VPR plots a steady course

by Will Lindner

vpr0115In 1989, a 24-year-old Robin Turnau joined Vermont Public Radio as a “marathon” coordinator — its14th employee. In 2009, she succeeded Mark Vogelzang as president and CEO, and now manages 53 full-time employees.

An argument quite credibly could be made supporting the existence of a kind of Vermont exceptionalism — in the realm, anyway, of public radio. Minnesotan Douglas Eichen gives it credence from his vantage point as president of Greater Public, an association of 270 public radio and television stations nationwide that provides expertise in fundraising and marketing strategies. The treasurer of his board of directors is Robin Turnau, president and CEO of Vermont Public Radio.

“VPR is one of the top fundraising organizations — and actually one of the top news organizations, too — in the country,” says Eichen. “When you measure things like support per capita that Vermonters put into VPR, it puts that organization among the top in all categories nationwide.”

Serving a rural area and operating statewide are additional challenges to the public radio model, Eichen says. “VPR’s success in doing so has won it the respect, year after year, of colleagues across the country.”

The station’s achievements are the result of commitment, ingenuity, and talent within its leadership team and its 53 employees. Yet Eichen, and VPR board chair, Charlie Kireker of Weybridge, emphatically give credit as well to Turnau’s leadership.

“For a recent evaluation I had to do of our CEO,” Kireker says, “I had a lot of conversations with people who work for her and with board members. The gist of everyone’s perspectives is that she has become, more and more, the face of VPR; that she is outward-facing in her work and indefatigable; that she is passionate and a wonderful ambassador for VPR, not only in Vermont but increasingly in regional and also national media circles. We are therefore able to become early adopters, and often are one of the first stations in the country to embark on new projects with NPR [National Public Radio]. She devotes her life to advancing the mission of VPR.”

Eichen, at Greater Public, concurs.

“I would go so far as to say that Robin is a great role model for leadership in public media and beyond, and for women who are trying to advance in leadership in public broadcasting. She’s a very special person, in my book. Vermont is very lucky.”

Turnau, however, believes she and her staff are the lucky ones.

“I often say to my colleagues that Vermont is public radio heaven. What I mean by that is that Vermonters are incredibly engaged, they care a lot about their community, they’re fairly well-educated, and as a whole, the population is older,” Turnau says. “Public radio’s target audience is age 45-plus.

“So VPR has been able to thrive. In a way, we’ve become a medium-sized station in a small market. We are continually among the stations that are the most listened-to in the country per capita, and of the people who are listening, a greater percentage are supporters of VPR than at many other stations.”

Turnau makes a further point: An avid listenership that provides substantial resources to its public station (not that the seasonal membership drives aren’t akin to pulling teeth) has great expectations, to which VPR is mission-bound to respond.

“We get a lot of comments from our listeners — emails and calls, Facebook messages, and tweets,” says Turnau. “People let us know they have very high standards, and we try to meet those standards every day.”

Recently, what VPR has been hearing is that its audience wishes — expects — to receive VPR content across an array of media platforms.

“The core of what we do, and will continue to do really, really well,” Turnau explains, “is high-quality, well-told, well-researched audio news stories. That is our specialization.

“But we also know that people want to consume news on whatever device they’re using, whether it’s their iPhones, their tablets, their computers, through podcast, or in print. It’s a matter now of trying to meet our audience where they are.”

It’s the next — actually, the present — phase in VPR’s evolution. And unlike newspapers, whose revenue streams from their circulation and website offerings are intrinsically in civil war, public radio’s revenue streams — membership donations, underwriting, bequests, modest withdrawals from the station’s endowment — can be harmonious and support the whole enterprise.

Still, Turnau says, VPR is focusing on digital development, hiring reporters and producers for that realm, exploring data visualization. “And we are creating unique content for our digital platform. Our audience is asking that our digital presence be as strong as our broadcast presence. They expect that of us.”

This shifting media landscape might be seen as Act Two of the circumstances that re-created Vermont’s public radio station in the late 1990s, when VPR (founded in 1977) was about 20 years old. Turnau, then a staff member within the development branch, credits former president Mark Vogelzang for perceiving an opportunity for the station — and, no less, a cultural responsibility — to provide statewide news coverage at a time when print media were struggling for survival.

“Fifteen years ago there was not a single journalist working for VPR,” says Kireker. “There was just someone reading the news from Montpelier before the national (NPR) newscast came on. We went from no journalism capabilities to being probably the leading source of news and information in the state, and it has been a significant transformation.”

Concurrently, VPR built out its broadcasting capacity, scattering new facilities (the last being a booster signal to serve Brattleboro in 2012) until it truly lived up to its statewide moniker. In 2007, VPR split off its classical music programming, creating a network separate from the “news” — a catchall phrase for the station’s other, diverse, content. VPR Classical now reaches 80 percent of Vermont’s population.

The scope of these changes is revealed by the fact that 20 years ago Turnau spearheaded a $2 million capital campaign to complete the tasteful brick headquarters the station now occupies on the Fort Ethan Allen campus in Colchester.

“When it was completed in 1995, it was with a sense that we would never grow beyond 27 people,” she says. “There was, then, no vision at all of a local news presence. We’re now at more than 50 people, committed to meeting the information needs of Vermonters throughout the state.”

It would be an understatement to say that this was not the media world Robin Turnau encountered when she was hired, as a 24-year-old by VPR as its “marathon” coordinator in 1989 (marathon being an earlier version of today’s membership drives). Turnau was just the station’s 14th employee.

“There was lots and lots of opportunity,” she says, “and I loved that feeling of doing good for the organization every day, whether it was recruiting a new volunteer, connecting with a business that wanted to underwrite on VPR ... there was so much potential.”

Turnau came from what she calls a public radio family. Her parents, Carrie and Dave Fenn, raised her and her sister, Amy, in Chelmsford, Mass., listening faithfully to the local public station, WGBH. After high school she chose the University of Vermont to continue her education, attracted by the modest size of the city of Burlington, its proximity to Lake Champlain and the Green Mountains, and the short day’s drive home to Chelmsford. She was an anthropology major at UVM, but perhaps more relevant to her future in media finance, she sold advertising for the campus newspaper, The Cynic.

Turnau apparently inherited from her parents a knack for being ahead of the curve in adaptation and social change. The Fenns were alternative-energy enthusiasts long before it was cool, putting solar collectors on their roof in the ’70s and ’80s. (They now live in a Net Zero home in Hinesburg).

Turnau’s comparable? She’s been a backyard chicken-raiser for probably a decade longer than recent converts to the practice. And she’s converted her neighbors.

“We get together and buy 125 chicks in the spring, then come back together in the fall and hire a mobile butcher. It’s kind of a community-builder,” she says, with the added benefit of eggs in the summer and a full freezer in the fall. Her two dozen or so hens run free-range over the acre of land she and her husband, Bob — a finance and management consultant — and their children, Madeline (18) and Teddy (15), occupy in Charlotte.

Among her other passions is sailboat racing. Indeed, the sport played a role in her linking up with Bob through friends after college. Both had sailed in earlier years, and they fell in with racing enthusiasts and continue that pursuit vigorously each summer.

“We have a Henderson 30,” says Turnau, describing the swift, light vessel they share with another family, and upon which they ply the waters of Shelburne Bay, Malletts Bay, and Lake Champlain proper in racing events all summer long.

“On a Wednesday night there could be forty or more boats out there racing, and it’s beautiful, absolutely spectacular on the water,” she says.

How fitting that Robin Turnau, who contributes to a certain Vermont exceptionalism through her steadfast dedication to its statewide community radio station, should receive the blessings to body and soul of Vermont’s exceptional natural setting. •