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Gary Knell, the president of National Public Radio, was in town this week. He's been on the job a few months now, so he is making trips across the country to meet with leaders at local public radio member stations. He took some time to speak with The Daily Circuit Monday.
He took the helm after a series of controversies at NPR including the firing of news analyst Juan Williams and an undercover video sting that appeared to show NPR's top fundraiser disparaging Republicans and Tea Party conservatives. A closer review found many of the comments were highly edited, so as to be misleading.
The task of creating a system that will mirror the best ways we communicate news and info is still very much up for grabs, Knell said.
He also talked about shaping such a network, given he has no individual power to force local member stations to make moves that could produce savings for the whole.
TW: You were specifically in town here today to meet a lot of the people who work at the member stations, and kind of get a feel for the lay of the land so to say. I'm wondering if the conversation got to this idea of how public radio is structured and what kind of changes are necessary there.
GK: Well I- you know it's a really good question. Of course a lot of conversations within public radio talk about governance and the system which was created after all in the late 1960s through legislation that was signed by President Johnson, so think about how technology has changed our lives with an internet for instance that didn't even exist as a consumer platform 20 years ago.
And we were still dialing up the web and getting busy signals 10 years ago, we're now getting ubiquitous web content in our lives, and it's just completely changed the way people communicate. So, not only has there been a difference in platforms of broadcast, but human communication is going through fundamental changes now, and trying to create a system that is going to mirror, or at least reflect, the best ways in which we are communicating news and information and cultural programming is, you know, fundamentally up for grabs as a society.
TW: Has NPR kept up with it to this point or have they fallen behind even where we are now?
GK: Well I think NPR's done a pretty good job. You know when I, when I was interviewed for this job they asked me "how do you think it works you know on balance?" And on balance it actually works pretty darn well. It's not perfect, but you know what, when tens of millions of people around the country actually tune in stations, or go on websites, the content offering is pretty darn terrific.
TW: When you, I mean, just trying to explain to someone at a dinner party, which I've tried, which I personally try to do just how public radio works, it's- it's maddeningly complicated.
GK: Yeah it's- it's pretty complicated.
TW: So that in and of itself, isn't that the sign that, that things have to change? And are you here to shake it up?
GK: Well I'm not sure that's the test. I mean look there's a lot of things in life that are complicated. Relationships are complicated, and universities are complicated, and all kinds of things. So, at the end of the day, it's what is the product that's being put out, and are consumers, or- of content, willing to support it and I think the answer in public radio has been a resounding "yes." And Minnesota Public Radio has been a tremendous leader in- in that effort around the country.
TW: And when you look out on the- the member stations, they're not exactly affiliates, as you would know them in television. They're member stations. When you see that these two stations here for example, maybe they could save some money if they had some efficiencies to use a corporate term, maybe they share a staff member or whatever, you, as NPR president, you have no power whatsoever as president to order that. To edict that.
GK: Yeah I have a little bit of a bully pulpit, but may- it's probably not a bully pulpit it's more like a junior church congregation pulpit or something like that, but it's um- I woke up one day and I felt "You know what, I'm kind of more like the commissioner of the National Football League." Sort of have to get the owners in line, and some of them are, totally willing to go with the program, and some of them are going to resist you at every opportunity, but you try to use the power of persuasion and I think you try to point out the bigger interest at stake here, which is in my mind actually the future of news and information in this country which is a big, fat question.
TW: And this leads to actually a question we got online from our blog from a guy- guy or gal I'm not entirely sure who identified him or herself as JBL who notes that, when we actually solicited questions online for the NPR president, we actually didn't get very many, and he said "I think that speaks to the idea that people might not actually know what the NPR president does," this person has a lot of question for how the local stations decide what programs to air, but what is it, that an NPR president does given this structure we've been talking about?
GK: Well it fundamentally is two big jobs, um, sort of rolled into one. One is supervising and overseeing a great global news organization, that in some level competes with CBS News and The New York Times and the BBC at some level, and also does work with them, but, is a competitor. It's an American news organization that- with 17 foreign bureaus around the world, it's covering the nation, it's covering the Middle East, it's covering everything that's going on from a news point of view and that is uh, that- that is probably the most important piece of what this is. It also has a cultural, uh piece, of NPR music that has growing in size every day.
And then the other part of it is really a membership organization in representing the public radio stations as a brand, in representing them on Capitol Hill, in representing, ah, pretty much putting forth the importance of public radio on a national basis. So uh, these jobs kind of get rolled into one, but it's a complex set of networked organizations that- when you're running NPR, and it's not that different than say the American Red Cross as an example or the Nature Conservancy or other such similar organizations or the US Olympic Committee, where you have different local constituencies at play who solicit locally, but there needs to be some national corralling ah, of- of all this to make sure it makes sense.
TW: So um network-wide there's about 900 stations or so give or take, in that effort - that first effort you talked about, about trying to get the best news operation out there - you mentioned 17 international bureaus, all these reporters - is some of that effort hindered by the fact that, that you have 900 masters, in a way, to serve, and that maybe there are places where, again I'll use the term "efficiencies" aren't being realized?
GK: Well, look, I- part of this is um, we're content providers. So American Public Media which does Marketplace is a content provider. The stations choose which programs they want to run and which they don't want to run and like you said I don't have control if there's two stations in Timbuktu or, or six or one.
I happen to believe that in this day and age certainly ph- philanthropic donors are investing in those institutions where they're going to get an impact, and ah, and we need to look for efficiencies in the system, both within NPR and as well as at the station economy, because people are going to insist on that, especially going forward as- as dollars get more scarce.
TW: And that leads naturally to the conversation always being had in public radio about the federal funding. Do you see your job as, both fighting for federal funds, and also preparing for the day that they might not be there?
GK: Well that's a good question and look I do believe in Ted Turner's philosophy that you, you know, you hope for the best but prepare for the worst. I mean it- to me it's emergency preparedness, but you'd better be ready for the tornado, you know, and have some things in stock, because you never know what happens it could be that, it could be a big drain- an economy, as we've seen recently, and drop-offs in support from the corporate community, the foundation community, or members and you could have a precipitous drop-off that you weren't expected. So it's important that you have a preparation for that, I do think the case for public funding is still a powerful one, it still resonates with many on Capitol Hill, it's like museums and libraries offering, ah, an important source of information news but mostly on a local basis, so it's support is really local.
It's not about supporting necessarily a national news organization; it's really about supporting what it means to the citizens of Minnesota. What it means in Wyoming and Montana, because without public radio in some of these states, where newspapers are really going through very difficult times, we will remove the only state coverage in some state capitals in this country without that kind of public support and I would remind our listeners that you know traditionally it was Republican senators, like Senator Stevens in Alaska and Senator Cochrane in Mississippi, who supported public broadcasting first and foremost, because they understood the vital, ah source of information it had for the citizens of Alaska, and in many ways that still hasn't gone away, even ah with the flood of information that we get off the blogosphere and every other place.
TW: It seems quiet right now. The idea of the fight over federal funding seems to pop up every few years and right now we're in a quite spot.
GK: Well look and it also hasn't been exclusive to public radio. In fact I've been around long enough- public radio was sort of the poster child of wonderful and goodness and public television was the problem child because of a documentary or some other such thing, and look this is part of what happens.
I think with public funding, it does I think rightfully allow people to proffer their opinions, but ah, I can just say honestly now having been at the helm here for several months, NPR tries its best at, promoting news which is really reporting, sourcing, fact-checking news, ah and it does make mistakes on occasion, which we try to correct, but it is not an organization with a political agenda, that is not correct.
TW: Do you think, even though you weren't here that NPR was ready, for some of the, scandals if you want to call them that happened with a political tone, was NPR ready to, to even face it? Did they have the right structure in place, organizationally in DC, to really know what to do with the Juan Williams, with the undercover camera, with those kinds of incidents?
GK: Probably not. I wasn't there, so it's hard for me to know exactly, but look I think these were self-inflicted wounds, to some degree, and unfortunately, ah, kind of mirrored stereotype among some, who um, who are critical of public radio of NPR, and the people who made those decisions are not working' for us any more so I think that speaks for itself.
TW: You go back to the idea that NPR in its primary job is to create news but you are a content provider. It's an interesting thing to say that NPR actually owns no radio stations. You know you just produce the content. We here, at American Public Media, we happen to own radio stations but we produce content as well. Is APM a competitor to NPR?
GK: Um, well in some ways yes, but I- you know what I don't really wake up in the middle of the night sweating about APM and, I mean that not because APM's not important. I mean that because um, it- it- it raised, the quality of content in the country.
With shows like Marketplace and, which I've been a big fan of for years, before I took this job, so um, I think having better content on public radio is what this is all about and NPR's got to live in a competitive space as well and provide programs.
Look, it's all about the audience - it's delivering content for the audience. It's not about what's good for NPR or APM it's about what's the audience demand and can we come up with creative programs, that they are going to embrace, and we're trying to launch a couple as we speak now, ah, like the TED radio hour and a couple other things which we're excited about, but um, we'll see whether the audience is as excited about them as we are.
TW: The future of programming itself is an interesting topic because, for years, especially here at AMP the idea was "we need to find that next hour-long program that can help fill the schedule." You know maybe we need an hour on Saturday. Maybe we need an evening show, ah but when you develop shows now it doesn't seem like that is necessarily the most important thing, to have the hour.
GK: Yeah, and part of it is there's I think a rethink a reboot of what is the definition of public media. And that's changing because the distribution, ah, realm has so changed, and now it's as much about what web content is as it- as radio content going forward, and web-native content so to speak instead of just taking the radio audio and sticking' it on the- on the internet in a podcast, I think those days are going to be behind us faster than we think.
And I think this is much more about web-native content that people who are interested in an issue, like let's take the uh, you know, the- an energy issue, or the Minnesota Vikings stadium or whatever the heck it is, that they can actually go on the website and drill much deeper into the positives and negatives around these decisions and get informed about them.
TW: This gets into a question that we got online from Julie: "What is NPR doing to ensure that there our local, public radio stations have the most current technology?"
GK: Well we're doing' a lot on that actually, Julie and we've created something called NPR Digital Services which is based up in Boston, ah, hired a guy from Boston Globe to run it, and his sole job is to raise the level of web engagement for member stations. So that we really improve the overall presence of member stations of- of a web experience, and those are being rolled out now and let me tell you they are so much better.
So that is part of what NPR's trying' to do and part of our work here in- St. Paul today is to get, a number of stations brought up to speed on our digital strategies, um, and have them embrace some of the work that we're doing so that the- that we can collectively build the enterprise.
TW: Did some of those stations, not stations like Minnesota Public Radio, but did some of those stations where they only have one or two staff, that are maybe dedicated to online, did they listen to you and say, "Great ideas, but we don't have the staff to actually put it into place"?
GK: Well actually what we're trying to do is deliver a pretty, you know, um, a light switch kind of ah system here where they can just punch in some content, flip the switch and they're go. It's low maintenance, low cost, figure out a way to improve the experience for consumers in different cities and states in the Midwest as we speak, and um, I think you'll see in a number of states a- a vast improvement over what's up there now.
TW: You said when you- when you got the job, that, given all the turmoil that had just happened basically in the year or two before, that one of your goals was to calm the waters. How's that going'?
GK: Well I mean you said it yourself, I think you know it's, um, it's calmer, but I think, [laughs], you can't rest, I mean we live in an environment now that's um, highly volatile in public opinion and um, everybody has now a platform to express their opinion which is a great thing, but it also means any institutions are open for ah, criticism and open for debate at any time, and that's something that we have to adjust our ways, whether we're running a corporation a school, or a church, or a public radio station, we've got to be, ah ready to do that and be ready to respond.
TW: When the next 'thing' happens that becomes a thing, right, is the response from NPR going to be different and what I mean by that is, I think there are some people who saw the way some of those things happened and said "You know what, NPR should have been bolder. They should have come back and fought a little more, and said 'no, you're wrong; this is where the truth is.'"
GK: Yeah well ah I think there's some point to that. I think part of it is we've let ourselves get branded into a place that isn't really accurate, and um, we have an ombudsman at NPR who's there, who does not report to the newsroom, who's there to investigate if there's a perceived bias about some issue, and he's really strong and independent-minded and he's- I don't control um, and we have corrected things, so we really do go out of our way to try to present a fair and accurate service of news and we need to tell that story better. And not let ourselves get painted by others into something that we're not.
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