Frank Mankiewicz, a former NPR president credited with taking the fledgling network to new levels of professionalism while also overseeing its decline into near-bankruptcy, died of natural causes Oct. 23 at George Washington University Hospital in Washington, D.C. He was 90.
Mankiewicz led NPR from 1977-83 after a career in politics, during which he served as Robert Kennedy’s press secretary. It was Mankiewicz’s task to announce the assassination of the then-presidential candidate.
According to the Public Radio Archives at the University of Maryland, Mankiewicz also worked as a journalist, wrote four books and a syndicated column and delivered commentaries for television. He practiced law in California and ran the presidential campaign for Sen. George McGovern.
Mankiewicz joined NPR shortly after it merged with American Public Radio Service. Under his leadership, NPR strengthened its chops as a news organization and launched new products, including Morning Edition.
NPR owes much of its current success and stature in journalism to Mankiewicz, said Jack Mitchell, a former NPR board member and author of a history of public radio.
“He made NPR a news-centered organization, which is where it’s made its reputation ever since,” said Mitchell, also a professor of journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “He was a very strong personality, and polarizing, too, but you cannot deny his importance.”
Before Mankiewicz joined NPR, discussion centered on positioning NPR as an alternative to commercial radio. Talk within NPR and the public radio system focused on whether the network should focus on news or classical music.
“When Frank took over, though, the argument ended,” Mitchell said. “I remember his saying, ‘In my opinion, the best way to be an alternative is to do what the other guy does, but do it better.’ And that’s what NPR’s been doing ever since.”
“In my opinion, Frank did more than any other president, before or since, to raise NPR’s national visibility and cultural salience,” said David Giovannoni, who did audience research for NPR and later owned Audience Research Analysis before retiring in 2005. “During his tenure — and I would argue, in part because of it — NPR and its member stations emerged from a condition of relative obscurity into a network of marginal significance, on track to become a prime American source of responsible reporting.”
When Giovannoni started working at NPR in 1979, Mankiewicz put him in a nearby office to “keep an eye” on him, Giovannoni said. When the president had a question, he banged on the wall.
“He was a raconteur’s raconteur and an unwitting mentor,” Giovannoni said.
Mankiewicz’s savvy on Capitol Hill further helped to raise the organization’s stature, Giovannoni said, and he was the kind of leader who knew when to trust his employees instead of micromanaging.
“Although he was known to exercise hands-on interest in the network’s news operation, he delegated the creation of Morning Edition, Weekend Edition, and other programming — just as he delegated the financial oversight that, in an epic fail, caused his ouster,” Giovannoni said.
According to the Public Radio Archives, the launch of Morning Edition and other programs under Mankiewicz helped grow NPR’s audience from 4.5 million to 8.5 million listeners during his tenure, while also expanding NPR’s budget from $3.5 million to $24 million by 1980. That expansion ended up being the undoing of Mankiewicz and nearly NPR itself, according to Mitchell.
Mitchell attributed the financial problems under Mankiewicz in part to the president’s upbringing. The son of Herman Mankiewicz, who wrote Citizen Kane, he grew up among Hollywood luminaries.
“I think he never really had to worry about money in his life,” Mitchell said. “And that thinking carried over [to thinking] that there would always be money coming in.”
But NPR found itself deep in red ink around the same time that Ronald Reagan cut CPB funding. CPB ended up bailing out NPR, which had to cut staff to stay afloat. In 1983, NPR’s board forced Mankiewicz to resign.
“I’m sure it was very traumatic for him,” said Mitchell, who was on the board at the time. “I don’t blame him for the problems, but it was necessary for him to go — it was symbolic.”
After leaving NPR, Mankiewicz went into public relations in Washington, D.C, joining Hill+Knowlton Strategies. Colleagues at the firm also remember him as someone who changed the organization.
“Frank was in a league of his own as a professional and as a public servant,” said Hill+Knowlton Chairman Tom Hoog in a statement. “And more than any other individual in Hill+Knowlton’s history, he helped shape the character of our firm.”
Mankiewicz is survived by his wife, Patricia O’Brien; sons Josh and Ben Mankiewicz; four stepdaughters; and nine grandchildren.