Alisa Miller – President and CEO, Public Radio International

Alisa Miller

Alisa Miller Sounds Off: Why do we still tune in to public radio? The president of PRI knows.

By Kathryn Whitbourne

Alisa Miller, the first woman ever to head a public radio network, leads the company responsible for distributing such hits as the recent Peabody Award–winning This American Life, the BBC Newshour and The Tavis Smiley Show. She says hers is the perfect job for someone who was always fascinated by in-depth journalism.

“When I graduated from college, I wanted to work for 60 Minutes, Frontline or in public radio,” says Miller, 37. “I couldn’t get a job in public radio, so I actually took one finding commercial uses for defense technologies.”

Realizing that she still wanted creativity in her life, she got an MBA from the University of Chicago, then worked at Sesame Workshop, where Sesame Street is created. In 2001, a headhunter called about a VP position at Public Radio International (PRI). Once on board, Miller eventually negotiated to put PRI content on both XM and Sirius satellite radio networks, and in 2006 she was promoted to president and CEO of the network.

Miller spoke with PINK about public radio’s rise, its challenges and the color purple.

PINK: How is PRI doing these days?
Alisa Miller: Very well. We’ve gone from 700 to 800 affiliates over the last five years. Our programming is heard by over 11 million listeners each week in the U.S.

PINK: Why does public radio have the perception as mostly appealing to people in “blue states”?
A.M.: I’m not sure. Maybe because of our breadth of classical programming and in-depth news. People who are the highest-educated tend to listen to public radio. However, we do know from surveys that actually 20 to 30 percent of our audience is conservative, 25 to 30 percent is liberal, and the rest are moderate or have no political affiliation. It’s one of the last places where you see this type of diversity. So our audience is more purple than red or blue.

PINK: What is your biggest challenge?
A.M.: Competition is wider now. How can public radio be successful in a new media space with players hundreds of times larger? We need to be innovative as well as raise funds for new programs.

PINK: How have you innovated?
A.M.: We’re developing a new morning show to roll out in January – in concert with WNYC and affiliates like the BBC World Service, New York Times Radio, WGBH Boston – to create a contemporary sound in public radio. It’s going to differ from NPR’s Morning Edition by being more informal and more conversational than presentational. We’ll be able to go anywhere locally or internationally in a nanosecond because of the depth of the BBC World Service.

PINK: What’s the difference between PRI and National Public Radio (NPR)?
A.M.: These are two separate networks. Public radio stations can choose from either one for programming. For most stations, 20 percent of content is from PRI, 25 percent is from NPR and the rest is local or programming from other sources.

PINK: Where do ideas for shows come from?
A.M.: Sometimes we ask, What types of programs are missing? We recently launched Fair Game, an evening program kind of like The Daily Show. There’s a huge radio audience at night, and PRI was lacking in daily programs for that time. Other shows find us: for example, This American Life [produced by WBEZ in Chicago]. When it was first introduced, people thought it was unusual because of host Ira Glass’s delivery. But there was an intelligence to it, and it used sound as a value. It has won many awards.

PINK: Do you have a favorite episode of a particular PRI program?
A.M.: On Fair Game, hosted by Faith Salie, a Rhodes scholar and stand-up comedian, she interviewed a memory expert and asked if it was possible that Scooter Libby did not remember outing Valerie Plame. The expert said, Yes, it was possible: About 20 percent of people who had major surgery last year could not remember having it! That is the kind of aha moment you get from listening to public radio. Something is revealed and you start to understand how every issue is more complex than you first thought.

PINK: What’s been your greatest personal success to date?
A.M.: Taking the concept of Fair Game to fruition. I’m generally not a patient person, and that took 18 months to two years. It was exciting because it used a combination of all of my skills in journalism, creative talent and business management. It’s early to see if it will be successful, but I think so.

PINK: What’s the best advice you’ve received?
A.M.: Admitting that what you don’t know is powerful. I help people work on a larger strategic vision, but I learn from others who know more about a particular area than me. There’s nothing weak about admitting what you don’t know and learning from others.

PINK: What do you do in your spare time?
A.M.: I enjoy herb gardening and singing jazz and bluegrass. I love architecture and hiking. I often go hiking in Colorado or at the trails in the Four Corners area and where I live [in Minnesota].

PINK: What inspires you?
A.M.: There’s a plaque on my desk that says, “What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail?” That’s how I like to live my life.

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