Knell: familiar with the dynamics

At Sesame, he balanced producer/station interests, knew the Capitol Hill drill

NPR’s next president already knows how a strong production house can continue to work with pubcasting stations — and also expand its reach with nonbroadcast distribution partners.

For nearly 12 years Gary Knell has managed one of PBS’s prize program providers, Sesame Workshop, which made cable deals and vastly enlarged its audience on the Web while keeping the first play of its primo content on PBS. Knell, like his NPR predecessor, Vivian Schiller, as well as recent PBS leaders, wants to play the major original productions in as many venues as possible, though with the member stations continuing to hold an exclusive broadcast window.

“It’s radio-first distribution,” Knell told Current, “Then it should be made available more broadly, tweeted and smeeted,” he said, coining a word for additional varieties of social media. “We’ve got to make sure that we’re all over all that stuff.”

Under David Britt, Knell’s predecessor as president of the Manhattan-based production institution, the Workshop negotiated an end to PBS’s exclusive rights to its flagship program, Sesame Street, and in 1999 released older episodes to a cable venture — Noggin, a cable net co-owned with Viacom’s Nickelodeon.

That alliance ended in 2002, but two years later Knell led Sesame Workshop into the present PBS Kids Sprout cable channel partnership with Comcast, HIT Entertainment (Barney & Friends) and PBS, with Sesame Street airing first through PBS. Though PBS became a part-owner of the Sprout channel, and cable revenues became a source of funding for the Workshop, the public TV stations lost the PBS Kids digital channel for preschoolers that they had once touted in their plans for DTV multicasting and cable. Numerous pubTV stations now assemble their own little-kid channels in the absence of a PBS feed.
Adding Internet ramps to Sesame Street has enlarged its audience even more, however. Digital distribution of the program has nearly tripled its reach over the past six years.

By September this year, usage of online video, iTunes downloads and interactive websites made up almost 60 percent of the month’s 114.1 million experiences with Sesame Street content, the Workshop estimated. The estimate combines Nielsen TV audience ratings with the Workshop’s data, but doesn’t indicate the relative lengths of those viewings.

In the six years since September 2005, the percentage of viewers watching Sesame Street on public TV broadcasts fell from 83 percent to 36 percent of viewing sessions.

Sesame Workshop operations meanwhile continued to grow financially. Since the nonprofit promoted Knell to succeed Britt as president in 2000, its operating revenues grew nearly 40 percent, to $136 million in 2010, according to audited financial statements. While it recorded a $9.7 million deficit during recessionary fiscal year 2009, it nearly broke even last year with a loss of $130,000.

When NPR announced Knell’s hiring Oct. 2 — he’ll start work Dec. 1 — he didn’t jump deep into internal pubradio politics but stayed with a popular metaphor. He quoted an admonition from Canadian hockey star Wayne Gretzky: “Skate to where the puck is going.”

“We have to look at the public radio audience and think about where they’re going to skate, and on which devices they will access our content,” Knell said Oct. 4. That morning he had listened to WAMU on his iPad, an experience that required an “easy to use, navigable app.”  If stations are to prosper, he said, they need to have local programming available through these devices. 

“NPR is a great brand,” Knell said. He envisions technology partnerships with companies like Apple or Microsoft, which could build pubradio apps into their new products. 

Practical. Strategic. Funny?

Knell won’t have the nearly vertical learning curve of a newcomer to nonprofit media. After 22 years with the Workshop, he has deep experience in handling relationships with funders, policymakers, networks and stations. He steered the Workshop, a beloved media institution that’s had its own tussles with pubcasting critics on Capitol Hill, through new distribution partnerships, financial growth and international expansion.

Knell’s colleagues and allies in public TV say he brings a unique set of qualifications to the task — a mission-centered strategic orientation, strong track record in fundraising and political acumen that’s enhanced by affability and humor.

“He knows how to create a powerful case statement for public media and to articulate why it’s worthy of support,” said WGBH President Jon Abbott. The skill can be applied on behalf of NPR’s journalism as well as on the Workshop’s specialty of educational media for children, Abbott said. “He’s practical and strategic, and those really are his true strengths.”

Christopher Cerf, a Workshop veteran who left to create the PBS children’s literacy series Between the Lions, observes: “He’s very good in bringing many different worlds together beautifully and — boy — does he have to do that now!” said “I love that he’s funny and has a self-deprecating sense of humor. Even when things go wrong, he can see the funny side.” 

Knell’s 11-year period at the helm of the Workshop has had its own challenges. He steered the nonprofit through the $180 million purchase of rights to Sesame Street’s subset of Muppet characters (Miss Piggy was not in the buy); the 2002 sale of its share of Noggin cable channel; and entry into the PBS Kids Sprout venture.

The Workshop expanded its portfolio of international co-productions and won new federal grants for public education campaigns against the childhood obesity epidemic and helping military families cope with wartime stresses in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Colleagues predict he’ll fit well with public radio. “I think he’s a brilliant choice because he’s done such a demonstrably great job with growing Sesame Workshop in really adapting to changes in the market, technology and demographics,” said John Lawson, head of the public affairs firm Convergence Services, who has lobbied for aid to children’s programming and had a long run as head of the Association of Public Television Stations. “He also has depth of experience in government relations, which will come in handy.”

Early in Knell’s career, he worked in the California state legislature and governor’s office, and he was counsel to the U.S. Senate Judiciary and Governmental Affairs committees. He later became general counsel at WNET in New York, where Lawson came to know him.

“Gary’s a great guy and, on top of being very smart, experienced and savvy, he’s just a good person,” said Lawson. “I think he’ll automatically be seen by policymakers in Washington as a player and someone they can work with.” 

New mountain to climb

Knell threw his hat into the ring for NPR’s top job because he felt it was time to move on. “We brought the Workshop into the digital age and took them global, and I felt it was time for a new set of eyes to look at the same issues,” he said in an interview. “I was ready to build and conquer another mountain, and I promised myself that I wouldn’t go to an organization that didn’t have as big of an impact as the Workshop.”

The opportunity to lead NPR fit that bill. The nation’s top radio news producer and pubradio network delivers an “amazingly fantastic content product that’s hugely influential in the national dialogue and essential to millions of Americans,” Knell said. “Listenership is up. Membership is up.” He describes his challenge to “harness its energy and point it in its direction,” while defusing the partisan rhetoric that repeatedly exploded in NPR’s face during the past year.

He sees the potential to forge new corporate partnerships, pointing to the Workshop’s relationships with PNC Bank, Walmart and United Health, as well as cultivation of major gifts and foundation support. The Workshop also built funding relationships with government agencies to support its program-related childhood education initiatives.

“I want to look at all of these options,” Knell said. “We’ve had a good track record at Sesame Workshop to use the power of Sesame Street to drive agencies around the thing you’re talking about. NPR has natural allies in areas like science reporting and foreign policy reporting. We’ll have to look at all those issues.”

Knell will be the fifth person to hold the top executive job at NPR —  interim or otherwise — since the 2006 departure of Kevin Klose, a veteran journalist who led the network for more than eight years and left on his own terms. But both of Klose’s main successors — Ken Stern and Vivian Schiller — stayed in office just two years and resigned under pressure. Their successors on interim bases were veteran station chief Dennis Haarsager and NPR staffer Joyce Slocum. When Knell takes office, Slocum will return to her previous job as general counsel.

Wanted: great communicator

It took NPR’s search committee and board almost six months to agree upon and sign a successor to Schiller, who was damaged by a string of successful political volleys accusing the network of liberal bias — and her own occasional impolitic remarks. The accusations, building on NPR’s abrupt firing of news analyst Juan Williams shortly before the 2010 congressional election, turned public radio into a favorite punching bag for conservatives. 

Schiller, news chief Ellen Weiss and top fundraiser Ron Schiller (no relation) fell victim to the media blitz magnifying their missteps, leaving the company and its newsroom and development office under temporary leaders while the board searched for a new chief exec fitting a multifaceted job description — someone who understood journalistic creativity and NPR’s mission-driven public service orientation, a “compelling leader, sophisticated communicator and an advocate for growth and change,” as search committee member Kit Jensen of Cleveland’s WCPN reported to the NPR Board in September. Search firm Spencer Stuart identified 420 prospects and screened 194 candidates.

“We had an all-encompassing job description, and it became a question of ‘What trade-offs are you willing to make?’” said NPR Board Chair Dave Edwards, g.m. of Milwaukee Public Radio, in an interview. At the end of September, the board met in executive session to interview three finalists.

Click for interview with Knell, 2009“In Gary’s case, he met all of our expectations,” Edwards said. “We were pleased to offer him the position. He has experience at running a complex organization, and is well-adept at legislative work and a tremendous fundraiser.

“I think it’s a real plus that he’s been involved in public media,” Edwards said. NPR has never before hired a president from “within the family” of public TV, but the choice of a public-media insider has clear advantages. “We’re bringing someone on board to whom we don’t have to explain what CPB is.” 

“It’s an inspired choice, I think — I really do,” said Oregon Public Broadcasting President Steve Bass. “There may be some skepticism about whether [Knell] has enough of a journalism background, but what’s needed in that position is someone who understands journalism, has a predisposition to it and is willing to enhance and protect it.” Bass said Knell does understand public broadcasting — its business models, funding relationships and editorial issues.

“Having looked at the specs for this job, he has more of them than probably 99 percent of those who were considered," Bass speculated.

Edwards agreed that working-journalist credentials aren’t essential for a person in NPR’s top job.

“He’s been in the content-creation business for much of his career, and he understands protecting the brand and delivering strong programming,” he said. “We already have strong leadership in the news division.”  

Edwards expects Knell to recruit new senior execs to run the news division and development office. “Those are very important hires,” Edwards said.

Who represents public radio?

Among the many tasks on Knell’s to-do list will be addressing lingering concerns about the way NPR represents public radio stations as their advocate to Congress, the FCC and other federal agencies.

Some pubradio leaders were mightily upset by the network’s decision in February, very near the end of Vivian Schiller’s tenure as president, to form an alliance with America’s Public Television Stations.

The move essentially outsourced the spokesperson role in public radio’s defense of federal funding. With creation of the Public Media Association, the newly controversial NPR president moved out of the spotlight and empowered APTS President Pat Butler as chief spokesperson for both public TV and radio. It was a temporary arrangement at a troubling moment — when House Republicans were pressing to end federal aid to CPB or to NPR and its member stations.

Senate Democrats succeeded in restoring the funding in that budget skirmish, but pubcasters know that they’ll be challenged again — and possibly very soon — to mobilize political support for continued federal aid.

The TV-radio alliance set off a vigorous debate among station managers that continued during this month’s meeting of Public Radio in Mid America, when attendees agreed to draft discussion points to frame the debate.

NPR’s job of representing member stations in Washington is written into the organization’s bylaws, and the stations pay for it through their annual dues to the network, said Christina Kuzmych, president of the regional PRIMA association and g.m. of Wyoming Public Media. “Station managers want to make sure that the bylaws are respected,” she said, and to make certain that they’ll be well-represented in D.C. It’s unclear how NPR will handle this going forward, she said, and managers disagree about the best approach.

“A lot of radio members don’t really know APTS because it’s not an organization that has represented them in the past,” Kuzmych said. The debate at the PRIMA meeting in Cincinnati “solidified the thought that we do need to address this issue. By putting forth the discussion paper, we at least move the discussion forward.”

PRIMA will vet the paper with its members and then share the document with the rest of pubradio within a few weeks, she hopes.

NPR Chair Dave Edwards said the PRIMA alliance with APTS didn’t change NPR’s role in representation, describing it as a mechanism to coordinate government relations activities between the two lobbying efforts. The NPR Board has no plans to change the organization’s role in representation, he said, although he acknowledges that station executives continue to debate it.

“It would be healthy for us as a system to take that issue that’s been a conversation point in the hallways and bring into open, but, given the events in Congress, this is the wrong time to have that discussion," Edwards said.

“Right now, we’ve got to be focused on making the case for public television and radio to Congress and the American public,” Edwards said. “As for the broader discussion about how to manage representation — this is not the time.” 

Interviewed a couple of days after he accepted the NPR post, Knell said he understands that public radio and APTS handle their advocacy work in different ways. He plans to evaluate the options before making any decisions. “I want to look at this objectively, and decide how it works.” 

Comments, questions, tips?

Copyright 2011 American University