Roger Yu, USA TODAY
USA TODAY - The National Geographic Society said Monday it has named Gary Knell as its new president and CEO, a move that comes little over a year and a half after Knell signed on to lead NPR.
Knell's departure took many at NPR by surprise, a fact reflected by the tweets of staffers. His abrupt departure again highlights the organization's inability to keep a CEO for longer than a couple of years.
"There's a lot of instability now," said Jack Mitchell, professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin, Madison and author of Listener Supported: The Culture and History of Public Radio. "It seemed like a perfect match. I thought (Knell) was a good choice for NPR."
David Folkenflik, NPR's media correspondent, noted on his Twitter account that his employer has had six permanent or acting CEOs in about seven years. "Staffers at NPR react with widespread astonishment at news of Knell's departure," he tweeted.
Later this year, Knell will replace John Fahey, who will remain chairman of the board at National Geographic, a non-profit scientific and educational organization.
In a phone interview, Knell said he had been approached by National Geographic about the new opportunity. He had planned to renewhis contract with NPR when it expired in November, he said, but a chance to work internationally at a bigger organization with more resources was too good to pass up. "They play on a global scale," he said. "It was a chance for me to make a big impact. It was a hard decision, since it's not like I didn't like NPR or had a battle with the board."
He'll also likely be paid better at his new job. Knell took a pay cut when he left Sesame Workshop to join NPR, wrote media blogger Jim Romenesko. Fahey was paid more than $1.4 million in 2011, Romenesko said, citing IRS filings. Fahey declined to discuss Knell's salary.
Knell, a lawyer by training, already has ties to National Geographic, serving on its education foundation's board and the National Geographic Society's board of trustees. Knell's familiarity with National Geographic may have helped him win the job. "I am gratified that my successor is someone who has such close ties to this institution," Fahey said.
Prior to NPR, Knell spent 22 years - 12 years as CEO - at Sesame Workshop, helping to enhance the children programming organization's revenue and global audience.
His experience in leading organizations that are operating at the "intersection of media and public service" also gave Knell an edge on other candidates, Fahey said. "Gary is somewhat unique," Fahey said. "Navigating the media disruption and business model is something he likes to talk about."
National Geographic also has been launching kids' programming and products, and Knell's work at and contacts from Sesame will surely come in handy. Knell oversaw Sesame's launch of two cable networks, Noggin and Sprout.
Knell joined NPR as its chief in December 2011, following a six-month search to replace Vivian Schiller. Schiller left after a series of crises that brought the organization unwelcome attention from the right. She fired commentator Juan Williams in late 2010 after he made controversial statements about Muslims on planes and faced heated debate about continued public funding of her organization.
When he left Sesame for NPR, Knell said he wanted to broaden NPR's funding sources and digital efforts, as well as quiet the political storm swirling around the organization.
But the job also calls for balancing the interests of NPR's national expansion ambitions and of member stations that pay for programming. NPR's board members are elected by the local stations that often oppose new proposals, particularly in technology areas, that may allow listeners to bypass their radio channels, Mitchell said. "It's inherently a problem. They place limits on what any CEO can do."
Knell, however, said the board had been supportive.
"It was a very hard decision," he said. "I lost a lot of sleep over the last month or two. I'm disappointed. I wanted to work (here) for a long time, but sometimes, opportunities come along."