DAVID GREENE, HOST:
To bring you the news, we travel to every corner of the world. Well, in this rare example, we're not even leaving the front door. NPR's CEO and president, Gary Knell, announced yesterday that he's leaving the network in late November, after two years on the job.
Knell is taking on the same role at the National Geographic Society. The offer to lead a larger educational publishing and television organization was too good to refuse, Knell said. NPR's David Folkenflik reports.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Recent past CEOs left NPR after clashes with the board or even national controversies. Knell told me yesterday he left to take what he described as a dream job.
GARY KNELL: It's an opportunity, I think, for me to embrace some of the passions that I have around international business, around cable television, around the digital transformation of education; and a philanthropy that is, you know, clearly based - about educating people about the world that we live in.
FOLKENFLIK: Knell took a pay cut when he arrived at NPR in late 2011 from Sesame Workshop, the not-for-profit behind "Sesame Street." This new job will return him to a world of television and international deals as he leads a much larger institution in National Geographic, where he is expected to get a big pay hike.
But for NPR, it is a blow. It is only two years removed from a wave of controversy that preceded Knell's tenure, that was triggered by the ouster of one of the network's most prominent analysts.
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MIKE EMANUEL: Now with Juan Williams' termination, some say it is time to stop giving any tax dollars to NPR.
REP. PETER KING: If Congress continues to give any money to NPR at all, then we become accessories to a violation of free speech.
FOLKENFLIK: That was Fox News' Mike Emanuel and Congressman Peter King, back in 2010. But under Knell's leadership the crises ebbed, as he noted yesterday afternoon.
KNELL: I think we did a lot of great things in the time I was here, including politically making progress on both sides of the aisle.
KING: At a staff meeting that was on the record but at which taping was not permitted, journalists - including senior reporters and hosts - questioned what Knell's departure meant about the network's culture. Knell's successor would be the seventh permanent or acting CEO in little more than seven years.
FOLKENFLIK: The company has tricky relationships with its member stations, who are at once its clients and its bosses on the NPR board, at a time the changes in the media landscape are dictating a more direct relationship between audiences and major media outlets. And NPR has budget deficits to address as well. But Knell said none of those challenges influenced his decision to depart. Instead, in the interview, he sounded a bullish tone about the company's future.
KNELL: This is a strong organization. It has a strong balance sheet, it has an endowment; it's going to be around for many, many years. MORNING EDITION will come on the air at 5 a.m. tomorrow morning - hell or high water - and the day after, and the day after that. This is a very strong organization. It's way bigger than, frankly, a CEO.
FOLKENFLIK: He also noted the redesign of NPR's website, and the network's move from an overstuffed building to a state-of-the-art headquarters not far from Capitol Hill.
Knell is widely credited in leading an effort to work constructively with stations - for example, the re-launch of HERE AND NOW from WBUR as a replacement for NPR's TALK OF THE NATION. Knell characterized his tenure as resting on...
KNELL: A whole bunch of things that we've put in motion, David, that I think the next leader can build on. And I think that the place is in a much better place than it was when I showed up.
FOLKENFLIK: Knell told staffers yesterday he had expected to sign up for a longer term, and there's no sign of drama or scandal with his bosses. In fact, NPR board members took pains yesterday to express their appreciation for him.
KIT JENSEN: Gary is a stellar and skilled CEO, and we are fortunate to have him for the remainder of his contract.
FOLKENFLIK: That's Kit Jensen, the chief operating officer of WVIZ, the PBS station in Cleveland, and WCPN - its sister NPR member station there. She is also the chairwoman of NPR's board of directors.
JENSEN: We were absolutely thrilled and pleased with his performance. We've worked together collaboratively and accomplished a great deal. Gary and I were on the way for contract renewal and - as he has explained - this was an unsolicited opportunity that came his way suddenly, and he had to make some tough decisions.
FOLKENFLIK: Knell said he intended to help NPR address its projected deficits for this fiscal year and next - plans that could require some major financial realignments for the network. The board is expected to set how it plans to pick a successor at its meetings next month.
David Folkenflik, NPR News.
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