Should Innovation Be a Priority for New NPR CEO Gary Knell?

Posted on Thursday, October 27, 2011 in Insights, iMA Innovators Blog,

By Amanda Hirsch

“Should innovation be a priority for new NPR CEO Gary Knell? If so - what kind of innovation? If not - why not?”

I recently posed this question to an array of current and former public media professionals via email as well as the Public Media group on Facebook, inviting everyone to define “innovation” however they saw fit. As of this writing, I’ve received over 40 comments on Facebook, and several responses via email. The responses are diverse, but a few common themes emerged.

1. First Things First

A few people I heard from felt that innovation should not be priority numero uno for Knell. As Tracy Tran, a recruiter and former staffing coordinator at NPR, put it, “Innovation as a priority? Absolutely, but is it the top priority? Not right now. I think Knell needs to focus on…hiring the top news person and stabilizing NPR first.” Similarly, Jake Shapiro, CEO of the Public Radio Exchange (PRX), wrote, “Innovation should of course be a priority at NPR, although not the top one given critical needs on other more fundamental fronts.”

2. More Digital and Content Innovation

For those who felt that innovation should be one of Knell’s top priorities, many interpreted “innovation” to mean “digital innovation.” For example, outgoing KUT Web Manager Deepina Kapila, wrote, “It is NPR's responsibility as a leader to make digital innovation a priority.” Southern California Public Radio's Director of Digital Media, Alex Schaffert, agrees: "NPR’s commitment to innovation has already led to robust digital content and audience growth. We expect that commitment to innovation will continue, and we hope stations will be included every step of the way." On the other hand, Rekha Murthy, Director of Projects and Partnerships at PRX, suggested that given NPR’s progress to date in the digital arena, its real focus should be on content innovation:  

“Content innovation is in great need at NPR and throughout public radio. I think it should be more of a priority than digital innovation, since NPR seems to have laid the groundwork for the latter already, and is in the process of laying more.”

Shapiro of PRX agreed that content innovation is needed, noting Snap Judgement with Glynn Washington as an example of an innovative new program, and saying, “we need a lot more like it!”

3. Culture of Innovation

On Facebook, a number of people actually expressed fatigue around the word “innovation,” feeling like it was an empty buzzword too often used to connote bells and whistles instead of meaningful progress. As Doug Mitchell, founder of NPR's Next Generation Radio project and currently Co-Project Director at The New U Media Entrepreneur Fellowship Program, observed, “Innovation doesn't need to be the latest, greatest app... just purposed, progressive professional development of people who are free to fail and try again.”

Kim Bui, social media strategist and community editor at Southern California Public Radio (who we profiled last week), expressed a sentiment that many others rallied behind:

“In every newsroom I've been in - startup, public media or newspaper - innovation is the word, but culture is the problem.  I'd rather (Knell) work (on) creating a culture of innovation. You can't walk up to someone’s desk and say, 'I demand you innovate. Right now!' You have to create a place where people are allowed to think differently, try new things and fail. Or succeed. As long as it's ok to try.”

4. Specific Opportunities

 “Innovation is an ongoing process of anticipating and meeting audience needs,” said Tim Olson, Vice President of Digital Media and Education at KQED. He went on to note a specific opportunity for innovation: “For public radio, the potential of online audio in mobile devices and car dashboards is a particularly strong growth area.” Over at Louisville Public Media, Vice President and Chief Content Officer Todd Mundt (who is also Chair of the Public Radio Program Directors Association), also flagged a specific opportunity for innovation, namely, defining the sound of public media on the web:

“I've been thinking a lot about something that the SoundCloud CEO Alexander Ljung has said: "Sound is going to be bigger than video...''Record' is the new QWERTY.' And I was part of a conversation in September where NPR's VP (of) Digital Kinsey Wilson talked about the huge potential of sound in the digital space, and our need to be even more creative with sound.

So, as Gary Knell tries to encourage innovation across a number of fronts, and innovation SHOULD be a priority, I think he should make every effort to unleash a new era of innovation in what is the very foundation of our medium: sound. What is the sound of public media on the web? Will innovations on that platform bring new energy to the sound of public radio?”

5. Local/National

On a more fundamental level, several people noted that Knell’s greatest contribution could be developing innovative solutions to age-old local/national challenges. On Facebook, Micah Schweitzer, Host/Reporter/Producer at WNIN Tri-State Public Media, wrote,

“I wonder if one area for innovation is in the relationship between NPR and member stations. Or even between member stations… I'm intrigued by the idea of a system-wide website with local(ized) entry points for member stations. More content sharing would be nice, too…perhaps innovation could lie in overcoming what sometimes seems like a local-national divide.” 

What do you think? In what ways should the public radio community be focused on innovating, and what can or should Knell do as incoming NPR CEO to facilitate that innovation? Join the discussion.

Photo of Gary Knell courtesy of NPR

Amanda Hirsch is a writer and online media consultant with deep ties to public media. The former editorial director of, she's written for MediaShift and P.O.V. and managed the EconomyStory project. Amanda also co-hosted the weekly #pubmedia chat on Twitter. You can follow Amanda on Twitter at @amanda_hirsch.