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New Head of NPR: A Bruin


By Sandy Siegel '72

Published Apr 1, 2012 8:00 AM

Rocked by controversy in 2011, including the resignation of its chief executive, NPR launched a search for a new president and CEO. They found public television veteran Gary Knell '75, who was tapped to lead the venerable public radio operation in October. The former CEO of Sesame Workshop, Knell helped turn Sesame Street into a more global brand, ushering the iconic children's TV program into the digital age. Similar change is in the air for NPR's 26 million-plus listeners with Knell at the helm.


Photo by Lise Metzger.

Q: From Big Bird to a big undertaking. What prompted you to take this job?

Retelling the story

For more about Gary Knell's plans for NPR, read this L.A. Times article.

A: I felt like I had one more big thing left to do, and I only wanted to go to an organization that would have an even greater impact than the one I was in. NPR is one of those places. It's a very powerful brand that has high emotional value—mostly positive, some a little negative—and a fan base that is very dedicated. I've done a lot of work running a global media company, taking them through this digital transition, which is affecting all media. So I just decided, let's take a shot at this. I'm not na├»ve about it. But I'm excited about the challenge.

Q: You're a self-professed "NPR groupie." What do you listen to?

A: Morning Edition is kind of on every day. I'm a big fan of Weekend Edition Saturday, as well as a lot of the music programs. I'm a follower of most all of the programs, so I didn't walk into the job saying, "What's that show? I never heard of that before." What's been fun is meeting all these personalities I've listened to over the years.

Q: Are you getting a crash course in Public Radio 101?

A: Hopefully, it's more of a course than a crash. It's an organization that's been through some tumult—they've had a number of CEOs in the last few years. The joke is that the job has the lifespan of being the president of Afghanistan. Hopefully, I'll outdo that.

Q: Then there's the touchy issue of funding. How much does the government kick in?

A: On average, about 10 to 15 percent of the public-radio economy is from the public sector. But NPR itself gets no annual appropriation funds from Congress. The funding goes to the stations, and they use that to help pay for Morning Edition, All Things Considered and other shows that they think are important. The rest of the money comes from member dollars, corporate underwriters and charitable foundations. It's sort of a four-legged stool.

Q: Some people would prefer a three-legged stool.

A: There are people in Congress who have questioned funding public broadcasting in a time when we're facing these massive debts. I believe that, like museums and libraries, public radio is something where some proportion of the funding should be government supported. In some states, government funding makes up 40 or 50 percent of station incomes, and without it, those stations risk going dark. We believe that this is an important thing to keep going to provide news and information to people in rural America and in less-populated states. We have our work cut out for us to convince these people that public radio is an important priority. I'm cautiously optimistic that we'll be able to do that.

Q: You've talked about trying to reach a broader spectrum of listeners.

A: We do need to diversify our audience, ethnically, geographically, politically and age-wise. On the age issue, this is about being on mobile devices. Wayne Gretzky, the great hockey player, when asked why he was so successful, said, "I skate to where the puck is going." That's how we need to look at it: Where are younger people getting their news? They're not reading a print newspaper. As my son says, "Why would I want to read yesterday's news?" And they're not listening to radio the way you and I did growing up. They're listening on iPads and iPods and smartphones, and they're connecting in very different ways—portable, on demand—as these devices get smaller, faster and cheaper. Which is going to continue whether we like it or not.

Q: So this is not your father's NPR.

A: We've got to just continue to be ahead of the curve here. I like to quote Gen. Eric Shinseki, who's now secretary of Veterans Affairs: "If you don't like change, you'll like irrelevance even less."

Q: Any plans for an NPR version of your previous position's "Gary's Blog: On the Road with Big Bird's Boss"?

A: I'll be blogging. There's a big debate about what to call it. "To Knell and Back" seems to be winning.

Q: "For Whom the Knell Tolls"?

A: That was one suggestion. I'm also tweeting and touting, which is a video tweet. Social media is a big part of our diet.

Q: What's your personal mission?

A: I want to provide an economically sustainable model for NPR. I want to work with the local stations, having a set of agreed upon strategies that will make our content as easily available as possible, while protecting our national/local balance. And I'd love to see us take the lead with a couple of other news organizations on the resurgence of journalism, which is under some assault in this country.

Q: While at UCLA, you worked on the Daily Bruin.

A: I probably spent more time there than I did on any other single activity. It was a way of personalizing the campus and opening up windows to the administration, seeing how the university was being run. You really felt like you were making a difference in the governance of the institution that you were attending.

Q: Does working at NPR speak to that youthful idealism?

A: Definitely. I've always had a kinship with journalists, because they're curious about the world. In a certain way, it's about choosing to save the world through telling a narrative about life and events that we're living through in a way that people can understand. And some of that is to question authority, it's to take on the powers that be, it's not always being everybody's best friend. It's challenging society to be better.

Q: Where would you like to see NPR five years from now?

A: I'd like to see NPR viewed as America's premier news organization primarily, and as a place that's protecting and promoting our cultural icons, especially in music genres like classical music, jazz and singer-songwriter independent music. We are pretty much the only places in the entire country where you can find that kind of cultural content.

Watch new CEO Gary Knell's vision of public radio journalism take shape in real time at NPR's website,