Since 2009, NPR has seen five CEOs. The latest to take up the mantle is Jarl Mohn, a veteran of commercial and public radio. Bob talked with Mohn about his plans for NPR.
BOB: This is On the Media, I’m Bob Garfield. The top job at NPR is a very popular position, in the sense that lately pretty much the entire U.S. population has occupied it. Since 2009, there have been five -- count ‘em -- five NPR CEO’s, the latest of whom assumed his duties this summer. Jarl Mohn, a broadcasting veteran with deep roots in both commercial and public radio, took the reins from interim CEO Paul Haaga, who temporarily replaced Gary Knell, who joined Nat Geo channel after only two years after replacing interim CEO Joyce Slocum, who jumped in to replace Vivian Schiller, who lasted only two years before running headlong into political buzzsaws. Jarl Mohn hopes for a longer tenure, but it might not be a cake walk. Jarl, welcome to OTM.
MOHN: Well thank you.
GARFIELD: You've inherited a six million dollar operating deficit, a lot of member station are down in the mouth or up in arms. About half the US congress sees NPR as the Anti-Christ, you've some of your most experienced journalists to buyouts, and technology threatens to make you business model obsolete. Congratulations on the new gig, Jarl.
MOHN: We love a challenge.
GARFIELD: Challenges. It seems to me the biggest one - and it's almost 15 years in the making, is NPR very operating model. The network gets most of its revenue from member station who write you checks in exchange for programming like Morning Edition and All Things Considered. But, in this digital age you don't really strictly speaking, need their broadcast towers anymore. You can deliver all your programming online in real time. How do you preserve local public radio and how do you embrace technology while still getting the bills paid.
MOHN: You really have to do both of them. My background is radio, I think radio is the most personal, the most powerful medium. It's the heritage of the organization it's our past, it's our present, I think it's going to be our future for a long, long time. That said, we also have to be where our listeners and users are. Many people are using digital platforms, whether it's mobile, whether it's iPads in addition to the terrestrial platforms. And with connected car that's going to be probably even more of a factor. And the stations, like WNYC or where I came from KPCC in Los Angeles are hugely important and our going to be the backbone and the foundation for the system for I think many, many, many years to come.
GARFIELD: Your roots are in commercial broadcast. And that's where you made your sizable fortune, but you've been a very large donor and an active board member at KPCC - Southern California Public Radio. Which guy did the NPR board hire? The commercial guy or the KPCC guy?
MOHN: They hired both. I don't think I could have ever been considered for this position had it not been for the work I did at KPCC. Twelve years of being on the board of a public station and many of those years as chair. But, I think my background in commercial media, not just commercial radio, but on the cable television side and also the last 14 years of my career as an angel investor in digital media properties. I think it's the whole range that is going to be helpful to me to address these issues you brought up at the open. Having a legacy of being broadcast radio and at the same time part of the digital revolution.
GARFIELD: Well let's just say terrestrial is a big part of NPR's future. But it still has to reckon with digital and it's doing so most recently with a smartphone app called 'NPR One.' Which delivers a stream of public radio content from NPR's as well as from local stations. Tell me about NPR One.
MOHN: Well. It's been hugely successful in terms of the initial uptake. The idea is that you download the app and then you can signify where you're listening so that you can content from the local radio station. If you're New York you tap WNYC, then what the app does is it starts to assemble a whole line-up of stories. You can skip them if you're not interested. If you think something is particularly interesting - it's not a 'like' button it's an interesting button. So the app learns the kinds of stories that you're interested in.
GARFIELD: The app is configured so that it's sensitive to the local station at your location. Is receiving local content in addition to NPR content organic or is it just something kind of bolted on to the app to kind of appease the member stations.
MOHN: No. We could go direct to the customer. And we could provide national news and international news and those interesting stories that provide driveway moments that people love. But local news is hugely important to anyone that's listening to public radio. We have to have partners. We have to be part of an ecosystem where we're providing some information, the stations providing a different set of information. So NPR One to be a success has to have that element.
GARFIELD: You've said you can generate a lot more underwriting revenue than NPR has been getting. That we've essentially been undervaluing our ad inventory considering the size and affluence of our audience. Which makes perfect sense but it also infuriates and terrifies some listeners who fear for NPR's independence and for its very soul. What can you say to talk them down?
MOHN: They're going to, as a listener, notice anything different. We're not talking about adding more units to each hour. The only thing that I think they might perceive differently is that we're going to be talking about brands that matter a little bit more to them. Ones they're interested in. And we're going to ask for larger commitments from these underwriters. If you look at the cumulative reach of NPR in a week, we reach just on terrestrial radio close to 30 million people. The audience is growing. It's not just affluent, it's a smart audience it's very engaged. What more could a brand want than this type of audience.
GARFIELD: As other news organizations face collapse of their business models. More and more in addition to whole new enterprises are turning to the NPR solution: corporate individual and foundation donors to underwrite a public good. Are we going to be cut-throat condition with ProPublica and the Texas Tribune and the like? Are we going to be going to the mattresses?
MOHN: (Laughs) I don't think we're going to be competing head-to-head with them. It's a tough thing to start from scratch. This is an organization that's been around for over 40 years. We've got 17 international bureaus. We've got 17 bureaus domestically. We've got 800 people. We have a sound news can be in some cases a commodity. Facts can be commodities. But storytelling in my view is not a commodity. As long as we continue to do what we've been doing and make it better. Be the best storytellers on the planet. I'm not worried about the competitive set at all.
GARFIELD: I want to ask you about our sound. Especially as it relates to our image. In some quarters and I'm speaking particularly of the Republican party, NPR is regarded as radio Havana, or radio Palestine. To some on the left, it's seen as a quisling media arm of the powers that be. And culturally it continues to be kind of a punchline. You know, you listen to NPR in your Birkenstocks while eating kale salad and sipping artisan chai. Are those various characters telling in any way? Do they need to be addressed? Or are they just simply the price of being an institution.
MOHN: (Laughs) I think, like many stereotypes, there was probably a time when that was not that off in terms of reality. But that, I believe, was a long time ago. We have a very diverse audience and our mission is to really make it more diverse and I'm not just speaking of diversity in the racial and ethnicity realm. That's a huge part of it of course. But it has to do with geographic diversity. Different accents on the air. Southern accents, Boston accents, diversity has to do with age. And also political points of view. Ideological points of view. It's probably take a long time for that stereotype to die, but that won't be the reality.
GARFIELD: Alright Jarl, I began this conversation with a whole laundry list of reasons why you're destined to fail and to go down in flames. What is going to happen?
MOHN: What's going to happen with NPR and public radio? I think it's more important now than it's ever been. Look what's happened with newspapers with a few exceptions the newspaper business is really a very damaged business and it's a very important community service. On cable television, whether ideologically left, or ideologically right, or very exploitative and sensationalistic there are very few places, I think that you can get knowledge-based, fact-based journalism. People know that's important and want that. The challenge has been the economics of the business. I don't think we've asked the right people for the right amount of money. I don't think we've stepped up and thought as expansively and as broadly as we can about ourselves. My number one job here is to make sure that the people that work at NPR or in public radio -- including the local stations -- have the money and the tools and the resources to do the best work that they've ever done in their career.
GARFIELD: Jarl, thank you very much. I wish you the best of luck.
MOHN: Thank you.
GARFIELD: Jarl Mohn is the CEO and President of NPR.