Incoming NPR CEO Makes Case For Public Funding, Will Look At All Sources

Oct 3, 2011
Originally published on October 3, 2011 4:51 pm

"Public radio needs to do a better job of making the case" for public funding as one of its revenue sources, the incoming CEO and president of NPR said this afternoon.

But Gary Knell, who is leaving the top job at Sesame Workshop to join NPR on Dec. 1, also told All Things Considered host Melissa Block that "we do have a mosaic of funding that includes the private sector" and that part of his job will involve being "more creative in tapping those resources" — from foundations to the millions of NPR members.

Knell is replacing Vivian Schiller, who stepped down in March amid controversies that led NPR's board of directors to conclude that she could no longer effectively run the organization. The controversies — over the dismissal of analyst Juan Williams and comments about the Tea Party made by an NPR fundraiser — gave fuel to efforts by some lawmakers to cut off federal funding to NPR.

NPR receives about 2 percent of its budget each year from the federally funded Corporation for Public Broadcasting and federal agencies — but public radio stations that purchase NPR's programming receive more federal dollars and send some of that money back to NPR in fees. In fiscal 2008, for example, grants from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting accounted for about 10 percent of public radio stations' revenue. The stations got about 6 percent of their revenue from other federal, state and local government sources.

On All Things Considered, Knell said that NPR is akin to "public libraries and public museums," which also receive government support. And at a time when commercial radio stations and local newspapers are cutting coverage of local news, the role of public radio is more important that ever, he argued. "We really need to have local news coverage to have an informed citizenry," Knell said.

The incoming CEO also addressed the question of how the CEO of an organization best known for producing Sesame Street is ready to be the CEO of a major news outlet. Sesame Workshop, he said, is "a content company. ... We take our work very seriously — as seriously as the journalists here take their work."

Just as parents trust their children to Sesame Street and its material, the 57-year-old Knell said, there is a "parallel responsibility" at NPR "to get the story right, to feed an accurate story that's fair and to deliver great content."

Click here to find an NPR station that broadcasts or streams All Things Considered. Later, we'll add the as-broadcast version of the conversation to the top of this post.

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Gary Knells joins me here in the studio. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, and to NPR.

GARY KNELL: Well, Melissa, it's really great to be here. Thanks.

BLOCK: Great. I've been seeing some video of you standing side-by-side with Elmo or with Grover - a variety of "Sesame Street" characters. Very different worlds, obviously, coming from Sesame Workshop to NPR. How do you think your experience there qualifies you, if it does, to run what is an international news organization? - primary news source for millions of people.

KNELL: And I think there's a parallel responsibility here, in the world of journalism, to get the story right, to feed an accurate story that's fair, and deliver great content. So I think what I've been doing is running a media organization through this kind of turbulent landscape, which everyone is feeling. Hopefully, I'll be able to bring those skills over here, and see our way to a great digital future in public radio.

BLOCK: I mentioned the renewed moves in Congress to stop funding public radio. NPR gets about 2 percent of its budget through grants from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. But member stations get far more - an average of about 15 percent of their budget. Would NPR and public radio stations be better off without federal funding? You do hear this argument a lot.

KNELL: Yeah. I mean, I don't think so. I think - look, I think public radio has to do a better job in making the case. I think as we look at the landscape of news in this country, commercial radio's pretty much abandoned serious news on a local basis. Newspapers are falling by the wayside every single day. There's a case to be made that we really need to have local news coverage to have an informed citizenry, and a lot of places in this country that just lack that. There is a need to have public funding, and I think it needs to be better articulated. But I would say that, you know, we've got to look at every one of our funding sources.

BLOCK: I was reading a tweet from your predecessor in this job, the former CEO of NPR, Vivian Schiller. She was ousted in March. She said this about your selection: Best shot to liberate pub radio from untenable reliance on federal money. Untenable reliance, do you see it that way?

KNELL: Well, with all due respect to Vivian, I think what she was hinting at was my desire to be a builder and to be entrepreneurial, and to try to look at all ways to grow funding. I mean, I'm not willing to throw in the towel, if that's what the question is. I think that would be a mistake. I think this is an essential service that should be promoted. I think we've got to grow the enterprise, and we've got to look at all of these pieces of funding for NPR, going forward. So I take her comment as a compliment, and we'll leave it there.

BLOCK: But if she says it's untenable, you would say no?

KNELL: I don't think - look, it's been around for - what, it started in 1969? We're 42 or 43 years later, you know. Public broadcasting has - this isn't the first time it's been kind of battered around on Capitol Hill, and it survived because it has huge public support. There's 35 million listeners of NPR every month, in every state and community in this country. And they bring some political clout, I think, in terms of making the case. It's an essential part of their daily lives, maybe just as libraries and schools and museums are, and other things in their community at the end...

BLOCK: Those are all things that are being cut, too - libraries, museums and schools.

KNELL: Sure, OK. But it doesn't mean you don't fight for them. And I would certainly fight pretty hard to keep my library open in my town.

BLOCK: What do you think the political reality is right now on Capitol Hill regarding funding for public radio?

KNELL: The political environment is difficult for everybody, so I don't think it's just about public radio or public television. It's a very tough environment. And anyone who is trying to make the case for public funding's going to have to work twice as hard to make that case going forward, and that's going to be the challenge going ahead.

BLOCK: Gary Knell, the new president and CEO of NPR, thanks very much.

KNELL: Great to be here. Thanks so much.


GUY RAZ, Host:

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