By Maria Saporta
National Public Radio is committed to living up to the “national” part of its name.
That was one of the messages that Gary Knell, president and CEO of NPR, shared with the Rotary Club of Atlanta during his talk on Monday.
“When you have journalists based only in Washington and New York, you are not hearing what is going on in the country,” Knell said. “We are going to rely more on our partners like WABE. We have got an army of 1,200 journalists around the country at 270 stations.”
Knell said NPR already has become a powerful force in the field of journalism. It has 38 million listeners per week, which is more than the subscribers of 78 of nation’s top newspapers combined.
Knell joined NPR in 2011 after the network had been in the middle of several controversial events. Knell had been CEO of Sesame Workshop for 12 years.
“I traded in Big Bird for Nina Totenberg,” said Knell, who then referenced the Atlanta connection of Totenberg’s sister, Amy Totenberg. “I left a very secure, fine job hanging out with Big Bird to hang out with some other birds in Washington.”
Knell bemoaned the polarization in political and communication circles. “That’s what we need to get away from — the echo chambers,” Knell said, adding that it is important to present journalism, where facts are sourced and checked, as being different from opinion. “This is not an organization with a political agenda. We believe in fact-based journalism.”
Diversity of all kinds — ethnic, gender, racial, geographic and age — also is important to Knell. In talking about geographic diversity, Knell said: “There’s a lot of wisdom in Atlanta.”
The public is supportive of NPR. NPR has 3.8 million “voluntary” donors — people who respond to pledge drives and requests for donations.
During the question-and-answer period, Knell was asked about public funding for NPR. “Ninety percent is private sector funding,” said Knell, adding that those donors include individuals, foundations and corporations. Asked why NPR doesn’t wean itself from public funding altogether, Knell explained that “public funding has been able to give universal coverage for the system.” Rural areas like Montana and Alaska might not have enough in private donations to fully support its public radio system, yet the U.S. Congress has seen the value to have a complete network to connect the country.
By comparison, the United Kingdom’s BBC receives significant tax support so its budget is about 10 times NPR’s budget, Knell said. As a result, the BBC has been able to provide greater coverage of international news. But Knell said it is important that NPR and news outlets from the United States to also have international news operations.
“We need Americans covering the world,” he said. “I don’t think outsourcing that is good for our country.”
Milton Clipper, president and CEO of Public Broadcasting Atlanta (WABE-90.1 FM), introduced Knell by giving a shout-out to the other public broadcasting operations in Georgia — Georgia Public Broadcasting and WCLK, the public radio station at Clark Atlanta University. “Each station is in partnership with NPR,” Clipper said.
Clipper then alluded to the problems NPR faced a couple of years back.
“Success is never without its challenges,” Clipper said. “As you know, NPR was faced with its challenges and had to chart a new course of success. For NPR, that person is Gary Knell.”