New NPR boss stakes out network’s future

Jarl Mohn, the new CEO of NPR (disclaimer: He was a former chairman of the board of the APM’s Southern California operation), has certainly put his stamp on the network, NPR’s media reporter David Folkenflik wrote over the weekend. He forced out a highly regarded senior editor whose vision helped push NPR into a world beyond radio.

Kinsey Wilson, NPR’s chief content officer, was pushed aside a couple of weeks ago with no outcry from public radio listeners, but Folkenflik — his essay didn’t make it to the broadcast side — says it’s symbolic of how things are going to change under Mohn.

It reveals a split that is playing out in traditional newsrooms around the country: Can radio continue to grow while efforts increase to recognize that the media landscape is shifting online? Can NPR be a radio operation and a provider of online content that’s more than just an archive for an associated radio service?

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.

“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,” Folkenflik writes, then notes that the description perfectly fits the guy Mohn just pushed out the door.

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.

Not to worry, another broadcaster says.

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.”

“His ability to conceptualize new digital strategies and then roll them out in short order is remarkable, all the more so considering what a huge entity NPR is,” a former Wilson colleague wrote in the article’s comments section (which isn’t worth reading, by the way). “This is a power move, and nothing less. Kinsey will land on his feet (if he doesn’t have a ton of offers already) while Mohn will find out that there’s more to radio than just the radio.”