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NPR names tech executive Katherine Maher to lead in turbulent era

NPR's incoming CEO, Katherine Maher, speaking at Web Summit last fall. She briefly led that organization after its founder resigned following comments he made about Israel and Gaza.
Armando Franca
/
AP
NPR's incoming CEO, Katherine Maher, speaking at Web Summit last fall. She briefly led that organization after its founder resigned following comments he made about Israel and Gaza.

NPR has selected former Wikimedia Foundation chief Katherine Maher to lead the network through an era of declining broadcast listenership, financial uncertainty and technological turbulence.

In an interview ahead of the announcement of her appointment, Maher said her experience at the foundation underscores the importance of NPR's mission to serve the public independently of commercial interest. "There is a strong alignment in both of those organizations around integrity and autonomy," Maher said.

Maher said she intends to build on the fierce loyalty instilled in many listeners for NPR's news programs and everything else. (She said she cringes at the word "content.")

And Maher said she will work to expand the pool of people who experience that deep attachment.

"It's about matching need and delight so people have a real desire to keep coming back, to engage with what it is that we offer," Maher said.

The appointment of Maher, 40, as NPR's 12th permanent chief executive and president represents an embrace of a generational shift, with firm roots in the digital age. She has sought to promote the free flow of information as a tool of expanding democracy in her work in tech and international affairs. She started her career in finance.

Maher has never worked directly in journalism or at a news organization. That stands in contrast to many of her predecessors at NPR, including current CEO John Lansing, and her freshly appointed counterparts at CNN and the Washington Post.

NPR board chair Jennifer Ferro, who led the search committee, said Maher offers visionary corporate leadership and proven fundraising strengths. And she cited Maher's ability to serve as a forceful ambassador for the network, including to the hundreds of public radio member stations and on their behalf.

"NPR is a powerhouse, and it needs to be more ubiquitous," says Ferro, the president of public radio station KCRW in Santa Monica, Calif. "We need to build that brand up."

Ferro says the network, which is a nonprofit corporation, needs a proven leader who will commit to the position for an extended tenure. (With Maher, NPR has cycled through 10 permanent and acting chiefs in the past 20 years.)

And Ferro notes that Maher worked to help shape Wikipedia into a trusted organization that shares similar values with NPR, such as broad access to information and democracy.

Maher will start at NPR in late March.

Who is Katherine Maher?

In the interview, Maher said she was first exposed to NPR because her parents listened in the car – and it helped determine the course of her life.

As a Connecticut high schooler in 2000, Maher recalled, she was intrigued by the peace summit involving top Israeli and Palestinian leaders that had been convened by then President Bill Clinton. But she couldn't find out enough from teachers to satisfy her interest.

Listening to longtime NPR foreign correspondent Deborah Amos' dispatches from the Middle East transfixed Maher. After graduation, she moved to Cairo to study Arabic. She also spent time in Syria and other countries throughout the region.

"I've seen what it means ... when people fight for their rights, for access to information, for self-determination," Maher said. "I don't think I would be sitting here with you today if it weren't for my driveway moment, which is that drive to school every day."

She joined the Wikimedia Foundation's communications team in 2014 and became its CEO two years later. There, Maher built up a significant endowment — $140 million — to support Wikipedia's promise to "unlock the world's knowledge."

Maher said she learned at Wikimedia the power of massive, small-scale support.

"A huge amount of people [were] giving $2 to $3 in support of that mission. And that allowed for us to make decisions about what we cared about, that were not always in step with what the market would care about," Maher said. "And it allowed us to resist external pressure when we need to do so. It allowed for us to be able to fight for our values, even if they were not going to immediately return on new audience growth."

After leaving Wikimedia in 2021, Maher joined a bevy of boards because, she said, she wanted to learn more about governance. She has resigned from an advisory board at the U.S. State Department to take the NPR job. She said she intends to keep serving on the boards of the nonprofit Consumer Reports and the Signal Foundation, which supports the secure messaging app relied upon by journalists and dissidents abroad.

Lansing's legacy at NPR

With layoffs and podcast cancellations brought on by a projected revenue shortfall, 2023 was a rough year for NPR. Lansing announced last fall he would be stepping down early, months ahead of the end of his five-year contract, but would stay until a successor was named. He cited a desire to travel with his wife while his daughter was studying abroad.

Yet Lansing had a string of seeming successes, building the network's priorities around what he called its "North Star": making sure NPR's program and staff better reflected the full texture of America. From the time of his arrival in fall 2019, Lansing argued that reflected both a moral and a strategic imperative.

CEO John Lansing has led NPR since 2019, a period of innovation and tumult.
/ Mike Morgan
/
Mike Morgan
CEO John Lansing has led NPR since 2019, a period of innovation and tumult.

NPR has become notably more diverse. More than 4 out of every 10 staffers are not white. Sixteen percent are Black — a higher proportion than the percent in the U.S. population.

Even as the music publication Pitchforkhas vanished — folded into GQ magazine by its corporate owners — NPR's Tiny Desk Concerts and its music podcasts have emerged as more vital than ever among artists and millions of listeners and viewers.

NPR's tentpole programs, Morning Edition and All Things Considered, are the nation's top two radio news and talk broadcast shows. It is the country's third-biggest producer of podcasts. During Lansing's tenure, NPR earned its first Pulitzer Prize for "No Compromise," a collaboration with member stations.

The challenges Maher inherits at NPR

Despite its recent achievements, NPR's audiences have declined and its financial standing has faltered in the past two years. The network suffered a sharp and unexpected drop in podcasting revenues driven by fears of an economic collapse that has not materialized. It was compelled to lay off 10% of its staff. NPR canceled four podcasts. Lansing's candor enabled trust that he had built with top officials at NPR's largest union to endure.

In that financial crisis, which Lansing termed "existential," NPR did not stand alone. It turned out the network was on the front end of a media recession that has tripped up many of its peers; The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times ultimately reduced their ranks by an even higher proportion. The L.A. Times newsroom has shrunk by a third over the past eight months.

The pressures helped fuel turnover at NPR's top ranks: NPR's chief operating officer, finance officer, human resources officer and top programming executive have left over the past eight months. Not all have been replaced.

Lansing said the network is now on a firm financial footing.

Lansing, now 66, arrived at NPR with a rich history in media and journalism, having arisen through local television newsrooms to lead Scripps' cable television channels and websites. He later led the U.S. Agency for Global Media, the government outfit that oversees federally funded international broadcasters such as the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe and others.

Maher is no stranger to crises

In October, Maher stepped in to become chief executive of the Web Summit — think of it as a tech-heavy Davos – at which tech entrepreneurs, investors and thought leaders meet in Portugal.

Web Summit's founder had stepped down over outcry about his remarks about Israel after the Hamas attacks.

On the podcast Masters of Scale, Maher said she saw that as a moment of crisis.

"The biggest distinction that I was looking at was, is this a company in crisis or is this a company going through a crisis? I've seen both, and I've worked in both. And the latter is, you enter into something that has fairly solid bones, and it's about: how do you steer through that moment?"

Maher does not consider NPR as an institution in crisis. Rather, she says, she sees challenges and opportunities.

"I recognize that coming in there will be both a need to move relatively quickly to ensure that the organization has all of its pieces in place and also a need to be thoughtful about how to do that," she said.

Among Maher's most critical tasks will be hiring a chief content officer over the newsroom, podcasts and other programming. NPR's top news executive, Edith Chapin, currently holds the content position on an interim basis.

Even so, Maher visibly blanched at the word "content," calling it "an empty vessel." She suggested she would figure out another title "that speaks more deeply to our mission."

Disclosure: This story was reported by NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik and edited by NPR Deputy Business Editor Emily Kopp. In keeping with NPR's protocol for reporting on itself, no corporate officials or news executives reviewed this article before it was posted.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.