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NPR's New CEO Hopes To Improve Diversity At The Network


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. As you may have heard, our last program is this Friday, August 1.

Over the course of the week, we'll be having conversations with many of the people we counted as our regulars over the years. But we are going to start off the week by looking forward to the future of NPR.

As you may know, Jarl Mohn became the president and CEO of NPR on July 1. He is no stranger to the world of media. He was the founding president and CEO of the media investment company Liberty Digital. Before that, he was a senior executive at MTV and VH1. He helped found and lead E! Entertainment Television. He also spent quite a few years as an on-air DJ. His on-air name was Lee Masters and he has been serving most recently as chair of Southern California Public Radio.

But he's taken on his current position at a difficult time. Budget problems led NPR to make cuts to its newsroom, which included our program. This has raised many questions about the network's commitment to diversity at the network and how the organization can rebound from much recent management turnover and budget troubles. And Jarl Mohn was kind enough to join us now in our Washington, D.C. studios. He took the long trip downstairs to talk more about his goals as NPR's new leader.

Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

JARL MOHN: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: So were you drafted or did you volunteer?

MOHN: I was asked to serve and I thought, wow, this would be great. This is really an important thing and important to me, too.

MARTIN: What made you want to take on this challenge at this point in your life? I mean, you could be forgiven if you just wanted to, you know, sit on your porch and drink iced tea, or - you've already done a lot of things in your career - keep riding your mountain bike.

MOHN: And I was doing a lot of that. But I was engaged for the last 12 years, although not in a day-to-day doing any one specific thing; I was doing 20 things. A handful of which were not for profits. And of all the things I did, from the investments, to my mountain biking, to not-for-profit work, the thing that I got most pleasure out of was being involved with KPCC, in Southern California Public Radio. I was involved there for 12 years. I got more out of it personally, so when this came up and I was asked about it, the light went off in my head and I said, I have to do this.

MARTIN: What do you think is your most important skill or experience that you bring to this enterprise?

MOHN: Well, most important skill - I think, like you, I like to listen to people. I like to talk to people. And I think the great successes I've had in my career are the result of collaboration and working with people and finding solutions. So I think that would probably be the thing that is most appropriate and meaningful here.

MARTIN: It's been reported that NPR's still running a budget deficit going into the 2014 fiscal year. Is there something that listeners should make of this is, is there something that the audience should be thinking about?

MOHN: Well, for this year - the year we're currently in - yes. But for the year ahead, the budget deficits have been fixed. So again, that's the plan on paper. We have to make it happen.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with NPR's new president and CEO Jarl Mohn. We're talking about him a little bit and also talking about his plans for moving the organization forward.

So obviously, on this program we have a particular interest in the whole question of diversity in the media and more broadly, diversity in the country.

MOHN: Yes. Yes.

MARTIN: You said that you believe this organization has a commitment to diversity. Obviously, some people question that. So what makes you say that?

MOHN: (Laughing) I believe it to be true. I really do. Could we be doing more, should we be doing more? Yes, absolutely. Will we be doing more? Absolutely. But if you compare us to our peers or our colleagues in media, general, I think we're a leader already. That's not an excuse not to do more. I want us to be, by far, the leader in media and diversity.

MARTIN: And what does that mean?

MOHN: Well, I think it means a couple of things. The first is in terms of who we hire - what does our staff look like? And we need to set the standard for what hiring is in public media - well, in all media, not just public media. That's the first piece. I think if we get that right, if we move in the right direction and we improve that, the next thing that changes is content. Because now we have different voices, we have different points of view. And I think the points of view are probably more important than the voices.

We have different names. That impacts the way the content sounds and that changes the third piece, which is the audience. We want the audience to be representative of the United States. Now, not everybody's going to listen to public radio. But I'm talking about people that are engaged, people that vote, people that are interested in the news. There are some people that are not. I don't think were going to get those people. But we can widen the circle.

MARTIN: So obviously, we're not going to relitigate the decision around this program because that would be pointless, but on the subject of diversity in regards to this program, the New York Times quoted you as saying, "It was probably right. Diversity has to make sense in the business context."

What does that mean?

MOHN: It means that we should not just do diversity content if it doesn't ultimately make business sense.

MARTIN: But what does that mean? I mean, a lot of people think news doesn't make business sense. I mean, if you were...

MOHN: I would argue with them.

MARTIN: ...OK. OK. Right.

MOHN: But I really believe diversity can make sense. And I think it will make sense if done properly. And that means that the whole organization has to get behind it. You know, the idea of doing individual shows for individual audiences - as a programmer - does not work for me. I think, kind of, the plan that's now afoot for you and for your team - having a greater presence on Morning Edition, having a greater presence on All Things Considered, I think serves everybody in a big way. Because it's introducing to - an already successful show, an already successful, large audience - and giving the opportunity for more people to feel like that programming is for them.

MARTIN: The ombudsman - the out-going ombudsman - published an analysis of racial diversity at NPR in connection with the complaints that he'd gotten, or the - let's just say the reaction that he got from many people in the audience, related to this program. You know, a number of people quarrel with his analysis in a number of areas. I don't know if you...

MOHN: I read it, I did.

MARTIN: ...Read his analysis. Is there anything about it that struck you?

MOHN: Yeah. Actually, couple of things. And I read it a few times because I'm just trying to acquaint myself with, you know, what the data is. The first thing that struck me was, if you look at the benchmarks that are out there, whether it's comparing the newsroom here at NPR with the newsroom of the Wall Street Journal, or the LA Times, or the Washington Post, or the New York Times, this organization does a good job. It really does do a good job. Is a perfect? Absolutely not. There are some areas that we are really far behind on, particularly Latinos. And we have to improve.

So my first comment was, a lot of people have been flogging themselves. And the important thing is to say what we've done well or reasonably well to date, and what kind of guidelines or benchmarks do we want to set for ourselves? What kind of aspirations do we want to set for ourselves? Because we have to set higher aspirations.

So my first take-away on that was, we're doing a lot better than I thought we were. And now what I want to understand is, what's the right construct for us to look at to determine - have we succeeded? Are we getting closer to success? Are we moving in the right direction and are we moving fast enough?

MARTIN: One of the findings of - again, a number of people quarrel with the ombudsman's metrics that he selected, and I take it that you question some of them as well - but one of the findings was that a 87 percent of NPR listeners overall are white. And that's 15 percent higher than in the general population. And I just wanted to ask why you think that is?

MOHN: Well, I think it's a process. I don't think we're going to change that number until we change the number inside. I think we have to start there. I don't think it's possible to get a diverse audience unless the people that are creating the shows, creating the points of view, raising the topics, raising the issues are here doing that work. We have to have that first.

MARTIN: But you already pointed out that compared to other newsrooms that you are aware of there seems to be a - I'm going to take your word for it because I know what's going in my staff - but there already seems to be a more diverse workforce here than exists in a number of other media outlets. So what's the problem? Is it a leadership problem? Is it the fact that the people are here but they don't have enough agency to actually get things done? What's the issue? What's the problem?

MOHN: Well, I would have to look at the audience composition of those other institutions as well. If we're going to compare the staffing levels of NPR to, say, the New York Times - and we know what our audience composition is - I don't know the audience compositions of the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal or the Washington Post or the LA Times - then I can say what's the gap between the staffing and the audience? So I don't know that we're doing better or worse. I know we're doing better on the staffing side. I don't know if we're doing better or worse on the audience side. I'm just kind of getting immersed in this, but I want you to know - because I know you asked me at the town hall meeting first thing - who's going to hold you responsible, what are the benchmarks and milestones going to be? I don't think you know this - my very first day on the job, July 1, my very first meeting at 10 o'clock in the morning, we had the management, the top twenty-five executives of the organization met.

After I said hello and thanked them for being so welcoming to me, the very first topic that we discussed was diversity and what are we going to do? What are the benchmarks? So that we know - are we moving in the right direction? Are we getting better, are we getting worse? Is it showing up in audience? Because I don't question the commitment - the folks here really seem deeply committed to the idea of diversity. Maybe they're executing, maybe they're not. Maybe they have a good plan, maybe they don't. We're going to codify it. We're going to make sure that everybody buys in to not just the concept, but what our plan is to address it. And most importantly - to your question originally when I did the town hall meeting - how am I going to be measured? How are we going to be measured?

MARTIN: Before we let you go, NPR posted a job description on the ombudsman post that said that the officer would not be passing judgment or providing commentary and that there was some public controversy about that. And you changed that message - tell me why you changed that wording. Was it a boneheaded mistake, or did you feel it sent a poor message? Or...

MOHN: Well, I thought it was a mistake. I don't think it was the right decision. I think an ombudsman - which I can't say very well - can I call it the public editor?


MOHN: I think that they need to reach conclusions. And that's what we're paying them to do. I think that role, you know, a public editor is hugely important to the credibility and integrity of this organization. Anything that we do that diminishes that is wrong. We reversed that decision.

MARTIN: We have a segment we call Wisdom Watch where we ask people who've made a difference through their work what their word of wisdom is to people who might like to follow in their footsteps. And I wanted to ask, do you want to - do you mind if you give us a word of wisdom? I mean...

MOHN: Oh my.

MARTIN: ...particularly if you were offering advice based on the way you managed your career, what do you think it might be?

MOHN: Nothing matters more than people.

MARTIN: Jarl Mohn is president and CEO of NPR. He was kind enough to join us in our studios - now his studios - in Washington, D.C. Jarl Mohn, thank you so much for speaking with us.

MOHN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.