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Now the Details

Media, ethics, and journalism. What works. What doesn't.

Jeffrey Dvorkin

Monday, August 19, 2013

NPR: Leaderless Again

Gary Knell
NPR's recently appointed president and CEO, Gary Knell announced his resignation today. He is leaving after only two years in the job.

Knell came from PBS' Sesame Street Productions, following a period of great managerial turmoil at NPR. The previous president, Vivian Schiller was fired after a series of managerial gaffes that embarrassed many public radio supporters and staff. Knell was brought in to restore management calm. Apparently he did.

To the surprise of almost everyone at NPR today (including much of management) Knell announced he's leaving to run the National Geographic society. Sources say the previous president of National Geo earned $1.4 million plus had access to a private jet. Not quite in public broadcasting's league.

Knell said that money wasn't the issue but it was an opportunity to lead a larger (and presumably more significant) organization. Ouch.

Response from the staff which was called into a quickly assembled meeting, was predictable: harsh and very angry. A quote from the newsroom: "Funny how Vivian's departure marked the end of turmoil... while Gary's marks the start of it." 

What accounts for this tradition of turmoil? NPR has run through half a dozen presidents in less than a dozen years.

The reasons are complex and counter-intuitive for many who know and admire NPR.

Partly, it can be traced to a consistent tension between the mission-driven journalists and the business oriented management. It can be a hard place to be a manager. In commercial media, the goal is to attract eyeballs. So it is in public broadcasting but with a sense of greater good...often difficult to define and harder to sustain.

The governance of NPR is also not without its tensions. More than half members on the NPR board are station managers. That means the customers run the company. NPR is not (and never has been) a network in the way other non-US public broadcasters operate. Or even like CBS or NBC. Not even close. Because the stations pay a hefty sum to NPR for programs, there is a greater sense of ownership, entitlement and tension from the stations. Money talks. Sometime it is broadcast, even at NPR.

At the BBC and the CBC, the company not only owns its network and its programs, it also owns the stations that are obliged to broadcast whatever London or Toronto says they should.

At the CBC, it was not unusual for a local station manager to call the managing editor to suggest the treatment of a story was flawed. At NPR, a station manager would call the VP of News and demand that coverage be changed.

At the BBC, it's the Board of Governors that appoints the head of the BBC. The Board is in turn, appointed by the government. The CBC president is directly appointed by the Prime Minister. There are significant tensions there as well. The program producers in both the UK and Canada are convinced that management is there to assure that there are no political problems.

At NPR, there is almost no direct government interference. NPR presidents are appointed by the board. NPR is, in that sense, more independent than other public broadcasters. At the same time, NPR (and PBS) are more dependent on the vagaries of a fickle and volatile marketplace for funding.

At the CBC money comes from a mixture of advertising and an annual parliamentary allocation of more than $1 billion.

The BBC's funding is greater (it runs a larger national and international service) and comes from a mandatory licence fee that every Briton who owns a TV set must pay - around $300 a year! Parliament has also paid for the BBC World Service, although that may be about to change.

In choosing a leader for NPR, the questions remain: should the President be a business person? Or someone who believes that public broadcasting should be mission-driven? A career-oriented person? Or a journalist and programmer who understands the public radio culture?

Previous presidents have come from varying business backgrounds. Telephone companies, commercial broadcasters, public TV, K Street consulting.

NPR has been beleaguered before. It likely will be again as Republicans never fail to find public broadcasting to be a handy target.

What NPR needs again (and seemed to have in Knell and at least one other president) is a strong advocate to engage the critics while pounding the bully pulpit at NPR for strong journalism and great programming.

The search committee will have its work cut out for it.

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