NPR Boss Gary Knell Moving to National Geographic Society

Knell says National Geographic made him an offer he couldn't refuse.

By: Benjamin Freed

Gary Knell. (Photograph via NPR.)

Gary Knell, the president and chief executive of NPR, is leaving in November to run things at the National Geographic Society, the radio network announced today. Knell, 59, took the reins at NPR in 2011 after the departure of Vivian Schiller, whose leadership at the broadcaster was punctured by multiple political controversies.

Knell came to NPR just under two years ago, following a stint at Sesame Workshop. He joined NPR following Schiller's resignation in March 2011. Schiller's ouster came following the release of a video taken by the right-wing activist James O'Keefe featuring NPR fundraiser Ron Schiller (no relation) criticizing conservatives and questioning public broadcasting's need for federal funding. Schiller had also been roundly criticized after the October 2010 firing of news analyst Juan Williams, who was let go after saying on Fox News Channel that he feels nervous when he sees people in "Muslim garb" on airplanes.

In a memo to NPR's staff, Knell writes that National Geographic made him an offer he could not refuse. "I was approached by the organization recently and offered an opportunity that, after discussions with my family, I could not turn down," he writes. NPR spokeswoman Anna Bross tells Washingtonian that Knell's new gig came "unsolicited" and is something of a "dream job" for him.

Historically, the head of the National Geographic Society makes more than the head of NPR. National Geographic's current CEO, John Fahey, who has been on the job since 1998, was paid more than $1.4 million in 2011, WHYY reporter Zack Seward notes. Knell's most recent NPR earnings are unavailable, but Schiller was paid nearly $573,000 between January 2009 and March 2011, according to NPR's 2011 filing with the Internal Revenue Service. That's also less than the more than $700,000 Knell made in his last year with Sesame Workshop.

Bross says that Knell's 21-month tenure at NPR included several positive steps forward for the network, including strengthening office diversity. Knell also oversaw NPR's move to a completely new office, too, when it moved this spring from Mount Vernon Square to new digs in NoMa.

But by Knell's own admission, his successor will still face plenty of challenges, including the mission to make NPR a break-even operation. "We are completing a plan to focus our limited resources which support our essential services to stations and audiences," he writes in his memo. And NPR bosses aren't necessarily very long-lived. By NPR media reporter David Folkenflik's own count, Knell's successor will be the seventh interim or permanent chief executive in as many years.

Knell's full memo reads:
Before I even started at NPR, I had huge respect for this organization. And from the first minute of my first day at NPR, my respect has only grown. Seven days a week, around the clock, NPR is “on the story” no matter where it happens. That’s because of what each of you make happen. The power of this organization rests in the collective brilliance, courage, and dedication of our staff and our station community—and in our shared commitment to making this institution better each day.

Knowing this makes it a little easier to share a difficult decision I’ve made. I will be leaving NPR after my term ends in late fall to join the National Geographic Society as its President and CEO. I was approached by the organization recently and offered an opportunity that, after discussions with my family, I could not turn down.

As President and CEO, supporting NPR’s success—your success—has been my highest ambition. Working together, we have put NPR on more solid footing to continue to deliver the highest-quality journalism and programming.  We have launched innovative new platforms and made meaningful strides in attracting new audiences and new funding.  We have promoted a series of collaborations in news gathering, development, and a digital future.   And we have an exceptionally strong leadership team in place that is charting an ambitious path for our future.

We also face challenges, including the mandate to bring NPR to break-even cash operations. We are completing a plan to focus our limited resources which support our essential services to stations and audiences. We will present that plan to the Board soon, go over it carefully, and make it a reality.

The Board, under the leadership of Chair Kit Jensen, has been incredibly supportive of my leadership and is more than up to the task of finding a great successor. This is a remarkable organization and being NPR’s CEO is a remarkable job, the best part of which has been engaging with each of you and with thousands and thousands of our supporters around the country. This is a job that demands everything of you, but returns more than you’d thought possible.

It has taken a great deal of personal reflection on my part to reach this decision. I will leave with a sense of enormous gratitude to each of you for all you do to make this organization a national treasure.

In the upheaval of today’s media environment, you offer something few other media companies can. NPR is and will always be a beacon of journalistic integrity, commitment, and courage. We do what we do so that we can serve our audiences and give them what they need to be informed and connected with their communities, their country, and the world we live in.

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to work with you.