What are they thinking? Jarl Mohn, putting the ‘R’ back in NPR
To inaugurate his tenure as NPR’s fifth C.E.O. in six years, Jarl Mohn took a page from the playbook of campaigning politicians and embarked on an unconventional listening tour.
Hearing of Mohn’s appointment last May, his buddy Michael Govan, director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and a pilot, sent him a text: “What do you think of flying across the country with me this summer, and we’ll visit small NPR markets?”
Flying in a single-engine prop-driven Beechcraft Bonanza, Mohn and Govan took to the farthest reaches of NPR country—that geographically diverse expanse from Logan (Utah) to Aberdeen (South Dakota) to Madison, Wis.—along with the biggest metropolitan markets, all of which together make up more than 30 million public radio lovers, fully one tenth of the U.S. population. They hit 16 cities in 10 days, some of them tiny stations and some, like WNYC and Minnesota Public Radio that create enough of their own programming to sometimes compete with NPR itself.
Since that first tour, he has kept the visits up, turning the C.E.O. job, in part, into a retail one, cutting promos in Missoula and station IDs in Charleston.
Now he’s expanding his audience more ambitiously, touting the future of public radio to listeners of the popular syndicated “Diane Rehm Show” earlier this month.
You can expect to hear lots more from NPR’s new leader, his public optimism leavened by the more private knowledge of NPR’s stagnant finances. NPR’s financial shortfalls have led to several rounds of news-staff cutbacks, and an uneasiness about its strength going forward. Now, as Mohn’s nine-month honeymoon period draws to a close, the 63-year-old southern Californian must buckle down on a series of issues that go far beyond just bringing in more money.
Mohn put one marker down last week, hiring Michael Oreskes to head NPR news operations. After a small exodus of top staffers, Oreskes’ appointment was an important early maneuver of the Mohn era. With NPR News’ flagship “Morning Edition” and “All Things” programs listened to by more than 12 million Americans a week, the hiring is important. Oreskes, a long-time Times-man and more recently Associated Press executive, is charged with providing new vision as NPR increasingly fights for eyeballs and earfuls with a slew of competitors.
Mohn understands the historical odds are long both on success and his own longevity in the job. A long tenure isn’t his goal, though. Nor is hissalarysomething he much needs. He made his money, owning radio stations, building MTV and VH 1 and in venture capital, cashing out of digital and tech startups. His Mohn Family Foundation gives away much more money than NPR can pay him.
Given that background, he appeared to be an out-of-the-box choice to head NPR. After too much top executive change, NPR thought it had finally found its long-term leader in Children’s Television Workshop C.E.O. Gary Knell, in fall 2011.Knell negotiated NPR’s deceptively political byways well, and had delivered a modicum of stability—just when he shocked “the system” by takingthe job of a lifetime just two years later, heading over to National Geographic. Nat Geo made him a financial offer he couldn’t refuse.
Jarl Mohn offered one worthy public radio credential on his long C.V. As board chair of Southern California Public Radio and its station KPCC, Mohn had built a juggernaut. Along with SCPR President Bill Davis, the station’s reach into greater L.A. is massive, as is its investment in programming and staff, including a news-producing crew that numbers almost 100. Mohn, Davis and their allies worked L.A.’s fundraising scene like no one had done before, bringing an entrepreneurial zeal to nonprofit public radio seen in only a relative few cities. (For more on Mohn’s art-collecting, philanthropy and Gold Gym’s bodybuilding, check out this profile.) That zeal, conveyed as energetically after a long day on the road as at its beginning, seems sometimes out of place in the traditionally soft-spoken public trade radio.
Mohn, bearded and small of stature with a Wolfman Jack quality to his voice that bespeaks early radio training—he first disk jockeyed when he was 15—has worked the public radio in-crowd well. In talks with executives around the country, they give him points they didn’t think they would, given their early skepticism.
Showing up in person seemingly everywhere in the public radio universe was only the first sign of Mohn’s talent for promotion. Though NPR is in the midst of fast-changing audio landscape, with the golden age of streaming and podcasts tempered by new for-profit competition (iHeart Radio, Downcast, Deezer/Stitcher and many more), Mohn has first and forempost enthusiastically embraced the “R” in NPR. (National Public Radio dropped those words as its formal name in 2010.) That’s right: Radio. And he did it using one of the oldest tricks in the book: A contest.
At a Public Radio Super-Regional Meeting of public radio executives from around the country in Las Vegas in November, Mohn warmed up the crowd with jokes about the perils of airport Cinnabon and how he gained his “freshman 15” on his cross-country tour. Apparently an extrovert to the core, he opined that many people in cerebral public radio may be introverts, and polled the crowd on that question. Unsurprisingly, few in the huge Florentine ballroom of Caesar’s Palace raise their hands either way—making his point, if a bit awkwardly.
Yet, his just-one-of-the-guys Radio Days demeanor gives him an opening. He both reports on his first content initiative and limns the outline of his second.
It’s an old-fashioned radio-centric promotion play. Mohn believes that use of tried-and-true commercial broadcast marketing can boost listening numbers. So he asked NPR stations to run 100 promotional spots, for one program—the flagship “Morning Edition”—each week. Short spots, mentions of all kinds. The idea: concentrated, targeted promotion. Forty-eight of NPR’s top 50 markets participated. The goal: increase morning listenership by 10 percent. The “Spark” campaign, as its called, runs through June.
After congratulating the general-manager public-radio crowd on its participation, Mohn upped the ante. “I promised cash and prizes,” he reminded them.
The surprise payoff: The single station, judged by a group of external high-profile marketers, to execute the most creative Spark campaign will get to air “Morning Edition” free, for the whole 2016 fiscal year. That will be quite a boon for the winner, with stations paying from well into five and six digits to run the program.
“We’re ready to do something big together,” he told the audience, which ate up what could have been heard as over-served cliché. What they liked hearing initially was the reinforcement of the basic business of public media: radio. While digital disruption makes its inroads, and offers many opportunities, it is radio that brings in the paying members and paying underwriting advertiser sponsors. It’s the core business. While former NPR Chief Content Officer Kinsey Wilson got lots of credit for his digital initiatives, before Mohn dislodged him soon after becoming C.E.O., some executives felt that the core radio mission, not without need of help, wasn’t getting enough focus.
So Mohn, good at reading the crowd, seized on the promotion of radio at his first foray. The out-of-the-box promotional gambit, though, is just that. Remaining skeptics may mistake his radio-promotion push as the defining edge of the new C.E.O. He’s a canny character, likely setting the stage for a more ambitious strategy. While he indeed emphasizes “radio” early on, he takes a bit of umbrage at being classified as a “radio guy.”
“I’m a media guy,” he told me, understandably citing his years of TV and digital tech investment.
As gracious as he can be, he has used the listserv frequented by the stations’ top managers to give as well as to take criticism, surprising people throughout the country with both his candor and edge. A clear message: Get on board.
Now Mohn moves deeply into at least three major issues, the success of which will define the next few years of one of the U.S.’s most valued news sources. Those three: 1) fund-raising; 2) NPR’s digital balancing act; and 3) its news future.
“Is Joan Kroc the only high net-worth individual able to give a gift like that to public radio,” he asked the public radio executives gathered in Las Vegas. It’s a quite rhetorical question. You still often hear the Kroc name, a wife of McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc, in relation to NPR’s enhanced reporting some 12 years after her $225 million bequest.
“Why do still have only Joan Kroc to talk about?” Mohn reiterated to me more recently. He knows the answer, as only someone who has both been a money-raiser and a philanthropist can: “We haven’t asked big enough.” He’s plainly right, as we look at the desertification of news funding across North America and Europe. There should be many multimillionaires and a few billionaires willing to support top-drawer news production.
So, put fund-raising at the top of the list – one that will probably be Mohn’s greatest legacy. Mohn understands money, and the power of resources it provides. He’s made the case in L.A., at KPCC, and now lays the groundwork to do so nationally.
Mohn cites studies saying that public radio, collectively through NPR and the more than 1,000 public radio stations found nationwide, take in only 1.7 percent of the $19 billion given to nonprofits in the U.S. “What if we doubled that? It could be transformative. Let’s be bold.”
That’s the aspirational pitch. Then, there’s the management critique, subtly done: “We’re subperforming in fund-raising.”
Fund-raising takes in three big areas: 1) big philanthropy; 2) underwriting, whereby public radio sells advertiser sponsorships that have gotten less and less subtle over the years; 3) membership, which is all done at the station level. “Less than 10 percent of listeners are members. What if we boost that to 15-20 percent” each year, he asks, challenging the public radio system on some of its oldest competencies.
What of this activity is national, through NPR? What’s local through the stations? How can this collection of large and small stations with bespoke governance structures, be cajoled into working together? Those are prime questions that will determine Mohn’s fundraising success.
It’s a curious number. 27.1 million unique visitors hit the NPR.org website monthly, just surpassing the 26.2 million listeners to NPR’s own radio programming. While the numbers may give pause, they are misleading. It’s the listeners who generate the greatest engagement – and revenue generation, through memberships and underwriting. Conversely, digital is the future, as audio digital disruption has picked up speed in recent years, slowly turning radio to audio and smartphones to radios.
Under Kinsey Wilson, NPR made digital a top priority. It focused numerous resources on product development, culminating in the NPR One app (“The Newsonomics of NPR One, and The Dream of Personalized Public Radio”), among other innovations. It partnered widely – all to get ahead or at least stay even with commercial aggregator competitors.
Wilson was an early casualty of the Mohn regime. Clearly, with a portfolio that included both news and digital, Wilson had too much sway for a change-making C.E.O. Add to that the intangible of chemistry. Most decisively, though, the full speed ahead on digital – even it theoretically is the right thing to do – ruffled many feathers within public radio.
Mohn professes to buy into Kinsey Wilson’s vision of public radio digital strength, and has maintained digital resources. Still, digital remains the still-open question of his regime. If his embrace of radio served as politically smart, public radio’s leading digital proponents tell me they expect and await Mohn’s pivot. They hope he will hug the digital future as fully as he has the radio present and past. Coming up on year two of his tenure, Mohn will have to move strongly beyond his charm offensive and re-prove out his digital cred, even at a time when major metro public radio power grows, at places at New York’s WNYC, Boston’s WBUR and at his old stomping grounds at KPCC in L.A.
Especially in this contentious, fraught area of digital development, how can NPR play with its biggest stations? How can the interests of the many smaller stations be taken into account alongside the larger ones, and NPR itself? Collaboration in public radio – like in any trade – is easier said than done. Competing budgets, priorities, egos and uneven governance structures slow even the best ideas.
With 34 bureaus, evenly split between domestic and international, NPR News is a fixture for many Americans, a dependable daily friend.
“Most of the world is moving away from fact-based journalism,” says Mohn, who served as chair of the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communications and Journalism's Board of Councilors for 10 years.
“That creates a lot of opportunity for us in public radio. The world has enough sources of info about Kim Kardashian.”
Yet, because of budget shortfalls, NPR News has seen its layoffs and buyouts. Plainly, it needs a new confidence and a reinvigoration.
Mohn hired Michael Oreskes after a long search, a first step in that planned re-building.
Mohn points out his news bona fides this way: “I’m a guy who loves content. I’m nuts for content.” And then he makes the connect to the digital future, “The thing that matters is what rides across all those platforms.”
The next phase of NPR’s news challenge connects to the other two. Money – funding for new initiatives, beats and projects – will go along way to restore confidence. Second, how NPR, like all legacy media – it’s just brings along a different kind of legacy than newspapers and commercial TV – finds itself to mesh a legacy/digital mix is fundamental to its news success. As Michael Oreskes said in a first interview, NPR’s success will be found “grabbing [audience] attention with stories told in creative new ways.”
NPR stations may have as many as 1,500 journalists throughout the country, but the whispered issue centers on consistent quality. NPR’s own staff sets a national standard for serious, if often entertaining, national coverage; local coverage can be as good, but often flags in reporting smarts, voice and quality. Anyone who has ever listened to local public radio traveling across the country can recognize the great disparities in reporting. Closing that gap is central to the next generation of NPR News – and public radio itself.