Photograph by Mark Thiessen, National Geographic
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Gary Knell stands before the bronze plaque of the world that was installed in 1932 in the lobby of the National Geographic Society’s Washington, D.C., headquarters.
Photograph by Mark Thiessen, National Geographic

National Geographic's New CEO on How He Plans to Lead

Gary Knell comes to National Geographic Partners after leading the organization's nonprofit side—and the group behind Sesame Street.

Gary Knell compares navigating the tumultuous media environment to whitewater rafting.

"We're facing a massively disruptive industry that can be somewhat daunting," he said Friday, shortly after the announcement that he will be the next CEO of National Geographic Partners. "Just let's not fall out of the boat or hit our head on a rock—I hope I can be a good guide in the raft, that's all."

Knell, who has led the nonprofit National Geographic Society since 2014, will now oversee the 21st Century Fox-owned Partners, which operates National Geographic's magazines and television channels, its digital platforms and its book publishing and travel businesses.

Knell is taking over from CEO Declan Moore, who is stepping down after 23 years at the company.

It's not the first time Knell has led a mission-driven media organization at a time of change. Prior to joining National Geographic, he was CEO of National Public Radio, following more than two decades at Sesame Workshop—which created Sesame Street—including 12 years as CEO.

Knell, who officially steps into his new role on March 1, sat down Friday to talk about the road ahead for National Geographic.

In a world of 24-hour news cycles and fake news, where does a 130-year-old brand fit in?

Ours is one of the few voices that remains untainted, which is remarkable in the divided environment we find ourselves in. I think what the digital revolution has done is give everyone a voice, but the negative consequence is that it has created an undermining of all authority. Whether it's religion or government or businesses or education or journalism, we've taken that to an extreme where almost no authority is respected. National Geographic is one of the few places that has somehow kept its glow. We have to work very hard to keep that.

Talk about why you wanted this job.

Whether it goes back to Sesame Street or to NPR or here, I've always believed media is a teacher. It's not a question of whether it teaches, it's a question of What does it teach? We have a responsibility as content creators to make important work for the public to engage in around the mission of National Geographic. That's what people expect from us. I think this is an opportunity to get the content connected up to the brand. Not just the magazine, but digitally and through television.

What are the challenges you anticipate?

It's all about being relevant in an era where we're all experiencing a firehose of information. This is about cutting through the clutter. How does National Geographic cut through the clutter? Activating our tribe, people who care about the same things we care about, that's where the opportunity is.

[NPR] has an allegiance, several million people who care about it. In our case, we have to activate the same passion, which is out there. I know we can reach people from cradle to cane. We just need to figure out how to reach those audiences and how to activate that tribe in a more direct way.

So how do you do that?

I'm a big believer that money follows ideas, not the other way around. If you have great ideas, and great people who can articulate those ideas, whether that's a filmmaker or producer or journalist, that they'll get people to support them. The creative community is National Geographic. I always knew at Sesame Street, Elmo was a lot more important than me.

In our case, the creative talent, including our explorers, are our athletes. You can have great management, but if you don't have a motivated workforce of creative talent, it's not going to work. That's been my philosophy and I plan to continue it.

Talk about the role of diversity in your vision for National Geographic.

I'm proud that we have an incredible number of senior women executives. But I think we need to do a much better job on racial and ethnic diversity. Part of it is maybe a bit of the crossover from the environmental movement, which tends to be pretty monochromatic. I was very proud of what we were able to create at NPR when I was there, including an ongoing desk covering race and diversity issue. I do think we need to work harder at that, especially as a global organization that covers issues around the world.

Disney is working to acquire 21st Century Fox, which owns National Geographic. What changes do you expect if the sale goes through?

I anticipate changes. What are they going to be? I have no idea. Our conversations have been limited, but [Disney CEO] Bob Iger has indicated that he's really excited about National Geographic. There are tremendous possibilities for consumer products, Travel, Kids, and how we can fit into the global aspects of what they're doing digitally.