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New NPR CEO Gary Knell Hopes To 'Depoliticize' Public Radio Debate

Gary Knell

First Posted: 10/02/11 07:21 PM ET Updated: 12/02/11 05:12 AM ET

NEW YORK -- NPR named Gary Knell as president and CEO on Sunday, ending more than six months of speculation about who would lead the media organization.

Knell, who's currently the president and CEO of Sesame Workshop, said in a statement that he's "thrilled to join NPR." He continued:

Over the past 40 years, it's grown from an inspired idea to one of the world's most respected and leading providers of news, music and cultural programming -- both on the air and across ever-expanding digital platforms. This is media with a deeply held mission, compelling history and boundless future. Simply put: it's journalism at its best. What an opportunity to work with the incredibly talented staff here, and to partner with stations, as we continue to innovate, expand civil dialogue and set the standard for media.

NPR's board of directors kept the lengthy CEO search process very close to the vest, a strategy that rankled some employees who felt left in the dark. While reporting on the search last week, I heard Knell's name second-hand as a contender but couldn't confirm it. Indeed, board members weren't returning calls and the three NPR staffers allowed some input on the selection were forced to sign strict confidentiality agreements.

Knell joins NPR following a tumultuous year at the network, with Ellen Weiss, the network's top news executive, losing her job in January over NPR's handling of the firing of Juan Williams. Two months later, CEO Vivian Schiller resigned following another scandal involving an NPR fundraising executive's comments during a hidden-camera sting.

On Sunday, Knell told NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik that he hopes to "calm the waters" and "depoliticize" the public radio debate. (Last week, for example, House Republicans threatened again to cut off any federal funding to NPR).

"It's not about liberal or conservative -- it's about fairness," Knell said. "We've got to make the case we're delivering a fair service, not only in the way we do our jobs, but in the way we disseminate the news."

Knell joined Sesame Workshop in 1989, rising to the top job 11 years later. Previously, Knell served as managing director of the Asia-based Manager Media International and as senior vice president and general counsel at WNET/Channel 13 in New York, according to his NPR bio.

Folkenflik reports that Knell "served as a counsel for Democrats on several Senate committees and subcommittees," but noted in the interview that he's also done work on child health issues with Republicans.

Knell starts on Dec. 1 and will eventually move from New York to Washington to work from NPR's headquarters.

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