Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

c.2013 New York Times News Service

NPR, which has suffered a succession of leadership changes over the better part of a decade, needs a new chief executive again.

Gary E. Knell, the public radio organization’s chief for the past 20 months, announced Monday that he would be leaving to run the National Geographic Society. It came as an unwelcome surprise to NPR staff members, given that Knell brought some desperately needed stability to the executive ranks when he was hired in late 2011.

In an email to the NPR staff, Knell said he had been approached by the National Geographic Society and “offered an opportunity that, after discussions with my family, I could not turn down.”

In a subsequent telephone interview, Knell said he had been prepared to renew his NPR contract, which expires in November. But then National Geographic called, and it was enticing for a number of reasons, he said. One immediately suggested by observers Monday was money: He will earn a significantly higher salary at the society. While that is true, he said his decision “wasn’t really driven by a financial equation.” What was most appealing about National Geographic, he said, was its size, its educational efforts and international scope.

“The perfect person for this crucial role was right in our own backyard,” Jean N. Case, co-chairwoman of the committee that searched for a new chief executive, said in a statement.

While Knell’s departure from NPR appears amicable, it is disappointing to that organization’s board, which must once again search for a leader.

Ken Stern, who was named chief executive in 2006, stepped down less than two years later; an interim head took over until NPR hired Vivian Schiller away from The New York Times to run the organization in 2009. She resigned two years after that, after back-to-back controversies involving the political views of an NPR analyst, Juan Williams, and a pair of NPR fundraising executives. Another interim head was appointed until Knell’s arrival in 2011 from the nonprofit Sesame Workshop.

Analysts have suggested that the revolving door has hindered NPR, which has had to delicately maintain relationships with its member stations across the country while expanding its presence on the Web.

“NPR’s a vital journalism organization that seems to have more problems with its business side than its journalism side, and that hurts its reputation, because people don’t make that distinction,” said Alicia Shepard, who was NPR’s ombudsman between 2007 and 2011.