DAVID GREENE, host: NPR's board of directors announced Sunday it has selected a new president and CEO to lead this network. As NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik reports, the new chief comes from one of the most beloved shows in the history of public television.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK: The new boss is to be Gary Knell - that's Knell brought to you by the letter K. He's currently the CEO of Sesame Workshop, the company that's behind "Sesame Street," "Electric Company," "Dragon Tales," and other highly regarded children's shows. Carol Cartwright is the past president of Bowling Green State University, and she's the vice chairwoman of NPR's board. She co-led the search committee that picked Knell.
CAROL CARTWRIGHT: We were looking for someone who, while he or she might not be a journalist, would gain the respect of journalists and would be able to be passionate about supporting and advocating the work of high-quality journalism.
FOLKENFLIK: Knell has been at Sesame Workshop for more than two decades and says he's at once excited and prepared for the challenges ahead.
GARY KNELL: I've learned how to sort of master our way through a very competitive world out there and one in which we have not lost our way in our mission nor a qualitative edge.
FOLKENFLIK: Through marketing and franchising and new platforms, "Sesame Street" has become a global powerhouse, warding off dozens of new entrants to the children's television field. Now Knell will take over one of the nation's leading news organizations, with 27 million listeners each week tuning in to hear reports from journalists scattered throughout the country and around the world. At first blush, it might appear that NPR is playing it safe by selecting a chief associated with Big Bird rather than the news business.
For the past year, NPR has been roiled by a series of controversies, starting with the termination of the contract of former NPR news analyst Juan Williams and ending with an undercover sting video by the conservative provocateur James O'Keefe III. By last March, much of NPR's leadership had been swept away, including its news chief, its top fundraising official, and its CEO, Vivian Schiller. Congressional Republicans pushed to cut all federal funding for the public radio system. That push fell short. But member station officials dominate the NPR board and those stations rely on such funds more heavily than NPR does, so they took those threats with deadly seriousness. Gary Knell...
KNELL: I'm not naively walking into this. I think obviously it's been caught somewhat in the political crosshairs in Washington. Some of that is undeserved, I think. And what I would really like to see is depoliticizing NPR a little bit, so that it's not caught in those crosshairs.
FOLKENFLIK: Knell will arrive at NPR with some political experience. Three decades ago, he served as a committee counsel to Senate Democrats. But he also cites his collaboration more recently with such Republicans as former Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on children's health issues. Knell says he'll continue the network's digital expansion, which is reaching new audiences for its news, music and cultural efforts, and he promises to secure increased funding for NPR's journalism, from public, corporate and foundation sources. And otherwise, he says, he'll try to get out of the way of its journalists, whom he calls amazingly fabulous.
KNELL: I think the point here is that it's not about liberal or conservative. It's about fairness. And I think we've got to make the case that we're delivering a fair service that - not only in the way we do our jobs but in the way we disseminate the news.
FOLKENFLIK: Several former commercial TV network news executives told me they would not allow themselves to be considered seriously for the position, in part because of the recent political turmoil. Others questioned NPR's relationship with its stations, which effectively serve at once as its clients and its bosses. Knell says the relationship with member stations is vital to NPR's journalistic success and popularity,
KNELL: The work that it's doing in all these local markets around the country, in all 50 states, is something to feel pretty proud about.
FOLKENFLIK: Knell says he will move to Washington, D.C., where NPR is based, from the New York City area after his daughter graduates from high school next year. He is to replace interim CEO Joyce Slocum on December 1. David Folkenflik, NPR News.