New NPR Boss Wants Low-Income Listeners

Journal-isms: The new CEO of NPR says, "I made diversity a key part of my pitch to the NPR board."


Gary Knell, Network’s New President, Commits to Diversity

The new CEO of NPR says, “I made diversity a key part of my pitch to the NPR board” to get the job and that “this is a big part of my agenda.” He even wants to reach low-income listeners.

Gary E. Knell, appointed Sunday to a job he begins in December, leaves an African American in his place in the top job at the Sesame Workshop, where Knell has been president and CEO. Sesame Workshop’s properties include public television’s “Sesame Street” and its international co-productions.

Mel Ming becomes the first African American to lead a children’s programming operation. He told Journal-isms, “What Gary and I tried to do . . . is to have inclusion be a value of the enterprise. If you get more voices in what you do, you can [relate] better with the audience. I believe that, and he believes that.”

Knell, 57, spent Monday at NPR’s headquarters in Washington and said he had been briefed on NPR’s diversity issues, which stretch back more than 20 years. As past and present NPR employees of color told Journal-isms in January, when Ellen Weiss resigned as senior vice president for news, the NPR corporate culture is seen as the chief impediment to greater diversity.

“We’ve got to look at this from a programmatic perspective and a staffing perspective,” Knell said. That means making NPR more attractive to audiences of color as well as looking at age diversity, he said. In answer to a question Tuesday, he said there is even place for a children’s service at NPR.

Citing the nation’s changing demographics, Knell said that when former hockey star Wayne Gretzky was asked the secret of his success, he said he skated to where the puck is. “We need to skate to where the audiences are going.” People of color are greater users of mobile phones, Knell noted, and “NPR needs to be a player in that.” Knell said he uses NPR’s iPad app to listen to the jazz programming on KPLU, an NPR station in Tacoma, Wash.

Univision, the Spanish-language network, reaches low-income people in greater numbers than others, Knell added, and NPR, too, must think about targeting low-income audiences.

Ron Grossman of the Chicago Tribune wrote in March, “According to NPR, the median income of listeners is $86,000, compared to a national average of $55,000. A quarter of the population has a college degree, compared to 65 percent of public-radio listeners. A large percent of NPR’s audience reports being professional.”