This month, Mount Kisco resident Gary E. Knell, former CEO of Sesame Workshop, takes over National Public Radio as president and CEO. The 57-year-old father of three spoke to Westchester Magazine about the political future of the organization, those insistent pledge drives, and whether or not he’s really leaving the county.
WM: Between the resignation of NPR CEO, Vivian Schiller, and calls for Congress to defund NPR, you’re coming in at a pretty turbulent time. Is that going to affect your work? I’m trying to focus on getting back to the basics and what the service has been about for forty years—local journalism and investigative journalism and international and national coverage of stories that are important to Americans, along with the cultural programs that you can’t find on commercial radio anymore. Public radio and public television and museums and libraries and everything else don’t live in a bubble. They have to be part of what people decide is important to fund or not important to fund, but I think the debate’s gotten a bit highly charged.
WM: Any good news? Membership across public radio is up. Listenership is up. It’s a growing audience at a time when other media are suffering.
WM: I’ve read that Schiller, your predecessor [before interim CEO Joyce Slocum], grew up in Larchmont. Does living in Westchester give that kind of local perspective that’s so crucial to NPR’s sense of itself? Yes, I think so. I’ve been in Westchester for about fifteen years. I also travel a lot around the country. NPR’s one of those things that connects the country. It plays a pretty important role.
WM: What’s your favorite Westchester spot? I like to bike, and Northern Westchester is a bicycling haven. I’m not quite the aficionado that my wife is, but we both ride with the Westchester Cycle Club, and she finishes way ahead of me. I think that’s a wonderful part of life here. You’re within forty-five minutes of what is arguably the greatest city in the world. And yet you’re out here and there are birds and animals and blue sky, and quiet.
WM: As I write this, it’s fall fundraiser season, and today, Morning Edition host Soterios Johnson was reminding me how much I love the show… And how much you love pledge drives on the radio!
WM: I read your daughter is graduating from Fox Lane High School in the spring and that you’ll then be moving down to DC. Is it true? Aren’t you going to miss us? We have a lot of friends here. The Blue Dolphin in Katonah is kind of my favorite little restaurant in town. I was at the Katonah Museum of Art for their CrossTalk series, which is terrific, and now I’m on the board of the Jacob Burns Film Center. I’m a wild advocate for [Executive Director] Steve Apkon and everything that goes on there. We’re very active in the community, so I can’t see us totally packing up and leaving forever. We’ll have a Westchester part of our lives, in some way to be determined.