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NPR's president
Spirit, news chops win fans for Klose

Originally published in Current, May 12, 2003
By Mike Janssen

Kevin Klose has thrived on telling stories. Journalism was once his vehicle, whether covering events in the Soviet Union or the American heartland.

Klose in his officeNow he pours his considerable energy into telling one story — the story of NPR. As president, his primary task is to explain the network to outsiders, making a case for their support.

One recent evening he’s bringing the story to would-be underwriters, a group of tech-firm c.e.o.’s massed in NPR’s second-floor boardroom to see reporters such as Nina Totenberg and Tom Gjelten expound on the war in Iraq and other current events.

Klose takes to a podium and begins telling the story that seems always to be on his lips. NPR’s news team may be on display, but so are the qualities that have made Klose a highly popular leader in public radio.

No other news source compares to NPR, he tells the crowd. It is principled, independent, a primary news source and a pillar of democracy. He gestures broadly and sketches arguments in the air, commanding attention with his 6-foot-1-inch of height and brilliantly white hair.

The message connects. When Klose says NPR gained and kept 4 million new listeners following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, a gray-suited man leans toward a neighbor and whispers, “That’s astounding.”

As the event winds up, half a dozen execs approach Klose to pitch show ideas, recommend new technologies, comment—again—on the audience growth. They swap business cards and Klose jots on theirs in blue pen, listening patiently and telling them to stay in touch.

The appeal of this performance would not surprise Klose’s supporters, who are widespread throughout public radio and speak glowingly about his conviction, approachability and genuine passion for journalism. He’s told hundreds of stories throughout his career, but now devotes himself to one that many deem him well-qualified to deliver.

Honeymoon without end

By many accounts, Klose has emerged as popular and trusted during his four years at the helm of NPR. Colleagues say his traits and long journalism career make him both a sympathetic listener to the NPR staff and a passionate leader for the system.

He has won fans among his own employees as well as the managers of NPR’s member stations—no easy feat, considering their notorious tough-mindedness.

Part of Klose’s cachet, they say, stems from his love for public radio and his ability to convey it with authenticity.
He’s an idealist with deep beliefs in what NPR can bring to Americans, says Ruth Seymour, g.m. of KCRW in Santa Monica. “At the end of the day I shrug and say, ‘Sweetheart, it’s only radio,’” she says. “But I think that for him it has a major impact on the way people think.”

When “he starts talking about NPR’s role in the democracy, you just want to stand up and salute,” says Jay Kernis, the veteran NPR producer Klose brought back from CBS News to oversee programming.

In that respect Klose matches the wish list that drove the search for a new leader of NPR after the departure of Delano Lewis. At the time, managers and board members sought a leader committed to public service.

They also wanted one who would embrace the idea of partnering with stations. Lewis had put some in the system on guard when he questioned the efficacy of the network’s unusual and sometimes cumbersome membership model.
Missteps ended previous presidents’ honeymoons with the NPR Board, says Jon Schwartz, former board chair and g.m. of KUWR in Laramie, Wyo. But Klose’s attention to stations has helped him keep the board’s confidence.
“He embraced the notion of membership, and also the idea that partnership was an extension of the membership concept,” Schwartz says.

Klose acknowledges that strengthening ties to stations was an early priority and remains one. When addressing members, he is fond of repeating that NPR owns no broadcast outlets and depends wholly on its stations to reach the public — a reassurance for members wary that NPR will bypass them and take its programs directly to listeners.

Mark Handley, chair of the NPR Board, says the network’s commitment to partnership shows in projects such as The Tavis Smiley Show, developed in collaboration with a consortium of African-American stations. It also informs the station advisory groups tapped by NPR to plan use of emerging technologies, including the Internet, satellite radio and digital radio, he says. The network has never before worked so closely with stations, Handley says.

Klose has visited stations and donors in nearly every state, sometimes spending up to three weeks a month on the road, says Jenny Lawhorn, an NPR publicist. He’s not a “9-to-5 dude,” Lawhorn says. Klose e-mails her at 2 a.m. and when away from the office leaves voicemail messages in the early morning hours. Some days, Klose admits, he gets going with two double espressos.

A disarming lack of slickness marks his style. His enthusiasm for public radio carries the geeky tinge of a fan’s, and the hearty laugh he’s not shy to unloose exposes a gap in his front teeth. Then there’s that full head of white hair, at times worn long and bushy.

“That hair thing creates a lot of attention, because those of us who are getting on in years think, ‘Well, if my hair looked like that it wouldn’t be so bad,’” says Kernis, NPR’s senior v.p. of programming.

The need to “bear witness”

Klose joined NPR in 1998 after six years in the U.S. government’s international broadcasting management. He began as director of Radio Liberty in 1992, overseeing an operation that broadcast into the former Soviet Union, where he had worked in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s as a Moscow correspondent for the Washington Post. He went on to lead Radio Liberty and sibling Radio Free Europe, and from 1997 to 1998 directed the International Broadcasting Bureau, which supports the overseas services.

Klose still feels strongly about the mission of the government’s foreign broadcasting, which he believes contributed to the collapse of Communist regimes and the rise of democracies. NPR, in his view, plays an equally significant role in supporting the architecture of American society. He is fond of paraphrasing Thomas Jefferson: “A people cannot be both ignorant and free.”

“Gathering news and getting it out to other people—it’s absolutely essential for our democracy,” he says. “It’s a crucial activity in a self-governing society that people have information.”

This belief in media’s power to change society has roots in Klose’s upbringing. Parents Woody and Virginia were writers and storytellers, hosting a daily radio talk show from the family home in New York’s Duchess County. Klose felt he “knew his way around a typewriter” when, as a Harvard undergraduate, he co-authored his first book. Today, he credits that experience with sowing in him the seeds of his career.

That book, I Will Survive, is the memoir of Sala Pawlowicz, a Polish woman who lived through the Holocaust and had struggled to tell her story before she met Klose. At 19, he began interviewing her about her traumatic memories and helping her shape them into a narrative.

“We would have these interviewing sessions which were incredibly painful for her and incredibly emotional for me,” he remembers.

At the time — 1960 — few people spoke of the Holocaust, he says. The term was barely in use, and the story of Anne Frank was just climbing to international recognition. “So there were many issues around how you speak about something which is unspeakable,” he says.

The book was published the year he graduated from Harvard. During a stint in the Navy that followed, “I really felt strongly that journalism, or bearing witness in the context of journalism, was hugely important to me,” he says with deliberation, his eyes focused in the distance.

Klose returned from military duty and began reporting for New York’s Poughkeepsie Journal. Shortly thereafter he moved to the Washington Post, where his convictions about the importance of a free press were strengthened over more than two decades of reporting and editing.

As a bureau chief in Moscow, he chronicled the horrors of a society in which a regime starved its people of information, then found a striking counterpoint when he was assigned to Chicago upon returning to the United States.

“What I saw here is the power of the civil democracy as expressed within individual communities,” he says — a power he also finds in public radio.

A journalist among his kind

Upon joining NPR, Klose says, he saw needs for stronger news coverage and more substantial financial assets to support it, including more contributions to the NPR Foundation.

Predecessors “had done a great deal,” he says, “but we were just at a place where we really needed to step up in a new way. ... We just needed to get deeper and wider and better at what we were doing,” he says. “And I believe we’ve made credible and significant progress in all of those areas.”

In his time, the network’s audience and economic wealth have indeed multiplied. NPR’s Foundation assets total $33 million, up from $7.5 million in 1998. Klose attributes this in part to a bylaws change shortly after he came to NPR that installed the foundation’s chairman on the board of directors, integrating the two more closely, he says. He also credits the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, which has given the foundation $7 million since his arrival.

Meanwhile, news events such as the contested 2000 presidential election, the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the ensuing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq drew record audiences to NPR. The network’s news division stepped up activities, sometimes expanding to around-the-clock reporting, to cover the dramatic events.

The weekly cume for NPR programming grew from more than 13 million in spring 1998 to almost 21 million last fall, according to Arbitron — a gain of 56 percent. NPR says the intense news cycle fueled some of the gain.

Initiatives such as launching The Tavis Smiley Show, opening a West Coast production center and creating a new midday show, slated to launch this summer, are also intended to bolster NPR’s reporting.

Klose’s efforts, combined with his years in the press, have turned NPR’s own journalists into supporters. He’s the first newsman to lead NPR since Frank Mankiewicz and Joe Dembo, a former CBS radio exec who served as acting president for four months in 1983 after Mankiewicz departed.

Since then, says All Things Considered host Robert Siegel, “we had presidents who I don’t think listened to the radio with any regularity, and if they did it was entirely out of a sense of obligation.”

“When we had someone who came in here and understood how a program came together, it was damn impressive,” he says.

Siegel recalls a frustrating day broadcasting the proceedings of President Clinton’s impeachment trials. A faulty laptop impeded the job, and after returning to NPR from Capitol Hill Siegel briefed Klose on the problems. By the end of the night, Siegel says, Klose urged NPR’s technical departments to boost field support.

“He knew exactly what he was hearing, and really took the view, straight off, that programming is what we do here, and we have to facilitate its happening,” Siegel says.

“It’s been wonderful in that Kevin has also created a system in which, trying to run the day-to-day news here, I don’t worry about money,” says Barbara Rehm, managing editor of news. “I’ve never been told, ‘Don’t do this because we really can’t afford it.’ The company has been very good about isolating that. ... I don’t mean to suggest that I’ve been given a blank check, but now I can actually worry about the news part of this, as opposed to, ‘Can we afford to do this kind of coverage?’”

Those with a view of NPR’s management say Klose has helped it run more smoothly than before, with a team of v.p.’s highly appreciated by stations and board members.

He has encouraged cooperation among NPR divisions such as communications, development, programming and member and station services, says Paul Brown, e.p. of weekend news.

“[Klose] has wanted walls broken down and he’s wanted a structure in which people across the company can work together to serve the stations,” Brown says. “That’s actually a pretty big change, and it shouldn’t be underestimated. I think it’s just starting to have an effect, and in the long run it will have very big dividends.”

Though Klose enjoys popularity among reporters, they have also presented some of the bitterest opposition to his management team. Some reporters complained after difficult salary negotiations with the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists in 2000. And late last year, dozens of news staffers protested management’s elimination of Daniel Zwerdling’s investigative reporting job. (He was assigned to another position.)

Today, Klose says he felt internal discussions about the Zwerdling decision went well. He points out that the network hasn’t forsaken long-form reporting, as some feared might happen. “The proof of that is in the pudding,” he says. “I would say, go open your ears and listen to what is on the air and is being produced by NPR.”

“Because of our financial state, he’s had to make some very hard decisions about where we have to contract and for that matter where we have to expand for our future,” says Scott Simon, host of Weekend Edition Saturday. “Of course, some of those decisions are going to be controversial. Truly, I don’t think I’ve ever heard it personalized.”

The responsibilities of management have denied Klose the day-to-day involvement with journalism he once enjoyed. He no longer writes — no time, he says — and misses journalism, but has ideas bubbling in his head. And he treasures being close to the writing trade.

“I actually don’t feel that I’m that far away from it,” he says. “I savor it. ... I can listen word for word, and I can read the transcripts word for word, and for me that’s a joy.”

Web page posted Nov. 17, 2003
Current: the newspaper about public TV and radio
in the United States
Current Publishing Committee, Takoma Park, Md.

EARLIER ARTICLES

NPR hires Klose, November 1998.

The news division admitted error in a report about anthrax that outraged the Traditional Values Coalition, 2002. The coalition later accepted NPR's apologies, 2003.

NPR's layoff of reporter Daniel Zwerdling led to protests by colleagues, 2002.

LATER ARTICLES

San Diego's KPBS and Klose nurtured a relationship with Joan Kroc, who left $200 million to the network, 2003.

OUTSIDE LINKS

Klose bio on NPR's website.

Klose remarks in House hearing on federal aid to public broadcasting, 2002.

 

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