There was no single reason why the NPR Board ended Ken Stern’s 18-month run as chief executive officer — or at least none that any participant in the decision would describe publicly after Stern’s abrupt exit March 6 .
Judging from what board members, station execs and other observers are willing to say, it came down to a lack of confidence in Stern’s ability to lead the organization in directions that public radio’s various stakeholders — especially NPR stations — could embrace.
“I can’t comment on the nature of that decision,” said Dennis Haarsager, a longtime station leader now serving as interim c.e.o., “except to say that it was more forward-looking as opposed to backward. No malfeasance should be imputed from this.”
Indeed, Stern’s fans and critics alike say he contributed significantly to strengthening NPR’s financial standing and positioning it as a news organization capable of global coverage.
Stern did not respond to Current’s interview request through NPR’s spokesperson.
During most of his nine years at NPR, Stern served as chief operating officer, No. 2 under President Kevin Klose. As he and Klose proposed to the NPR Board, Stern moved up to c.e.o. in October 2006 and Klose remained as president, concentrating on fundraising.
Klose supported the plan so Stern could prove himself. “I thought it would let them see what Ken could do, and make up their own minds,” he told Current.
Stern’s promotion to chief exec was part of a succession plan aimed at retaining the leadership team that led NPR through a period of dramatic expansion on every front — financial resources, newsgathering capacity, audience and number of media platforms.
But board members and pubradio observers said the management skills that served Stern well as c.o.o., and his difficulties in establishing collegial relationships with creative talent and station leaders, hindered his performance in the top job.
As No. 2, Stern had played the tough cop to Klose’s inspirational, visionary role as NPR president. “It’s always a gamble when you move from that complementary, different role to a new role,” said Jon Schwartz, g.m. of Wyoming Public Radio and former NPR Board chair. “There’s no wrongdoing and no blame. Clearly, the board decided they needed to make a change for the best interest of the company.”
Station execs said many of their peers objected when Stern was promoted to chief executive (and likely candidate to eventually succeed Klose, who is 67) because they questioned the process by which he was chosen for the top job. “It was done behind the scenes, in a way that was not transparent,” said an executive at a major-market station. By not conducting a full search for the next c.e.o., the board “didn’t position him to be successful.”
In deciding to fire Stern, the NPR Board weighed his continuation in the job against considerations of what NPR needed in a c.e.o. and the best ways to achieve that, Haarsager said. “We decided to go out for a national search as soon as possible.”
Klose, who hired Stern as his deputy in November 1999 and backed the plan that allowed him to step back from day-to-day management seven years later, declined to discuss the board’s decision, saying only, “I feel very comfortable with where we are now.”
Klose had recused himself from the board’s personnel discussions about Stern, and its decision to fire him came down “very suddenly,” he said.
When the NPR Board announced late on March 6 that Stern was leaving the organization “by mutual agreement,” the timing caught many pubcasters by surprise.
Just the day before, Stern and District of Columbia Mayor Adrian Fenty announced that NPR would build its new headquarters in a business revitalization district in Washington (separate story). Stern had the board’s full approval to proceed with the building announcement, according to Haarsager. “We view that as an achievement of his tenure,” he wrote in an e-mail.
Manager members of the board said they had been evaluating their chief executive’s performance for some time. “This has been percolating in recent months amongst all of us,” said Ellen Rocco, a board member who heads North Country Public Radio in Canton, N.Y.
Haarsager said the board reviewed Stern’s performance after his first year in the c.e.o. job and planned another mid-year review for May.
During a board executive session in February, however, “there was a discussion among the board about this,” Haarsager said. “We kept that discussion going on phone calls after that and made a decision on the 28th to do what we did.” Stern learned about the board’s decision at noon on March 6.
“We had remarkable unanimity on the board,” said Rob Gordon, president of Nashville Public Radio and chair of the board’s governance committee. “There was wide agreement that this was something that had to happen—that we needed new leadership.”
“What NPR needs is someone who can develop a strategy that can take NPR into this new digital world without in any way diminishing our radio strengths and radio skills — and more importantly to sell that strategy to the board and member stations and the public that we serve,” Gordon said. “It’s going to take an extraordinary person who can do those things.”
Many pubcasters linked the board’s firing decision to the Feb.1 departure of Jay Kernis, a widely respected production exec and key figure in NPR’s evolution, who left his job as NPR senior programming v.p. to join CNN.
The Washington Post attributed Stern’s firing to station resistance to the multiplatform digital media strategies that Stern had charted for NPR, but board members refuted the Post’s account.
The uncertainties of the digital media landscape do worry broadcasters, but the strategies had been adopted by the same board that fired Stern.
“This is not about Luddite stations not wanting to follow a visionary into the digital future,” Rocco said. “Around the country, stations are embracing digital formats and working with and without NPR.”
“What matters is not the platform or the form you deliver the content on,” Rocco said. “It’s continuing to produce the highest caliber, most trusted content.”
Haarsager in particular had been an advocate for digital platforms and was elected as the board chair last fall. “There’s a bizarre spin in the press about Luddite stations,” he told Current on March 11. “They sure hired the wrong boy if that was the case. I’m committed to making public radio available wherever people are using it.”
“If for no other reason than to prove the Washington Post reporter wrong, I really want to make a movement on the digital front,” Haarsager said during NPR’s Annual Membership meeting March 12 in Chantilly, Va. “For whatever reasons that I landed here, I feel as well prepared to lead that as anyone in station community.”
To lead NPR through the transition, Haarsager retired as associate v.p. and g.m. of educational and public media at Washington State University, licensee of the statewide Northwest Public Radio network and KWSU/KTNW-TV in Pullman. “I took this as a sign that they needed to find someone else to run the station,” he said. For nearly four years Haarsager has written Technology360, a future-oriented blog about media, and has spoken at conferences about the implications of digital technologies for public media. He’s thinking about turning his blog into a group effort, since he won’t have time to work on it.
Because of the hasty nature of his appointment at NPR, and the importance of keeping it under wraps, Haarsager cleared out his university office without saying goodbye to his staff.
Howard Stevenson, NPR vice chair and an entrepreneurial studies professor at the Harvard Business School, succeeded Haarsager as chair.
Stern, a young Yale-trained lawyer, served as deputy general counsel for the Clinton-Gore campaign in 1996 and worked with Klose several times before following him to NPR in 1999.
When Klose was head of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Stern helped manage the move of its European headquarters from Munich to Prague. Later, during the Clinton administration, Klose moved to the government’s International Broadcasting Bureau, parent of Voice of America, and he hired Stern for a senior position.
In seven years as c.o.o., Stern brought stability to NPR’s financial and operational systems, put NPR’s corporate underwriting program on a growth path and led an expansion of NPR’s news operations made possible by the late philanthropist Joan Kroc’s $235 million bequest to NPR, said Tim Eby, the network’s past chair and radio manager of WOSU Public Media in Columbus, Ohio.
In the decade since Klose became president, soon to be joined by Stern, NPR’s income has more than doubled. Its revenues in audited financial statements grew from $75.3 million in fiscal year 1998 to $179.2 million in fiscal 2007.
With dividends from Kroc’s endowment gift, NPR’s news division grew dramatically from 2004 to 2006, hiring 75 new journalists, opening five foreign bureaus and adding several new beats. From 1999 to 2006, NPR’s weekly audience doubled in size to 26 million listeners. That growth has since flattened.
Stern was the “primary deal-maker” behind NPR West, the Los Angeles production studio that opened in 2002, and was “intimately involved” in planning and deal-making for the new Washington site announced this month, Schwartz said.
“We saw NPR really mature as a national media organization, straighten out its finances and its operating systems,” Gordon said. “That was something that had to happen, and we’re grateful to Ken for doing it.”
NPR also began offering content on new digital platforms, including two pubradio channels on Sirius Satellite Radio, a deep menu of podcasts on NPR.org that generates 10 million downloads a month, and NPR Music, the online portal aggregating music content from NPR and pilot stations. The network is also doing beta tests of digital services for cell phones and other mobile devices.
“Ken was very good at pushing all of us to look at the digital future,” Rocco said. But she was among the board members who questioned whether NPR was galloping too quickly toward that future, neglecting the steed that had carried it so far — compelling, high-quality radio journalism.
“There are a number of us on the board and in the system who suggested with 30 million listeners a week, radio is not exactly a dead medium yet,” Rocco said.
Disagreements such as this, and the manner in which Stern responded to them, didn’t win him any popularity contests in the pubradio community. Bob Edwards, forced out as Morning Edition anchor while Stern was c.o.o., had strong words for Stern in a comment he posted on a blog about Stern’s departure: “a highly flawed, morally challenged human being.” Edwards declined to elaborate, saying he’s saving anecdotes for his autobiography.
Station executives were somewhat kinder: “He lacked the personal touch,” said John Milligan, g.m. of WHQR in Wilmington, N.C. “He lacked the ability, I think, to manage the creative elements within the system. I thought Ken was a nice guy, a good guy, and got on very well with him personally. But I think that’s what he was lacking.”
“You could argue that stations treated him unfairly,” Gordon commented, “but ultimately, in the end, you’re responsible for creating your reputation and demonstrating that you care about the relationship between NPR and stations.” Gordon said his own board chair met with Stern and said afterwards that he wasn’t sure if NPR’s c.e.o. envisioned a future that included “our little Nashville station.”
“It was incumbent on him to convince stations that our future is a joint future,” Gordon said, referring to Stern. “People think NPR is creating a future without the stations.” The blame for that perception doesn’t rest solely with Stern, he acknowledged.
“When you’re at that level, you don’t do everything yourself,” said Schwartz, referring to Stern’s placement in the NPR hierarchy. “You do get blamed when things fail and you get some credit for ventures that happened on your watch. This is something he can be proud of and we can all be proud of, but it has not played out as pleasantly as people desired.”
“There’s nothing scandalous about it,” Schwartz said. “It’s more the intricacies of what happens in organizations that are as complicated as NPR.”
Copyright 2008 American University