Does new NPR CEO Gary Knell deliver what member stations want?

To say that Gary Knell will face challenges as NPR’s new CEO and president is an understatement.

He’ll assume leadership over an organization that, in the past year, lost its CEO, senior vice president for development and senior vice president for news. He’ll have to deal with a serious threat to federal funding and make himself known to the public radio folks who had never heard of him before he was named their leader. 

Earlier this year, I talked with the heads of some member stations about what they wanted in NPR’s next CEO. I talked with them again this week to hear whether Knell fits what they wanted.

Embracing change while also upholding NPR’s values, history

When I spoke with him in March, John Weatherford, chief operating officer of Public Broadcasting Atlanta, said he hoped the new CEO would embrace change and also have an understanding of “the basics, framework and cultural heritage of NPR.”

Knell has a background in public television but will inevitably have to learn more about the inner workings of NPR. In a phone interview, Knell said he plans to interact with NPR's journalists to gain a deeper understanding of the organization.

“I think what I want to learn from them is their perspective on NPR, how they work the role of local stations in contributing to the body of work that gets distributed nationally and how they view the digital distribution options -- which have been welcomed or thrust upon them, depending on how you look at it,” Knell said. “I want to give them the resources to continue to do what they do best -- which is produce great journalism.”

Knell, who received his undergraduate degree in journalism and political science, is an adviser to some media-affiliated organizations, including WFUV Radio in New York and the University of Southern California's Annenberg School of Communications. But this will be the first time he’s worked full-time in a newsroom.

Knell’s lack of newsroom experience, particularly in radio, caught WBUR’s Sam Fleming by surprise. “I think his name came out of the blue for most of us in the public media world,” said Fleming, director of news and programming. “I’ve never heard his name mentioned before. Those who work at stations that have public TV stations -- maybe they knew of him because of his public TV record. But for those of us who only work in radio, which includes virtually everyone at NPR, my guess is that they didn't know him.”

Knell’s two most recent predecessors -- Vivian Schiller and Kevin Klose -- had both worked in traditional newsrooms. But Klose’s predecessor, Delano Lewis, didn’t have newsroom experience.

Torey Malatia, CEO of WBEZ-Chicago, isn’t too worried.

“I don’t know if a lot is resting on the CEO’s ability to talk journalism. I think it’s more important that one leads the organization in such a way that it continues to attract and keep great journalists there,” Malatia said by phone. “He’s closer than some CEOs have been to the field. It’s not like we’re talking about someone who’s in charge of a production. This is someone who’s administering a whole company.”

Knell, who spoke at a 2009 National Press Club luncheon with Sesame Street's Grover, said working for Sesame Workshop wasn't all fun and games. “People might think it’s a puppet show, but it’s actually a very serious undertaking," said Knell, who's been referred to as “Big Bird’s boss." The Sesame Workshop has done prime-time programming on topics such as economic insecurity and childhood obesity -- programming that Knell considers journalistic.

Refocusing NPR, emphasizing hard news

WBUR's Fleming called the controversies from the past year "destabilizing." He said he hoped the new CEO would restore a sense of calm and place an emphasis on quality journalism.

Fleming isn’t worried about Knell’s lack of first-hand journalism experience but does wonder whether he'll advocate for hard news. Fleming took note when Knell said he wanted to figure out “a game plan to make sure that 10 years from now, NPR is in a sustainable place to do the journalism and cultural content that it does.”

“I'm more worried about the news part of NPR” than the cultural content, Fleming said by phone. “I'm just hoping that he doesn't lose what I think was and has been a good focus for NPR, which is the news and the journalism.”

Calling hard news “the core of the operation,” Knell told me he sees value in both hard-hitting news and arts-related content, such as NPR’s musical programs.

Addressing arguments for -- and against -- federal funding

WBEZ's Malatia said he thinks that in the recent past, NPR has focused on fundraising to a fault.

“The way fundraising works in nonprofits is, essentially the mission drives monetary stability, not the other way around,” Malatia told me this week, reiterating a point he made earlier in the year. "It seemed to me that there was a great deal of time in the past where I felt that there wasn’t as much attention on today’s product and tomorrow’s product as there was on monetization."

It would be hard not to focus on fundraising, given that NPR and its member stations are at risk of losing federal dollars. Former vice president for development Ron Schiller had suggested that NPR would be “better off in the long run” without federal funding. Jeff Jarvis and Jay Rosen argued that NPR should renounce federal funds so it can rid itself of political strings and pressure.

Knell doesn’t see it that way, though. He considers federal funding essential to the survival of NPR’s smaller stations. “In some places, with closed newspapers and commercial radio abandoning the newsrooms that they used to have, the only place to get local news is your public radio station,” Knell said. “I think we have to make that case.”

Knell plans to draw on his fundraising experience and “work like heck” to promote federal funding.

“I’m going to make the case for it but also make sure that we have a strong foundation in our other sources of funding," he said. "We’re fortunate to do a lot of great work on the foundation side, and on the corporate underwriting side, and I think we need to make sure that we have plans in place.”

Drawing a connection with member stations

Fleming said that ideally, NPR's CEO would visit some member stations and get to know the people who lead them.

“Presumably, [Knell will] go and come out and meet us and find out what our needs are and how we fit into the game plan and the future,” Fleming said. “And he’ll put that into his thinking in terms of what the long-term strategy is. Since he came from a program that worked with PBS and had PBS stations as part of his interaction, maybe that'll make it easier for him to understand what that relationship might be. But public radio is different from public TV.”

Knell said that by nature of working in public broadcasting, he already knows many people from NPR’s member stations.

“My mailbox is filled with a lot of nice notes from many station managers. I’m no stranger to the system,” Knell said. “I think the local station power within this framework of public radio is a huge asset, especially when you’re trying to make the case for public funding.”

Knell plans to visit several of the member stations so he can learn what issues they're facing.

Malatia, who had never heard of Knell before he was named CEO, doesn't expect him to visit WBEZ. “It would be nice to sit down and have a cup of coffee, but if that never happens, it’s OK. If the product is the best it can be, if the standards remain high and the work is excellent and the staff at National Public Radio and everyone is doing really fine work, then I can’t think of anything that would be more important to us than that.”

Re-evaluating NPR’s governance, choosing new leaders

Malatia said he hoped NPR’s next CEO would re-evaluate the organization's governance structure, which has been criticized in recent years.

It’s too soon to tell if any changes will be made to NPR’s governance structure, and we still don't know who will fill Ron Schiller’s and Ellen Weiss’ positions. NPR decided months ago to delay the searches for these positions until after the new CEO came on board. Knell still needs time to figure out what he's looking for in NPR's next senior vice president of news and senior vice president for development.

“That’ll be one of the first orders of business on the news side, but first I need to spend more time in the newsroom,” he said. “I haven't really had a chance at all to analyze the current staff and what our needs might be.”

Given everything that’s happened at NPR throughout the past year, Knell hopes to promote unity within the organization.

"There shouldn’t be a corporate NPR and a newsroom NPR," he said. “I think it’s important, as I told the staff, that there’s one NPR."

  • Mallary Jean Tenore

    As managing editor of The Poynter Institute’s website,, I report on the media news industry, edit the site’s How To section, and moderate the site's live chats. I also help handle the site's social media efforts, and teach social media sessions on the side.


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