Last week I posted about Eric Nuzum, NPR’s VP for Programming, who is leaving the network for a new gig at Audible.com [LINK]. In the post I said:
Nuzum more than filled the shoes of his predecessor Jay Kernis. Kernis, when he was in charge of programming at NPR, was a brilliant strategist and coach but he also had a tin ear.
I received a comment from Jim Russell saying I had dumped on Jay Kernis in the process of praising Nuzum. I have posted Jim’s complete comment at the end of this post. In his comment, Jim said:
Ken, I join you in praising Eric Nuzum for his accomplishments, as he departs for what I expect will be his next success at Audible.com. But, I disagree with praising Nuzum by dumping on Jay Kernis.
I have known Jay for more than forty years and have worked directly with him, especially when he was a very young producer of on-air promotion at the startup NPR. His smarts and his talent, and his GREAT ear for radio were unsurpassed. He almost single-handedly invented Morning Edition and, with Scott Simon, Weekend Edition. He is the guy who “greenlit” such projects as StoryCorps.
I took a look in the mirror. I am guilty as Jim charged. My dump on Jay was not intentional. But, intentional or not, I was dismissive and rude. I apologize and will try to do better in the future.
In his comments, Jim corrects my factual errors and provides important context. Again, I urge you to scroll down and read Jim’s full comments.
SECOND TERMS ARE OFTEN TOUGH
Jay Kernis was in charge of programming at NPR twice: 1974 – 1987 and 2001 – 2008. During his first term he led the team that created Morning Edition, Weekend Edition and fostered unprecedented growth in NPR’s audience, revenue and influence. NPR became an adult during Jay’s first time at the helm.
To me, his second term was not as successful for Jay because of many factors. His second term was the basis for my comments. Jay did something during the second term that I very much admired: He broke down the internal Imperial NPR mindset -- the myth that NPR was in charge whether stations liked it or not.
Disconnects between NPR and stations is as old as the public radio system. Jay keenly studied audience-building efforts by the Public Radio Program Directors (“PRPD”). He mplemented station-friendly improvements in NPR programming. He embraced key station programmers and took their advice, making NPR programming more successful for everyone.
JAY KERNIS PAVED THE ROAD FOR ERIC NUZUM
Jim Russell makes an excellent point about how the failure of Bryant Park (and later Day To Day) brought an end to new big budget programs at NPR. Jay wasn’t solely responsible for these mistakes but they happened on his watch. They caused many observers to believe that Jay had lost his golden touch. Which he had. Sometimes returning to a place of past glory leads to disappointments.
Eric Nuzum learned from Jay’s failures and he did NOT repeat them. Nuzum brought aboard Here and Now, Ask Me Another and TED Radio Hour. Nuzum leveraged other people’s content (and money) to create good new national shows. Building on Kernis experiences, Nuzum brought affordable, sustainable, quality programs to stations.
JIM RUSSELL’S COMPLETE COMMENTS:
Ken, I join you in praising Eric Nuzum for his accomplishments, as he departs for what I expect will be his next success at Audible.com.
But, I disagree with praising Nuzum by dumping on Jay Kernis. First, to correct some factual errors – Nuzum’s predecessor was not Jay Kernis. Jay was a Senior VP, and his successor was Margaret Low Smith for whom Eric worked. And Jay did not leave because of “a revolving cast of senior executives.” He left because of serious disagreements with one – Ken Stern.
But, beyond these errors, you accuse Kernis of having “a tin ear” despite acknowledging that he was “a brilliant strategist and coach.” You base your charge on the failure of the Bryant Park Project, which you call his “Waterloo.”
I have known Jay for more than forty years and have worked directly with him, especially when he was a very young producer of on-air promotion at the startup NPR. His smarts and his talent, and his GREAT ear for radio were unsurpassed. He almost single-handedly invented Morning Edition and, with Scott Simon, Weekend Edition. He is the guy who “greenlit” such projects as StoryCorps. He brought stature, passion and great programming chops when he headed NPR programming. Yes, he presided over some programs that failed to make it in the marketplace – but they were important experiments that helped NPR grow and figure out much of its future. They included Bryant Park Project -- the network’s first attempt at a combined radio-digital project, and Day to Day -- the network’s first program from its brand new West Coast production center in Los Angeles. It is important to remember that experimenting, risk-taking and failure are the prices of invention.
If anything led to Jay’s departure from NPR and the aforementioned experiments that failed, it was a sea change in the way new programs were created at NPR. Gone was the tolerance for big budget launches of new programs – this tried-and-tested approach was simply too risky in a period of limited funding and a lack of station consensus about what was wanted next. In place of this approach came a lighter, more nimble and considerably cheaper strategy ... one aptly named “agile” by its proponents, many from the Silicon Valley of California. Eric studied, learned and applied this new approach to mostly positive effect, backing programs like Ask Me Another and The Ted Radio Hour. Even Nuzum didn’t always succeed: John Wesley Harding's Cabinet of Wonders failed. Eric also had the opportunity of timing and the growth of digital media to begin conceiving and supporting the much-lower-budget development of Podcasts.
As for Jay Kernis, he went on to even greater heights after he left NPR, as a producer for 60 Minutes and then NBC. He is currently a producer for CBS Sunday Morning. Instead of a “tin ear,” he has consistently demonstrated his aptitude for hearing (and seeing) the human story in the productions he has created.
The bottom line is this: I agree with your praise for Eric, but not at the expense of your denigration of Jay Kernis.