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After building public media powerhouse, KPCC's leader announces plan to step down

Bill Davis, president and CEO of Southern California Radio, announced Tuesday he will step down by December 2019.
Bill Davis, president and CEO of Southern California Radio, announced Tuesday he will step down by December 2019.
Bill Youngblood/SCPR

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Bill Davis, the public radio executive who oversaw the transformation of KPCC from a small college-run station into one of Southern California's largest news organizations, announced Tuesday he plans to step aside sometime in the next 18 months.

A statement from the board of Southern California Public Radio, the non-profit organization that operates KPCC, said Davis will continue as president “through December 2019 or until his successor is appointed.”

"I am blessed to have the opportunity after 19 years to leave SCPR at its peak," Davis said in the statement, "with an outstanding team in place to take the organization to new heights … I begin this transition with a vigorous commitment to ensuring SCPR continues to grow and prosper."

Davis, 60, promised to assist in the search for a new leader and work full-time with the successor for a transition period. After stepping down, he'll take on the title of SCPR "president emeritus."

"This is 100 percent Bill’s decision," said Ana Valdez, the current board president of SCPR, in an interview. She said the lengthy transition plan allows Davis to ensure a smooth handoff, not only of the organization's presidency, but of a capital fundraising campaign already underway.

"We will have the old talent, the new talent; we have our incredible record," Valdez said. "We have our plans to become an even bigger leader in news in Southern California and nationwide."

It's an effort that dates back two decades. In 1999, Minnesota-based public broadcasting giant American Public Media Group helped form a new organization with aims of creating a new powerhouse NPR member station in Southern California. The new organization took over operational control of public radio station KPCC, whose license is still held by Pasadena City College.

In 2001, American Public Media tapped Davis, then a vice president for news at National Public Radio, to lead SCPR as its founding president and CEO.

At the time, the radio station KPCC was "basically a broom closet," Valdez said. "It was underperforming, it was struggling."

"We could fit the entire staff into one production booth," Davis recalled in an interview.

But under Davis' leadership, the organization grew steadily.

He recruited Jarl Mohn, who was known previously as a television executive; Mohn would go on to become NPR's CEO.

And Davis added high-profile philanthropists to a governing board that already included prominent investor Gordon Crawford. Davis recruited civil rights attorney Molly Munger, manufacturing executive Charles Miller and Pasadena philanthropist Adelaide Hixon.

Those donors helped SCPR expand its fundraising capacity. Using funds from a $27 million capital campaign, in 2010, KPCC opened its own, newly-renovated facilities in Pasadena: the Mohn Broadcast Center and the attached Crawford Family Forum.

During Davis' tenure, KPCC's audience has expanded — quadrupling since 2000 to more than 800,000 listeners per week on the radio — and revenues and membership levels have increased to "all time highs," the SCPR statement said.

Davis's decision to step down comes as the SCPR board is writing a strategic plan that looks into the future "beyond the timeline I had for my own career."

"It was important for me to be able to make a transition at a point where we were performing very well," he said in an interview.

Valdez said Davis leaves the organization poised for future growth.

"What we want to do in the next years is to grow our newsroom," Valdez said. "We feel we have a formula that has worked really well to inform our community. We want to do it in a larger scale."

Davis is laying the groundwork for his departure during a "quiet phase" in a capital campaign meant to raise funds needed to fuel that growth. The campaign has so far raised $14 million, Valdez said — money intended to pay for expanding SCPR's Pasadena headquarters and for hiring additional staff in the future.

"It's always a sensitive time to step down," Davis said. "But … our sense is that making this transition now should not adversely affect the prospects for the campaign."

He added that once his successor is in place, he will remain actively involved in the organization. Davis said he will be under contract with SCPR as president emeritus through at least 2021.

Davis said when he arrived in L.A. in 2001 — just a year after KPCC changed its on-air format to feature only news and talk programming — pundits declared SCPR's decision to focus on local news in Southern California to be a "fool's errand."

"As an institution," he said, "we stand for holding powerful individuals and institutions accountable and that we are committed to trying to bring Angelenos together in a way really no other news organization in Southern California is committed to doing. I do think that that matters."

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UPDATES:

5 p.m.: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said Davis recruited investor Gordon Crawford to the board, Crawford was on the board prior to Davis.

7 p.m.: Updated to include quotes from an interview with Davis and more information about the organization's history.

This story originally published at 4:30 p.m.