NPR CEO Gary Knell Announces He's Leaving
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
We have some news now from inside NPR. The network's CEO, Gary Knell, announced earlier today that he will leave in November to take the same job at the National Geographic Society. Knell has gotten high marks since taking charge in late 2011 and his departure came as a surprise to NPR staff and leadership. NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik joins us now. And David, you actually spoke to Gary Knell today. What reasons did he give to explain his leaving?
DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Well, no scandal, no drama. But Gary Knell said simply he had an offer that was too appealing to pass up. National Geographic Society is one with which he's been affiliated as a member of the board of their foundation for some years. It is an institution with both an educational mission, a conservation mission, and also one that has a strong television presence.
He used to be the head of Sesame Workshop, the institution behind "Sesame Street." And, of course, in this case the National Geographic has a channel both here and ventures abroad. It's an institution with a global scale. It's an institution that's a lot larger than NPR. Gary Knell said this is just too appealing to pass up.
CORNISH: Now, Knell arrived during a tumultuous time for NPR. Give us a sense of what he was able to accomplish in this time.
FOLKENFLIK: Well, he will have been here two years. It's the full length of his first contract, a short one. He told staffers earlier today that he had expected to re-up and sign a longer one. But he will have established a record of soothing roiled waters after some tough times. There was the termination of Juan Williams that created national controversy. There was, some months later, these undercover videos taken of NPR top fundraising executives by conservative activists. And those led to a series of resignations and departures from NPR.
You know, he said, look, we're going to have calm here; we're going to restore capable management, and was seen to have done so. In addition, he worked to soothe relations with stations; the implementation of the show HERE AND NOW, in conjunction with WBUR, was taken as a big step in that direction. And he's been addressing what's a real looming budget shortfall for this year - about $6 million - seen to be bigger next year, but working with senior managers to come up with a strategy for addressing that.
So he can say, look, I've accomplished a lot of things in a relatively short time. Nobody looks at NPR at this moment, or at least before today, and said there was doubt about the leadership or the integrity of the leadership with his journalism either.
CORNISH: David, there have been obviously many CEOs that have passed through in the last couple of years. What does this say about NPR?
FOLKENFLIK: Well, you're not kidding. I mean, if you think about it, there will have been when he is succeeded, a seventh either acting or permanent CEO in a little over seven years at NPR. I talked to him about that earlier this afternoon and here's what he's had to say about it.
GARY KNELL: This is a strong organization. It has a strong balance sheet. It has an endowment. It's going to be around for many, many years. Morning Edition will come on the air at 5 AM tomorrow morning, hell or high water, and the day after, and the day after that. This is a very strong organization. It's way bigger than, frankly, a CEO.
FOLKENFLIK: But that said, you know, the turnover itself is destabilizing both for the journalists and for the people who want to support NPR externally, particularly people like major donors; they can wonder whether even if they get a new CEO, will that person enact the same kind of priorities?
CORNISH: Meanwhile, what issues will confront his successor?
FOLKENFLIK: Well, I think you're still going to see a real question about the two major prongs, which are the budget shortfalls and the issues of picking what they're going to continue, what they're going to invest in, what they may have to pare back, and the relationship with stations in a really changing media landscape. We've got a more digital age. NPR has to figure out its relationship with its audience and its listeners, even as it gets through, through the most part, to the tens of millions of listeners every week through the member stations themselves.
CORNISH: That's NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik. David, thank you so much.
FOLKENFLIK: You bet.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.