Big Bird, Elmo and their pals made huggable toys and helped turn "Sesame Street" into a durable worldwide brand. One man who got much of the credit was Sesame Workshop Chief Executive Gary E. Knell. He strengthened the financial platform for the venerable children's show, even amid exploding competition.
Now Knell faces what appears to be an even tougher task: securing the long-term fiscal underpinning of NPR, where he takes over Dec. 1 as president and CEO.
Since no one appears to be champing at the bit for dolls of Nina Totenberg and the "Car Talk" guys, Knell must devise some other way either to "liberate public radio from untenable reliance on fed dollars" — the unexpected recommendation expressed recently by his predecessor — or persuade skeptics in Congress that the national radio network deserves taxpayer support.
Knell said in an interview this week that he intends to strengthen foundation, corporate and individual member giving for a radio network that has added nearly 40% more listeners over the last decade, now drawing more than 34 million weekly listeners. But his immediate plan is to "retell" the NPR story, so lawmakers understand how many people rely on the radio service for news that no one else is covering.
It helps that the executive, who grew up in Southern California, can tell a story that happens to be the truth. In an era of yapping commentary and celebrity obsession, NPR usually gives it to us straight and covers subjects forsaken by many others, such as books and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. But will that be enough to preserve the federal government's support of the network and its member stations, which currently get about $97 million a year?
"When looking at all the social programs and defense programs and every other program the federal government pays for, public broadcasting is not sitting in some immune corner from everyone else," Knell said via phone from New York. "It's important to make the case that public radio is something to be valued."
Knell, 57, described himself as a longtime "groupie" of the radio network. He said he enjoys programs such as "Morning Edition," "Car Talk" and podcasts of "The Business," the entertainment industry program produced at KCRW in Santa Monica and featuring the Hollywood Reporter's Kim Masters and John Horn of the Los Angeles Times.
"I think there would be a huge hole in people's lives if when they were in their car they were not able to listen to some of these programs on public radio," Knell said.
The radio network's leader-designate did not want to revisit in detail the twin controversies that earlier this year felled first NPR news chief Ellen Weiss and then CEO Vivian Schiller. Their troubles began first with the firing of news analyst Juan Williams and expanded, for Schiller, when another NPR executive was videotaped as he disparaged members of the tea party.
Knell was in Los Angeles last week for the 40th reunion of his class at Grant High School in the Valley. He also visited local NPR affiliates KCRW, KPCC in Pasadena and the NPR West offices in Culver City. Listening to NPR programs during his stay in his hometown, he said his best impressions of his new colleagues were confirmed. He heard interviews with Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain and a story about a new Democratic political action committee, both in his view balanced and without a "gotcha" moment.
"If you listen over a period of time you hear voices from all ends of the political spectrum on NPR," Knell added. "I think a lot of the critics, by what they say, don't even listen to the service."
After high school, Knell attended UCLA, where he worked for four years on the Daily Bruin student newspaper. He went to Loyola Law School in Los Angeles before a staff job at the California Legislature, a legal advising post with Jerry Brown during his first incarnation as governor, a U.S. Senate staff gig and then his first big job in public media, as an executive and general counsel at television station WNET in New York.
At "Sesame Street's" parent he helped launch co-productions in South Africa, Russia, China and Egypt. He pushed more aggressively than some wanted to cash in on the "Sesame" characters' commercial appeal, but the bottom line improved. The children's program took on topics — such as hunger and helping kids cope with their parents' military deployments — that were both timely and beyond partisan reproach.
Knell argues that the decline of some newspapers and commercial TV and radio stations — in either audience, quality or both — has made it even more important to strengthen NPR, particularly in parts of the country where few others cover government. It may seem ironic to some, but many advocates of public media speak glowingly of senators of yore like Barry Goldwater or Arizona and Ted Stevens of Alaska.
Those Republicans repeatedly voted to put government money behind public TV and radio, understanding that their constituents, particularly rural ones, had few other viable options for getting the news. Public radio relies on the federal government for less than 10% of its overall funding, but the percentage is well over 50% for some small stations.
Whether a new conservative defender emerges for the next budget fight, even many public radio insiders see less taxpayer money in the long run. That means more dependence on outside sources and perhaps partnerships between wealthy urban stations and poorer ones in small markets. The financial health of NPR will fall in the long run, as the pledge-drive talkers have reminded us so many times, to listeners like you.