NPR Chief To Leave For National Geographic

Aug 19, 2013
Originally published on August 19, 2013 3:47 pm

NPR CEO Gary Knell says he will leave the organization at the end of the fall to become president and CEO of National Geographic.

Knell joined NPR in December 2011, after leaving the top post at Sesame Workshop.

Knell sent this message to staff:

Dear Friends,

Before I even started at NPR, I had huge respect for this organization. And from the first minute of my first day at NPR, my respect has only grown. Seven days a week, around the clock, NPR is ‘on the story’ no matter where it happens. That’s because of what each of you make happen. The power of this organization rests in the collective brilliance, courage, and dedication of our staff and our station community – and in our shared commitment to making this institution better each day.

Knowing this makes it a little easier to share a difficult decision I’ve made. I will be leaving NPR after my term ends in late fall to join the National Geographic Society as its President and CEO. I was approached by the organization recently and offered an opportunity that, after discussions with my family, I could not turn down.

As President and CEO, supporting NPR’s success – your success – has been my highest ambition. Working together, we have put NPR on more solid footing to continue to deliver the highest-quality journalism and programming. We have launched innovative new platforms and made meaningful strides in attracting new audiences and new funding. We have promoted a series of collaborations in news gathering, development, and a digital future. And we have an exceptionally strong leadership team in place that is charting an ambitious path for our future.

We also face challenges, including the mandate to bring NPR to break-even cash operations. We are completing a plan to focus our limited resources which support our essential services to stations and audiences. We will present that plan to the Board soon, go over it carefully, and make it a reality.

The Board, under the leadership of Chair Kit Jensen, has been incredibly supportive of my leadership and is more than up to the task of finding a great successor. This is a remarkable organization and being NPR’s CEO is a remarkable job, the best part of which has been engaging with each of you and with thousands and thousands of our supporters around the country. This is a job that demands everything of you, but returns more than you’d thought possible.

It has taken a great deal of personal reflection on my part to reach this decision. I will leave with a sense of enormous gratitude to each of you for all you do to make this organization a national treasure.

In the upheaval of today’s media environment, you offer something few other media companies can. NPR is and will always be a beacon of journalistic integrity, commitment, and courage. We do what we do so that we can serve our audiences and give them what they need to be informed and connected with their communities, their country, and the world we live in.

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to work with you.

NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik tweeted, “By my count, Knell’s replacement will be the seventh permanent or acting NPR CEO in little more than seven years.”


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From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Jeremy Hobson. It's HERE AND NOW. Surprising news at NPR today. CEO Gary Knell announced that he is leaving after less than two years in the job. Knell made the announcement in an email message to NPR staff. He says he will leave the company in late fall and take a new job as president and CEO of the National Geographic Society. Joining us now for details from New York is NPR's media correspondent David Folkenflik. David, welcome.


HOBSON: So what did he say? What did Gary Knell say in his message to staff about why he's leaving?

FOLKENFLIK: He said it was too good an offer to pass up. I mean National Geographic Society is one of the, you know, world's leading educational and shall we say conservation institutions. It's a big global footprint he's got there. It's probably a more remunerative job, and it's probably a slightly more secure business. He said it was - the timing was unfortunate. His contract, which was just a two-year contract initially, came up in November. He said there was no argument, no disputation that accompanied this, but that his contract was coming up, and these guys made an offer he simply couldn't refuse.

HOBSON: And he came from Sesame Workshop less than 21 months ago to his current job at NPR after two very public controversies led to the resignation of NPR's previous CEO, Vivian Schiller. Tell us about Gary Knell's tenure at the network.

FOLKENFLIK: Well, over the last two years, you're right - absolutely right. He came in after the Juan Williams flap. The termination of Juan's contract led to a lot of controversy and also led to the second flap that we were talking about, the videotape sting of some senior NPR fundraising officials that led to the departure of Vivian Schiller. Gary came in. He calmed the waters. He essentially made clear he was going to lead and lead with the sense of equanimity.

There was a sense of a shared movement, an idea of streamlining digital and audio initiatives and journalism, the idea that he would figure out ways to protect the journalism even as we've had some tough budget issues to confront. And you know, there was a sense that the institution was being led by grownups who were working constructively in a shared direction.

HOBSON: Well, so how is the staff at NPR reacting to what's happened today?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, astonishment. I mean board members told - there's a staff meeting that I think is going on even as you and I are speaking now, a staff meeting at which board members told NPR journalists that many of them only learned about his decision to take this job this morning, that it was not the result of any philosophical divide. But my count whomever immediately replaces Gary Knell will be the seventh fulltime permanent or acting CEO in a little over seven years.


FOLKENFLIK: And there's a real sense of this constant turnover, constant turmoil, a dislocation that occurs in the institution even as the journalists themselves say, you know, our journalism is not only sustained but it's improving every year. Every year, you know, if you talk to people in the media industry as well as our audiences, they say this is one of the real jewels of journalism in America. You know, why is our leadership not operating with the same sense of purpose?

HOBSON: And NPR is projecting I think a $6 million budget deficit for the fiscal year ending September 13. And so whoever that seventh CEO in seven years is, is going to have a lot of work on their hands.

FOLKENFLIK: Well, you know, the claim has been that actually - that Gary Knell, that the chief content officer, Kinsey Wilson, and Joyce Slocum, who's sort of the number two, the chief operating officer, have been working on plans to - sort of a glide plan to figure out, OK, what are our priorities, how do we confront not only the budget deficit occurring this year but the one for next, and that by - call it a little over a year from now that the institution will be in the right place budgetarily on that.

You know, whether or not the new CEO coming in wants to change the plans or at least the direction that they've agreed upon, you know, remains to be seen. We have no idea who's going to replace Gary.

HOBSON: NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik joining us from New York to tell us about the resignation announcement today of NPR CEO Gary Knell. David, thank you so much.


HOBSON: And we'll be back in a minute. HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.