President and CEO of National Public Radio Jarl Mohn is on a coast-to-coast road tour of member stations. He stopped in Atlanta recently and spoke with WABE’s "Morning Edition" host Denis O’Hayer on the business model of public radio, digital media and the future of the network.
“I think if you attempt to make everybody happy, you probably fail,” Mohn said. “I think what we have to do is not overly complicate things. We have to think about what sounds good, what sounds right, what fits with our brand and what sounds like the future.”
Mohn said the network isn’t trying to find exact replicas of shows that have new hosts or hosts who are retiring like "A Prairie Home Companion" and "The Diane Rehm Show," but is experimenting with different sounds that fit the brand. He said it will require giving shows longer than the six-month test runs most traditional media outlets allow.
“It is a hell of a challenge. It’s very difficult to do,” Mohn said. “Because every one of those shows, which are big monster hits, took years to develop. They were not overnight hits. None of them were. They took time to develop. So there are a lot of ideas out there and if we discover that idea tomorrow or this afternoon, it’s probably going to take years before we can really see the success.”
Mohn started his career as a DJ in 1967 before joining MTV as an executive in 1986. He later created E! Entertainment Television, spent time at VH1, CNET and served on the board of XM Radio.
On what NPR does well
"I think and what I aspire to – is great journalism, great news gathering and very good story-telling. I think the more great storytelling we can do, stories that are from around the world that are really, really important but sometimes hard to make engaging and stories for people to connect with, the better job we do of storytelling."
On his NPR fantasy
"We want to have that magic and, you know, there’s the reputed driveway moments. It’s the benchmark: someone not being able to get out of their car. My fantasy in life is that the entire world, people sitting in their driveways. Not getting out of their cars because it’s one story after another that they can’t stop listening to. So it’s a, it’s a beautiful fantasy. Maybe, maybe someday.
"We’re trying to get out more. Out of the studios in Washington and New York and in L.A. and Steve Inskeep did a week in Appalachia. He was back in Georgia. We had him at your studios. We want to do more of that. I think the more we’re out of the studio and in the communities, that adds an incredible layer of richness to the storytelling we do."
On the NPR brand not being perceived as an older, white audience
"That is the long-lasting perception of the way many people have thought of us. We’re working hard, in addition to keeping the core, that’s listening to us happy, growing the audience. So when I talk about what the future of NPR is, you know, we’ve added hosts: Kelly McEvers in 'All Things Considered' and Ari Shapiro are great, new young voices. We’re putting Rachel Martin on 'Morning Edition,' Lulu Garcia-Navarro in 'Weekend Edition Sunday.' The sound of the podcasts – Sam Sanders and Domenico Montanaro covering politics. I still think it’s an NPR sound because it’s substantive, it’s great news, it’s great content. But it’s a very different, kind of informal, conversational kind of voice, so I think that is the future sound of the network."
On embracing podcasts and digital media
"Podcasting is a huge part of our business. NPR One is a big part of our business. NPR.org is a big part of our business. We’re on the Amazon Alexa platform – you get NPR news there. I actually think that consumers are very sophisticated. They use many devices, platforms, apps. They use television, they use radio, they like podcasting.
"So we need to make really compelling content, tell great stories across all of them. I just looked at month of September. It was our highest month in audience levels for podcasts, biggest month for NPR One and it was our biggest month for NPR.org."
On finding the future sound of NPR
"The goal of replacing any of these shows that have been on for a long time – whether it’s 'Prairie Home Companion' or 'Car Talk' or 'Diane Rehm' – if we attempt to replicate that sound, we will fail because they were really unique sounds and really unique voices. We need to find something new and it’s likely that anything that is going to replace any of those shows is probably going to sound very, very different. Because, it’s got to be authentic, it’s got to be real and it has to be itself. It has to stand on its own. And it’s likely that it’s going to take time to find its audience. "