Kevin Klose: journalist, fan, NPR president
Originally published in Current, Nov. 23, 1998
By Jacqueline Conciatore
The NPR Board says it ultimately chose journalist and government broadcast executive Kevin Klose to be NPR's next leader because he understands and feels passionately about public radio.
Board members also cite Klose's experience managing a complex organization, his record of instituting change, and his 25 years as a reporter and editor for the Washington Post.
Chairman Kim Hodgson introduced Klose at a press conference at NPR headquarters Nov. 11 , calling him "public radio's new No. 1 advocate." Klose has "an almost molecular passion for public radio," and "an optimism and enthusiasm for its future [that are] downright infectious," he said.
NPR staff members say Klose appears to be an avid public radio listener. When Klose was introduced in an all-staff meeting Nov. 11, Performance Today's Don Lee tried to eke out some indication of the former newsman's regard for cultural programming, asking about his favorite music. "'Viola da gamba' was his instant answer"--and the instrument featured in a PT commentary the previous night, says Lee. "I was surprised and very impressed to hear him say that."
A "bone-deep commitment" to the public radio mission is critical because the c.e.o.'s job poses difficult challenges, says board member Brenda Pennell, g.m. of KUSC, Los Angeles. These include NPR's complex membership makeup, a governance structure that often impedes change, and, always, not enough money. "It's not like a business environment, where you're focused on what's in the best interests of your business and you make changes as you need to, and everyone falls in step and moves along," she says. Klose "sees all the challenges ... and he in fact welcomes them, because he believes in public radio."
Board members believe Klose's enthusiasm about public radio will serve him well in fundraising, something he's had little experience doing, at least in the private sector. He has, however, lobbied Congress for continued support of the nonprofit radio services he used to head, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL).
Klose, who starts work at NPR Dec. 8, is now director of the U.S. International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB), the government's nonmilitary overseas broadcaster and parent of Voice of America. He ascended to that position after serving as president of RFE/RL from 1994 to 1997. RFE/RL, known to its insiders as the "Radios," is a nonprofit service for Central Europe and the former Soviet republics. It now shares technical infrastructure with IBB operations and receives federal support through IBB's overseer, the Broadcasting Board of Governors.
One of the matters the NPR Board discussed before hiring Klose: how NPR's news staff would react to a boss who had worked in government radio and for the Radios, which were CIA-financed until the early 1970s. "There was a question as to how the NPR newsroom would receive Kevin Klose," says board member Chase Untermeyer, who headed Voice of America during the Bush years. But those questions were "put aside" because of Klose's leadership abilities and other assets, he said. Untermeyer argues that operations like the Radios are congressionally mandated to be even-handed and so operate "under far more desirable standards of journalism" than privately owned news outlets.
Veteran NPR political correspondent Daniel Schorr was nonplussed. "It did not occur to me that was a problem," he said. "I've known [Klose] for many years as a Washington Post professional, and he is a professional. It's always great when an organization whose primary mission in life is news is headed by a journalist."
Klose served the Post as Moscow Bureau chief, Midwest correspondent and finally deputy national editor. His book Russia and the Russians: Inside the Closed Society won a 1985 Overseas Press Club award.
Downsized Radio Free Europe
Board members are impressed by Klose's ability to manage an organization of unusual complexity. The IBB includes Voice of America, Worldnet TV and Film Service, Radio Marti and TV Marti. It has 2,000 employees and a budget of $300 million. RFE/RL broadcasts 700 hours of programming per week in 23 languages.
Klose became president of the Radios in 1994, just as Congress was questioning their relevance in a post-Cold War world. Lawmakers hacked the RFE/RL budget--it would drop from $220 million to $75 million in less than two years. Klose oversaw downsizing from about 1,100 employees to fewer than 450. He also moved headquarters from Munich to Prague at the invitation of President Vaclav Havel. The Radios are now housed virtually rent-free in the old federal parliament building. The move was important to Klose symbolically, but also was practical because German labor laws and a relatively weak dollar made staying in Munich cost-prohibitive, says RFE/RL spokesman Paul Goble.
Many observers were impressed that the Radios could maintain their broadcast schedules amid such drastic downsizing. "The number of hours we broadcast is the same, with one-quarter the people, one-third the budget," says Goble.
CPB President Bob Coonrod, who was deputy director of VOA from 1990 to 1993, says Klose saved the services despite all predictions to the contrary. "It was an incredible feat. ... Nobody would have bet you could have revived it and made it what is now, a going institution."
Klose is not without his detractors. The Washington Times and Wall Street Journal wrote negative editorials in 1995, criticizing the move to Prague and questioning RFE/RL's programming quality. Critics also said the services were hiring locals who had ties to various political forces, potentially subverting RFE/RL's intent: to foster and strengthen democracy.
The downsizing also resulted in a good number of lawsuits against RFE/RL and Klose. "In Germany, immediately people go to court," says Goble. "It's a different legal culture." At least one of the suits is still outstanding: Vladimir Matusevitch, who had been a director and correspondent for Radio Liberty, says Klose and another manager violated his First Amendment rights by firing him after he publicly criticized their decisions. He also says the managers discriminated against him because of his age. Matusevitch, a Russian who defected in 1968 and is now a U.S. citizen, is being represented by Bernabei and Katz, the D.C.-based firm that has taken on at least six discrimination suits against NPR.
Board members say some controversy would be inevitable for the IBB and Radios director. "When you go into a situation and are a change agent, a lot of times you make enemies," says Pennell.
Klose's hiring came close on the heels of Congress' decision last month to lift public broadcasting's salary cap. It limited compensation of CPB, PBS and NPR employees to Level I of the federal government's executive pay schedule, currently $151,800 [earlier story]. Hodgson wouldn't reveal what Klose's salary will be. He did say he will be setting up a board compensation committee to review all NPR salaries.
To Current's home page
Earlier news: Delano Lewis announces in April that he'll retire from NPR in August 1998.
Outside link: U.S. International Broadcasting Bureau web site.
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