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NPR names Gary Knell, head of nonprofit behind ‘Sesame Street,’ as chief executive

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NPR on Sunday named Gary Knell, who has headed the organization that produces “Sesame Street,” as its new chief executive and president.

Knell replaces Vivian Schiller, who left NPR in March after a succession of controversies that started with the firing of commentator Juan Williams last fall and ended after conservative activists secretly taped two NPR fundraisers appearing to make disparaging remarks about conservatives. Since then, the company has been run by an interim CEO, Joyce Slocum, while the organization’s board searched for Schiller’s replacement.

The various flaps fueled a Republican-led push to eliminate federal funding for public broadcasting, including D.C.-based NPR. But those efforts failed, and NPR’s annual subsidy was preserved.

Knell, 57, is president and chief executive of Sesame Workshop, the New York-based nonprofit group that produces “Sesame Street,” the long-running PBS children’s program. He has headed the organization since 2000.

In addition to advocating for continued federal support, Knell’s biggest immediate task may be finding a permanent head of news for NPR, whose programs are heard on hundreds of noncommercial stations nationwide.

NPR’s newsroom has been run since January on an interim basis by Margaret Low Smith, after Schiller forced out Ellen Weiss for her handling of the Williams affair.

Knell has a background in public broadcasting, journalism, the media business and government. In an interview Sunday, he called himself “an NPR groupie.”

“I think their journalists do a great job,” he said.

Before joining Sesame Workshop in 1989, Knell was managing director of publishing company Manager Media International, which operates in Bangkok, Hong Kong and Singapore. The company published a monthly business magazine, Asia Inc., the daily newspaper Asia Times and several trade publications.

He was also an executive and general counsel at WNET, the public TV station in New York, and a former counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee when it was chaired by the late Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.). Before his stint in Washington, he worked as a legal adviser to Gov. Jerry Brown (D-Calif.) during Brown’s first term, and for Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.).

NPR “has to do a better job of making its case” for why federal support is necessary and should continue, Knell said. Part of the reason, he said, is that its journalism fills a void left by commercial radio stations, which have “abandoned” news, and by the decline of local newspapers.

Knell will take a pay cut in his new job. According to NPR, he earned $684,144 at Sesame Workshop plus $62,000 in additional compensation in 2009, the last year public records were available. NPR did not disclose his salary but said it is in line with Schiller’s compensation; she received a base salary of $450,000 and a bonus of $125,000 in May 2010.

Knell said he will commute from his New York home and move permanently after his daughter graduates from high school next spring.

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