Gary Knell is about to find out it's a lot easier to stick up for Bert and Ernie than "All Things Considered."
National Public Radio’s new president and CEO takes the helm of a news organization under increasing attack from conservatives for its perceived liberal bias and still reeling from a brouhaha that forced out his predecessor, Vivian Schiller.
The mounting national deficit and a series of high-profile scandals have emboldened Congressional Republicans to try to strip NPR, long a piñata for the right, of millions in federal backing.
Even Knell, 57, the former CEO of Sesame Workshop, acknowledges it’s a fight he may lose.
“We’re going to work like heck to make the case, and we need to do a better job of making that case, but I can’t predict what’s going to happen with the Super Committee [the bi-partisan group charged with cutting $1.2 trillion] or the budget cuts,” Knell told TheWrap. “We’ve got to make sure we have the ability to withstand any storms or southward turns.”
To that end, he said he’s committed to growing the financial backing NPR receives from listeners and foundations. Knell doesn’t step into his new post until Dec. 1, but he may have to act fast.
Last week, the GOP-dominated House Appropriations Committee unveiled its latest budget proposal.
It prohibits funds from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) from trickling down to NPR and requests a report from the CPB on how to wean public radio off of public support by fiscal year 2014.
Compounding matters, public radio is still reeling from a series of scandals, such as the firing of commentator Juan Williams over anti-Muslim remarks and a video sting by a conservative activist that captured NPR fundraisers calling the Tea Party “racist.”
“I want to depoliticize the debate,” Knell told TheWrap. “NPR has been unfairly labelled as having a political agenda. This is a journalism organization that is on balance fair.”
But the series of scandals called into question NPR’s claims of being non-partisan and confirmed to many Republicans what conservatives had been asserting for years — that the organization is little more than a liberal mouth piece.
Knell hopes to turn a page on that painful period in NPR’s history, one that led to a shakeup at the top of the 40-year old organization, with Schiller's exit in March.
“Those people aren’t working here anymore,” Knell said. “It’s my hope that we don’t inflict wounds upon ourself, and I’m going to try like heck to make sure I don’t do anything that will.”
Despite the headlines generated by each Republican threat to cut off public support, NPR receives a small portion of its budget, some 2 percent, from federal funds. So is it worth the headache it brings?
But Knell said that without the backing of the CPB, a significant number of NPR’s hundreds of member stations might have to close their doors. As it stands, CPB funding accounts on average for 15 percent of funding for the more than 1,100 public radio and television stations around the country.
“When you drive across the country, the only local news you can hear in certain parts of the country is public radio,” Knell said. “If we’re going to have an informed citizenry, we have to keep funding radio as we do libraries.”
Despite the controversies that have dogged public radio, Knell said that NPR is the rare brand capable of engendering enormous affection among its listeners.
“There’s such a devotion to NRR’s quest for excellence in journalism,” Knell said. “There are topics that are really important that are not being discussed on commercial radio or on cable news, what role is being played by our troops in Afghanistan or what does the currency crisis in Europe mean, that require objective reporting.”
Knell, who runs the non-profit group behind “Sesame Street,” say that in addition to a talent for attracting corporate and foundational sponsors, there’s something else he plans to bring over from his days at the children’s programming giant.
“Oscar the Grouch,” Knell said. “So people can know when I’m having a lousy day.”