With Congress often hovering and threatening to withdraw the network's funding, the president's slot at NPR has been a hot seat in recent years, concedes current jobholder Jarl Mohn. But with his smart ideas and right attitude, and lots of money in the bank, this Bucks County native, now 63, isn't letting the stress get to him.
"I'm about to celebrate my first anniversary, and have committed to a minimum of five years," Mohn said Thursday with WXPN on-air personality and conference producer Dan Reed in a one-on-one chat at the noncommercial radio broadcasters' meeting, Non-COMMvention, at WXPN/World Cafe Live. "One of the things that helps me with this job is that I don't really need it. Someone gave me the perfect sign that now hangs in my office. It reads, 'You can't hurt me.' "
At NPR, which has 26 million radio listeners and more than 30 million unique visitors a month online, Mohn's biggest success so far has been in marketing the heck out of Morning Edition.
"Public radio has a lot going on, and the tendency is to want to promote it all," he said. "But that dilutes the messages and the brand." So he persuaded "a bunch but not all NPR stations" to commit to a concept he called the "Spark Project" - a super-focused promotion "of just two or three elements appearing on Morning Edition - with promos repeating about 100 times a week - a lot to ask."
The results? "Ratings for KPPC in Los Angeles are up 30 percent in morning drive. KUT in Austin, Texas, is now No. 1 in the market. Other stations are up as much as 70 percent. In overall ratings, our 'control group' of stations that haven't gone along with the concept are down 13 percent, while those that went with Spark are up 2 percent. Hey, 'Haters gonna hate.' "
Clearly a rebellious and fun-loving character, Mohn grew up in a household "without radio or TV, because my father, a University of Penn professor of English, wouldn't allow it."
Yet, this child of the 1950s still managed to sneak in plenty of hours "listening to WIBG and WFIL in Philadelphia, WABC and WNBC in New York," and learned enough about delivery and music to land his first on-air gig at WBUX in Doylestown when he was a mere 15.
"Jarl Mohn" (sounds like "yarl moan") being not the greatest radio handle, he identified himself on air as Lee Masters, a name that stuck when he later moved here to WRCP (Real Country Radio) in Philly, then as king of the hill in the early 1970s at WAMS-AM in Wilmington, before heading off to stations north, south, and west - including a "disastrous" gig in New York City competing against his main idol, Dan Ingram. "You could get the real thing on WABC or the imitation Ingram voice on WNBC. Guess who won?"
In 1979, at age 26, Mohn bought his first (of eventually several) AM and FM stations, in El Paso, Texas, for $875,000. "The FM was rated 18th in a market with 17 stations. Seriously. The on-air talent had great voices, but they were all crazies - alcoholics and druggies - and the station's Renegade Country format was really out there. So we changed that to straight-ahead country and took the town by storm."
Later Mohn/Masters triumphs would include launching the E! Entertainment television channel with shows like Talk Soup and shepherding MTV in a significant growth-spurt period (1987-88) sparked by its belated embrace of rap. "I get the credit for putting Yo! MTV Raps on the air," said Mohn, "but my real talent has always been in taking others' ideas and running with them, learning to adapt out of pure desperation."
Like other traditional media, NPR finds itself competing with myriad newer options - satellite and Internet radio, podcasts, YouTube.
"There's a myth that millennials don't listen to the radio," he said, "but in the last seven days, 90 percent have. The difference is that people don't listen as much. The average time spent in a week used to be 23 hours. Now it's down to 10 hours and 15 minutes."
What's the highest priority on Mohn's agenda? "I want to raise a billion dollars for public radio - $500 million for local, $500 [million] for NPR. So, if Congress changes radically, if there's another rascal in the White House, there'll be enough dough in the coffers to keep things going."