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The following is a conversation between Gary Knell, President and CEO of the National Geographic Society, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer.
Denver: Legacy institutions, many of them over 100 years old, have an immunity to change because so many of our organizations are architected to resist change and withstand risk. So when you see one that is successfully reinventing itself for the 21st century, taking its brand from reverence to relevance, you really take notice. One such organization is the National Geographic Society. And it’s a pleasure to have with us this evening, their President and CEO, Gary Knell.
Good evening, Gary, and welcome to The Business of Giving!
Gary: Denver, it’s really great to be here. Thanks so much for having me.
Denver: Let us start with some of that legacy, if you will, and share with our listeners a little bit about the history of the National Geographic Society and the mission of the organization.
Gary: Yes. So, 129 years ago, 27 guys… and they were guys… got together at the Cosmos Club in Washington D.C. This was an era of discovery and exploration. The Smithsonian Institution had started just a few years before, with the legacy of diffusing knowledge. And the folks around National Geographic felt we needed to diffuse geographic knowledge. So, it was an amazing group of pioneers. Some of them could’ve been working in hipster coffee shops, I’d like to say, but they were out there as geographers, scientists, explorers wanting to tell the public about the beauties of the West and exploration and to satisfy the curiosity gene that so many people have.
I would just say also, the first issue, Denver, the cover story was the geologic strata of the Potomac River, a real page-turner if there ever was one. So, over time, when Alexander Graham Bell took over as the second president, and his son-in-law, Gilbert Grosvenor, they introduced photography into National Geographic, really the first major publication to introduce photography. Two board members quit in protest because they thought it would dumb down the magazine.
Denver: No kidding.
Gary: They were wrong. So, don’t always listen to your Board of Directors. I’m sure my chairman will be thrilled with that comment. But, the rest is history where National Geographic, of course, is known primarily for photography and storytelling and visual storytelling. So, it was a courageous move back then that has paid off in so many ways.
We’re going to have 9.5 billion people here by 2050. There are twice as many people on the planet today than there were since we graduated high school. We’re probably roughly the same age, and that wasn’t that long ago… So, it wasn’t 1888! But how can the planet really sustain all these people? How can we feed them, educate them, provide energy for them, house them without burning up everything in or on the planet? That’s the big question.
Denver: 1888. National Geographic covers the planet and beyond unlike anybody else. Science, exploration, culture, environment, ecosystems, animals and so on. So, let me ask you a big picture question if I can. What’s your assessment of the planet in 2017? Is anything getting better? And what are you really worried about?
Gary: Well, there are things getting better, and there’s a lot of amazing people in the sector of public service and NGOs and government and the private sector that are doing incredible things. The biggest issue, really though, is we’ve got so many people on our planet. We’re going to have 9.5 billion people here by 2050. There are twice as many people on the planet today than there were since we graduated high school. We’re probably roughly the same age, and that wasn’t that long ago… So, it wasn’t 1888! But how can the planet really sustain all these people? How can we feed them, educate them, provide energy for them, house them without burning up everything in or on the planet? That’s the big question. And when I pose this actually in Washington where we’re based to Republicans and Democrats, nobody says, “Boy, that’s a dumb question.”
This is a non-partisan, existential question that we need to face head-on, and we hope that National Geographic can provide some answers and post some of those questions to give our political leaders and others a longer lens that they can look through… as opposed to the quarterly lens that so many of our organizations are stuck with.
Denver: Yeah. Well, you are certainly leading a lot of these conversations. It was just about two years ago that the National Geographic Society expanded its relationship with 21st Century Fox in a venture called National Geographic Partners. How does that partnership work? And what have been some of the benefits of it to the National Geographic Society?
Gary: Well, it’s been a terrific partnership. The leaders of 21st Century Fox, led by their CEO, James Murdock, have been fantastic partners who really believe in our mission. They are certainly putting a lot of resources behind it. They’re out there publicly really promoting Nat Geo as one of their core assets, creative assets.
We had an almost 20-year partnership, Denver, with 21st Century Fox on the National Geographic Channel that Fox owns 70% of, and it is now the largest cable channel in the world in terms of distribution. It reaches about 450 million people around the world in 170 countries. And in many countries, National Geographic is known through the channel even more than the print magazine.
So, what we did two years ago is we simply put our print assets– the books and magazines and our digital assets– into the cable venture. So, we now have a 70/30 partnership. There’s a joint board between Fox and National Geographic Society people that oversee that. We have a lot of bells and whistles about making sure that it’s still consistent with the mission of National Geographic and the brand of National Geographic… so it doesn’t go off sideways in some place. And I would say that so far, it’s been a resounding success.
The other part which is critically important is: because we were able to monetize some of the equity around the print magazine and the digital, we’ve been able to create a $1.2 billion endowment now to fund scientific exploration and storytelling pioneers out in the world, which is something. Now with this war chest, we could double down on our impact.
Denver: That’s wonderful. And it was about a year ago that you underwent this extensive rebranding effort across all your media platforms, reinforcing this idea of one National Geographic. As a matter of fact, I think, in some ways you almost dropped the word channel because you just wanted to get that concept out there.
Gary: We actually did drop the word channel.
Gary: It’s now National Geographic on air.
Denver: So, give us your thinking around this rebrand and what the impact has been so far?
Gary: Well, I’m a big believer in brands. And as I have had the privilege to oversee big brands like Sesame Street, and NPR, and National Geographic, we have to stick to our knitting, and I think consumers know actually much more than you think they do… knowing when things are off brand. And you can lose people and dilute yourself very easily chasing a buck. So, it’s critically important that we stick to our knitting, that Sesame Street really was, and still is, all about educating pre-schoolers to give them an opportunity to succeed, and NPR is really about educating the public about national and global affairs and inspiring them. And National Geographic is really about satisfying the curiosity that will get people inspired to care for the planet.
So, we have to come back to those all the time, and we actually have these conversations in National Geographic every week. Is this on brand? Is this not on brand? How do we make sure it is on brand? It’s a really important part of what we try to do.
Denver: And with this new rebranding, you also have a tagline, right?
Gary: We do. I mean, “Further” has really been what we’ve tried to express in one word which cuts across all of our media. And it’s really a human inspiration to go further which has been, of course, the legacy of Alexander Graham Bell, who not only invented the telephone but also came within a week of putting the first airplane into flight… which most people don’t even know. He was a serial inventor. But then we funded people like Hiram Bingham, and Jacques Cousteau, and Jane Goodall, and Dian Fossey, and the Leakeys and all kinds of other people… all the way to today where we have amazing pioneers with that exploration gene. And they all had the inspiration to go “further,” hence, the idea that each of us has that opportunity in our own lives.
It’s really about photography, and I have to give credit to my predecessors– who were nimble and entrepreneurial– to be able to take what was simply a print magazine and push it into books, push it into television, push it into cable, push it into social media. And now through integration… scale, we have an opportunity to make a much bigger impact.
Denver: Very cool. Well, you alluded to it before, but you do have a huge audience. Not the least of which is that you are the number one brand on Instagram, which is not bad for a 129-year old organization. How many people do you reach across the globe?
Gary: Well, of course it all depends on how you count these things. But over 750 million people around the world, 78 million Instagram followers. We’re not quite where Kim Kardashian is, but we’re working very hard to overtake her. So, we hope that the listeners of this show will go on Instagram if they’re not members already. But, it’s really about photography, and I have to give credit to my predecessors– who were nimble and entrepreneurial– to be able to take what was simply a print magazine and push it into books, push it into television, push it into cable, push it into social media. And now through integration… scale, we have an opportunity to make a much bigger impact. As of course, Denver, we live in a world that’s cluttered with information every day. And the big existential question for organizations like ours is: how do you break through the clutter? And how does National Geographic land in Denver’s headspace every day, as opposed to all the other inputs that are coming into you? And when you break it down to an individual’s media diet, that’s really what, at the end of the day, this is all about. So, we’ve got to have compelling, engaging content that’s also consistent with our brand.
Denver: Absolutely. You know, I’d be curious, under this rebrand of “Further,” and this integration of all your platforms under one National Geographic, has that improved your ability to collect and use data more effectively to address the needs of your consumers, as well as your corporate partners?
Gary: This is a really good question. The National Geographic Society almost invented the concept of membership. And actually, if you go back to 1939, “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Go back and watch the movie. Jimmy Stewart opens up an envelope in the mail that says, “I’ve officially been elected a member of the National Geographic Society.”
Denver: He was quite excited.
Gary: Right. Exactly. And it really became a rite of passage. It was, as we had a tagline in the 1950s, it said “Tell people you read National Geographic. It defines you.” And I love that. I’m sure, Don Draper or someone like him invented that back in the 1950s. But, it was this concept of membership. So, we’ve tried to make people do more than simply subscribe. We have millions of people, at least 10 million people, who are part of the database of National Geographic. And it’s really a challenge now to figure out how you reinvent this concept of membership in the 21st century. So, people are part of a tribe– which I’m a big believer in– like Seth Godin talks about. How do we then make them feel part of the tribe and interact with us through content– but also through action– in terms of helping make the world a better place? And that’s our big challenge right now. So, we’re working very hard on this concept of membership across the Society and across partners to have an integrated offering that will inspire a lot of people to stay with National Geographic. This is probably the biggest issue we have going forward.
Denver: Of all the things that sets National Geographic apart, Gary, perhaps the thing that stands out most to me is your global leadership in storytelling. What is the key… what is the secret to really great storytelling?
Gary: It’s really about capturing people’s emotions. And we have had the ability through the incredible storytellers we have– through photography, through journalism, through film– to be able to get people to understand these complex issues that are impacting their lives. So Denver, we’ve divided the work of Geography into three pieces: the changing planet, wildlife and wild places, and the human journey. And there’s so many stories baked into that and getting people to understand and open their eyes to the fact that there were 500,000 lions in the wild when we were born; and today, there’s 20,000. That there’s an elephant being killed every 15 minutes today in the wild…. Rhinos being decimated.. sharks and rays, just on the wildlife issues. So, how can we bring those issues to light to get people to care? And I think that’s what great filmmakers do.
Television was the most powerful teacher ever invented.
I grew up in LA, and I tell people that the world was opened to me through movies, and it was storytelling that inspired me to get out of my own childhood into seeing that there was this incredible world out there of heroes and other cultures that were so fascinating. And I think, I’ve taken that to heart since being a student into my career as the heart of what we do because at the end of the day, storytelling is about education. And as Joan Ganz Cooney, the founder of Sesame Street, always would say: television was the most powerful teacher ever invented. It’s not a question of whether it was teaching. It’s a question: what was it teaching?
Gary: So, you can either teach kids letters and numbers, or you can teach them about sugar cereal, but you’re teaching them. And we all know that television shows, movies, a photograph, an article, this radio show can inspire people if people are really involved and engaged with the content. So, it’s a more powerful vehicle than any politician.
Denver: Right. As part of that storytelling, you introduced your first scripted series earlier this year with the show called Genius. What was that show about? And what else do you have in store for other scripted series?
Gary: Well, we were thrilled to do that. We always felt that National Geographic could use its brand to expand into storytelling about inspiring individuals. So, who’s at the top of that list from a scientific point of view? Albert Einstein.
Denver: No doubt.
Gary: So, we acquired the rights to Walter Isaacson’s brilliant Einstein biography. And thanks to Ron Howard and Brian Grazer at Imagine Entertainment, we created a 10-part series starring Geoffrey Rush that was nominated for 11 Emmys– which is an amazing feat for us… and wonderful to be there recently at the Emmys. So, what we presented was really the story of Einstein’s humanity. His life. His life story, not just what we think of him as this kind of old man with wild hair. He had an incredible life story leaving Nazi Germany, and really being quite a leader in political thought and other things.
Next year, we’re going to be doing Pablo Picasso, and we’re really excited about that story as well. Of course the brilliant artist that he was… but his involvement with the Spanish Civil War and using the power of the paintbrush to express history. And Antonio Banderas is going to play Pablo Picasso. So, stay tuned for that one.
Denver: Absolutely. It’s nice to make these people really come alive as who they were, and not just what they did. It seems that the offerings on the National Geographic network are brighter. They’re bolder. Seems to me to be more premium content, high-end, than they had been in the past. Would that be the case?
Gary: Yes. And there’s multiple reasons for that. I would suggest a couple of things. One, it’s the right thing to do because that’s what our brand is about. That’s first and foremost. And if you live up to the legacy of the people who I mentioned before… and the magazine, we want the channel to live up to that same legacy. In many ways, and I’ll just say this, it was chasing cable television ratings. And recently, I was having this discussion, and we all remember when cable started, there were a lot of niche channels around. Discovery was very much about science. You had History about history. You had Art and Entertainment, actually about arts and entertainment. You had the Learning Channel actually trying to do learning. And now those channels, of course, have almost nothing to do with those areas. Almost nothing. So, they become general channels that in many ways, if I may say, are chasing reality TV–type dumb down programming. And in some ways, Nat Geo was doing that as well.
When I took over the organization, our Board of Trustees rightfully was somewhat concerned about this. And I think this new strategy not only is the right thing to do… living up to the brand, but also from an economic point of view today– with NetFlix, and Amazon, and everybody else really honing this concept of on-demand viewing as opposed to watching linear channels where you just have to fill up a bulk of 24/7 programming with stuff. We have to be there. We have to actually come up with content that people are going to be willing to “Buy.” In other words, they’re going to be willing to set down some time to watch Genius or to watch this incredible series The Long Road Home, another drama out of Martha Raddatz’s brilliant book about a returning Iraq veteran.
So, there’s both qualitative reasons and economic reasons to push this into a new place, and that’s what we’ve done. We have a lot of work to do. I would say National Geographic Channel in some ways got a little lost in the mix, and now we’ve got to earn respect again and be there as a preferred home just the way HBO and NetFlix, and others have become.
Denver: Yeah. There’s a lot of stations, so people have to be able to find you, and this is one way they’re going to be able to find you. Gary, how do you look at and measure the impact of what you’re doing around particular issues– whether it be climate change? I know you did this fantastic cover story on gender in the magazine in January. How do you look at the impact that those things are having?
Gary: That gender story won a Pulitzer nomination. The first one ever for National Geographic. And it was a very brave decision by our editor Susan Goldberg, who has done a fantastic job. Well, this is always the $600,000 question for nonprofits. How do you measure impact? Right?
Gary: So, I’ve always been asked this question. So, the question really is there’s a quantitative answer which has to do with ratings or people engaging with your stuff. So, no matter what NGO, nonprofit you might be involved with, how many people are actually engaged is one measure. The other one is we have to test the impact. And, I think I learned this a lot working at Sesame Workshop which was very serious from the beginning, about sending in third party evaluators to literally ask the 5-year old “What did you learn from this?” And the kid would, as kids are, would say, “Nothing” or they would say “I learned how to count to ten” or whatever. So, there was a clear set of evaluations, and I think we will need to do that more at National Geographic.
We know that sheer numbers we can gauge pretty well. And these social media numbers, as you mentioned, are crazy high. And part of it is because of photography and being able to drive that. But we’ve also got a lot of programs working in wildlife, working in marine protected areas like Pristine Seas, working on the human journey where we’re giving grants to innovators around the world. And we want to make sure that they are impacting policy and are actually making a difference in saving lions or saving marine protected areas, or what have you.
Denver: Let’s talk about your corporate partners. You have some fabulous corporate partners: GSK, Rolex, a number of others. Tell us some of the things you’re doing with them.
Gary: Yes. I think, one of the shifts that we’ve been trying to make is– because we’re a bit of a non-traditional nonprofit because we have not really been reliant on public funding ever, nor have we had a huge philanthropic history of individual giving, the way a college or a hospital or others or more traditional NGOs might. So, my view is we need to team up with foundations, with major donors, and with corporations who share a set of common interests …maybe around the oceans. Some maybe around just innovative people. Some maybe around science or sustainable cities. So, we have now connected up with folks like Rolex, and we recently signed a huge five-year deal that will fund ocean exploration and telling those stories with Rolex which we’re very proud of. Canon’s been a sponsor of ours for 64 years. And they’re in every single issue of the magazine.
Denver: That covers a lot. I remember seeing that.
Gary: Yeah. And folks like GSK who sponsored Genius and United Technologies, who we did a big sustainable cities conference with. And these are companies who actually want to partner with the platform of National Geographic as a convener, to have serious thought about this and obviously, they want to position themselves as a leader and influencer over folks working in rethinking cities and building and subways and all kinds of other things. They have obviously an interest in doing that. But more power to them to take and elevate the conversation towards issues which we do need to talk about and we don’t talk about enough!
Denver: Yeah. And as you said a few moments ago, they want to reach your tribe.
Denver: You recently announced some plans around your grantmaking and how you plan on expanding it to reach more minorities, and are launching some new funds to encourage more racial and ethnic diversity with this grantmaking. That’s an important initiative. Tell us more about it.
Gary: Diversity is critically important for all the reasons which most of your listeners have heard before. Not just the right thing to do, but from the economic point… all these issues are really important. But the thing- here’s the problem. The scientific community and the environmental community have really, for not the wrong reasons, have grown as enterprises that have been too limited from a diversity point of view. And that has a lot to do with who went to college? Who got a Ph.D.? Who had the opportunities to think about global systems and environment? And so, those sectors are still too homogenous in terms of diversity, and I think everyone in the environmental movement, so to speak, knows that.
So, what we felt was, having the opportunity by giving grants and expanding our canvas to people of color– in science and environmental journalism, in photography, in exploration, in technology, in mapping and in teaching. We could provide resources to people of color who really do want to engage, who haven’t had that access before. So, this is something we’re really taking on now. We’re very excited about it, and we will have champions, I’m sure, emerging.
If you look at the Neil deGrasse Tysons of the world, there’s amazing people who are there who can emerge. And the other thing I would say here is: in many ways, when you have had conversations, people are prioritizing their own existence or prioritizing where do we spend money in urban neighborhoods for instance? And environmental issues tend to get put at the back of the line.
Gary: So, I’ve been engaging with different folks- and geography is certainly is another one of those things. And that’s just wrong because Flint, Michigan is a geography problem. It’s teaching kids that water doesn’t come from a spout in your bathroom. It actually comes from some aquifer, or some lake or reservoir. So, kids have no idea, nor do adults for that matter, where their water comes from. And Flint, Michigan would not have happened had people been more educated about that. So, now it becomes a crisis, and we have to put bandaids on it. And everyone’s screaming bloody murder… Even the hurricane in Houston. A lot of geography lessons in there. Okay.
Denver: Yeah. No question, and I think you’ve even noticed that in some of your speeches when you’re talking about water, you’re just talking about water. But when you are speaking at Hampton College, and you started talking about Flint, all of a sudden the audience becomes engaged because it’s not theoretical. It’s real.
Culture always trumps strategy, as they say, as has been said so many times. National Geographic has an amazing culture of entrepreneurship and individual exploration.
Denver: This past summer at the National Geographic Explorers Festival, you spoke about the major transition you’ve been through that has transformed the organization. Now, so many leaders find transforming an organization, changing its culture to be incredibly difficult, and I suspect, you probably did as well. But tell us about the transformation and some of the keys you found in successfully changing the corporate culture.
Gary: Culture always trumps strategy, as they say, as has been said so many times. National Geographic has had an amazing culture of entrepreneurship and individual exploration. My view is that also led to a bit of siloed behavior, not because people wanted to be a silo. It’s just because it’s part of the DNA of the place, of individualism. So, in order to get us to the next place, I really felt like we had to break down those silos. And by the way, the staff all complained about it to me when I showed up.
Denver: On your listening tour.
Gary: Yeah. And I did do a 100-day listening tour. And I heard a lot about our mission. I heard about silos. I heard a lot about our digital strategy being kind of a not very focused at that time. So, we had to work hard to break down those silos.
Denver: How do you do it?
Gary: Well, a lot of it had to do with getting back to the mission, actually, and this is where I always try to get back to. Whether it was at Sesame or at NPR or here is: what are we actually trying to do here? And forget about the people, first thing. Forget about the individuals. What are the core things? So, we created a National Geographic. “We inspire. We explore. And we storytell.” Those are the three things that we do, right? So, we set up inspiration through science and exploration. We focus on storytelling through media and education, of course, in teaching kids.
So, it was a way of reformatting people’s thinking to focus on the global work that we’re doing in non-siloed ways. And all of a sudden, Suzie has to talk to Bob because they’re maybe on other sides of campus, but they’re both working on educating kids. And they weren’t talking to each other. And you just have to reinforce that, Denver, through the tools that you have, including frankly, compensation and performance reviews. People care when they’re dinged on their paychecks for not behaving properly, and it gets down to basics like that in changing a culture.
Denver: So, you tie this mission and this culture all into the way you take a look at people and their performance reviews so it really hits the bottom line there. Hey, we’re in New York, so let me ask you about this. National Geographic Encounter recently opened up Ocean Odyssey up at Times Square. What is that experience like?
Gary: Well, we’re very excited. That’s a partnership that we have here in New York, and it’s 44th Street, right off Shubert Alley. Check it out. The most stunning technology connecting with the story of connecting to the oceans. And we hope that kids and families and parents will experience this tour, this journey together and come out of that experience after an hour or two somewhat changed. So, people spend a lot of money to go to a Broadway show. This is the best Broadway show you can possibly- this is our planet. So, you’ll come out of this maybe not singing ”Hello, Dolly!” but you’ll be able to think a lot about the other critters and the importance of the ocean as our lungs, and as the home of so much life on earth.
Denver: Let me close with this Gary, in addition to being a business leader, you’re a number of other things. But right up the top of that list, I would put educator. Certainly in your previous post as you discussed, CEO of Sesame Street and NPR, and now with National Geographic, that’s pretty much what you do. So, taking a blend of those experiences, do you have a sense or a vision of what the future of education will look like and be?
Gary: I got interviewed for TIME Magazine recently about a story about Sesame Street, and we’re just going to have its 50th birthday in a couple of years. And they asked me, “Are you worried about the future of Sesame Street?” I said, “No. They’ll be fine.” I am worried about the future of education. And I am worried in the sense it’s this information overload that we all sense, and the rules of the game are completely changed. And we don’t really know what we’re doing as a society. So, we now have the big technology companies for good economic reasons trying to have big inputs into schools because they have the best tools to navigate the world’s knowledge. And the question then is: how do we reinvent the knowledge base that is of the ages?
So, when we were growing up, it was reading a textbook about American history that was written by somebody and approved by the Texas State Board of Education or whoever it was. And we were taught- and that textbook was slightly interpreted by our teachers probably. Today, it’s a world of content, and you may have very different interpretations of American history. The whole controversy over statues is an example. I could see in one school being taught one way, and in another school completely the opposite. So, are we going to have a common history in this country? How are we going to teach right from wrong? How are we going to teach the history of slavery? How are we going to teach the environmental movement? I think all of these issues are up for grabs, and smart people have got to get their heads around this.
I’ve been engaged, as you mentioned, in media and education for four decades. And that was the easy part. I think now, it’s going to be up to my successors, our successors, millennials who grew up as digital natives– unlike us as digital immigrants– to find the tools to be able to create some sort of national consensus around what we’re teaching our kids. This is a massive challenge and gets way beyond the schools and the charter schools and the public schools and the private schools, and all those debates which are very important. The other thing is the curriculum that’s up for grabs. And we’re not focusing on that.
Denver: Yeah. I hear exactly what you’re saying. And then the question really at the end of the day is: what unites us?
Denver: And how does the nation go forward if there’s nothing that unites us? And there has to be an agreement around that.
Well, Gary Knell, the president and CEO of the National Geographic Society, I want to thank you for being here this evening, and for such an interesting conversation. Now, tell us about your website. And with so much content on it, what is your personal recommendation on something up there that listeners should definitely check out?
Gary: Okay. So, just to make things really complicated, we have a nationalgeographic.com website which has a lot of our amazing daily content and videos from Saturn to the new Jane Goodall documentary coming up. And we have nationalgeographic.org which has the coolest thing. The Explorer Map. So, everyone listening has to go check this out. It’s open source. You can look at it on an iPad or a PC or whatever you have, and you’ll be able to see the hundreds and hundreds of explorers around the world at any given moment and what they’re working on. It’s a fascinating tool to look at, to experience. And maybe you can be one of those too.
Denver: Very good. Well, Gary, it was such a pleasure to have you on the show.
Gary: Thanks so much, Denver.
The Business of Giving can be heard every Sunday evening between 6:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Eastern on AM 970 The Answer in New York and on iHeartRadio. You can follow us @bizofgive on Twitter, @bizofgive on Instagram and at http://www.facebook.com/BusinessOfGiving