Former NPR President Douglas J. Bennet, Jr., who took over a troubled organization in 1983 and led it to stability during his decade at the helm, has died, his family announced. He was 79.
His death Sunday was announced on Twitter by his sons, U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado and James Bennet, the editorial editor of The New York Times, and by his daughter, Holly. No cause of death was reported.
“Our father was fortunate to live a life of service. He led public, non-profit, and academic institutions that sought to improve our world through the work of thousands of committed people. Holly, James, and I always knew where we stood with Dad. We knew that he loved us. And we are grateful for the example he set.”
Bennet had early jobs in Congress and was an an assistant secretary of state under President Carter before becoming head of the U.S. Agency for International Development in 1979. He was named president of National Public Radio in 1983, when the still-young organization was in the midst of “a budget debacle, and we’d laid off a tremendous number of people,” said Robert Siegel, former host of All Things Considered.
“His mission was to sort it out, to manage it well and make it healthy, which is what he did,” Siegel said.
Bennet, said Siegel, brought balanced budgets to NPR and, with board Chairman Jack Mitchell, he changed the financial structure of NPR and its member stations.
“Doug was very sharp, very bright … and was very wise about Capitol Hill,” said Siegel, who directly reported to Bennet for four years as NPR’s news director. During that time, he said, NPR also debuted several now-popular national programs.
“We launched Weekend Edition Saturday. The next year we launched Weekend Edition Sunday. We took Fresh Air from WHYY Philadelphia and made it a nationally distributed NPR program,” he said. Talk Of The Nation, launched in 1991 to provide coverage of the Gulf War, also became a long-running show.
Siegel also said Bennet was strongly behind NPR Supreme Court reporter Nina Totenberg when she faced legal threats after breaking the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas story.
Bennet left NPR when he was appointed by President Clinton to a State Department leadership position in 1993. In 1995, he became president at his alma mater, Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., a position he held for 12 years. In a statement, current Wesleyan President Michael S. Roth described his predecessor’s tenure as “years of remarkable progress.”
“He set an ambitious strategic direction for Wesleyan with two planning initiatives, the first of which became the basis for the $281 million Wesleyan Campaign — at that time the most successful campaign by far in the university’s history. Under his leadership, Wesleyan saw a 25 percent growth in applications for admission, a doubling of the endowment, and an invigorated relationship with Middletown.”
In a statement, Bennet’s children said their father loved NPR well before he became its president: “He listened to its programs long before he had the job and long after he left. He believed deeply in its people and its mission. He was very proud of the work he and his colleagues did to increase NPR’s investment in journalism, increase its audience, and ensure its independence and integrity over the long haul.”
Not long after being selected as president, Bennet was asked by the Christian Science Monitor what he felt a successful tenure might look like.
“I hope to be able to show the public that NPR is sound and immaculate financially and can make a substantial contribution to public information about the political process,” Bennet said. “Our society shouldn’t shortchange itself. With adequate funding, National Public Radio can be an information, education, and entertainment system that all the public can profit from … and enjoy.”
In addition to his children, Bennet is survived by his wife, Midge, according to Roth. The Bennet children said information about memorial services for their father would be released later.