In Forcing Out Senior Executive, New CEO Mohn Puts Stamp On NPR
The ouster earlier this month of NPR's chief content officer, Kinsey Wilson, did little to stir outcry or concern among public radio listeners.
Yet because of Wilson's prominent role in seeking innovative ways for the network to flourish as the audience's habits shift, the announcement generated much attention and consternation inside the circles of digital journalism.
Wilson's departure may markedly, if not necessarily radically, shape the evolution of the public radio network for years to come. There appears to have been no Rosebud moment, no specific clash, that led NPR's new CEO, Jarl Mohn, to force him out. But the move, occurring as part of a larger shakeup of the network's top ranks, represents the most visible symbol yet of the influence that Mohn intends to exert at the company he joined in July.
This article is based on Mohn's public statements, an interview with Mohn and interviews with 10 people who have talked with both Wilson and Mohn about their aspirations for the network. They include current and former senior NPR executives as well as associates of both men.
"I don't like incremental growth," Mohn told staffers in a recent meeting. "I want to take advantage of what I see as transformative opportunities. ... My job is to make sure you have the tools and the resources and the money for you to do the best work of your careers."
Mohn, a highly successful former radio and television executive, is championing a vision of an even more robust NPR, built on the belief that he can work with local member stations to increase audiences of its mainstay radio programs. Morning Edition and All Things Considered garner estimated weekly audiences of about 12.3 million and 11.8 million listeners, respectively.
The newsmagazines are the pillars of the network's coverage, attracting the largest audiences, and they cement the network's appeal to many philanthropic funders, corporate underwriters and major donors. They also serve as the backdrop against which member stations raise money from listeners, a key component of their current revenue streams. In recent years, some public radio executives, including Wilson, concluded that the listenerships of the two shows had reached plateaus that would at best hold constant, especially as the average audience per quarter-hour for the shows has dipped by hundreds of thousands of listeners in recent years.
"I don't believe flat is the new up," Mohn told staffers. "Some people do."
Wilson did. Although he declined to be interviewed for this story, Wilson has previously argued that NPR should devote enough financial resources to sustain audiences of its traditional radio programming but invest new resources in cultivating greater audiences digitally.
Mohn is driven by data and is comfortable speaking in the demographic argot of the television and radio programmer he once was. He has sketched out his ambition for NPR to boost revenues greatly in the next three to five years, in large part by asking more — a lot more — of wealthy donors. He also said he wants to target Madison Avenue and double NPR's revenues from corporate underwriters. He said half of advertising buyers do not know their clients can pay for underwriting spots on NPR.
In the interview, Mohn argued that NPR has made a rhetorical mistake in stressing what it creates on the air and online as "content"; he prefers an emphasis on news. "That is at the core of what we do," Mohn told me, though he promised no retreat from NPR's entertainment shows and musical offerings.
Associates and colleagues of both men said no specific conflict led to Wilson's departure. Yet Mohn has repeatedly expressed a sense of urgency in taking steps to promote Morning Edition more vigorously in concert with member stations to yield a 10 percent rise in audience levels. He saw that initiative as a test case for the network that he intends to replicate with All Things Considered.
A former colleague said Wilson was taking steps to convene executives to address Mohn's goals. But Wilson's counterparts from other legacy news organizations have acknowledged the tension created by trying concurrently to fight off decline in their traditional audiences while trying to draw in more people digitally.
The arrival of a new CEO in the corporate world is often accompanied by changes in the executive levels. And Mohn cast Wilson's departure as the byproduct of a larger restructuring of NPR's top management, carried out after several months of study. He elevated NPR strategy executive Loren Mayor to become the network's chief operating officer and shifted NPR's nonnews programs under its chief marketing officer, Emma Carrasco. Mohn also stripped out the layer between the CEO and the top news executive, a position currently filled on an acting basis by All Things Considered Executive Producer Chris Turpin. Mohn has signaled that he expects the person who assumes that role permanently to act not just as the network's chief broadcast news executive but also as a dynamic digital leader.
That description in many ways fits Wilson, originally hired from the top ranks of USA Today to oversee digital media at NPR. He quickly assumed a leading role in mapping out a future for the network and its place in the larger public radio system, serving as a top lieutenant under a series of CEOs in short succession, including Dennis Haarsager, Vivian Schiller, Joyce Slocum, Gary Knell, Paul Haaga and until recently Mohn.
Wilson is credited with a major expansion of NPR's digital audience over time. During his six-year tenure at NPR, Wilson encouraged the development of NPR Music as a major force and led the creation of "NPR One," a Pandora-like public radio service that stitched together stories from disparate shows responsive to users' tastes. He struck distribution deals with Apple and car manufacturers. In addition, Wilson encouraged the creation of digital verticals to supplement radio coverage with a focus on specific topics, such as race and identity, education and global public health. Wilson built close ties with philanthropic supporters such as the Gates and Knight foundations to support those efforts.
Some colleagues at NPR and associates outside the network with whom he spoke described Wilson as a credible contender for the CEO position after Knell left to become the CEO of National Geographic. But several of Wilson's initiatives created friction with member station officials, some of whom feared NPR was seeking to supplant their direct relationships with listeners and donors as audiences move online. (Unlike broadcast television networks, NPR owns no stations in the U.S.) The initial iTunes deal with Apple raised hackles with many station executives as it represented the first time listeners could access NPR content without going through the stations, either on the air or online, and without accompanying station content. Some officials confided in one another that they feared these initiatives presaged NPR's desire, under Wilson's leadership, to go directly to listeners.
Charles Kravetz, the general manager of the influential Boston station WBUR, was one of the few station officials to step forward to say he feared public radio would suffer without Wilson.
"I believe that Kinsey Wilson is among a very small collection of truly brilliant digital futurists in the media world," Kravetz said in an interview. "I'm very disappointed that he's gone."
"Kinsey used all of his personal forces of nature, of intellect, of persuasive powers and tried and to a very large degree succeeded in moving public radio and NPR into the digital age in a very convincing, powerful way," Kravetz said. "When you do that, you're very disruptive."
Kravetz said he admired Mohn and said he was otherwise impressed with the new CEO's strategic thinking on NPR. But the Boston executive said he thought the reorganization left a key absence for the network that has yet to be filled.
In response to a question from an NPR staff member at the recent meeting, Mohn said Wilson would not be replaced by any one person. All NPR's executives need to act more decisively and more swiftly in propelling the network forward, he said.
Yet at that meeting, Mohn took pains to say there would be no grand shift in strategy. (Mohn's press aides said his remarks at the meeting were to be on the record, so I listened in.)
"Digital is our present," Mohn said. "It is also our future. We must be where our audiences are. I'm deeply committed to digital."
"Those of you interpreting these recent changes as a refutation of digital strategies — you couldn't be more wrong."
The next day, Mohn sent out an email to all staffers saying he made a mistake at that meeting by failing to acknowledge Wilson's accomplishments at NPR; Mohn called Wilson "a universally praised visionary" who deserved a standing ovation from his peers.
Some NPR staffers have also raised concerns over the placement of nonnews shows such as Wait Wait ... Don't Tell Me! the TED Radio Hour and Ask Me Another inside the portfolio of Carrasco, the chief marketing officer. In the interview, Mohn said that shift simply reflected ease of organizational structure, not part of any grand design for the shows to serve promotional ends. Carrasco is believed to be preparing to announce more specifics of how that will work in coming days.
Mohn's associates describe him as confident in his own ability to set an agenda in broad strokes and reluctant to delegate so much authority to a single executive below him. He got his start as a DJ under the name Lee Masters, became a programming executive in radio and then helped lead MTV and VH1 to establish themselves as cable television powerhouses. He later became CEO of the E! network.
In ensuing years, Mohn branched out into digital media, serving at various points on the corporate boards of XM Radio (now part of Sirius XM), Scripps Network Interactive, and the Web analytics company comScore. Mohn also served as chief executive of Liberty Digital, the investment wing of Liberty Media Corp., before spending a dozen years investing a significant portion of his own considerable private fortune in 45 digital media companies. He was also chairman of the board for Southern California Public Radio, which has also expanded its news coverage and digital footprint significantly for its terrestrial station, KPCC.
Mohn spelled all this out for staffers at the meeting following Wilson's departure, taking pains, as he explained it, to ensure they understood his own credibility and his belief in the need to prosper in the digital age.
Southern California Public Radio CEO Bill Davis, a former NPR executive and corporate director who is one of Mohn's chief allies within public broadcasting, sought to allay concerns about Mohn last week.
"Everything I know about Jarl suggests to me that he's going to focus on ensuring that there's a consistent user experience on all of NPR's platforms (broadcast, digital, mobile, social, live event), and that he's going to do everything in his power to ensure that the 'digital vs. radio' silos at NPR are dismantled," Davis wrote in a Facebook posting after Wilson's departure.
"I think that's what Kinsey was trying to accomplish as well," Davis wrote. "Reasonable folks can disagree as to whether Kinsey was successful in that effort, but I don't see this as any kind of change in NPR's strategic focus or direction."
Wilson's record in that digital space, especially at NPR, has been hailed as remarkable by many close observers of media innovation. Ken Doctor of Harvard University's Nieman Lab, for example, named Wilson one of 13 of the most influential executives in the country, in a list that also included billionaire media moguls Michael Bloomberg and Rupert Murdoch.
Now, it is Mohn's turn to own NPR's future.
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