NPR names ‘Big Bird’s boss’ as its new president, CEO; Sesame Street exec replaces Vivian Schiller

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After months of searching for a top executive to succeed Vivian Schiller, NPR announced Sunday that Gary Knell would become the news organization's new president and CEO. Knell has been CEO of Sesame Workshop since 2000. The 57-year-old fills the spot vacated by Schiller, who tweeted Sunday:

New @npr CEO Gary Knell is an experienced leader, a good man and a friend. Best shot to liberate pubradio from untenable reliance on fed $$

Schiller resigned as CEO in March after the firing of Juan Williams was mishandled under her leadership, and fundraiser Ron Schiller was captured on videotape commenting on conservatives and the Tea Party movement. Ron Schiller's position remains open, as does Ellen Weiss's, the newsroom vice president who resigned over the Williams firing.

NPR's David Folkenflik reports Knell hopes to "calm the waters."

Knell joined Twitter Sunday. His first tweet:

I’m thrilled to join NPR. This is media with a deeply held mission, compelling history and boundless future.

Knell told The New York Times' Brian Stelter he wants NPR to thrive where others have failed:

"We have 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, and that it does not find itself in the ash heap that so many newspapers have found themselves."

Knell believes his Sesame experience will help NPR do that, as he told Folkenflik:

"I've learned how to master our way through a very competitive world out there, and one in which we have not lost our way and our mission, nor our qualitative edge," Knell said in an interview Sunday evening.

Folkenflik, who says "at first blush, NPR might appear to be playing it safe by selecting a chief associated with Big Bird rather than the news business," notes Knell's political experience working with both Democrats and Republicans:

"I'm not naively walking into this," he said. "I think obviously, [NPR has] been caught somewhat in the political crosshairs in Washington. Some of that is undeserved, I think. And what I would really like to see is depoliticizing NPR a little bit, so that it's not caught in those crosshairs." ...

Knell said he would seek to increase funding for NPR's journalism from governmental, corporate and foundation sources. Otherwise, he said, he wants to get out of the way of its journalists, whom he called "amazingly fabulous."

"The point here is that it's not about liberal or conservative. It's about fairness," Knell said. "We've got to make the case that we're delivering a fair service — not only in the way we do our jobs but in the way we disseminate the news."

NPR has been accused of bias and had its funding threatened in the last year.

Knell is taking a pay cut in his new job. The Washington Post's Paul Farhi reports that Knell made $746,144 in 2009, with salary and additional compensation. His compensation at NPR will be "in line with" Schiller's, who made $575,000 in 2010.

Knell, a father of four, has a blog, "Gary's Blog: On the road with Big Bird's Boss." He starts at NPR on December 1.

News Release

Gary E. Knell, the longtime President and CEO of Sesame Workshop, will become President and CEO of NPR, Board of Directors Chairman Dave Edwards announced today.

“Gary is an extraordinary leader with extensive experience in public media, programming and education,” Edwards said.  “As CEO of Sesame Workshop for more than a decade, he has led a large, complex organization through a tumultuous media environment, helping it grow by providing innovative, engaging content in new and creative ways.”

“He has the skills, experience, talent and vision to lead NPR into an even more dynamic future, while maintaining its commitment to serve Member stations and the public,” Edwards added. “That’s why, after an in-depth and collaborative search, the Board unanimously chose Gary.”

“I’m thrilled to join NPR,” Knell said. “Over the past 40 years, it’s grown from an inspired idea to one of the world’s most respected and leading providers of news, music and cultural programming – both on the air and across ever-expanding digital platforms. This is media with a deeply held mission, compelling history and boundless future. Simply put: it’s journalism at its best.  What an opportunity to work with the incredibly talented staff here, and to partner with stations, as we continue to innovate, expand civil dialogue and set the standard for media.”

Knell, whose career in public broadcasting spans nearly three decades, will join NPR on December 1. He became CEO of Sesame Workshop – a collaborative, multimedia organization that maximizes the educational power of media to help children and families reach their highest potential – in 2000. He first joined Sesame in 1989, and became COO in 1998, and CEO in 2000. During his tenure, the organization has expanded its revenue base, audience and global recognition. Knell also has been instrumental in focusing the organization on Sesame Street’s worldwide mission, including the creation of groundbreaking co-productions in South Africa, India, Northern Ireland and Egypt.

Knell was also managing director of Manager Media International, a print and multimedia publishing company based in Bangkok, Hong Kong, and Singapore. He served as senior vice president and general counsel at WNET/Channel 13 in New York, was counsel to the U.S. Senate Judiciary and Governmental Affairs Committees and worked in the California State Legislature and Governor's Office.

Knell is presently a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO, serves as a director of the executive search firm Heidrick & Struggles, is on the board of governors of the National Geographic Education Foundation, and is a board member of AARP Services, Inc., the Jacob Burns Film Center and Save the Children.

He is a longtime public radio listener and supporter, and a member of three NPR stations: WNYC New York, KPLU Seattle, and WFUV New York, where he also serves on the advisory board.

Knell joins NPR at a time of tremendous growth and potential for the organization, and for all of public radio. NPR’s ambitious expansion of its foreign and investigative coverage resulted in tireless reporting on the Arab Spring, and dozens of enterprising investigations into mine safety, national security, assault on college campuses, and health care for the military. As investments in local media continue to shrink or disappear altogether, NPR is leading multiple station collaborations to build the reporting capacity of public radio across all platforms at both the national and local level.


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