They arrived as welcome surprises in the mailboxes of NPR stations around the country beginning in late January — notes with $1,000 donations enclosed and a simple request for a station coffee mug in return.
For most stations, the name on the note was a familiar one: Jarl Mohn, the California philanthropist who served as NPR CEO from 2014–19. As his 70th birthday approached in December, Mohn decided to make good on an idea he’d entertained while working at NPR: to become a member of every member station around the country, all 251 of them.
It’s not the first time Mohn has made contact with multiple stations. While running NPR, he flew around the country to visit stations, then followed that up with a road trip from coast to coast, stopping in at more than 100 pubcasters.
“I really met some terrific people. We have some amazing stories in almost every place we’ve gone. And, you know, my operating principle has always been that if we’re going to spend time together, we’re going to work together,” Mohn said. “Let’s try to learn a little more about each other and enjoy each other’s company. And then it becomes less about work. And it becomes more about our common interests, and in this particular case, the common interest of public radio and public service journalism, or in some cases, the music stations.”
Mohn enlisted the help of a former colleague, NPR SVP for Member Partnership Gemma Hooley, to put together a full list of station contacts and addresses.
“This really says everything you need to know about Gemma being an advocate for the stations,” Mohn said, “that the very first question out of her mouth was, ‘Are you going to become a sustaining member?’”
Mohn deliberately waited until mid-January to start sending out his letters so they wouldn’t get lost in the holiday shuffle. Almost immediately, the mugs started pouring in, more than 85 of them so far.
Does he have a favorite?
“That’s a very dangerous question for me,” Mohn said. “But I will tell you this: There are some incredible mugs. The ones that I’m getting the biggest kick out of are the ones that are handmade by potters”
One of those handmade offerings came from Oxide Pottery in Lynchburg, Va., which made 25th-anniversary mugs for WNRN in Charlottesville, Va. Hooley’s list directed Mohn’s donation to WNRN GM Mark Keefe.
“I just walked it over to my membership director and said, ‘This is interesting,’” Keefe said.
For a small station like WNRN, with a membership base of about 5,000 listeners and a staff of 14, Mohn’s donation makes a big difference, Keefe said.
“We’re one of the outliers in the system because we’re a full-time Triple A music station,” Keefe said, calling Mohn’s donation a “shot in the arm.”
“What it helps us to do is reinforce that we matter, and that we’re just as much a part of the NPR system as anybody who runs the regular information programming,” Keefe said.
The donation also reminded Keefe of his own connection to Mohn. When Keefe was growing up in Louisville, Ky., Mohn was in his early years as DJ “Lee Masters” on WLRS, the city’s progressive commercial rock station.
“It’s just one degree of separation,” Keefe said. “Here he’s giving our station $1,000, and that kid who listened to him on the air in Louisville is writing him a thank-you note saying, this is where good radio has ended up — in public [radio].”
“Because of this fun little gift that I sent his station and the beautiful mug he sent back, we now have this funny connection to Louisville,” Mohn said.
Another mug came from KTEP in El Paso, Texas, a market where Mohn had once lived and owned commercial radio stations. Others he’s admired have included handmade offerings from WNCW in Spindale, N.C.; WKMS in Murray, Ky.; and KVNF in Paonia, Colo.
It’s the handcrafted mugs that get the most attention from visitors to Mohn’s home, and he says there’s a good reason why they fit so well with public radio.
“Local public radio is very hand-crafted, too,” he said.
As the mugs keep arriving — sometimes as many as eight or 10 a day — he’s sometimes finding other goodies tucked inside as well, even though his letters asked stations to send only mugs to avoid overwhelming him with station swag.
“A couple of stations have sent me locally roasted coffee, which was really sweet,” he said. During a visit to WFDD in Winston-Salem, N.C., on one of his tours, station leaders turned him on to Moravian cookies, a local specialty that arrived again along with his WFDD mug.
More than anything, though, it’s the notes he gets from stations that make the project worthwhile.
“I cannot tell you what it does for me,” he said.
It’s the letters from small and medium-sized stations that please him the most, especially knowing how much his $1,000 checks can make a difference to their bottom lines.
Now that he’s on the membership roster of 251 stations, he’s found some unforeseen consequences.
“The emails! The emails are insane,” he said. “That’s one thing I didn’t think through. And I must already have 50 PBS Passports now from joint licensees.”
Then there’s the little matter of where to put hundreds of mugs.
“We have a beautiful wall in the kitchen. I had a carpenter in last week. And we’re going to build a display set of display shelves,” Mohn said. “It’ll probably take a while for all the mugs to get in there and the shelving to get done. It will be right by my breakfast nook, so I can have coffee every morning with every one of the mugs behind me.”
Scott Fybush works for member station WXXI, which received a Mohn donation and reciprocated with a blue “Go Public” mug. For his 50th birthday in March, he’s considering joining every station in his native New York state.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said that Mohn flew his private plane around the country visiting stations while serving as NPR’s CEO. Mohn does not fly planes or own a private plane. Michael Govan, director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, flew Mohn across the country in his Cherokee Bonanza single-propeller plane.