Douglas Bennet, the former administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development who has broad public policy experience but no broadcasting background, yesterday was named president of National Public Radio.
Bennet, 45, had a ready answer for those who questioned his lack of broadcasting credits. "They are right," he said. "It's safe to say I have no broadcast experience whatsoever. This organization has 280 member stations or so; that is not the missing ingredient at NPR. Neither have I been a journalist, but we have some of the country's top-flight journalists."
Bennet, who starts his $81,000-a-year job on Monday, assumes leadership of the country's largest public radio network, which nearly folded earlier this year after a $9.1 million deficit was discovered by an independent audit, about 140 employes were dismissed and some programs were eliminated. Since Frank Mankiewicz resigned from the presidency this past spring, Ronald Bornstein, an administrator at the University of Wisconsin, has been the interim top executive.
At a press conference yesterday, Bennet described NPR as a "healthy and prosperous" organization and his new job as a "compound challenge." The budget has been stabilized at $18 million and the network has used $7 million of an $8.5 million loan from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to pay its bills. And, according to some sources, a forthcoming audit report from the Government Accounting Office is expected to cite the company for poor financial mismanagement but not for illegalities.
Bennet seems to have manifold appeal. He is familiar with Washington politics because he has worked for several well-known politicians. Support for NPR on Capitol Hill has splintered during its financial crisis and congressional hearings are scheduled to resolve its troubles. Bennet said one of the first people he called yesterday was Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. "He pointed out that he has a responsibility to continue to scrub NPR. I welcome that," said Bennet of the 15-minute conversation.
Bennet's experience at AID, an underdog agency constantly fighting for financial support, should serve him well at NPR. He is also credited with being a skilled long-range planner--he once described himself as a "public policy entrepreneur"--and with being tenacious in tough situations. Bennet participated in negotiations leading to the Panama Canal Treaty and NPR board chairman Donald Mullally yesterday cited his dedication to public service.
The selection of Bennet was viewed as unusual and daring by officials both inside and outside NPR. "I think this is terrific," said Ward Chamberlin Jr., a new member of the NPR board who is president and general manager of WETA. "It is an unusual choice but he's obviously a man of intelligence, force and character. The easy thing would have been to pick a broadcaster."
David Creagh, another board member and the general manager of KLON-FM, Long Beach, Calif., said, "His qualifications dramatically exceeded the other candidates'. He's got imagination and energy."
Most recently Bennet has been a visiting fellow at the German Marshall Fund. For two years before that he was president of the Roosevelt Center for American Policy Studies, a bipartisan think-tank. Bennet was asked to resign from the center in June. Yesterday he described the ouster as a result of "differences over its directions." He earned more than $100,000 a year at the center.
Besides his three years at AID, Bennet's federal career includes jobs as assistant secretary of state for congressional relations and staff director of the Senate Budget Committee under former senator Edmund Muskie. He also has been a top aide to Sen. Thomas Eagleton, former senator Abraham Ribicoff, former ambassador Chester Bowles and the late senator Hubert Humphrey. He is a native of Lyme, Conn., and has degrees from Wesleyan University, the University of California at Berkeley and Harvard University.
Asked to compare his job at AID with the job at NPR, Bennet laughed and said, "If you think this (network) has a limited constituency, you should see AID's constituency. There are some parallels in management terms, the organizations are highly complex, the missions are sensitive. The automatic political support for manufacturing tanks or something is not there."
Yesterday Bennet praised NPR's cultural and public affairs programming for its "tradition of excellence." Maintaining program standards and paying off debts would be equally important tasks in his new job, he said. As a listener and financial patron of NPR, he said he supports the continued use of public funds for the network but still favors some private venture capital.
Bennet is viewed as a strong and innovative leader. "One of the things he instituted at AID was evaluation of its own projects. He used skilled people from the inside, cutting down on the costs and engendering a lot of support, candor and enthusiasm for the task," said Alexander Shakow, former assistant administrator at AID and now senior adviser at the World Bank.
At the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which helped NPR avoid bankruptcy by giving the network a three-year loan of $8.5 million in August, reaction to Bennet's selection was pleasant. "We look forward to a long and productive relationship," said Sharon Rockefeller, chairman of the CPB board.