NPR's board of directors announced Thursday that CEO Ken Stern is leaving. He has been the CEO since Oct. 1, 2006.
NPR's corporate board has forced out the organization's chief executive after less than a year and a half in the top job.
Ken Stern joined NPR back in 1999, becoming its chief operating officer. He is a numbers cruncher and lawyer who helped stabilize NPR after years of rocky finances.
"During that time that Ken has been at NPR, in general, the company has been very healthy and the public has seen and responded to that," said Jon Schwartz, general manager of Wyoming Public Radio, and the former chairman of NPR's board of directors.
The response has been strong. The audience for NPR programs has doubled to 26 million listeners a week. NPR built an endowment pretty much from scratch that now stands above $300 million. As a result, there are now new programs such as Day to Day, News and Notes, Tell Me More and The Bryant Park Project; the number of domestic bureaus has grown and the number of foreign bureaus now exceeds that of all but a few major American newspapers.
And just this week, Stern announced the development of a huge new headquarters for the network in Washington, D.C.
In addition, Stern led a major push in digital ventures. It stemmed from his often-repeated conviction that the old way of doing business wouldn't work. Other diversions — such as cable television, online news sources, iPods, books on tape, video games and social networks — are siphoning audiences away from traditional broadcasters, including public radio stations. Stern argued that NPR shows and news and cultural segments increasingly had to be available on whatever platforms people wanted to hear them.
NPR is considered a leader in news and music podcasts. And under Stern it has also struck deals to deliver its content new ways, such as through cell phones.
But that push has aggravated anxiety among local stations about their relationship to the network. NPR member stations rely heavily on popular shows, particularly Morning Edition, to generate donations. But if people can listen to them through NPR's Web site or even their own cell phones, why would they stay loyal to stations still reliant on pledge drives?
Interviews with eight current and former public radio officials suggest Stern failed to convince local stations — and especially their representatives on the board — that he saw a clear and healthy role for them in the digital future. And several also said he lacked the light touch and charismatic aura of his predecessor, Kevin Klose, that served Klose well in dealing with board members and prospective donors.
Stern was told he was being cut loose on Thursday. He declined to be interviewed about his ouster.
John A. Herrmann Jr., a longtime member of the board of directors, said it's time for NPR to find someone who can navigate these issues about the nature of media in a multi-platform age as deftly as Klose and Stern together led the network through the financial questions of the 1990s.
Dennis Haarsager stepped down as board chairman to serve as NPR's interim CEO until a new one is picked. He said NPR needs a media visionary of national stature.
"You know we haven't done a full search for a CEO at NPR since 1998, so it's been 10 years," said Haarsager, an executive at public radio stations in the state of Washington. "The world has changed enormously in that time, especially the media world."
Haarsager said he sees himself as a caretaker, not a candidate for the job himself.
Frank Langfitt contributed to this story.