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March 2, 2012, 10 a.m.

On the record with NPR chief Gary Knell: ‘Radio isn’t going away, it’s going everywhere’

The new CEO discusses connected cars, threats to public funding, and the organization’s fully multi-platform approach to news.

Gary Knell

Gary Knell, now three months on the job as CEO of NPR, made his first major leadership decision last week by promoting Kinsey Wilson, the head of digital media, to also oversee news and radio programming. It’s the clearest signal yet that NPR, formerly National Public Radio, isn’t just radio anymore.

“Radio isn’t going away,” he tweeted, “its going everywhere.” (Forgive him the missing apostrophe.)

Knell was in Boston this week to meet with NPR’s Digital Services division, local stations, and donors. I sat down with him yesterday.

A few highlights: He said Wilson’s new role as chief content officer is meant to erase the distinction between platforms in the newsroom. He said the network plans to research and develop new programs that reach beyond NPR’s core (and aging) radio audience, targeting younger and more racially, geographically, and politically diverse listeners. And he said he expects small stations would go dark were Congress to cut funding this year to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

In this lightly edited transcript of our conversation, I began by asking Knell about NPR’s big investment in connected cars.

Gary Knell: Look, the car is 50 percent or so, plus, of the radio audience today, just in general. And because the technology in automobiles — and maybe because Americans are living in their cars more, sometimes you wonder if we’re going to be sleeping and eating in our cars, as well, because of traffic or what have you — the digital technology, the computer technology in cars is just exponentially growing.

“If we’re not on these platforms, we’re dead.”

So now you have voice-activation systems in Fords and other car manufacturers, which are just going to get faster, smaller, and cheaper every year, and NPR’s gotta be on there. Public radio’s gotta be a player. If we’re not on these platforms, we’re dead. This isn’t a choice of whether — it’s really a choice of how. And we decided to go first with Ford and build this connected-cars platform which is now rolling out in all their 2012 vehicles, and it’s a great asset.

…[NPR] is also a membership organization that was built to promote a local set of stations which have a relevance in their local markets. And that’s part of what NPR is and needs to continue to be. So Kinsey [Wilson]‘s role is also, not just making sure that NPR’s global and national news coverage is being accessible anywhere people can find it, but also making sure that this localism is also accessible in as many places as people can find them. So if you’re in Boston, you want to know what’s going on in Boston. Maybe if I’m a Bostonian living in L.A. and I’m lonely, I want to hear what’s going on in Boston, too. And now we have the capability to make that happen.

Andrew Phelps: I wonder what you’ve heard from stations as you’ve gone around talking to them, what some of the challenges are, making sure that those relationships are happy.
Knell: Look, I come from a station background in television, and I was the guy seconded to work with all of the stations…

“Stations are needing to embrace their raison d’être locally, and I think that that’s probably a good thing.”

It’s a very scary environment for media companies, for media in general right now. There is a disaggregation of media that is impacting everyone…What is an authoritative figure as individuals become brands? There’s much less loyalty.

Look, when I worked on Capitol Hill back in the ’70s, The Washington Post, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal, and maybe CBS News, what they said was like — that was it! If they said something bad about you or good about you, it was all. Now, today, it absolutely doesn’t have that relevance anymore. Because people are playing much more to the echo chambers that exist politically in the news media.

So the stations are needing to embrace their raison d’être locally, and I think that that’s probably a good thing…It’s making them focus on what’s really important and providing an essentially service locally. So even though it’s a challenging time, it’s probably a time to reevaluate and rethink and improve your local service, and I think that’s a good thing.

Phelps: I want to ask you about how NPR plans to deal with its political enemies in 2012, as it looks toward getting what little funding it does from the federal government, from taxpayers. I think some of NPR’s fans have accused the network of shying away from defending itself and not stepping out in front. I wonder if you hear that criticism, if anything will change about the way that NPR presents itself to the world, to Congress, how you plan to fend off a lot of that inevitable, hateful criticism.
Knell: I think, look, we’re about creating a civic, civil dialogue for the country, and you’re going to get different people from different political persuasions who are going to agree to those definitions or not. And the whole concept of public funding comes down to a question of, Do you believe that there’s a public interest in supporting that civic, civil dialogue? Which, to me, is an educational investment in the country. And I view it as education. We’re in the education business, really.
“We’ve got to make the case for why this is essential to the American public and talk about the work that we’re actually doing.”

It’s very important for Americans to understand what’s going on in Syria, because it does affect them. And it does affect the military budget and whether we’re going to have some conflagration which they’re going to have pay for, so that we can make correct decisions and our political leaders can make correct decisions. So I think these kinds of things are important investments publicly.

I’m not naive to the fact that others may disagree with that, especially at a time when all public spending is under scrutiny, and we’re going to have to compete against Head Start and food stamps and military budgets and homeland security and all of these important things that the public funds — and schools — so we’ve got to make the case. And we’ve got to make the case for why this is essential to the American public and talk about the work that we’re actually doing.

[...]

We have an ombudsman, a terrific ombudsman, who will respond to accusations of bias. I don’t think — on the whole, I think it is pretty hard to find that bias. But I’m not unaware of the debate which is really about what is the essential nature of government, and what should the government be funding. And we’re going to have to make our case based upon the work that we do. And hopefully people will understand that and decide to agree with us, that it’s an important thing to keep funding.

[...]

We get almost nothing from the federal government, but for certain stations in the system, especially those in less populated states, where you don’t have the numbers of big companies and philanthropists and other people who could theoretically provide more resources, [it's] going to be a huge chunk out of their budgets, to the point where some of them could inevitably go dark, and you will have news deserts in the country and no one covering adequately the state capitals in certain states in this country, and I don’t think that’s a good thing. It’s not good for taxpayers, and it’s not good in general. But we’re going to have to make the case, and I’m not Pollyanna-ish about it. It’s going to be hard work, and we’ll see what happens.

Phelps: I guess that’s where the trade-association part comes in, because a lot of the people hurt by the funding cuts, like you said, would be the stations. And so by defending NPR, you’re in a way having to defend money that’s not actually really not going to NPR, it’s going to stations. I have to think that’s a challenge, if nothing else, from a marketing perspective.
Knell: Well, it’s very hard to understand, and you know, part of me wants to do like a Schoolhouse Rock video of “how a bill becomes law.”

It’s very hard to even explain to people because it’s kind of a Rube Goldberg-type system that was invented over 40 years ago. And think about how the media world has changed in the last 40 years. It’s mind-boggling. I mean there were three television networks and PBS. That was it! No cable, no Internet, no nothing.

And think about the world today. And then the question is, does public radio or public television — does it play a unique role in the media landscape that the American public should spend scarce resources to keeping that system alive? And we’ve got to make that case. So we’re working on it every day.

POSTED     March 2, 2012, 10 a.m.
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