Coonrod’s plan works: Cox will head CPB

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Kathleen A. Cox will step up from chief operating officer of CPB, becoming the corporation’s first woman president July 1 [2004].

Robert T. Coonrod, president since 1997, said he recognized her as a good successor four years ago and groomed her for the job. The CPB Board announced Cox’s promotion Jan. 27. Coonrod will work with her at CPB until October and says he wants to find a new job after that.

Though CPB announced it will discontinue its Television Future Fund this fall (separate story), Cox and Coonrod endorsed the need for continued funding of research, development and training to confront public TV’s problems.
Cox’s promotion may also extend a period of relative stability and improved relations between CPB and its grant recipients in public TV and radio.

She will be tested severely, however, by struggles that may resurface in hearings this month and next — disputes over the split of federal dollars and over conservatives’ reaction to Bill Moyers’ PBS program.

While Coonrod enjoyed predicting that digital technology is finally catching up with the many demands of pubcasting’s mission, Cox will be on duty as the system tries to meet even higher expectations.

Cox appealed for public broadcasters — young ones in particular — to suggest how their field can fulfill its sky-high promise.

“This is tomorrow’s public broadcasting, and we need to make sure the up-and-coming and the people with bold ideas are heard from and feel they have an open invitation to make their thoughts known,” Cox said in an interview last week. CPB must lay out some options for success, she said.

“As we sit here today, there’s a growing determination . . . that to be successful we have to change the way we operate,” she said.

Peaceable succession

Cox came to CPB through the law. She earned a University of Chicago law degree in 1979 and worked in two law firms before beginning a nine-year career in intellectual property law at Bell Atlantic Corp. (now Verizon). In 1993 she went back to school and received a master’s in public policy from Georgetown University three years later. Cox also had four children. She joined CPB as a staff attorney in June 1997 and Coonrod tapped her as acting general counsel when counsel Lillian Fernandez left. Impressed by her work, he made her general counsel in 1998 and extended her portfolio to include government relations and communications in 1999.

“It was about that time I figured she’s my successor,” Coonrod recalled last week. “She was able to do both the management stuff and the strategy.” His No. 2 official, Fred DeMarco, stepped aside to become Coonrod’s advisor, and Cox became executive v.p. and chief operating officer in January 2002.

In the past, CPB had lurched from one president to another, losing the three preceding Coonrod because of friction with its board.

“This place needed some sort of succession plan,” Coonrod said. He set out to prepare Cox to be a top candidate for the job. After a quiet search, the board accepted Coonrod’s recommendation. CPB Board Chairman Kenneth Y. Tomlinson asked Cox to take the job late last year, she said.

Coonrod had been wanting to move on. In July, he lunched with board leaders Tomlinson and Katherine Anderson, the chairman recalls. “We said, ‘What if we have a quiet search for a successor and map out the dates?” It was a deal.
“We want the professionalism that has marked CPB in recent years,” Tomlinson says, adding that Cox had been a key part of Coonrod’s team that had rebuilt CPB.

Show horse or work horse?

Hiring Coonrod’s protégé was not the only way CPB might have gone. A former CPB official says the board needed a well-connected, confident figure like PBS’s active president, Pat Mitchell — “a retired congressman, someone with an ego” — who would have the force of personality to conceive an agenda and point public broadcasting in that direction.
“What you need is a massive ego, somebody who can get on a podium and not let Pat Mitchell own the room . . . who could lead the board, rather than being led by the board,” the former official contends.

In its search, the board did indeed consider former members of Congress, says Tomlinson, a retired Reader’s Digest editor and big-time horse fancier. “I think you can make the case we needed a work horse to support the system, not a show horse.”

Coonrod and Cox “can walk into the room and not need the spotlight,” he says.

Both are 32nd-degree policy wonks. Both agree Cox is better organized than her boss. Though Coonrod is a Washington survivor, he has the casual friendliness of a popular professor, which sometimes approaches bubbliness. Cox is more reserved.

Observers credit both for their tenacity. Peggy O’Brien, former education v.p. at CPB and now executive director of Cable in the Classroom, remembers watching Cox negotiate a complex deal with several production partners for American dramas on Masterpiece Theatre. “Kathleen in her quiet way kept saying, ‘How can we make this work?’ … She just kept at it. Everybody ended up giving up something, but they felt fine about it.”

Coonrod, too, is persistent. He accommodates contrary views and finds alternative routes to a goal when his first plan is blocked, says David Brugger, former APTS president. He made progress by disarming opponents with charm, dissipating the “bolts of lightning” thrown by upset politicians and station leaders, Brugger says.

“Bob’s probably the most idealistic president CPB has had,” says Tom Thomas, co-c.e.o. of public radio’s Station Resource Group. Coonrod can dream and innovate, Thomas says, because he watches his flanks, maintaining good relationships, including politicians of both major parties.

Coonrod greatly improved CPB’s relations with the stations, PBS and NPR. Their dealings hadn’t always been as collegial.

“Back in the 1980s, it was like you were dealing with the IRS,” says Peter Frid, president of New Hampshire PTV.
“Bob certainly lowered the fires,” says Skip Hinton, president of National Educational Telecommunications Association. “Nobody seemed as mad.”

“He inspires trust,” says Beth Courtney, president of Louisiana Public Broadcasting and a new CPB Board member. “He calls you back promptly. He listens to you. He seems to have respect for the stations.”

Some previous CPB presidents would speak at a conference of pubcasters and leave right afterward without taking questions, but Coonrod would stay and talk with people, recalls Brugger.

Getting other people to do things

Coonrod has run CPB longer than any other president. But it’s not hard to see why others left sooner. A former high-ranking official–like others, he declined to be quoted by name–says CPB’s staff must work in a state of constant anxiety. “There’s the fear the board will get angry, the Hill will get angry, the stations will get angry,” he says. “It’s almost impossible for them to stand up with an agenda.”

Employees lurch from board meeting to board meeting, the former official says, preparing for the next one as soon as they’ve followed up on the last one. Before each meeting, top execs run through a rehearsal with their PowerPoint slides.

CPB has constituents on both sides–the politicians who give it $380 million a year and the broadcasters who get most of that. Neither side wants CPB to succeed in affecting public broadcasting, which could get in the way of their own plans, says a former CPB vice president.

When he hears the despairing assessment, Coonrod laughs.

“They don’t want you to fail, they just don’t want you to succeed!” he hoots. A few minutes later, Coonrod clarifies: “They have a goal they’re trying to achieve. So to them, CPB being successful is them achieving their goal. That’s why having a mission statement from the community of television stations is a real step forward” [article on mission statement].

As for the CPB job, it’s not much more complex than his previous work, he says — 25 years with the U.S. Information Agency and affiliates, rising to deputy managing editor of Voice of America.

“The difference was that [at VOA] I was responsible for a budget and an organization that did something. I wasn’t responsible for getting other people to do things. That’s a big difference.”

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