published September 10, 2019

NPR’s New CEO

Last Thursday, NPR’s board of directors announced Jarl Mohn’s replacement as the chief executive of the public radio mothership: John Lansing, a veteran media executive who currently serves as the head of the US Agency for Global Media (formerly known as the Broadcasting Board of Governors), the federally-funded agency that oversees government-owned international broadcasters like Radio Free Europe and Voice of America.

Lansing largely came up through Scripps’ TV business, joining the company as station manager of its Detroit affiliate and eventually rising up to become the President of Scripps Networks, a role he held between 2005 and 2013. After leaving Scripps, he took up the role of President and CEO of Cable & Telecommunications Association for Marketing, a nonprofit cable trade group for two years. In late 2015, he was tapped by President Barack Obama to lead the US Agency for Global Media.

A quick aside on the Scripps stuff, largely because it’s interesting to me: Scripps broke out into two separate publicly-traded companies in 2007, EW Scripps (which owns print newspapers, local television stations, along with online content companies) and Scripps Network Interactive (which primarily focuses on cable television). Lansing led the latter, which was later acquired by Discovery in 2008. The former, you might recall, is the current owner of Stitcher. Nowadays, Scripps Network Interactive is probably best known, to slackers like me at least, as the parent company of HGTV.

Anyway, I’m inclined to argue that Lansing’s background isn’t entirely dissimilar from Mohn’s, particularly when you consider the fact that both men are veteran media executives with extensive television roots. (Mohn was a co-founder of E! Entertainment Television, and he held senior positions as VH1 and MTV.) As such, I’m tempted to read this appointment as a move by the board to maintain continuity, one way or another, with the Mohn era.

The Mohn era, by the way, is described to be largely positive. As NPR’s David Folkenflik’s comprehensive rundown of the Lansing selection points out, Mohn’s five-year term ultimately improved the organization’s operational position — prior to Mohn, NPR had been in the red for six of the seven previous years, and his tenure resulted in surpluses each year — and made strong audience gains, both in terms of broadcasting ratings and formally building a winning narrative around NPR’s considerable podcast reach. (Here’s Folkenflik: “NPR draws more than 28 million listeners each week and 40 million unique monthly visitors to its website — both represent a rise of several million over those five years.)

But Mohn’s tenure was also unsettled by scandal. In late 2017, Michael Oreskes, then NPR’s head of news, was forced to resign following accusations regarding inappropriate conduct towards women. An independent investigation commissioned by NPR’s board, released later, found that concerns around Oreskes had been flagged even before his hiring, and had persisted throughout his time at the organization. Shortly after, the Washington Post published a report describing a workplace culture “of anxiety and insecurity” within the organization, particularly for temps, a crucial but largely unprotected segment of the NPR labor force.

On another down note, Folkenflik’s write-up also highlighted Mohn’s lack of success in realizing the ambitious fundraising goal he had set at the outset of his tenure. Goli Sheikholeslami, a member of the NPR board and in-coming CEO of New York Public Radio, cited the Oreskes scandal and Mohn’s health issues as factors that inhibited his fundraising efforted. (Mohn took a brief medical leave in late 2017, amidst the sexual harassment scandal, following a near-fatal ruptured aorta earlier that March.)

These are some of the threads that Lansing will be taking over when he assumes control of the organization later this year. And, to state the obvious, it’s a big gig for a big time. We’re steadily drifting deeper into an extensive 2020 presidential election news cycle, and there’s every indication that it will probably be unprecedented and unrelenting and explosive in ways that will demand the most (and then some) from news orgs of all stripes around the country.

Furthermore, the cycle will come at a time when the news media has never been more politicized or structurally challenged. These are times when newsroom morale needs to be kept strong and adequately supported by leadership… which may be a tricky proposition, as we saw in a recent brouhaha. Last Friday, the Wall Street Journal reported that NPR’s SVP of News, Nancy Barnes, recently faced internal pushback for public statements she made at the recent PRPD conference, in which she said that the organization’s coverage of race is “more lacking than we realized.” An email, cosigned by about 85 NPR staffers, was later sent to Barnes expressing that such coverage “has been alive and well” in the newsroom’s output. Barnes has since apologized for her remarks.

And then there are all the concerns unique to NPR, the endlessly complex public radio ecosystem, and the relationship between the two sides. Something I’ve consistently argued in the past is the notion that a healthy NPR doesn’t automatically translate to a healthier public radio system as a whole, particularly as far as digital efforts and smaller stations are concerned. NPR may have reason to celebrate its overall achievements with on-demand audio — as it continues to compete against the infinite horizon of the open ecosystem along with the encroaching efforts from corporate media platforms like Spotify — but there has yet to be policies and mechanisms in place that structurally ensures every single station tied to NPR can proportionally benefit from those gains. The organization’s recently launched Morning Edition smart speaker product, which enables the bundling of local and national content, may well be a step in the right direction, but I’d still argue that the larger problem of the digital divide, as it pertains to the public radio system, persists. (Once again, a quick plug for my pie-in-the-sky dynamic ad insertion theory.)

Again, big job for big times. For what it’s worth, I checked with a couple of station managers and public radio operators about the appointment — well, those that were willing to chat and had an opinion, anyway — and there were a few themes that came back. There was broad recognition that Lansing’s news cred is top-notch, and agreement that he seems to be the kind of chief executive that doesn’t draw attention to himself. A handful noted that, prior to the selection, they were hoping for someone to come in with a “vision”; post-announcement, they express a general sense of hopefulness balanced by a “let’s wait and see” stance.

Which, you know, sounds about right. We’ll have to wait and see. The Lansing era begins in mid-October.

On a semi-related note: the fantastic Radio Ambulante returns with a new season starting today, and it comes at an exciting time for the production. Daniel Alarcón, the show’s executive producer, tells me that they have just renewed their distribution deal with NPR, that they’re piloting a bunch of new shows, and their upcoming digital project, which revolves around a language learning app called Lupa, is weeks away from launch. Also: their “listening club” initiative, originally piloted last year, now has more than 75 clubs in more than 20 countries around the world. (Here’s a cool map showing the location of all these clubs.)