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Thursday, July 11, 2013

CEO Re-Imagines NPR as a Pandora of News AND You need a sense of humor to be the CEO of NPR

Public-Radio Network Is Working on Letting Listeners Customize a Playlist Available via Cloud

NPR CEO discusses his management style and why humor is important on the job

Wall Street Journal...

NPR has had a rough few years, and despite new leadership, the turbulence hasn't entirely subsided.
Gary E. Knell took the helm in 2011 when the public-radio network, formerly known as National Public Radio, was still smarting from what he calls "self-inflicted wounds." NPR had taken heat the previous year when commentator Juan Williams made controversial comments about Muslims during a TV appearance, and was fired, and then-Chief Executive Vivian Schiller resigned in March 2011 after an NPR fundraiser bashed conservatives.
NPR has moved on from those scandals, but its financial woes—it is staring down an anticipated $6 million deficit this year—are keeping Mr. Knell busy.

New Digs for NPR

Stephen Voss for The Wall Street Journal
A view of the green roof at NPR's new headquarters.
The network gets about 40% of its revenue from producing and selling shows including "All Things Considered" and "Morning Edition" to 270 member stations nationwide. Most other funding comes from corporate underwriters, foundations and its own distribution services.
This spring, NPR unveiled a shiny new headquarters in Washington, galvanizing critics who question the role of public funds in public broadcasting. The $201 million building was funded in part by the sale of NPR's old office, as well as tax-free bonds and donations. NPR doesn't receive funds directly from the government, but some of the money it gets from member stations comes from public coffers.
The 59-year-old Mr. Knell, who joined NPR after serving as CEO of the nonprofit Sesame Workshop, spoke with The Wall Street Journal about the disruptive nature of digital media and changing listener habits. Edited excerpts:
WSJ: You recently hired your first chief marketing officer. What message are you hoping to convey?
Stephen Voss for The Wall Street Journal
'We need to do things that the private sector isn't doing, and that the government is incapable of doing,' says NPR President and CEO Gary E. Knell.
Mr. Knell: [NPR programming] reaches about 27 million people a week. It's a big audience, but there is still 17% of the American public has never heard of NPR. Part of it is reaching into some nontraditional homes. I just spoke at the Rotary Club in Atlanta [and] at a sellout luncheon in Houston.
We are telling stories that other people aren't doing. We need to do things that the private sector isn't doing, and that the government is incapable of doing.
WSJ: Why does NPR accept government funding?
Mr. Knell: We don't get any direct, appropriated federal funding. All of the money that goes to public radio gets parceled out to the stations. So [New York City public-radio station] WNYC gets a grant, they throw that into their soup of funding, and then they purchase programs. It's only about 10% of the public-radio economy, and it's less than that in the NPR economy.
The answer is really about [rural areas] that don't have the corporate or private philanthropic base. If the public money is removed, those stations could go dark. It's kind of like libraries. You have bookstores, but you also have a need for a public library that's available to individuals in less-populated states, and it's subsidized, to a small degree, by the federal government.
WSJ: Listeners now have the option of accessing NPR content directly from your website, rather than just by tuning into their local public-radio station. What does that mean for member stations?
Mr. Knell: What we're trying to work on is a Pandora for news, to allow listeners to customize a playlist, available through the cloud, live. We want to have serendipitous listening, not knowing what the next story is, but we've also got to give people the option of a la carte listening, or they will turn to other places. There would be a WNYC experience or a WAMU experience that combines the news chops of NPR covering the globe with what WNYC is doing locally, so people will continue to give money to WNYC.
The station is becoming a center for people to hear speakers, to engage in a dialogue, to listen to musical performances. It's a work in progress. But we're all over this, because if we don't do this we're not going to last.
WSJ: Do the digital changes affect your listener demographics?
Mr. Knell: We're engaging a lower-age demographic. The average [radio] listener is about 53 years old. [Those who connect] on an iPhone are 37, and the average age of the engager on NPR Music is 28 years old.
WSJ: How much longer can you run at a deficit?
Mr. Knell: Not a lot longer. We're operating under a mandate [from the board] that we will have a balanced budget by fiscal year 2015. We have a dual bottom line—a qualitative bottom line that means excellence in journalism or music, and a quantitative bottom line that we have enough money to pay for the things we're choosing to do. We're in a strategic planning mode to prioritize things that are critically important to the future of NPR, and those that aren't.
WSJ: NPR has become the arbiter of literary and musical tastes in many circles. Does the knowledge of that power change what you choose to put on air?
Mr. Knell: I'll quote Spider-Man: With great power comes great responsibility. "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" have huge audiences. We have responsibility in putting on content that matters, presenting emerging artists who are playing something new. It's really important that we are accurately telling stories that other people aren't doing. We are filling the gap.
WSJ: How do you make sure scandals similar to those that hit NPR in 2011 don't arise in the future?
Mr. Knell: It's easy to become part of a bubble. We're trying to expand our guests to more diverse points of view, more diverse racial and ethnic identities, more geographic differences and more age-cohort differences so that we can break the bubble. That's how you get past these things.

Sense of Humor!DD338148-15C9-47FE-8440-FEC486AD03C9

and The Pandora of News

Write to Melissa Korn at

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