LA's Leading Public Radio Newsroom Is Getting A New CEO

Herb Scannell

Media industry veteran Herb Scannell, who once led Nickelodeon and BBC Worldwide North America, will serve as Southern California Public Radio's new president and CEO beginning late February.

The nonprofit's board of directors voted Wednesday afternoon for Scannell to succeed Bill Davis, who helmed SCPR for 18 years.

Scannell takes over a nonprofit newsroom with an annual budget of nearly $33 million and about 155 employees. KPCC reaches nearly one million listeners a month and the organization has expanded in the digital news space with last year's acquisition of the LAist news site.

In an interview Wednesday, Scannell said that he sought the job because audio is experiencing a "renaissance." He said KPCC, through its broadcast and digital journalism, is filling an increasingly important civic role as many print outlets struggle.

In his new role at SCPR, Scannell, 62, will become one of the most prominent executives of color in public media. Scannell, who is of Puerto Rican and Irish descent, voiced pride in launching programming at Nickelodeon in the 2000s that features characters of color such as Dora the Explorer and the Brothers García. He said having diversity at top management levels is very important.

"It's one of the things that I think is a problem right now, especially in this city, (that) you don't have C-suite executives that have Latino heritage or are of the culture," Scannell said.

A BET ON PODCASTS

At KPCC, Scannell said he plans to widen KPCC's foray into podcasts, noting Hollywood is in the station's backyard.

"There's no better place to probably be in the podcast business than right here," he said.

Scannell has firsthand experience with the world of podcasting from his years on the board of New York Public Radio. He had served since 2000 and was board president from 2009 to 2012. NYPR, which owns WNYC, has launched a succession of hit podcasts such as Two Dope Queens and Freakonomics.

"The thing that happened with WNYC is it kind of opened up the aperture of what public radio was by doing different kinds of programming and it related to audiences in different ways," Scannell said.

Despite once being described by his old boss, former Viacom chief Sumner Redstone as "extremely competitive," Scannell said he is not coming into his new job planning to "upset the apple cart."

He praised the quality of radio coming out of Pasadena-based KPCC, and last year's acquisition of LAist, which has a digital audience that skews younger than broadcast listeners.

"You know, we're in the game of always replenishing audiences and getting younger and diverse audiences," Scannell said.

EAST COAST TRANSPLANT

Scannell is a New York native. Until September 2017, he'd only lived and worked on the East Coast. He moved to Los Angeles to take a job as CEO of mitú, a digital media brand for Latinx millennials with a presence on Facebook and Snapchat. It also has produced shows for Netflix and Comcast.

Scannell said he stepped down from his job after a little more than a year, because mitú wasn't able to raise the amount of capital needed to realize his vision of turning it into a diversified media company the way Def Jam is for an African-American audience.

Ken Doctor, media analyst at Newsonomics, said Scannell's relatively short tenure in Los Angeles means he will have to overcome outsider status as he makes appeals for funds from donors and philanthropies — a key responsibility for a public radio CEO.

"I'm sure the board will be hosting plenty of dinners and wine-and-cheese receptions and obviously think he'll be adept at it, but it will take time," Doctor said.

Doctor said that while Los Angeles is a magnet for transplants like Scannell, "there are questions about community fit, of Los Angeles being its own place and understanding that community."

SCPR board chair Ana Valdez acknowledged that Scannell will "have some learning to do. He'll have some introductions to go through."

But Valdez, who said she has known Scannell for about 20 years, described his being personable and relaxed as some of his strongest attributes. Valdez said the board also tapped Scannell for his media industry ties and passion for journalism.

"He has a tremendous career in media," Valdez said. "He knows how the media has evolved. He knows the disruptive industry that it is right now."

EARLY YEARS

Scannell's early start in radio as station manager at his alma mater, Boston College, also appealed to the board, Valdez said.

As the son of two social workers on Long Island, Scannell said he didn't have many industry connections. He said lack of ties meant he had to hustle to get one of his first post-college jobs at a country radio station in New York. From there he moved into the world of cable television.

Most of Scannell's career has been spent at Viacom/MTV Networks, which owns Nickelodeon. The kids' network had cable's highest ratings during his time as Vice Chair of MTV Networks from 1996 to 2006, a period that saw the launch of Spongebob Squarepants and Blues Clues. Scannell also oversaw TV Land and Spike TV, the first network for men.

Valdez declined to state Scannell's compensation. Tax forms show that the current CEO's compensation package is approximately $476,600.

Scannell has been splitting his time between an apartment in downtown Los Angeles and the home he shares in New York's Tribeca neighborhood with his wife Sarah Reetz and the younger of two daughters, who is a senior in high school.

Scannell said he will begin living full-time in Los Angeles and will resign from the NYPR board, where he has continued to be a member after his tenure as chair.

The leap from New York to Los Angeles, he said, has been exciting.

"There's a lot of a lot of energy around the city," Scannell said. "And then add in the fact that what happens in L.A. and what happens in California matters everywhere."

Davis, who announced he was stepping down in June, is expected to serve as president emeritus through at least 2021. He has not ruled out future professional work but said his only current plans are to surf and take hiking trips abroad.

Ryan Fonseca contributed to this report