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NPR board appoints Katherine Maher as CEO

The board of NPR this week announced the appointment of a technology executive to serve as the public radio program producer’s next chief executive officer.

Katherine Maher joins NPR after serving as the CEO of Web Summit for just three months. She also served as the CEO of Wikimedia Foundation, the not-for-profit parent company of Wikipedia, from 2016 to 2019, and worked with the U.S. State Department’s Foreign Affairs Policy Board toward the end of the coronavirus health pandemic.

Like other media companies, NPR has struggled in recent years to emerge from the pandemic as a financially-healthy company as individual and corporate donors close their wallets and reconfigure their charitable spending.

NPR generates revenue through sales of its radio programming to individual member stations — most of which are licensed to colleges and universities, but some of which are standalone not-for-profits with no connection to a school — with those stations increasingly reliant on corporate underwriting.

Last year, NPR said it was moving forward with job cuts that would see around 10 percent of its workforce laid off. It also said it would not fill some internal vacancies, and would move responsibilities around its remaining staff. John Lansing, NPR’s former CEO, announced his intention to retire last fall.

Maher joins as NPR’s 12th permanent CEO. In an article published this week, NPR media reporter David Folkenflik noted that Maher “has never worked directly in journalism or at a news organization,” in contrast to many of NPR’s former CEOs. But Maher says she’s up for the job, and wants to build on the brand loyalty of NPR’s core audience while working to attract new listeners to its programming.

“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, though she offered no specifics on her plans.

NPR headquarters in Washington, D.C., on November 8, 2018. (Photo by Allison Shelley/NPR/Handout)
NPR headquarters in Washington, D.C., on November 8, 2018. (Photo by Allison Shelley/NPR/Handout)

Jennifer Ferro, the former president of Santa Monica-based KCRW (89.9 FM), helped lead the search team for NPR’s new CEO. She said Maher helped turn Wikipedia into a trusted platform of information, and said that organization shared NPR’s values of providing information to the public and supporting democracy, Folkenflik wrote.

At Wikimedia, Ferro helped bring in more than $140 million in donations and grants, which largely helped support the mission of Wikipedia, though the organization oversees a number of other products like Wikidata and Wikinews.

“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. “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.”

But a community-powered website is not the same as a public radio broadcaster, and it remains to be seen whether the same lessons learned from running the largest free-to-access encyclopedia in the world — which is not without its flaws — will translate into similar success for NPR.

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About the Author:

Matthew Keys

Matthew Keys is the publisher of The Desk and reports on the business and policy matters involving the broadcast television, streaming video and radio industries. He previously worked for Thomson Reuters, Disney-ABC, Tribune Broadcasting and McNaughton Newspapers. Matthew is based in Northern California, has won numerous awards in the field of journalism, and is a member of IRE (Investigative Reporters and Editors).