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All Things Considered: Knell Discusses Media’s New Role

Published: Thursday, September 27, 2012

Updated: Thursday, November 15, 2012 01:11

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Henri Gendreau

National Public Radio (NPR) CEO Gary Knell discussed innovation and reinvention in public radio.

During a talk in Higley Auditorium last night, National Public Radio (NPR) CEO Gary Knell shared NPR’s unique approach to journalistic storytelling, its dedication to filling in the essential gaps left by others in the news business and its ongoing mission to reinvent itself. Knell, who joined NPR last year after 12 years as the CEO of Sesame Workshop, visited Kenyon after his daughter, Lucia Knell ’13, conveyed to Student Lectureships his interest in speaking here.

“I assume most of you were strapped into car seats [and] forced to listen to Morning Edition,” Knell joked as he began his talk. One of the challenges NPR faces in the 21st century, he said, is figuring out how to keep news fresh for a generation of young people who are trying to be responsible media consumers. In the digital age, Knell said, NPR has to grapple with how to “separate fact from fiction.” He recounted how NPR senior strategist Andy Carvin was aggregating tweets from participants in the Arab Spring last year. The problem: there was no easy way to verify the identities of the people who were writing those updates. “It’s very hard to figure out how to sort out all of this information and make choices about what is important,” Knell said. “News doesn’t move in a straight line the way it did before.”

Knell also said NPR is developing “a Pandora [radio service] of news” that will let listeners “take deeper dives” into subjects like the environment, science and technology. These “deeper dives” are most evident in three of their programs: Planet Money, which informs listeners of the everyday ramifications of economic issues; RadioLab, a program that makes scientific concepts approachable and engaging; and StoryCorps, which allows anyone to submit a recorded story about “life and overcoming obstacles.”

“I’ve listened to hundreds of these things. I’ve never, ever found one [that was] not worth listening to,” Knell said of Story Corps. These stories, he said, produce “driveway moments” where listeners don’t want to get out of their cars until the segment is over. “These stories are not being told on commercial radio,” Knell said.

Since commercial news organizations have scaled back coverage of international events, NPR sends show hosts and reporters to experience complicated situations firsthand, Knell said. For instance, Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep once had tea with the late U.S. Ambassador to Libya, J. Christopher Stevens, which added a personal dimension to his reporting on the ambassador’s death a few weeks ago.

For Knell, NPR’s foreign affairs reporting is vital for informing Americans about places where their government engages in activities on their behalf. This type of programming, he said, introduces listeners and readers to stories they may not be searching for, which will broaden their horizons.

Still, Knell acknowledged these attempts at innovation will not be easy, and encouraged the audience to give NPR feedback about its operations. “We want you to, if you’re willing, help us reinvent NPR,” Knell said. “We need you to help us figure this out. We need to know that this content is connecting.”

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