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NPR's CEO Gary Knell joins us and takes calls from KPBS listeners.

January 11, 2012 1:01 p.m.


Gary Knell, CEO NPR

Related Story: New NPR Chief Weighs In On Public Media's Future


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. It's Wednesday, January 11th. Our top story on Midday Edition, for many KPBS listeners, public radio is a lot more than a casual car ride companion. We are happy to hear that for a lot of people, NPR is one of their main and most trusted sources of news and information. And that means when there's a change at the top of NPR, listeners want to know more about who's running the show. So it's a pleasure to welcome the new man in charge, NPR CEO Gary Knell. Welcome to Midday Edition.

KNELL: It's great to be back in San Diego. Thanks.

CAVANAUGH: We invite our listeners to call in with questions and comments to Gary Knell. Do you have any questions about how NPR gets and delivers the news or how it gets its funding? Give us a call at 1-888-895-5727.

Gary, I thinking one of the first things that may surprise people about your selection as the head of NPR is that you don't have a lot of news experience. Your background is working at CEO of sesame workshop. Why did you want to take on this difficult job at NPR?

KNELL: Well, I wanted to bring Elmo to public radio. That was the real reason.

CAVANAUGH: Well, we need him!

KNELL: But seriously, Sesame Workshop is an amazing global media organization that I ran for 12 years. And I think we had a tremendous run of success there in taking them global, and also dealing with the digital competition even in children's media which is prevalent today. So I vowed to myself that I really wouldn't want to do anything else that didn't have as big an impact as sesame. And NPR was one of those things that I think has a bigger potential impact. It's really in my mind in the education business. It's about news and information, it's about having an informed public. And I've always been very passionate about news. Even though I may not have spent a lot of my career in it. I did study journalism, I was at the UCLA daily Bruin for four years. It was a stringer for the AP. So I have a couple of old news jobs, and I know my way around news rooms. But it's really about transforming a media organization. And there's a lot of parallels between the nonprofit, mission-driven Sesame Workshop, and the nonprofit, mission-driven.

CAVANAUGH: Can you tell us about those parallels? What do you think that you could take from that position that would help NPR?

KNELL: Well, I think a lot of it is about the digitization. It's trying to build a new -- new audiences. The one thing about sesame, as all your listeners know, every two year, there's a new audience being born. So you better be relevant and change with the times. If you look at sesame street from ten years ago versus today, it looks pretty different. It's a much brighter, hipper show than it was even a decade ago. And that's true also in public radio. We've got to make sure that we are expanding a diverse base, and that diversity in my mind has a number of different angles to it. But in terms of digital platforms and applications, which KPBS and others are doing a great job at starting up, that's our future. We've got to be there because people are accessing content now in very different ways than they did five or ten years ago.

CAVANAUGH: Now, I think just about everybody agrees the last.5 was rocky for NPR. Lots of criticisms about the firing of commentator Juan Williams or the way he was fired. We had an NPR executive who was set up in a phony fundraising video, CEO Vivian schiller was pressured to resign. How do you think NPR has suffered from these events?

KNELL: Well, to be blunt about it, these were self-inflicted wounds to a large degree. I wasn't there, I wasn't part of the decision making process. The people who were are not there anymore, and that speaks volumes in and of itself. NPR is really about a marketplace of ideas. And we are striving each and every day with hundreds of journalists covering the world trying to be for a and accurate and sourced without a political agenda. That's not what we're there for. We're there to present news and information and let people make up their own minds from whatever political perspective they may come to the table, and we're trying to place this forward and not look back, I think is how I would put it.

CAVANAUGH: NPR though continues to be a favorite target for some conservatives. I wonder how you're preparing for these battles.

KNELL: I think I would invite those who question NPR politically to listen more to the news magazines, for instance. And we have had -- I have been doing a lot of listening of our show since I was appointed to this job a couple months ago. And it's pretty tough to declare a political bias. We have had nonstop coverage of the Republican candidates. And these are not gotcha interviews. These are allowing everyone from Herman cane to Michele Bachmann who came into the studios in Washington, so people can make up their own minds about how they feel about them. And tattoo the place for NPR. It's unfortunate that we've gotten labeled this way because I don't believe it is true. And I think it's important that people listen and experience public radio. We don't get everything right, and we do make mistakes, but we try for hard to not come in with a political perspective.

CAVANAUGH: Speaking of one of the many people who may have appeared on one of our news magazine show, Republican Mitt Romney, who up with the New Hampshire primary just yesterday, I'd like to get your reaction to this clip from candidate Romney about federal funds for public broadcasting.

NEW SPEAKER: My test is is a program so critical that it's worth borrowing money from China to pay for it? So some things that you might like, you might say I like the national endowment for the arts. I do. I like PBS. We subsidize PBS. I'm going to stop that. I'm going to say PBS is going to have advertisement. We're not going to kill about big bird, but he's going to have advertisements.

CAVANAUGH: Of course NPR is not PBS. But I'd like your response to that.

KNELL: First of all, I appreciate that governor Romney likes PBS. That's a good thing. And I'm sure he and his kids and grand kids do watch sesame street and other programs on PBS and undoubtedly listen to NPR on occasion. I think -- I don't happen to believe you want to have sesame street bombarded with commercials. I think there's a place in the media ecosystem for noncommercial, nonchildren's programming that is not driven by marketing products to children. And I think there's lots of moms who are listening right now who would agree with that as they're raising their kids. There is a lot of marketing to children that goes on. That's a lot of the economic base, for instance, of children's programming in this country and frankly around the world. And it's important that we do have a firewall so those folks who are involved especially in preschool programming, which PBS does so much of, are doing it in terms of education first and not in selling product. And I think that's really important. And the fact is that it has had a public funding piece. Sesame gets very little public funding, actually. But other children's programs for 6 to 9 year-olds, there are no education programs to speak of on commercial broadcasting.


KNELL: And I think that PBS has a very important role to play.

CAVANAUGH: I'm wondering, how much does NPR-- how much federal funding does NPR get?

KNELL: NPR gets almost no direct federal funding. The funding goes to the stations, and it gets distributed according to a formula based on size and revenues, to the 300 or so public radio stations from monto San Diego to Massachusetts-- from Montana to San Diego to Massachusetts and all over the country. And they buy programs from NPR but also other distributors like American public media that does marketplace and other things. So it's more of a co-op type of program. What NPR is is a news and information producer to a large degree that does the major news magazines like morning edition, all things considered, and some of those other programs. But it's very much a market-driven type place. But the federal government is not directly subsidizing Nation Public Radio.

CAVANAUGH: Again, I want to invite our listeners. 1-888-895-5727. Sue is calling from Pacific Beach. And welcome to the program, Sue.

NEW SPEAKER: Hi. Thank you. Let me get off the speaker here.

CAVANAUGH: Good, thank you. I appreciate that.

NEW SPEAKER: Yes. Hi. Thank you. Well, I'm calling basically as a call of support. And I am concerned about the political dialogue that's going on and wonder what you would recommend for us to do to just help.

CAVANAUGH: To show support for public radio, you mean?

NEW SPEAKER: Yes, and to not let funds be cut.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you, Sue.

KNELL: Well, I think it's important like in any cause that you tell elected representatives how you feel about whatever topic it is. And I think the important thing is to remind people that Nation Public Radio from our point of view is a national resource. And what makes it important, I think is it's this national, local connection. It's not just a news organization or an information organization based in Washington DC that's a 1-way dialogue. It's about delivering content that then get it is localized in San Diego. And it's that kind of form that I think is unique today in media, and certainly in news, and as we see newspapers, Maureen, and as we see many commercial radio broadcasters pulling away from news coverage because of the economics of news, it's more and more important that taxpayers and other people know who's -- there's someone watching the decisions about the money that's being spent in local and state governments, for instance, and it's a very important role of public radio. I think that that sort of a thing is critically important, like libraries and museums are about having an educated population. And I would argue this is important. Obviously there's some people that don't agree with that. I happen to believe that it is one of those essential things that you need in a culture and society to have an educated population.

CAVANAUGH: There are some listeners who would say we already play commercials. Can you explain the public/private support, the underwriting that people hear when they listen to us on KPBS?

KNELL: Well, this goes back a long history, Maureen, in public broadcasting in this country. And unlike in Europe, where you have the BBC, and in Japan with the NHK and other places, these maces are 100% taxpayer supported. In this case, you have a 9-1 match in the United States of private support to the 10% or 15% of public support depending on where you live. So it's a totally different model. And the private sector is divided up into contributors like those who give to local stations like KPBS, foundations, and corporate underwriters who want to connect with and support the types of programs that you guys are putting out here every day. It's a very powerful engine, and public radio would disappear in this country without private sector support. It is absolutely critical. That's what a beautiful thing about this, it's a true public/private partnership dominated by the private sector. But what the public money does is that it gives you that research and development money to do new programming, to take risk, to set up news operations in places that you're otherwise not able to do.

CAVANAUGH: We got a tweet from BD in San Diego, and BD asks what's the health of the $200 million Joan Brock bequest since 2003? It is growing or shrinking? And for members who don't remember that, Joan Crock, the family used to own the San Diego Union Tribune. And her bequest was a big one to NPR back in 2003, $200 million. What's become of that?

KNELL: First of all, everyone in this country owes the Crock family a debt of gratitude. It was, I believe, the largest gift at the time in the history of philanthropy, not just in public radio. And an astounding gift of vision and support. And the good news is that that has been used to create an endowment for public radio that is used like a university endowment to off-set some of the operation costs based on the income that comes out of that. And it has been growing. And we have been able to use that grant to add more moneys from generous donors around the country to spur growth and innovation, and that's allowed public radio to do the kinds of digital innovations that you see on online in working with stations like KPBS. So I'm really happy to say that that Crock gift has spurred new innovation and growth. It is growing financially. It has not been spent down. It's growing up. And it's a tremendous statement and legacy for the people of San Diego as well.

CAVANAUGH: Before we end our first little segment with you, Gary, I want to ask you a question that Thomas from Jamul is asking. Does NPR have a plan is funding is cut? Are you developing any kind of an alternative?

KNELL: Well, have been in public media for quite a number of years and have worked actually on Capitol Hill in my career. So I'm not a novice to this. And you have to, as Ted Turner says, hope for the best and prepare for the worst. You need to have emergency planning. And just like any good business, you want to know when you're on Ia growth curve, and you need to know when there's turbulence in the skies, and be prepared for those things. So we're not anticipating, so to speak, and planning for a privatized public radio. But on the other hand, we would be my eve if we didn't judicious look at growing the private sector and figuring out how to manage through turbulence, in public funding or frankly in private sector funding. We're not immune from those. And we have our eyes wide open, and we're going to be prudent business people and manage the resources we have in front of us with balanced budgets and other things that I'm going to bring to the table at NPR.

CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with Gary Knell, the new CEO of NPR. When we return, more about how Gary Knell will run NPR, and the new technologies that may be bridging new programs to you.

CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. And we continue our conversation with NPR's new CEO, Gary Knell. Mr. Knell took on the position only last month after years developing the Sesame Workshop programs at PBS. Thanks for staying with us, Gary.

KNELL: Great to be here, thanks.

CAVANAUGH: And I have to share with everyone, apparently it was me who needed the reminder about the late Mrs. Joan Crock. She did not own the UT. She inherited the McDonald's legacy, and was the owner of the Padres here in San Diego. I wanted to correct that. Nancy is calling from north Clairemont. Welcome to the program.

NEW SPEAKER: Thank you. And welcome to the gentleman.

KNELL: Thank you.

NEW SPEAKER: I'm a devote a, and up in my years, I do depend a lot on your programming for my days, of -- say, my appetite or whatever. What are you -- what kind of ideas have you for adding or subtracting programming?

KNELL: That's a really good question.

NEW SPEAKER: Thank you.

KNELL: And I think I am going to be working on a strategy at NPR that is -- I call it the four corners of diversity. And those are really around a geographic diversity so that we're covering more studies outside of the east coast corridor, and outside of Washington DC. I happen to be a Southern Californian by birth myself. I have family members who graduated from San Diego state. So that's kind of in my blood. And I come from that ilk to begin with. So I get that, and NPR has a big news operation in Los Angeles, in addition to working with the local stations like KPBS. Ethnic and racial diversity, I think we need to have more voices about the changing demographic in America, especially about Hispanic and Asian populations, African American populations, which California really leads the country in. Age demographics, younger voices as well as older voices about -- which is a lot of ways about using new devices and bringing people to NPR. And then finally political diversity. And I think that's important. I think that we have to -- we need programs where people can understand why there's conventional -- people are into conventional politics like the electoral primary process, but also why people would occupy parts of cities, and/or join the tea party. You might have people who are disaffected by conventional politics. And it's important that we have structured dialogues and important dialogues that is not the screamfest that you hear too much on cable television from both sides, and it's a little more of a marketplace of ideas, which I think would be welcomed by a lot of folks and would be something that NPR can provide as an important place.

CAVANAUGH: How do you go about developing those new programs and getting those new voices on the air? Is it something that you advise for? How do you go about doing that?

KNELL: We've got news magazines that do cover the world. And I think it's important that we are continuously looking for new, articulate voices. You don't want to "dumb-down" public radio. I think you want to have educations discussions from conservative voices, from so-called liberal voices and people who might be somewhat in the center. And you can find those voices. But we've got to make sure they feel welcomed on our air.

CAVANAUGH: Debbie is on the line from San Diego. Welcome to the program.

NEW SPEAKER: Maureen, you are terrific.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you.

NEW SPEAKER: I listened to NPR, PBS all the time, all day long. And I constantly hear the news. And it's the news -- impassioned politico making an announcement, and then they counter pose that with a news announcer making a dispassion, kind of, well, you know, here, this is what the other side says, President Obama said this today, or the liberal side said this. And it's totally imbalanced because that's why we put passion in our voices, to convince people. And all I get back from NPR is well, we have a code of ethics but I don't know that you adhere to those code of ethics. And I feel that NPR has turned right. Very right.

CAVANAUGH: Well, let me get a response. Gary, has NPR turned right?

KNELL: Well, I think the caller has a good point. And, look, NPR gets as a news organization gets criticized from people on the left and from people on the right. And I think it's a constantly music program that has to rely on fairness and accuracy and sourcing in telling the news. And so people can make up their own minds. And we're not here to tell people how to think. We're here to tell people different perspectives. And I hope that's what we're presenting out there I don't think we're turning right. I can find you a lot of people who think we're turning too far left. So we just got to sort of get it in the middle, in the sense of providing perspectives from the left and the right and the center who are passionate and articulate. Part of what you want to do is get people listening to the other side. I think that's what maybe in America we need a little more of today. I worked in the Senate when Ted Kennedy and Strom Thurmond were chairman and reigning minority member of -- and you couldn't pick two guys who were more politically opposite. But they got a lot of things done together. And somehow maybe we've lost a little bit of that, and maybe public radio can be that place where we can have spirited discussions about the important issues about the debt and foreign policy, and military veterans and other things in this country where people then can draw their own conclusions and vote for the candidates who they support.

CAVANAUGH: This is a criticism we're hearing more of. I think people that since NPR is being threatened by right-wing conservatives, that there is this idea that NPR is now trying to placate those critics. How do you make a good outreach to someone without placating?

KNELL: Well, we're not trying to do that. Of so I don't know how else to say it clearly. This is not an organization -- if you walked around our news room, this is not an organization with a political agenda. These are serious journalists coming in every day to do a job and telling stories about the world that is affecting public. We have, I think more of a diverse platform of stories from around America than any news organization. We've got 17 foreign bureaus around the world, and this isn't just some anchor dropping into Cairo for 20 minutes and flying home. This is people who live in Cairo and Jerusalem and Djakarta and Kabul every day who are able to report on this so people can understand what their sons are doing in Afghanistan here in San Diego, and have a perspective, or veterans coming back to Camp Pendleton and dealing with some of the issues that returning veterans have had around things like traumatic brain injury, and PTSD. These are stories on the ground that deep reporting is all about. And that's what NPR is really good at. It's not a talk show. And it's not an advocacy organization. And we have to do what we know how to do, which is try to be for a and accurate reporters.

CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with the new CEO of NPR, his name is Gary Knell, and we're taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Arlene, welcome to the program.

NEW SPEAKER: Thank you, Maureen. I always enjoy the way you handle your program. But I am concerned that there is less of the public in public radio. As my son said about a year ago, it's no longer public radio. It's member and sponsor-supported radio. Upon there are too many, frankly, ads on, and unfortunately living here in San Diego, KPBS is the only NPR outlet that I can get on the radio. And I don't listen on the computer. I just went to were in's website because I heard one of the best stories that I've heard in years this morning. David Greene starting his Trans-Siberian railway trip across Russia. And Anne Garrels used to do those things from Russia. She was one of the early reporters on the war in Iraq. But that -- a lot of that good stuff has gone away. And we've spent too much time on domestic politics, I fear.

CAVANAUGH: Arlene, let me get a response from Mr. Knell. And I'm sorry to cut you off there. But we have to move on a little bit. So where -- is the public still in public radio, Gary?

KNELL: Well, I think she was asking a couple questions. We think the public is engaged in public radio. And I think the web platforms also now give a really new way to have conversations. Those need to be better. KPBS has launched its own very vibrant website. So we no longer live in an era where there's a one-way dialog of people sitting on top of a mountain telling the citizens how to think. This is really about delivering content, which is what we're doing, and then triggering a dialogue among many different people in the San Diego community. And that's what public radio should be about. It's about a public market place of ideas that maybe we can be a trigger point so people can comment on David Greene's Trans-Siberian Railroad.

CAVANAUGH: Well, this brings me to a tweet from impeccable coach. What role will social media play in public radio in delivering the news?

KNELL: An increasing role, especially with young people. I have done in my previous job, a lot of college lectures, and I would always ask people, who reads a newspaper? And you wouldn't get too many hands, a hardcopy newspaper. This is really about learning a whole new way that information is being delivered. And the question is, you know, how are we learning -- we are how learning the news before we're being talked to about different ways of thinking about the news, which is really what television has become at night. And I heard a fox news producer the other day saying exactly that. When people come to our shows at night, they already know the news. They're really trying to find out how to interpret the news from their perspective. And so the question is, who's delivering the news? Who is telling us about a retiring Congressman or about what happened in New Hampshire or what's going on in Kabul, or understanding the Euro~ debt crisis is about as it impacts my 401K as I am living in San Diego. Those are the kinds of things that we can provide, and social media is a everywhere important way through Facebook and twitter and other programs. A lot of our correspondents are tweeting new. Scott Simon has a huge following on twitter.

CAVANAUGH: Yes he does!

KNELL: And he loves it. And we're training our journalists on how to tweet, and reach the public in new ways. That's gotta be a big part of the strategy as we redefine as a society the delivery of news content. And my hope and ambition is that NPR will be a very major player in that for many years to come.

CAVANAUGH: Along the same line, NPR announced a new mobile app this week. Can you tell us about that?

KNELL: I just came from Las Vegas this morning where we did a terrific launch with the Ford motor company on their Ford synch platform, and this is basically taking the android or iPhone app for public radio, where you can access shows, topics or stations directly -- now it'll be embedded through voice-activated controls in your Ford mobile so you don't have to take your eyes off the road. And it will limit distracted driving and allow people, if you missed morning edition, for instance, on KPBS you can actually call it up a little later in the morning and it'll playback. It'll seek out the last version that played on KPBS, for instance. So we're very excited about that. And all the car manufacturers, you be, someone joked that the CES, that it should be called the car electronic show, because so much of sounds systems and electronics are being embedded in cars and almost replacing what's going on in the home. It's really great that we're the first major institution organization to do a deal with Ford. And I met with Alan Mulally, the CEO of Ford yesterday, who couldn't be more excited. He's a big NPR fan, and we're off to the races.

CAVANAUGH: How do you think in the next 20 years, NPR is going to morph? Will people be getting their news from the radio anymore? Or will it be largely apps on iPads and different kinds of devices? Will it be through social media? What do you see this developing into?

KNELL: Well, if I knew that, I probably would be sitting somewhere investing money in different companies. But I think it's not an either/or proposition. And this was true in children's program where I worked before, and it's new in news and music programming at NPR. It's -- you want to be on traditional radio. There's going to be people driving in cars, they're going to still want their FM radio, they're still going to want to tune into KPBS in the morning during their drive. And we want -- you can't abandon that. But you've also got to be on these mobile platforms. And we're finding -- I saw some statistics today that people accessing the iPhone -- accessing public radio content, they're seeking out stations, using their iPhone as a transistor radio, remember those?

CAVANAUGH: I do! I have to say.

KNELL: And it's really interesting. And yet the iPad is being used somewhat differently. A little more segmentation of content. So these things are all bringing a little bit different something different to the party. And it'll be interesting to see. But beef got to stay on these. I have a statement up in my office from general Eric Shinseki, who's the director of veterans' affair, who said if you don't like change, you'll like irrelevance even less. And that is my mantra. Upon we have to change with the times, go where the audience is going, and many listeners will want to have like me traditional radio if their country, and others are going to just want to hear us on an iPhone. And whatever the new iPhone thing is. And we got to be there. Of we got to deliver public radio content on all of these platforms, and that includes I very strong element of station content and local station content, which is what makes public radio so unique.

CAVANAUGH: I want to try to squeeze in one more call. Dave is calling from Julian.

NEW SPEAKER: Hello this. I wanted to tell you two things. First off, I really love PBS. I don't know what we'd do without it if we were dependent on the other stuff. I just saw that movie, Network, last night, and it's amazing how timely that is. And it was back in the '80s or something?


NEW SPEAKER: Anyway, and my other comment though is there are a lot of us, there are people who can't afford a damn computer. You know? I'm sorry.

CAVANAUGH: That's okay. No, we understand.

NEW SPEAKER: And our whole thing is radio. Okay? And I hope you don't phase that out. I don't mind getting on the other stuff. I'm all for -- that's what people have. But $200 for a cellphone, maybe 300 for a computer. You're not talking to me. You know?

CAVANAUGH: Dave, thank you for the call. I appreciate it, and thanks for the kind words. I'd like your response to that, but also, I'd like to find out -- you're out of Washington DC now. You're in San Diego, and this is your first trip around since becoming CEO of NPR. What is it that you're going to do with what you're hearing from people in shows like this?

KNELL: Well, first of all, I am a huge believer in getting out of Washington DC. And I do not believe that wisdom is synonymous with Washington DC. And it's very important that I hear how people are using public radio, how they value public radio, how they criticize public radio, when it deserves to be criticized. We are not perfect. And we are a bunch of people who are trying to work on a mission of providing, you know, helping provide information so people can be educated about America and the world. So I will -- I bring these things very seriously back. And from shows like this. Dave's comment about the free nature, I think, of public radio, he's absolutely right. And I think that also gets passed over too often. It certainly gets passed over in television, that PBS is still high-quality, children's and other programs. You don't have to pay for it. Unlike cable. Everyone knows the cable bill keeps going up every month. And you don't really have control over that. And someone said -- I heard on a talk show, they were saying well, C-span doesn't get any federal government subsidies. And I love Cs pan. But C-span is just taxed into your cable bill! By the cable operators. It's all different. Having a free service that is available to the American public through radio and through television is critically important for the future of an educated society. And that's what I want to bring to NPR.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you so much for speaking with us.

KNELL: Thanks a lot for having me. Really a pleasure, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: I've been speaking with Gary Knell, the new CEO of NPR.