PRPD, Day One: In keynote, Mohn issues promotion challenge

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PORTLAND, Ore. — Addressing the nearly 500 attendees of the Public Radio Program Directors conference, NPR CEO Jarl Mohn reassured attendees Tuesday that he would renew the network’s focus on radio programming and challenged them to take part in a systemwide experiment to boost listening to NPR’s newsmagazines.

“If we don’t get the radio part right, if we don’t get the terrestrial part right, if we don’t get broadcasting right, the rest of it isn’t going to make a difference,” Mohn told the crowd. “So you’re going to see from us, and from me, a renewed focus on the broadcasting side of the business.”

Closing the conference’s first day, Mohn used his keynote speech to give thumbnail grades of public radio’s performance in areas including news, promotion, programming and positioning. While he gave high marks to news and programming, he said the industry needed to work harder on promotion and on aggressively positioning and marketing its stations as go-to sources for news, information and entertainment.

In the promotion department, Mohn said, stations are trying to promote too many programs at once and should narrow their focus. From January to June, he suggested, stations should experiment with promoting upcoming broadcasts of Morning Edition on an hourly basis.

“We have to do this together,” he said. “We can get a 10 percent bump in ratings in six months. It can be done, there’s nothing magical here. It’s not tricky.”

Stations should also capitalize more on NPR’s brand and integrate it more frequently into their promotions, he said. NPR’s name is a powerful promotional tool that will boost rather than diminish a station’s identity, Mohn said.

“When I see stations not using the logo, or hiding it,” he said, “I don’t think that’s just stupid, it’s crazy.”

Befitting his appearance before a room of programmers, Mohn also used his time to affirm his credentials as a programmer accustomed to working with limited resources and finding ways to succeed regardless. The CEO started in radio at 15 and worked his way up to programming, management and ownership. After a lengthy stint in cable television, he moved into finance and went on to sit on a number of boards of directors, including serving as chair of Southern California Public Radio in Los Angeles.

During his speech, Mohn described successes and challenges in the cable television industry in which he headed up MTV, VH1 and E! Entertainment. He recounted a time early in his tenure as CEO of E! when he had only enough money in his budget for five half-hour shows, but he needed six to flesh out a three-hour slot. While jogging on a Santa Monica beach, he got the idea to use footage from talk shows of the day for a show. That became the hit program Talk Soup.

“Sometimes ideas come from really crazy places, and sometimes great ideas come from desperation,” he said.

His stories were intended not just to entertain the crowd but had a deeper purpose, he said.

“Hopefully, you don’t see these as quaint stories about the cable TV industry and programming,” he said. “I’m trying to use them to illustrate creative programming.”

Mohn, who has committed to leading NPR for at least five years, said he aims to work with stations to raise money, improve marketing and focus on programming.

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