NPR's podcast and programming chief Anya Grundmann to leave after 30 years
NPR's top programming executive, Anya Grundmann, announced today she will step down at the end of the year after nearly three decades at the network. Her record has been marked by innovations, successes and, of late, sharp setbacks buffeting the industry broadly and the network specifically.
"I've especially loved it when the sparks are flying, when we've imagined new ways we can lean into our enormous potential while staying true to our public service mission," Grundmann says in a comment texted for this story. "It's been the best kind of roller coaster ride."
Since becoming head of programming in 2015, Grundmann has overseen music, entertainment and talk shows such as Wait Wait Don't Tell Me and Fresh Air (which originates at member station WHYY), and most of the network's podcasts.
Among other accomplishments, Grundmann has been widely hailed for helping to cultivate Tiny Desk, the intimate, stripped-down performances that have propelled careers of unknown artists and allowed stars to reveal new truths about their music. The videos routinely draw millions of viewers, many of them younger than typical consumers of the network's fare, to NPR's social media accounts.
Grundmann was integral to creating Up First, NPR's daily podcast based on the top news stories in its flagship morning show, Morning Edition. It is routinely cited as one of the nation's leading news podcasts.
With Grundmann's involvement, NPR launched many other podcasts that earned accolades and new audiences for the network. Podcasts on politics and popular culture became daily properties; new shows including Code Switch won NPR new audiences; the podcast No Compromise won a Pulitzer Prize; the Planet Money spinoff The Indicator has been a hit.
NPR chief executive John Lansing praises Grundmann's record and casts her departure exclusively as her own decision. "She's really legendary in the world of public media," Lansing says. He says Grundmann "led the podcasting revolution in many ways, and has been just an invaluable partner for me in my four years here."
Fast growth of podcasts, followed by layoffs and cancellations
Grundmann's departure follows Lansing's decision last year to restructure the upper levels of the network by unifying the network's news and programming divisions under a single chief content officer. Then-Senior Vice President for News Nancy Barnes, Grundmann's counterpart over news, viewed it as a demotion. Barnes left NPR last fall to lead the newsroom of the Boston Globe.
Tensions had surfaced between Grundmann and Barnes over the strategy for news-related podcasts, including the greenlighting of new series, at a time when commercial competitors had entered the field in force. The New York Times, The Atlantic, Vox Media and other outlets have carved notable roles in news podcasting, often drawing upon the expertise of former NPR employees. Up First was seen as a belated response to the hit podcast The Daily from the Times, which is now aired by many public radio stations.
Under Grundmann's watch, NPR's programming division more than doubled in size, rising from 100 employees in 2019 to 231 in January. Yet over the past year, advertisers held back their sponsorship of podcasts, anticipating a recession that has, as of yet, not arrived.
A significant projected shortfall in revenues yawned to approximately $31 million for the fiscal year that ends Sept. 30, according to network officials.
Lansing felt compelled to reduce NPR's workforce by about 10% this spring. NPR also canceled four podcasts and scaled back production of Short Wave, its science podcast. NPR now says that it is on stable financial footing after the cuts.
The drop in ad revenue has affected the media industry more broadly. ABC, CNN, ESPN, the Los Angeles Times, Spotify, Vox Media, and the Washington Post underwent similar job cuts. Yet NPR's inability to produce a larger volume of podcasts made it harder to compensate for that drop in revenue.
Plans to unify newsroom and programming
Grundmann first arrived at NPR in 1994 as an intern after a stint at the member station KNAU in Flagstaff, Arizona. Before becoming senior vice president for programming and audience development, she served as the founding executive director of NPR Music, where she made her greatest mark.
With not only Tiny Desk but other music initiatives such as Alt.Latino, she is credited with helping to ensure that NPR's music offerings thrived even after the network gave away the classical music programs Performance Today and the now defunct World of Opera more than a decade ago. Billboard magazine repeatedly listed heramong the most influential executives in music.
"After 30 years at NPR, I have decided it's time for my next adventure," Grundmann said in an email to staff on Monday. She did not specify what that next step would be.
NPR has not announced a successor to Grundmann, whose departure will create the latest vacancy in a string of high-level turnovers. In recent months, the network named a new chief news executive–Edith Chapin, who had been serving in that role in an acting capacity – and its new chief financial officer, Daphne Kwon. Kwon also takes on the responsibilities of former chief operating officer Will Lee, who departed after less than two years to become chief executive at Adweek.
NPR still plans to hire a chief content officer after Lansing's first pick for that role declined the offer to take a senior position at the Washington Post. He says the new structure will yield benefits for the network, its stations and its audiences.
"The way I think about it is that it's all journalism," Lansing says. "Inside NPR, sometimes we think that news is radio and podcasting is programming and that those are two separate things. But they're not. It's journalism on a platform that's bespoke for the way that platform is being consumed."
Disclosure: This story was reported by NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik and edited by Deputy Business Editor Emily Kopp. No senior news executives or corporate officials were allowed to see this article before it was posted publicly.
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