent stand-alone streaming service CNN Plus and another round beyond that.
Even after this year’s cuts, NPR’s staff creating content for its newsmagazines, website, newsletters, podcasts, social media posts and other offerings remains larger than it did at the time Lansing joined the network. And the demands on its teams have only grown.
“I think we need to lean into the idea that we’re not confined to radio,” Lansing says. “Radio will always be here and it’s critical for its reach and the quality of the programs. But I think we need to lean into a platform-agnostic approach with our brand that just acknowledges that certain parts of the audience consume information in different ways.”
Disclosure: This story was reported and written by NPR Media Correspondent David Folkenflik and edited by Deputy Business Editor Emily Kopp. Under NPR’s protocol for reporting on itself, no corporate official or news executive reviewed this story before it was posted publicly.
Correction Sept. 5, 2023
An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the company that former NPR chief operating officer Will Lee now leads. He left NPR in June to become chief executive of Adweek.