NPR Turns To Public TV Vet Gary Knell As New CEO

Seven months after Vivian Schiller was ousted as president and CEO of NPR, the public radio network has turned to a public broadcast veteran to take her place. Gary E. Knell will be leaving his post as CEO of the Sesame Workshop, the non-profit organization behind the long-running PBS children’s program Sesame Street, to join NPR as president and CEO on December 1.

Schiller resigned from NPR in March after a series of controversies erupted around the time conservative members of Congress had been ramping up a campaign to de-fund the public broadcaster amid charges that it was liberally-oriented. Three months after her departure, Schiller joined NBC (NSDQ: CMCSA) News as its chief digital officer.

NPR hired Schiller from her role as SVP/GM of (NYSE: NYT). Her deep digital background showed in NPR’s major emphasis on developing mobile and tablet apps and making sure that its member stations had equal access to those distribution avenues.

With the choice of Knell, NPR did not aim at as transformative a figure as Schiller, given that he has spent the past dozen years at Sesame and had previously done a stint at PBS station WNET. That is not to say that his media career has been limited to just nonprofits. In between terms in public broadcast, Knell was managing director of Manager Media International, a print and multimedia publishing company based in Bangkok, Hong Kong, and Singapore.

Aside from his deep ties to public broadcasting, Knell has one other feature on his resume that makes him appear to be a natural choice for NPR right now, especially given the tense political climate in Washington, DC. He once served as counsel to the U.S. Senate Judiciary and Governmental Affairs Committees and worked in the California State Legislature and Governor’s Office. He’s also currently a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO.

That probably won’t make him seem any less “elitist” to populist politicians gunning for the small portion of taxpayer funding NPR gets, 10 percent of which comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. But having diplomatic skills could become important during the next round of Congressional budget talks, as NPR will surely be a target once again.