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NPR CEO Gary Knell's First Day At Work


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. Wanted: a high-powered executive to run a nonprofit, far-flung public radio organization. Pluses include a trusted name, award-winning news and music programs, a growing audience and a talented staff. Minuses: some funding problems, a few self-inflicted controversies, the transition to digital media and staff who all think they're smarter than you.

Six months after advertising the job, the board of NPR hired a new CEO, but what if that turned out to be you? What would your priorities be as the new head of NPR? Give us a call. 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, we'll talk with Nikky Finney, who just won the National Book Award for Poetry for "Head Off & Split."

But first, back to that want ad. Gary Knell takes the helm here at NPR today as president and CEO. He previously spent more than two decades with Sesame Workshop, the organization behind the famous children's television program, and joins us here in Studio 3A. Welcome aboard.

GARY KNELL, BYLINE: Great to be here, Neal.

CONAN: And what's your first priority?

KNELL: Well, I think, you know, we want to have some fun at NPR. I think we have a fantastic product with millions and millions of listeners who support us each and every day, and I want to continue in that tradition and try to work to build a sustainable economic plan for NPR that's going to last for years to come. That's the big uber goal.

CONAN: Well, will that sustainable plan include projections of federal funding continuing for the foreseeable future?

KNELL: Well, you know, I think it's a four-legged stool, Neal, and I think public funding is a piece of that, along with corporate underwriting and foundations and private gifts. And I think what we've been able to do is build a great public-private partnership for over 40 years, and we think that should continue.

I happen to believe that public funding is an important leg on that stool, because it's - it is about supporting primarily state and local journalism in many stations and states in the country where, if public radio were to go away, where there's - becomes sort of news deserts, with newspapers and commercial radio stations abandoning serious news in many ways, that would be a bad thing for America. And I think that's a case that needs to be made to the Congress maybe more effectively.

CONAN: I should just unpack one of those words you used, which we're all familiar with in public broadcasting, underwriting, which any other listener would completely mistake for something that would sound like a commercial.

KNELL: Yeah, maybe. You know, but I think, you know, it's really about corporate supporters of public radio who believe in the cause and are supporting the programs and, obviously, getting their messages out and trying to reach our audience.

CONAN: In terms of the public funding, we've already seen state funding in many places across the country cut - to zero in places like Florida and New Jersey - and threatened very much in other places. Do you fear other states will follow suit?

KNELL: Well, look, it's a tough time. It's a tough time for America, and we're not immune and we shouldn't be immune from questions and looking at how effective and how essential we are to the future of our country. And I think we should be considered along with museums and libraries and other things that are important to our culture and important to an informed citizenry. I think that's what NPR and public radio stand for, and I think we have a case to be made.

CONAN: The Senate, controlled by Democrats, put funding for public broadcasting - not just radio, but TV - back into the budget this year after it was cut by the House of Representatives. It eventually survived. But one of the presidential candidates, Mitt Romney, says PBS, NEH and NEA are wonderful things that we can no longer afford. The - Newt Gingrich, the other current frontrunner, has said - well, he tried to cut public broadcasting back in '94 as speaker of the House.

So do you feel that this is something that can be counted on in the future? Are you planning for a future that does not include federal funding?

KNELL: Well, look, I think you've got to look at all these things, and even the private funding is susceptible to headwinds in terms of economic pressures on people, on companies, on foundations and other things. So public funding is no different, and it's not - I'm not going to count on anything. I think we can't take anything for granted, Neal. I think we've got to push forward and make the best case we possibly can and, you know, really push for the best and put our best foot forward. That's all we can do, and work like heck to try to secure that funding.

CONAN: Email from Kevin in Davison, Michigan: We would not have to worry about federal funding if more members contributed. I love when shows like THIS AMERICAN LIFE and RADIO LAB offer the opportunity to send a text to have a $10 donation to the show added to my phone bill. NPR should consider doing this. It'd be a quick, easy way to help give and fund my primary source for news and entertainment.

KNELL: Totally agree. I mean, I think - look, we're in the digital age now. We should be no different. We are a mission-driven organization. It's a public trust. We're not owned by a company. We don't have shareholders, so to speak, and we don't have to declare dividends and profits. So this is an organization that is really owned, in many ways, by the American people, and we do need those private contributions.

CONAN: It's owned, in some other ways, by the public radio system, who dominate the board, station managers. In some ways, of course, they're your boss. In other ways, they're also your customers. Is that a plus or a minus?

KNELL: It's a plus. Each of those, Neal, are nonprofit, local public radio organizations that are very much based in community/ And I think in this day and age - especially, as I said before - when newspapers and local commercial radio stations have abandoned, in many ways, informing the public about local and state issues, this is the time for local public radio.

So it's not an either-or proposition. This is part of a collective where the local stations can provide that important local coverage and NPR can provide that really critical national and global coverage, which I think we do a pretty darn good job at doing.

CONAN: And that's the main part of our business. We also - NPR music is pretty important, too.

KNELL: Absolutely. And music and cultural programming. I dare to say, those genres like classical music, jazz, singer-songwriter music, these are things that, without public radio, would have a very hard time. And these, to me, are - and I know a lot of other people - are critical parts of the future of American culture.

CONAN: Let's get some callers in on the conversation. We want to give them the primary role in this inquisition. 800-989-8255. Email: TALK@npr.org. Our guest is Gary Knell, the president and CEO of NPR as of today.

We'll start with John, and John's on the line with us from Murfreesboro in Tennessee.

JOHN: Hi. I would like to ask if there would be a possibility that we could, as donors , individual donors, contribute toward foreign correspondence, like Navarro's coverage in Egypt, and if we want to donate our general donation in addition to selective donations towards causes such as what she's covering. Is there a possibility to do that?

Or on the morning show with Tom Ashbrook, is there a way that he could travel through the markets to cover the coverages of the topics that he's discussing? Is there traditional, you know, on-the-road type coverage? We would like to see that, because if he's covering an issue within a general area, it'd be nice to see him actually come to the location. He's got a lot of following, and I think that would generate some...

CONAN: And you were talking, John, about Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR foreign correspondent. Gary Knell?

KNELL: Neal, you might be in a better position to answer this than I am, because, as you go out as a host to different - I know a lot of our hosts and a lot of our amazing journalists travel the country a lot, John, in trying to reach local audiences in different parts of the country.

And, obviously, you have the choice of contributing to your local public radio station or to NPR through npr.org, and we would welcome that. And the idea, I think, is a good one of supporting - in this case, that you're mentioning foreign coverage, which is so critical, I think, to the future of our country to have an informed citizenry, and NPR has 17 foreign bureaus. It's more bureaus than any other broadcast organization in the United States right now - pretty darned impressive.

CONAN: And we're - it's very expensive to take the show on the road, John. It's part of the reason...

JOHN: Right.

CONAN: ...that show and this show - though we're going to be experimenting with taking Political Junkie on the road to places like Des Moines, Iowa and to New Hampshire before the primary and to Orlando, Florida before that primary. So we're taking up your idea.

JOHN: Thank you.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the phone call. This is another email, this - how about - you've been involved in public television for many years. In what ways do you think public radio's situation is like that, or unlike that of public television?

KNELL: That's a really good question. I think, obviously, they're both public media organizations that have been around, were invented around the same time, about 40-some years ago.

I think the public television play, so to speak, in many ways, and its future really is around education, which is what I was trying to promote at Sesame Workshop in many ways and trying to move the needle with pre-K education. PBS is the only place on the dial that does work with six to nine-year-olds. There's really a desert of programming of educational quality for those kids who get beyond preschool on television. It really doesn't exist outside of PBS.

And in radio, I think it's a different value proposition. I think it's the things we've been talking about in terms of local and state journalism. It's in terms of cultural music programming, etc. So I think they're slightly different value propositions, as those media have changed over the last few years, and they're evolving with the disaggregation of media into the digital landscape.

CONAN: Bill Moyers just gave a really interesting speech to public television broadcasters in which he took them to task for, among other things, their organization - or some might say lack of same.

He suggested that the system they're working under now is more like the Articles of Confederation, the first Constitution of the United States, if you will, and it's time for a system-wide meeting for everybody to get together and figure things out again.

Is it time for public radio - we've been in business exactly as long as public television. Is it time for public radio to reconsider some fundamental organizations?

KNELL: Yeah. I'm certainly open to all suggestions at this point, having been on the job for about 20 minutes. But I do feel that, unlike public television, Neal, I think that public radio has lived in what I would call a cabled universe for many years.

Public television, remember, has been sitting in a universe with lots of different channels, and one could argue about, you know, its unique service against that different sets of channels who are servicing news and documentaries and science programming and dramas and things like that that exist a little more proactively in the television universe.

In radio, there is no commercial, serious journalistic effort, except in one or two local markets, like New York and LA. There is no classical music to speak of. There is no jazz music on the radio.

So I think public radio has built a fairly distinct service in a multichannel universe, which is somewhat different from the television landscape. So I don't think we need a total rethink in radio. I do think the future, as I said, in television is really about pushing education, which PBS is very good at. And in radio, it's really about taking advantage of our strength today and pushing that forward.

CONAN: First lesson: You hear the music, it means we've got to go to a break. Stay with us, though. We're talking with Gary Knell, NPR's new president and CEO, and more of your calls in a moment. If you were in his shoes, what would your priorities be as the new head of NPR? 800-989-8255. Email us: TALK@NPR.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. NPR's new CEO, Gary Knell, showed up at the office this morning at 4:45 AM, his first day on the job. Since accepting the position in October, he's visited with stations and with many people here at NPR.

Today, he joins us in Studio 3A to take your calls. Imagine you were the new CEO. What would your priorities be as the new head of NPR? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Just after our show at 3:00 Eastern time, Gary Knell will take your questions on Twitter. You can find him @nprgaryknell, all one word. Knell is spelled K-N-E-L-L, and questions can be tagged nprceo - again, all one word.

And a couple of emails, this from Cherry in San Francisco: I feel dubious about someone whose first description of NPR is a product. And David in Palo Alto picked up on the same point. When did NPR become a product, not a service? I know this sounds nitpicky, but there is an important distinction in the corporate world. A product is something for sale or profit. A service is something which is provided, hopefully, independent of vested interests. This country desperately needs information services which are passionately independent and neutral, not a product for sale.

KNELL: Yeah. I take your point, and I guess I don't draw the distinction as much, and, to me, it's not meant to be pejorative term. I think product is really the content offering, which we can also call a service to the American public. And it's that content offering that I'm referring to that is the most important thing we do in National Public Radio.

CONAN: Let's go next to Peter, Peter calling from Berkeley.

PETER: Well, thanks for this opportunity. Congratulations, sir, on your new job.

KNELL: Thanks.

PETER: If I were president of NPR, I would aggressively promote more public awareness of the real and present danger of nuclear winter, per Alan Robock's shocking and informative comment in Nature magazine last May that new climate models show that it would be far, far, far fewer actual explosions that could trigger this, and the public has an emergency right and need to know.

And what I would do about it, in addition, would be to aggressively hook up with foreign news services and international news bureaus, as you already do so well. But I would really pursue that more on a global level - Radio Russia, Radio India, Radio China, Radio Africa. Hook us all up regularly and do proactive citizen participation, conflict resolution, as well as news reporting, because we have to get ourselves out of this danger.

CONAN: Peter, thanks very much for the suggestion. Appreciate it.

KNELL: Well, thanks, Peter. And, you know, I think one of the distinctive things about NPR is our onsite reporting. And as I mentioned, we have 17 foreign bureaus and a huge collective, I think, of people on the ground who are in those places in which you're referring as, quote-unquote, "hot spots," I think, in the world, that we can be on the ground and be close to them. And I think that is the difference between us and other American news organizations.

CONAN: Your background is not in journalism, but I have to ask you a journalistic question which arises from that call. A lot of listeners would like NPR to take advocacy positions on things like nuclear winter or global climate change or other issues. Does a news organization threaten its journalistic reputation if it takes up advocacy?

KNELL: Well, I don't think we should be, as an organization, taking up advocacy. And, in fact, I think it's probably barred by our charter, so - and the law, I think, which founded NPR. So it's really about fairness and accuracy and honesty in reporting so that our audience can make up their own minds and decide which issues they want to advocate on. That's really the role of public radio.

CONAN: Let's go next to George, a heavy West Coast contingent on today. He's calling from San Francisco.

GEORGE: Well, thank you. You know, we look forward to seeing your ongoing success in this office. And, for starters, what we need is an hour-long magazine program that can actually go into some depth with a political ear. In other words, MORNING EDITION and ALL THINGS CONSIDERED are two-hour turnaround programs that are magazine shows that have a lot of coverage of local and national politics. But if we had an hour magazine, we could fit it into our local public radio station. That would give us an overview of the political season coming up in 2012. It would fit into the NPR lineup. What do you think?

CONAN: Hope you tune in Wednesdays. But anyway, Gary Knell?

KNELL: Well, I mean, I agree with Neal. I think, you know, we have windows in our programs like TALK OF THE NATION and others that we are really going to focus on election coverage. And it's going to be a big priority for our news desk in 2012, and I look forward to that and I hope you will be satisfied as we're promising that our coverage will be extensive and comprehensive in 2012.

CONAN: It is, George, difficult, sometimes, to create special programs. An hour length is a good idea. That's what most public radio programs are - or two hours, as MORNING EDITION or ALL THINGS CONSIDERED are. But places have their schedules set many months in advance, and to put new programs into a schedule requires years of preparation. It's not a quick turnaround.

GEORGE: Oh, we know it's a tough call, you know. We're counting on you to be quick on your feet, Gary.

KNELL: Okay. Thanks, George.

CONAN: Thanks. Here's an email from Sandra: What about programming specifically for children? Many European countries, for example, have children's news shows or evening stories for children, just a short segment for short attention spans. This may be a good way to have children grow up getting used to radio as an important part of their day. And if they always listen to the radio, then they probably are more likely to support the concept of public radio when they grow up.

KNELL: Well, I agree completely. It's a - and, look, I've just spent two decades in children's media. And you may not know this, but at Sesame Workshop, you know, we publish over 150 books a year, for instance, even though we're thought of as a television company.

The - NPR has started something called the Backseat Book Club, which is really great for kids and part of a public radio program. And I did ask the staff at NPR to give me suggestions, and a number of people here within the building actually brought up the idea of children's radio. And I think we can take a look at some programming to bring in a younger demographic, which I think, as you point out, is critical to the future growth of public radio.

CONAN: Let's go next to Kelly, Kelly with us from Tuscaloosa.

KELLY: Hi. I was curious about your outlook on the restrictions for employees of - on political activism, because, as a schoolteacher, I felt like some of the rules that I encountered within the system seemed to tell me that, while I was teaching students to be good, civic-minded people, I was limited myself outside of my job to wholly participate in my own community. And I feel like that's somewhat what NPR is doing to their employees by not allowing them to fully participate in the system in which they're reporting on.

KNELL: Well, it's a really good question. And, look, it's - I guess I approach this - we are, in addition to our music and cultural programming, primarily a news organization. And I think the important thing here is that our audience does not feel that we are promoting a political agenda. So these questions come in whether there is going to be an impression of a political agenda if reporters, journalists or producers are also advocating political positions.

And I think part of joining a news organization is the need, I think, to present a fair and balanced view and not have that sacrificed in some way, where people can perceive bias.

Now, that's the goal, and I think, you know, there's a lot of gray areas that fit in that I can't prejudge. But that's really what you want, I think, to protect, which is about the integrity of the news organization, so that we are presenting information to the American people and they can make up their own minds about which way they want to go on an issue.

KELLY: What do you think about the judgments that were made prior to you coming onto NPR?

KNELL: Well, yeah. I can't really comment on those because I wasn't here and I don't really know the facts completely. And, frankly, it's time, I think, for NPR to turn the page and move forward, and we'll take them as they come, as they will come. And we'll hopefully make the right calls.

CONAN: Thanks for the call, Kelly.

KELLY: Thank you.

CONAN: Here's an email from John. I'm a longtime NPR listener and donor. Are you open or opposed to the NPR network and affiliates becoming a for-profit enterprise? I like the idea. Frankly, I see underwriters as corporate advertisers. ESPN, CBS, ABS all have - I think he means ABC - all have for-profit radio affiliate relationships that distribute their products - or service, if you prefer - very well.

KNELL: Well, you know, I've spent a lifetime at building an entrepreneurial nonprofit organization, and, you know, I have a lot of extensive experience in social entrepreneurship, as they call it, which is a of building ancillary revenue bases for nonprofit organizations, at "Sesame Street" and other places. And I think in NPR, for instance, I think there are ways that we can achieve things like the BBC has done in the UK, where you're not sacrificing the integrity of the nonprofit service, but you're driving, you know, a deeper engagement for listeners or through other programs, such as Lonely Planet being bought by the BBC to promote a travel engagement, things like that.

So I think, at NPR, we can look at opportunities like that in licensing and many ways in which universities have done the same thing to promote their brands. NPR has got a very loyal set of listeners and followers who would support, I think, ways of funding NPR that are nontraditional, and we will be unlocking that and taking a look at whether that's an area of growth for us.

CONAN: Let's go next to Vlad(ph), another caller from San Francisco. Vlad, are you there?

VLAD: Yes. I am.

CONAN: You're on the air. Go ahead.

VLAD: Well, I just think NPR could make some money by offering some of its kind of more subtle things that it does like the musical transitions between the segues, between shows. I love that music. I actually know a lot of the artists, and if I knew that buying those songs, just like I would in iTunes, went to NPR, I would totally do that.

CONAN: If Bob - if I didn't know Bob Boilen was in the building, I'd suspect you were - he was putting on your voice, Vlad. But go ahead, Gary Knell.

KNELL: Well, first off, Neal, without getting in trouble here, the theme song on this show is - how fabulous is that? What a great theme song. But, secondly, I was just on MORNING EDITION, sitting in this morning, and I commented on how brilliant the music transitions were. This is a real art form, of trying to connect the music transitions to the serious news content. And these guys do a great job of it. I think it's a fantastic idea, Vlad, and we'll follow up on it.

CONAN: Thanks very much.

VLAD: Make it available in the app, please.


CONAN: OK. Well, speaking of new technology, NPR's major news programs, I think, including this one, are not available as podcasts, or at least not in full. How come?

KNELL: Well, I think the answer is we want to make sure that people are connecting with their local public radio station and finding TALK OF THE NATION or MORNING EDITION through their local public radio station, and this is a balance that we've got to do in the digital transformation as well. And that's part of, I think, the formula that's made public radio so successful over the years. That's what we'll be working on, Neal, and we want to make TALK OF THE NATION available to as many people as possible to hear your show.

CONAN: Here, here. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Gary Knell is our guest. He's the president and CEO of NPR starting today. Here's an email along the same lines from E.R. Cox(ph) in Florida. I just contributed to 91.3 WLRN, but Mom and I are no longer contributing to our classical station, 89.7 Miami, because they refuse to run a brief spot informing the majority Spanish-speaking community of their opportunity to contribute. I've often tried to alert them to the fact that if they're eliminating a large part of their potential support by not giving them the respect of a brief plea for support in Spanish.

Which raises the question, the audience now is what it is, how do you see the audience in the future? What parts of the populace do you want to reach out to and expand into?

KNELL: Yeah. That's a really good question, Neal, and I appreciate the listener's question as well. I think we've got to expand our demographics, and I think, you know, we shouldn't rule out second-language programming - Spanish among them, Mandarin and other programming. I think this is really a way of reaching people who are living in America and who also need to benefit, I think, from the news and information and cultural content that we have. It's a good idea. I think it's something we can explore.

The other way of stretching the demography is through age, and it's very important that we have a very robust digital play because most young people are accessing audio content like ours, Neal, in digital platforms and on demand. And we have to be able to figure out the right balancing act with local stations who are building their own robust digital platforms with the help of NPR, many of them. And having that moving forward as one NPR and one public radio system is really important. And accessing people where they are, when they want it on their time, that's going to be really important to the future of public radio.

CONAN: And you're betraying my own age and lack of need to go download TALK OF THE NATION. Apparently, it is available as a podcast. So I apologize for the error. Let's go next to Leon(ph). Leon calling from Oakland.

LEON: Hi. I think my priority would be to retain corporate sponsorship but get rid of the little basically mini commercials that the corporations play - that NPR plays for the corporations on the radio. So I think it's OK to say brought to you by and the company name, but I don't like the prerecorded spots that makes it feel like there's undue influence on the content based on who the sponsors are.

CONAN: Well, there's no prerecorded spots. The announcer who says made possible by a grant from XYZ Corporation, makers of the...

LEON: I mean one that says like...

CONAN: ...product.

LEON: ...brought to you by Archer Daniels Midland, and then there's a long recording where they...

CONAN: No, I don't think it's longer than 15 seconds. But, anyway, Gary Knell, go ahead.

KNELL: Yeah. I think I certainly take the point, and I think the key here is not having a perception of bias, and this is really about having a diversity of funders. Having been in this world for several decades, what I've concluded is that the more funders you have, you don't want to be totally beholden to corporate underwriters nor totally beholden to government funding nor totally beholden to major gifts nor totally beholden to foundations. I think what you want to have is a, you know, a group, as many as possible, which gives you to the public an appearance that - and a perception which is more based in reality that you're really not beholden to any one special interest, but you're really part of that public trust of different members of the American public contributing to this common cause of public radio.

CONAN: Leon, thanks very much. We just have a few seconds left with you, Gary Knell, but you've got some major decisions to make about important positions that are open. Given recent events, how quickly you going to move to fill those jobs?

KNELL: Well, I certainly have this at the top of my list, and we have a great executive team here at NPR and a fantastic news organization. And I want to take a little bit of time to assess that and how we're organized and be able to put forth a plan for our board of directors and implement that very soon in 2012.

CONAN: Gary Knell, I know all the listeners and everybody in immediate view wishes you the best of luck because we're all in this together.

KNELL: Great. Thank you, Neal. Thanks so much.

CONAN: Gary Knell is the new president and CEO of NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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