Q&A: Mohn leads NPR into ‘golden age of spoken word’

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Mohn describes collaborating with stations as one of his top priorities: “Collaboration across any discipline is a good thing — whether it’s marketing, fundraising or content production.” (Photos: Ben Mook, Current)

Mohn describes collaborating with stations as one of his top priorities: “Collaboration across any discipline is a good thing — whether it’s marketing, fundraising or content production.” (Photos: Ben Mook, Current)

Jarl Mohn has had radio in his blood since he first took to the airwaves as a 15-year-old DJ in Doylestown, Pa. After working his way up into management, cable television and, later, venture capital, Mohn returned to radio last July as the new c.e.o. of NPR.

When he signed on as president, Mohn took over an organization that had undertaken deep staff reductions and other cuts and was still working toward its goal to hit a break-even budget by fall 2015. To realign itself for the new fiscal discipline, the network had implemented a voluntary buyout of staff and had canceled Tell Me More, a weekday show focused on news topics related to people of color.

During his first six months in the job, Mohn has made a few big moves of his own. Last October he named a new chief operating officer as part of a restructuring that squeezed out Chief Content Officer Kinsey Wilson. He also launched an initiative to boost listening to Morning Edition with heavy on-air promotion of the show.

Mohn’s background in media includes managing and owning radio stations, working as a program director, managing VH1 and MTV, and holding the chief executive job at E! Entertainment. As a venture capitalist, he has worked with a number of tech startups, and in public media he has had a long involvement with Southern California Public Radio, where he chaired the board of directors.

Mohn sat down with Senior Editor Ben Mook last month for an interview in his office at NPR’s headquarters in Washington, D.C.

This transcript has been edited.

Current: You’ve been on the job for almost seven months now and seem to be off to a running start with the launch of Invisibilia. What’s your outlook for introducing more new shows?

Mohn: We are ecstatic about Invisibilia for a number of reasons. First, we’ve gotten an incredible reception from member stations. It’s been picked up by 306 stations, and the count is growing.

I’ve been told that’s the largest single launch of any particular show that NPR has done. We are delighted with that.

In addition, the consumer response that’s been measured through all the social platforms has been pretty remarkable as well. And then in just one day it became the number one podcast on iTunes.

The number of podcast downloads through the end of January was more than 4 million.

Current: NPR created collaborative partnerships to produce Here & Now and TED Radio Hour. What’s your view on the collaborative production model?

Mohn: Collaboration across any discipline is a good thing — whether it’s marketing, fundraising or content production. When we have more great creative minds working on it, I think the result is going to be better. All of us here are very committed to collaborating across as many initiatives as we can, including fundraising.

Current: Before you arrived, there was a lot of talk about Here & Now as the collaborative model that NPR needed for any new show. Invisibilia originated and launched from within NPR. Do you see that as a kind of one-off? Or are you open to NPR being the sole producer of more shows in the future?

Mohn: There are a number of possible business models for any show. NPR operating as the sole producer is one of them, and some will probably surface that way. Others will be produced through partnerships with member stations, and then probably there will be some that we just distribute and don’t really have any financial stake in.

We don’t want to be locked in to any one business model. If we are, it limits our chances for finding the next real big gem. We want to be very open to any approach.

Current: Are you saying there are more new shows coming up?

Mohn: Oh yeah, absolutely, we’re committed to that. The health of NPR and member stations is all about creating great, compelling content — whether it’s news or cultural content, or something scientifically oriented like Invisibilia. That’s our mission. You’ll see a lot of new shows and ideas coming from us.

Current: Listenership during midday has been a concern for some station programmers. How has Here & Now been performing, audience-wise?

Mohn: I don’t know the market-by-market numbers of the show, but during the average week, nearly 3.5 million people listened to Here & Now last spring.

We love the program. We think it’s well done. We’ve got a terrific partnership and collaboration with WBUR on that.

Current: Touching on the changes made to the newsmagazine clocks, station programmers were hoping for more changes to All Things Considered, and it was Morning Edition that ended up getting the heavier revisions. What attention is NPR giving to freshening up ATC?

Mohn: I wasn’t here for the discussion on the clocks, and don’t know how the changes evolved for either Morning Edition or All Things Considered. So I can’t speak to that.

But we are in the process of searching for a senior vice president of news. Once that person is in, one priority for the job will be looking across everything that we do in news, and certainly looking at All Things Considered.

Everything we do — every program across the board — is going to be constantly evaluated based on the data, the feedback and the consumer response. We’ll look at ratings so that we can optimize every program for ourselves and our member stations.

Current: Are you thinking like more of an iterative model, where evaluation is ongoing?

Mohn: I have this joke about when I was in the commercial radio business. It was not unusual just to walk into the control room with a new clock, tape it up and take the old one down. And then the personality would say, “When does that start?” And the answer was: “Now.” (Laughs.)

The nine-month process for the clock review is a bit laborious, but it was a big change. We really wanted to work closely with the member stations because there is a whole range of interests from the stations. Some are very heavily into local news, especially in the larger markets, and those in the medium and small markets have different sets of needs. We have to be as responsive as we can to everybody.

‘News is our priority’

In his first major appearance as NPR c.e.o., Mohn plays up his radio credentials in a keynote speech to the Public Media Development and Marketing Conference in Denver.

In his first major appearance as NPR c.e.o., Mohn plays up his radio credentials in a keynote speech to the Public Media Development and Marketing Conference in Denver.

Current: With a pending hire of the senior v.p. of news, how do you see that role changing under the restructuring you did last fall? The position now reports directly to you. Does that mean that you monitor news coverage?

Mohn: The biggest signal I sent with that reporting-structure change was that news is this organization’s single greatest priority. That’s why the senior v.p. of news reports to me. I also tried to signal that by hiring Elizabeth Jensen as ombudsman and public editor.

I want everyone in this building, at our member stations and in our audience to know that news is our priority here. Chris Turpin is our senior v.p. of news right now, and he knows it is our priority.

When news of the Ebola crisis in Africa broke this summer, we recognized that we needed to commit resources to covering it because a lot of other people weren’t there.

Chris also came to me and said, “We don’t have enough money in the budget to really do the kind of job we should do for the next presidential election cycle.”

We have to begin gearing up for that, because a lot will happen this year. I said, “Tell me what you need and you’ll get it.” That’s our commitment.

I’m not involved in any of the editorial decision-making. There is a firewall between me, as the c.e.o. of the organization, and the editorial decisions of the senior v.p. of news. It’s not my job to weigh in on editorial decisions. I have not and will not go there.

As I see it, my job is to make sure they have everything they need to produce the best explanatory fact-based journalism in the country.

Current: What are you looking for in candidates for the next news chief?

Mohn: First and foremost, this person has got to be a great journalist. News credentials come first. The person also must be a great leader.

It’s a tough thing to manage any newsroom. You know, journalists are a skeptical  — dare I say cynical? — breed. So we need someone who is tough enough to make sure the right things get done and get done well and also open and flexible enough to be a collaborative team leader.

We also need someone who appreciates the power of great storytelling. You can be a great journalist without necessarily knowing how to craft a well-told story. As a news organization this is our “secret sauce,” so that’s a skill we’re looking for.

Current: How are you conducting the search? Are you looking for someone inside or outside of public radio?

Mohn: We’re looking everywhere. We are casting as wide a net as we can: newspapers, public radio, magazines, television. We’ve covered the waterfront, and we’ve also got internal candidates who I think are terrific and highly qualified.

Current: Where are you in the process?

Mohn: A search committee is presenting finalists to me by the end of this month [January].

Reaching minority audiences

Current: Another programming decision that came down before you arrived last year was the cancellation of Tell Me More. What do you think NPR can do to improve its broadcast reach and relevance to the minority audiences that were targeted by Tell Me More?

Mohn: I’m happy with the solution that the team came up with for that. Having Michel Martin and her team work across all of our platforms — digital and broadcast — is a terrific approach. You hear her quite frequently now in Morning Edition and All Things Considered. She’s reaching a lot more people than she was reaching before. We hope to do more of that.

She’s also just an amazing talent in a live format as well as in person. We’ve started producing town hall meetings — such as the one she did for St. Louis Public Radio around the protests in Ferguson, Mo. — and a number of stations picked that up.

Current: Do you see a need to come up with a new show, maybe not like Tell Me More, but one that targets that audience?

Mohn: I’ve never been a fan of that approach. I don’t think it works. I’ve observed what KPCC has done with Take Two, and that works.

Pairing A Martinez and Alex Cohen has brought a whole new audience, turning new listeners on to public radio and bringing them to shows in other dayparts. That approach is a bigger win for everybody.

All of our programs should be infused with different voices, and that’s not just about race. It has to do with age, geography and politics. We have to have a patchwork of all these things.

When we separate different voices and viewpoints out into individual shows, they don’t do well.

Current: Initially, introduction of Take Two was fairly tough going for KPCC. Was that an easy decision to make?

Mohn: No, but it worked out beautifully. I was pleasantly surprised. Usually surprises aren’t good. This was a good one.

Current: You’ve said that you want news programming to be first and foremost in NPR’s priorities. What does that mean for other programs?

Mohn: We want to excel with all of our programming and all of our content. One of the mistakes a lot of businesses make is trying to do 12 things at once and do them well. I’ve seen it a lot, especially with startups in the venture-capital world, but also with larger media companies and within this organization.

In terms of our best practices and really improving our services, my goal is to do one thing at a time, make sure we really have it nailed, and then move on to the next one. That’s what we’re doing with the Spark initiative promoting Morning Edition. We’re going to really get behind that show and do everything we can to enhance it. Then we’ll move to All Things Considered.

I don’t know the next step after that, but there will be one. It’s going to be continual improvement across each of our shows: the storytelling, hosting, production and marketing — every element.

Current: What do you see for the future of NPR Music?

Mohn: I see a lot of opportunities there. With NPR Music and any other category of our content, I look for the areas in which we can win. I believe that very strongly we have to be a leader in a specific genre, whether it’s adult alternative, alt-Latino, classical or jazz.

We’re in the process of examining where we really want to place our bets with NPR Music. I’m encouraged by the leadership of NPR Music and the people in that group who have done some wildly creative things. They’ve gotten a lot of buzz and word-of-mouth promotion.

The Tiny Desk Concerts are a thing of beauty; they are remarkable.

Current: NPR launched a live-events series featuring Michel Martin and others and produced with local stations. During the Super-Regional meeting last fall, there was a lot of talk that the events haven’t really gone off well. The phrase I heard was that they’re “not ready for primetime.” What’s your assessment?

Mohn: Some of the live events that we’ve done have gone badly. Because of the criticisms we’ve heard from stations and the results that we saw, we’re re-analyzing our approach.

We believe, deeply and strongly, that working with member stations to produce live events is a very important part of our business strategy. We’re going to learn from our mistakes and improve.

I don’t know exactly when we’ll decide on a different approach. It’s still a work in progress.

Balancing goals for broadcast, digital

Current: You’ve talked a lot about over-the-air broadcasting as the primary way that people access NPR — and as the key to station success. How do you balance your goals to strengthen that service with the demand to keep developing digital content and services?

Mohn: I’ve almost always stated that we have to do both. As I’ve said, digital is not the future; it’s the present and the future. During November — I don’t have metrics from December yet — 31.5 million unique visitors came to NPR.org. That’s a huge number, and we know it’s only going to grow. Look at the incredible success of Serial and now Invisibilia. We now know that podcasting is going to be huge.

We are in the golden age of the spoken word, whether it’s about news, culture or science. Some of it’s going to be on broadcast, and some will be digital. It’s not an either-or. The radio listeners and digital users aren’t making either-or choices.

For them, it’s an à la carte world, selected from radio, mobile phones and laptops. It really just boils down to resource allocation, but we have to play all those games.

Current: Do you think that previously NPR neglected over-the-air broadcasting at the expense of digital?

Mohn: Maybe to an extent. We didn’t have the relationship with the stations that we should have had. Our member stations are incredibly important to us.

I’m a station guy, but I’m also a digital guy. I’ve spent the last 16 years of my career on the digital side, including with digital media start-ups. That’s a big part of my DNA, but my heritage is broadcasting. I have tried to let the stations know how important they are to us.

Current: When I was prepping for this interview, I came across a prediction that Vivian Schiller had made when she was NPR’s c.e.o. She said that Internet radio would be replacing terrestrial radio within ten years. We’re now five years into that decade. What’s your prediction about the future of terrestrial vs. Internet radio?

Mohn: Broadcast radio is the cockroach of media. You can’t kill it. You can’t make it go away, it just gets stronger and more resilient.

That doesn’t mean that I see digital radio as a passing fad. It’s for real. I’m a huge Spotify user. I think it’s a great service, but I use broadcast too.

Two things are happening. One is the great technological innovations that give people more ways to expose themselves to media — on-demand television, on-demand radio, streamed radio. This convenience brings increased usage; podcasts are certainly a great example of that.

Another is the decline of commercial radio. It’s suffering right now, in part because of the incredible consolidation and cost-cutting that has occurred in the business. There’s less room for creativity, innovation and local relevance. Most often, it’s not live. People have become less interested in it.

Over-the-air commercial radio is not as good as it can be. That’s one of the reasons why I’m wildly optimistic about public radio — because public radio is committing money to being local and live. And many stations are investing in journalism.

Rollout of NPR One

Current: NPR One was in the works before you arrived. How do you see it evolving?

Mohn: Along the path as initially envisioned. We’re getting a lot of feedback, and there have been some really wonderful surprises.

We’re learning what people like, what they skip over at various times of the day. It’s interesting information that can be used in shaping our broadcast programming.

We will continue to get better at personalizing it, which was the whole idea behind NPR One. It’s going to become more finely tuned to individual listeners or users. To the extent that we can continually get better at that, the more successful we’ll be.

There’s no question about mobile’s importance to our future. When I look at our digital analytics, there are some days when more people come to us via mobile devices than over a laptop or a tablet. In some cases, laptop and tablet combined.

Current: The initial launch of NPR One was soft, and a big marketing push was to follow sometime later. Is that in the works?

Mohn: Yes — I’m meeting with the NPR One team to discuss our next steps. There are some enhanced features we want to add. They want to make sure it’s bulletproof before we turn the fire hose on with full launch.

We also wanted to be sure that more local stations can feed their content into it.

We need to have more stations contributing and uploading their content so NPR One can become more relevant.

We’re providing great national and international coverage, but for the service to really work we have to have our local partners — our member stations — contributing.

Current: I know some stations didn’t have the capacity to upload their local content. Have you been able to work through that process?

Mohn: One of the biggest issues is that many stations don’t have the manpower to handle the uploads. This has improved dramatically, but we still need to have a lot more local content to make the service as powerful as it can be.

Current: What is your measure of success for NPR One?

Mohn: I don’t know that I have one right now. As digital and mobile uses of audio become more predominant and more people use NPR One, we’ll be able to customize it and better serve our users. People will stay on it and listen longer.

We’ve learned a lot about story sequencing from the feedback we’ve gotten on NPR One. We have an A-feed and a B-feed. The stories are identical, but we serve them in different orders. We find that people will listen longer with creative sequencing of the pieces.

Station buy-in for Spark promotions

Current: What is the participation level in the Spark initiative, NPR’s effort to increase listenership of Morning Edition through heavy on-air promotion?

Mohn: I’m delighted by that. Ninety percent of the stations airing Morning Edition are participating in Spark. That includes stations in 48 of the top 50 markets.

That says a lot about the level of interest and engagement of member stations. This is something that is really going to benefit them as well as us.

When I conceived this idea, my goal was to get 20 to 25 percent of stations to participate. That would have been a home run because it would have been a significant enough sample. Once I had results from that program, I could go back to everybody and say, “These are the stations that did it, and this is what happened.” Then we’d get a lot more people onboard to do it for All Things Considered.

I heard a couple of criticisms very early on. A few people thought that big stations weren’t going to go for it. I was able to say, “Well, that’s not true,” and rattle off the stations that were in.

Almost all of them are in. This is one of the rare ones where there was a lot of buy-in across the board.

Everybody in the system recognizes that promotion works. There have been a whole range of issues about why it was or wasn’t done in the past. We just had to be creative, think through them and come up with solutions.

Current: Beyond station participation, what will be your measure for success for the promotions?

Mohn: The goal is to improve the ratings. I’m targeting a 5 to 10 percent increase on the stations that are running the promotions, but I think it’s going to vary. Some stations will go up 20 percent, others 5 percent. There will probably be some that will go down because of other factors.

Reaching beyond goals for break-even budget

Current: You’ve said that one of your goals as NPR president is to fundraise from individuals and major donors and bring in somewhere in the neighborhood of about a billion dollars. Have you been able to make any progress on that so far?

Mohn: No, that’s one of the things I’m hoping to do during my tenure, but we have to lay the groundwork with our member stations.

We’ve had very, very positive conversations with stations about collaborative fundraising. It’s much like the reaction to the “Spark” program, but we don’t have a formal plan that’s been approved by the board of directors yet. We are looking into what it will take to do this.

That statement was really meant as my personal commitment to the system. I would like to raise a lot of money for the stations and for NPR, but nothing has been approved by the board. Actually, it hasn’t even been officially discussed with the board.

Current: And as for the budget for this fiscal year, are you still on track for breaking even on the last quarter?

Mohn: Yes. Our goal for the year that ends in September is to get to a break-even budget. We’ve made our first-quarter projections. Second quarter is on fire — it’s fabulous. It’s too early for us to opine about Q3 and Q4, but I have a high degree of confidence that, short of some macroeconomic situation going south, we will break even in 2015.

Current: What is the trend in corporate underwriting?  

Mohn: It’s doing just remarkably well. You know Bryan Moffett is interim c.e.o. of National Public Media. We also named him general manager, so he’ll remain in that role when we hire a chief executive. Bryan is loved and deeply respected. He’s a very energetic and upbeat guy and has gotten everybody to work together well.

I was a little bit panicked about the pressure to perform in underwriting when I first got here, but we’ve got great interim leadership and the numbers are looking fabulous. I’m wildly optimistic.

Current: Assuming you hit your break-even target at the end of the year, where do you go from there? A lot of the break-even planning was allotted to cutting capital costs —  buyouts and things like that. How do you keep going?

Mohn: For the immediate term, the first goal is to get the organization on solid financial footing so it’s not losing money. I’m very confident we will get that done in 2015.

The next step is to create some kind of reserves so that we have dry powder when the economy goes sideways, as it inevitably will at some point. Hopefully, it will be stable for a while.

For individual donor fundraising and institutional giving, there’s great potential there, but it will take time to build out. We’ll do that fundraising along with our member stations, and it’s going to improve the quality of our public service and our journalism. We’ll be better able to market ourselves and our member stations.

Because of the hardships that have occurred here over the years, I would love to be able to make sure that this place is set and financially secure for two or three decades. That’s what I’d like.

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