CURRENT ONLINE

Del LewisDelano Lewis will retire
from running NPR

Originally published in Current, April 6, 1998
By Jacqueline Conciatore

NPR President Delano Lewis announced Friday that he will retire from his position effective Aug. 1 [1998], after nearly five years at the network's helm.

The 59-year-old Lewis said he is resigning to spend more time with his wife, children and seven grandchildren. "I took stock of my life recently," he said during an afternoon press conference, "I'll be 60 years old this year. ... I'd like to spend time with family and friends."

The announcement is not a total surprise, given that Lewis when hired told the NPR Board he would serve three to five years. His purchase in 1996 of a second home in Las Cruces, N.M., prompted speculation that he was planning to leave.

NPR Board Chair Kim Hodgson says Lewis has long "given ... signals that there is a conflict for him between the pull of family and a feeling of obligation to this company."

Lewis said he doesn't plan to take another permanent job or run for public office. Would he ever return to some kind of full-time work? "It's liberating to say, 'I don't know,'" he told Current. "But I will be gainfully occupied--I don't think I will be sitting on a porch!" He plans to teach, lecture, consult, and, with his wife, write an autobiography that will include motivational and how-to themes.

Lewis has recommended to the NPR Board that Chief Operating Officer Peter Jablow serve as interim president. Distribution V.P. Pete Loewenstein will serve as interim c.o.o.

Hodgson says he hopes to have the search for a new president completed by November. Jablow says he will not be a candidate, as his strengths are in internal management--"making sure the trains run on time, and we do our respective jobs as best we can." Lewis, on the other hand, is "truly a leader," a visionary and "Mr. Outside," Jablow said.

One year into his NPR career, Lewis helped shepherd the system through a period of pointed questioning and criticism by a Republican Congress that wanted to eliminate federal support. In a statement released Friday, PBS President Ervin Duggan said Lewis' "skill and eloquence made a real difference" in that debate. "Del is a terrific leader--intelligent, persuasive, and capable of being tough and friendly all at once."

Lewis also brought a more businesslike sensibility to NPR, hiring consultants and setting up problem-solving task forces at a rate NPR had never seen before. His changes earned him as much criticism as commendation. Lewis also phased in various reorganizations that ultimately put much of the company under Mary Lou Joseph, former lobbyist and now v.p. for member and programming services.

Several top managers, including longtime NPR news head Bill Buzenberg and cultural chief Sandra Rattley-Lewis, left the company under Lewis. To find Buzenberg's replacement, Lewis approved a diverse in-house search panel that included news staff members. His subsequent choice of CBC News executive Jeffrey Dvorkin was widely praised.

Also during Lewis' tenure, NPR expanded its two flagship news programs, Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and started a weekend entertainment lineup.

The NPR endowment has grown to $6 million under Lewis. But hopes that he would usher NPR into big-money deals haven't been realized. Last year a consultant hired by NPR concluded there isn't any "low-hanging fruit" NPR can use to entice corporate partners into entrepreneurial ventures. Part of the problem, Lewis has said, is that NPR lacks the necessary copyrights to fully utilize its archives.

Instead of big media deals, NPR has made modest ones, such as an arrangement with Borders Books that places NPR-related disc and book kiosks in the stores.

Last year, Lewis advanced the idea of merging NPR and rival network PRI. He and PRI President Steve Salyer presented broad merger proposals to their board, but governance issues put a quick halt to any progress.

Lewis has periodically expressed frustration with NPR's governance structure, which gives member stations a majority of board seats. It's a much slower-acting machine than that of PRI, whose well-connected board specializes in fundraising. Lewis at the press conference said the governance issue absolutely didn't loom large enough to cause him to leave the company. "It was not such a dramatic piece," he said.

What's more, the board is taking up governance and other strategic questions in its current long-term planning process. Lewis always felt his significant contribution lay in asking the right questions, which he and the board are currently doing, he said.

Hodgson said the board and Lewis will continue to work closely on the strategic plan until Lewis's departure in August.

 

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To Current's home page

Earlier news: Lewis discusses entrepreneurial revenue prospects and allegations of racial discrimination in a Q&A with Current.

Earlier news: Lewis assures the NPR Board that he wouldn't sell the network's soul to make a deal.

Earlier news: Tensions with Lewis contributed to the resignation by longtime NPR News chief Bill Buzenberg, 1997.

Earlier news: NPR's cultural programming vice president was one of several staffers who charged job discrimination at NPR.

Earlier news: Lewis and his counterpart at PRI propose a merger of the two public radio networks, 1997.

 

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