- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 20, 2005

No one was more surprised when Tavis Smiley quit his National Public Radio talk show last month than the organization’s president and chief executive officer, Kevin Klose.

No one was better prepared for it, either.

Mr. Klose has made reaching out to blacks and other minorities one of NPR’s hallmarks. He helped recruit Mr. Smiley, formerly a Black Entertainment Television host, to NPR in 2002.

When Mr. Smiley walked away from his show, he criticized NPR harshly, telling Time magazine it was “ironic” that President Bush’s administration was more diverse than public radio. Mr. Klose said he was disappointed by Mr. Smiley’s remarks.

“Tavis was a powerful presence on NPR. We wish the outcome had been positive,” he said.

NPR wasted no time announcing plans for a second program geared toward black listeners, “News & Notes,” which debuts Jan. 31 and will be hosted by another BET alumnus, Ed Gordon. NPR had been developing the show for more than a year, conceiving it as a kind of companion to Mr. Smiley’s show.

The quick decision to put “News & Notes” on the air epitomizes Mr. Klose’s style, said Loretta Rucker, executive consultant to the African-American Public Radio Consortium, a group of 24 stations geared toward black listeners.

“Kevin came to NPR understanding that it could not do business as usual if it was to survive. He is absolutely committed to reaching the broadest possible audience,” she said.

Mr. Klose, 64, joined NPR in December 1998. He spent 25 years at The Washington Post, including stints running its city desk and Chicago and Moscow bureaus, then worked in international broadcasting, including three years as president of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, which pumped programming into Central Europe and the former Soviet Union.

His vision for NPR has been nothing short of lofty.

“Our mission is very straightforward: To be of consequence to citizens in the act of citizenship,” Mr. Klose said.

NPR must give listeners the information they need to make good decisions, he said.

The private, not-for-profit membership organization is governed by the stations that air its programming. Its annual budget is about $100 million, with between 1 percent and 2 percent coming from federal grants.

When the late Joan B. Kroc, the widow of McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc, bequeathed $236 million to NPR last year, the organization decided to use the interest to fund a $15 million, three-year expansion of its news division. It is on a spending spree, hiring reporters and opening bureaus overseas, including one in Istanbul later this year.

NPR also has expanded its West Coast operation near Los Angeles, which Mr. Klose opened in 2002 because he said too much programming was being generated inside the Washington Beltway.

The expansion comes as other news organizations are facing cutbacks and shrinking audiences. But NPR’s audience has grown 52 percent since 1999 and numbers about 22 million listeners.

In the Washington area, NPR programming airs on WAMU-FM (88.5) and WETA-FM (90.9). Arbitron Inc. does not rank public radio stations in its quarterly surveys of local commercial stations.

“We run it as a business. That is absolutely essential. We’re very cost-conscious,” Mr. Klose said.

But the growth — and the emphasis on news — has not come without a price, some staffers said.

NPR’s signature has been in-depth reports on its weekday “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered” programs. Some NPR veterans complain they are required to do more live reporting throughout the day, robbing them of valuable time to work on their taped pieces.

Mr. Klose said he understands those concerns and that he does not want NPR to be reduced to a headline service.

“The produced piece is the backbone of what we do [but] we also need to be as newsworthy as we can,” he said.

Mr. Klose cuts a dashing figure with a head of wavy white hair. Longtime NPR employees describe a chief executive who is a frequent presence around the studios in downtown Washington, and said Mr. Klose has an “open e-mail” policy.

The same people said Mr. Klose’s journalism experience has been asset, but that he doesn’t try to dictate how NPR covers stories.

“He doesn’t try to pretend he’s one of the boys,” said Scott Simon, host of “Weekend Edition Saturday” and a 28-year NPR veteran.

Mr. Simon recalled the Saturday morning in February 2003 when the Space Shuttle Columbia exploded. Mr. Klose came into the studio but stayed in the background, although he did make sure sandwiches were brought in for the people who worked on the shuttle coverage.

“He was there, but he wasn’t saying, ‘Don’t do this, don’t do that.’ He is president of the network, but near as I could tell, he just wanted to come in and tell us he appreciated what we were doing,” Mr. Simon said.

Mr. Klose dismissed the suggestion that NPR has a liberal bias as an “urban myth,” saying the organization could not have grown as much as it has if listeners didn’t find its reporting fair.

Last year, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, a journalism watchdog group, accused NPR of quoting too many conservatives in its coverage.

NPR’s own research suggests its audience is evenly divided among people who describe themselves as liberal, conservative and moderate.

Mr. Klose said he wants everyone to listen.

“A robust and thoughtful dialogue will get us to the place we need to be,” he said.

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