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Open Sesame: Gary Knell, NPR’s soon-to-be CEO, is also a blogger

Some early innovation insights from “Big Bird’s Boss.”

Starting December 1, NPR will have a new CEO: Gary Knell, currently the chief executive of Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit behind “Sesame Street.” [Insert your favorite Kermit/Elmo/Oscar joke here. Or just savor Gawker's headline: "Muppet Slavedriver Named Head of NPR."]

The selection, announced yesterday evening, came as a surprise to many — partly because, just this Friday, we heard how long and labor-intensive NPR’s CEO search has been, and partly because, Sesame Street not being journalism in any traditional sense, Knell wasn’t on most media watchers’ radar prior to the big announcement.

Things we know so far: Knell has a background in journalism and legislative affairs. He wants to “depoliticize” public radio. He shuns the serial comma. What we know less about, though — for the moment, at least — is Knell as a digital leader, as the person who will oversee NPR’s digital initiatives: among other things, its mobile efforts, its Digital Services unit, its Public Media Platform. NPR, as former CEO Vivian Schiller told me last year, is becoming a truly “multiplatform” organization.

Sesame Workshop, though it’s most commonly associated with television, is another multiplatform endeavor. And Knell has made a point, it seems, of applying the opportunities of the digital world — YouTube, Twitter, Hulu, Facebook, podcasts, tablets, smartphones — to the cause of early childhood education. (“Despite the fact that it may appear that I’m a guy who’s doing puppet shows, that’s not really true,” Knell told the AP, noting that Sesame Workshop is “a complex media organization that’s global in size.”) Knell has also made a point of developing Sesame Street as a TV product, expanding it, via co-production collaboration efforts, to other countries — some 140 in all, among them Egypt, India, Israel, Northern Ireland, and South Africa.

We’ve asked for an interview on how that work will translate to NPR’s particular — very particular — set of journalistic and technological challenges. Meanwhile, though, I was interested to find that, since last year, Knell has also kept a blog: “Gary’s World: On the Road with Big Bird’s Boss.”

Though I quibble with the title — Big Bird is a subservient employee to nobody — and though the blog has a distinct good news from the PR department! tone, it also provides a glimpse into Knell as a leader and as a navigator of the digital world. In education, in particular…but the line between education and journalism has always been a paper-thin one. “Media content — whether it’s delivered through the television screen, a hand-held device or in a video game — can play a powerful role in children’s education,” Knell writes in his introductory blog post, listing Sesame Workshop’s digital outreach efforts. “All of these endeavors share a common goal: to bring the engaging Sesame Street content and its educational benefits to parents and children, wherever they may be — virtually and physically.”

Also included in the blog:

The blog peters off somewhat — though Knell was (relatively) prolific in 2010, he’s posted only three entries so far in 2011.

Still, though, it’s interesting to see a CEO blogging in the first place. (Very Patonesque.) And the blog’s press-release-y overtones notwithstanding, its copy seems to be written by Knell himself: Yep, it contains lots of here’s why Sesame Workshop is awesome news items, but it also includes ultra-earnest and seemingly personal nuggets like this: “The gala is always fantastic, but this year was truly beyond special,” Knell wrote of the 2010 version of Sesame’s annual gala. And, on Sesame’s Pentagon visit, this: “I am so proud of this organization for pulling this together. It confirms my belief that dedicated people with good ideas and a spirit of optimism and enthusiasm can pretty much do anything in this crazy world — especially when we can build upon the special place we hold in people’s hearts already.”

                                   
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Ken Doctor    Aug. 13, 2014
If newspapers are going to have to survive on their own, the first numbers aren’t encouraging. In southern California, we could see big movement fast.