NPR Leader Out After Board Clash

By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 7, 2008

Ken Stern, one of the key architects of National Public Radio's rapid growth over the past decade, stepped down as chief executive yesterday following a clash with NPR's board over the direction of the organization.

Washington-based NPR said Stern, 44, was leaving "by mutual agreement," but gave no details about the circumstances of his departure.

People at NPR said, however, that Stern and the organization's 17-member board had clashed repeatedly over several of Stern's initiatives, including NPR's expansion into new media. Those initiatives often riled station managers, who saw them coming at the expense of serving the hundreds of public stations that pay dues annually to NPR.

NPR's board, which includes 10 members from station groups, declined to renew Stern's contract yesterday.

Stern will be replaced on an interim basis by the board's chairman, Dennis L. Haarsager, while the board conducts a search for a permanent replacement. Haarsager, who is general manager of Northwest Public Radio, a 13-station group in Washington state, said in an interview that he "did not anticipate" taking the job permanently.

Haarsager said the board considered "a multidimensional set of circumstances" in deciding not to renew Stern's tenure. He declined to spell any of them out. "Ken had some really great successes," he said. "He did a great job. But the board looked at a lot of things" in evaluating him.

Stern has been with NPR since 1999, first as executive vice president and, since September 2006, as chief executive. He was effectively the hand-picked successor of Kevin Klose, who gave up the CEO job but remained as president.

Under Klose and Stern, NPR grew rapidly, enjoying perhaps the most successful decade of its existence. Weekly audiences for such NPR shows as "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" doubled to 26 million. Revenue grew from $65 million to $200 million, and its workforce doubled to about 800 employees.

NPR also expanded with programming agreements with satellite broadcasters and a Web site that attracts about 8 million monthly visitors. It is also the world's largest producer of podcasts.

On Wednesday, Stern gave no hint of his plans as he announced that NPR had accepted a package of tax incentives from the District's government to keep its new headquarters in the city.

Yesterday, after his contract was not renewed, Stern said in a statement: "I'm proud of having brought NPR to new heights as one of the greatest journalism organizations in the world. . . . I also take great pride in NPR's financial performance during my tenure, with our financial reserves and endowment growing by over 2,000 percent. I have enormous respect for the management team I assembled and know they will keep NPR on this successful path."

Before joining NPR, Stern worked with Klose at Radio Free Europe. He has also been a director of the U.S. International Broadcasting Bureau in Washington and was deputy general counsel for President Bill Clinton's 1996 reelection campaign.

Klose, who remains on NPR's board, was instrumental in landing public radio's largest grant, a $235 million bequest from the late McDonald's heiress Joan Kroc in 2003.

Stern is the latest in a recent string of high-level departures at NPR. Bill Marimow, who had been NPR's vice president for news, left the organization in late 2006 to become editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer after serving only eight months in the top editorial job. Jay Kernis, who developed several NPR shows over two long tenures, left in January to become managing editor of CNN. And Barbara Rehm, NPR's managing editor for news, announced her resignation in July.

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