Teutonic pubcaster WDR has femme a-Piel

Feature Player: Monika Piel

BERLIN — Monika Piel last week became only the second woman in German history to be elected topper of a pubcaster after two male rivals bowed out when she won a preliminary ballot of supervisory board members.

In July she will take over from the retiring Fritz Pleitgen as head of Germany’s largest regional pubcaster, Cologne-based WDR. It is one of the nine entities that make up ARD, Europe’s second largest pubcaster behind Blighty’s mighty BBC.

Piel, head of radio at WDR since 1997, will command a staff of 4,400 with an annual budget of e1.33 billion ($1.7 billion).

She follows Dagmar Riem, who shattered the gender barrier in 2003 at RRB, the smaller ARD network in Berlin and Brandenburg.

Piel is Pleitgen’s hand-picked candidate. Despite that, she didn’t think she had a chance.

“I didn’t have alliances built up inside or with the political parties (that control the board),” Piel says, referring to the 43-seat board that is carefully balanced to reflect the strength of the state’s political parties.

Despite that, her sizable victory forced the other candidates — including pubcaster ZDF editor-in-chief Nikolaus Brender and NDR corporate attorney Werner Hahn — to withdraw.

Some ballots for pubcaster toppers turn into farces when rival parties block each other’s candidates so that the office-holder has to stay on the job, as Pleitgen was willing to do if no agreement emerged.

In a country that a year ago elected Angela Merkel its first woman chancellor but where woman are mostly excluded from corporate boardrooms, Piel’s rise is extraordinary. The 55-year-old mother of a 20-year-old daughter has spent most of the last 30 years working as a radio reporter and later manager within WDR.

Male critics were quick to point out her long loyalty to WDR was, in this case, a drawback because she did not have experience elsewhere.

There also were naysayers who claimed in a widely quoted anonymous letter that she unfairly gave special treatment to her husband, a WDR radio moderator.

And some argued Piel would not be as tough interviewing political leaders in high-profile programs as men toppers are.

WDR, the web with the most clout in the ARD empire, covering Germany’s most populous state North Rhine-Westphalia, will likely never be the same.

Her chief challenge will be to attract younger viewers to lower the audience age, currently at an average of 60 years. Private webs have considerably younger viewers.

Pleitgen, who was eager to see a successor who would stand up to forces that might erode WDR’s independence, had pushed Piel to try for the job.

Asked what the differences are between men and women as managers, Piel says she has seen only one: Women can’t keep up with men when it comes to drinking. “In that area, I do have more of a woman’s liver.”

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