Bill Marrazzo's WHYY pay package

What price Public TV?
Bill Marrazzo and the $740,000 question

A man with a very-long-term plan.
A man with a very-long-term plan.

     WHYY, Philadelphia’s public broadcasting outlet, used to be known for its national radio interview shows, “Fresh Air” with Terry Gross and “Radio Times” with Marty-Moss-Coane. Lately it seems to be most famous for its president’s paycheck.

    Bill Marrazzo’s salary— $415,993 in fiscal 2007, plus $324,097 in benefits and expenses, a grand total of $740,090 for running a not-for-profit operation— has been assailed by the Inquirer columnist Karen Heller (in August 2007) and by Steve Volk in Philadelphia Magazine (October 2007). Most recently, a lengthy front-page article by Carolyn Davis in the Inquirer (Nov. 9) noted that Marrazzo is paid far more than his counterparts at other public TV stations, some of which are much larger and generate much more original programming than does WHYY. That article in turn has generated outraged letters, editorials and follow-up stories pointing out, among other things, that Marrazzo makes more than the CEOs of the Public Broadcasting System and National Public Radio, not to mention world-class cultural organizations like the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. WHYY has never been mistaken for a world-class organization.

The examples of Rodin and Papadakis

    These populist comparisons, while valid, strike me as beside the point. I count myself among those who admire Marrazzo as a valuable public resource— one of those rare Philadelphians capable of building bridges among the public sector (he was Philadelphia’s water commissioner and managing director), the private sector (as CEO of Roy F. Weston Inc., an environmental consulting firm), the not-for-profit sector (as head of WHYY since 1997) and the cultural community (his wife, the soprano Randi Marrazzo, is a co-founder of Lyric Fest).

    Nor do I begrudge CEOs their oversized paychecks. A chief executive can make or break an organization— witness, for example, what a positive difference Judith Rodin and Constantine Papadakis made at Penn and Drexel, respectively. I also understand that it’s often tougher to rescue a small and despised operation than to maintain a large and prestigious one (which is why, say, Papadakis deserves to be paid as much as or more than the president of Harvard).

The board’s fuzzy contortions

    So it’s not Marrazzo’s compensation per se that alarms me, but his board’s fuzzy rhetorical contortions (as well as Marrazzo’s) in defense of it. Marrazzo is worth all that money, according to WHYY chairman Jerry Sweeney, for his talents as a fund-raiser and for his ties to the business and civic communities. His pay raises, said Sweeney’s predecessor, Molly Dickinson Shepard, were determined by “a very specific set of metrics… things like increasing audience share, converting to digital technology and bringing the budget into line.”

    These are important services, to be sure. But such arguments overlook the critical question: “To what purpose?”

    It’s all well and good to transmit British sitcoms to Philadelphians via digital technology. But WHYY could be— should be— Philadelphia’s equivalent of the British Broadcasting Corporation: a vital and active cultural and journalistic presence in the lives of Philadelphians. It has rarely filled any such role— certainly not in Marrazzo’s 11 years at the helm. Less than one-tenth of WHYY’s weekly TV schedule is locally produced— and those programs tend to be tepid, cautious and so poorly conceived that you can’t help wondering, “What were they thinking?”

A wet kiss to Sawallisch

    Consider, for example, “Maestro,” a tribute to Wolfgang Sawallisch that was broadcast this past September to launch “On Canvas,” WHYY’s new and much-ballyhooed series about the arts in Philadelphia. Sawallisch retired as music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra in 2003 after ten years at the helm; since then, Christoph Eschenbach has come and gone. What, then, is the point of sending Marty Moss-Coane to Germany to ask Sawallisch softball questions like, “How old were you when you began to play the piano?”

    This hour-long wet kiss to Sawallisch managed to interview five (count ’em) talking heads (other than Sawallisch), none of whom had anything the slightest bit provocative to say (or are you shocked to hear concertmaster David Kim declare, “To be a member of the Philadelphia Orchestra is like hitting the lottery”?). Had Sawallisch just been hired by the Orchestra, or just retired, or just died, such a documentary, for all its blandness, might have been timely and appropriate. But why now? And who is ultimately responsible for such egregious judgment?

The only test that matters

    Marrazzo, for his part, told the Inquirer that responsibility for his compensation fell to WHYY’s board: “They designed the package. I didn’t.” That reply strikes me as disingenuous. As Marrazzo surely knows, a not-for-profit board has no investors with capital at risk and consequently little incentive to engage in hard-nosed bargaining. That is why not-for-profits are infamous for boards peopled by otherwise high-powered trustees who "check their brains at the door." In their negotiations with Marrazzo, the WHYY trustees have cluttered their minds with a series of bureaucratic tests to justify Marrazzo’s pay package while blithely ignoring the only test that really matters: the “smell test.”

    More to the point, the mark of a good professional is his willingness to exercise his best independent judgment in behalf of his client or his employer, even to his own short-term detriment. Yet Marrazzo closed his eyes to the embarrassing effects his own pay package would produce on the morale of WHYY employees and donors alike.

    Marrazzo told Philadelphia Magazine last year that his long-range plan calls for more local programming starting in February 2009 and “a significant increase” by 2012— that is, the 15th anniversary of his arrival at WHYY. Here, surely, is a man with a long-term plan. But in the long term, as John Maynard Keynes pointed out, we are all dead. And in any case the real issue is not the quantity of WHYY’s local programming (slight as it may be), but the quality.

    The late Washington sage John W. Gardner once observed that when it comes to recruiting key executives, there are only two qualities for which an organization should be willing to pay almost any price: taste and judgment. “Almost everything else can be bought by the yard,” Gardner explained. Good administrators like Marrazzo are hard to find and consequently deserve to be well paid. But superior pay can be justified only by the one thing Marrazzo hasn’t delivered and his board hasn’t demanded: a superior product.

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