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Baron of public broadcasting

The voice you hear first, before he enters the room: a raspy, rumbling voice that sounds like Edward G. Robinson devoid of menace. It's a take-charge voice, the kind of Robinson voice that duked it out with Humphrey Bogart in ''Key Largo.'' It is the voice of the audiomeister of America, National Public Radio president Frank Mankiewicz.

In a minute he saunters into the room and, grinning amiably, without missing a beat, picks up a ringing phone. He settles back in his massive black-leather executive chair and immerses himself in conversation the way some people slip into a hot tub. It relaxes him, buoys his spirits. Oceanographer Jacques Cousteau once sighed that he wished he's been born with gills; Frank Mankiewicz might have settled for a Touch-Tone phone with four extensions.

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He luxuriates in the call, which happens to be from his uncle Joe Mankiewicz. The one he resembles. Uncle Joe is the Hollywood screenwriter and director who wrote ''All About Eve.'' Joe is brother to Frank's father, Herman, who won an Oscar for writing the classic ''Citizen Kane.'' Herman Mankiewicz, a member of the legendary Algonquin Round Table of wits, announced proudly to that group one day: ''I have a new baby boy, born today. His name is Frank.'' To which Marc (''Green Pastures'') Connelly, glancing up from his soup, asked ''Does Sara (Frank's mother) know?''

Since then Frank the Mank, as he is sometimes called, has made a name for himself apart from his family celebrity: as the Latin America director for the Peace Corps, press secretary to Robert F. Kennedy, campaign director of George McGovern's run for the presidency, TV anchorman, author of four books, newspaper columnist, and - most recently - as the Svengali of National Public Radio. Under his leadership, NPR has gained 5 million new listeners and megawatt jolts of new vitality. It has also, for the first time in its history, begun to be financially independent of federal money; ''free from the feds'' is the goal by 1988.

Under the federal budget crunch NPR's funds have been cut from a projected 1982 budget of $33 million to an actual $28 million; it will be down to an estimated $10 million in 1984. To keep NPR alive, Mankiewicz is turning to innovative fund-raising from its satellite communications network: renting space to NBC and Mutual Broadcasting Company radio networks; setting up a national paging service with Mobile Communications Corporation; renting space to Muzak and to Codart Inc. for by-subscription-only classical music and cultural programs; selling ''on-air shares,'' actually noncommercial announcements of financial support; selling cassettes of NPR programs. Millions are involved in that combination of ideas.

At NPR, when Frank Mankiewicz speaks, everybody listens. ''I told them when I came, I said I was going to be much more your Lyndon Johnson kind of president than your Dwight Eisenhower kind of president. I really do meddle a lot. I try to know what everybody's doing. I might get into the question of where we ought to have a bureau on the West Coast. I wouldn't decide it. Indeed, (news editor) Barbara Cohen is going to decide it quite contrary to how I would have'' he says , kidding himself. ''Maybe they would like more of a sort of austere board chairman view of things, but I like to meddle. Hands on - yeah!'' he says with a hoot for the trendy Washington way of describing ''hands off'' and ''hands on'' jobs.

Mankiewicz and wordsmith William Safire, for whom he's written an occasional ''On Language'' guest column in the Sunday New York Times Magazine, have a running dialogue on the idiocy of many pop phrases. Nixonian Republican Safire and Kennedy-McGovern Democrat Mankiewicz disagree on nearly everything except how the language is being tossed and gored today. But they remain good friends. Safire says that Mankiewicz ''has brought a certain hard-headedness and bite to NPR, particularly to the part I listen to, the news. He's done an (extraordinarily) good job. He is incisive, wry - with seeds,'' adds Safire, unable to resist the pun. Safire says that Mankiewicz may have carved out his place in history by coining ''his major contribution to the American lexicography, the word 'retronym.' ''

'' 'Retronym,' '' Mankiewicz beams, ''I made up the word. . . . Safire uses it now and then, gives me credit, and is trying to develop it. It's a word you use because technology has made the old word that you used to use inadequate . . . an announcer at a Super Bowl said this team will be better today than the other team because they're used to playing on natural turf. Well, that caught my ear. I said 'Wait a minute, natural turf, huh? Natural turf is what we used to call grass.' Then I realized you gotta have a word for it . . . then I began looking around. For instance, this'' - he gazes in wonder at his chrome-yellow typewriter - ''is now a manual typewriter. A guitar is now an acoustic guitar . . . to distinguish it from an electric guitar.''

He interrupts his explanation of retronyms to take the call he's placed to Michael Kinsley, editor of Harper's magazine. It was the phrase ''hands off'' that did it. ''That was last year's phrase. I discovered last night what the phrase is this year: 'thought-leader.' '' He says it slowly, rolling it on his tongue like a lemon lozenge. ''New word. Brand new.'' He'd run across the phrase a few days ago in the Los Angeles Times, in an article that described The Nation , Harper's, the New Republic, and the Atlantic as magazines written for thought-leaders.

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Then the night before our interview he'd been at a New York dinner that former CBS president Frank Stanton gave for the president of the Atlantic Richfield Company, William S. Kieschnick. ''Wellll, every thought-leader in the country was there, (Washington Post Co. chairman of the board) Kay Graham was there, (former CBS chairman of the board) Bill Paley was there, Reuven Frank, president of NBC News, the editor of Harper's, an editor from the Atlantic, some guy from CNN (Cable Network News), Dan Rather was there, Jim Wieghart was there - editor of the Daily News. It was that crowd, right? Wellll, the president of NPR was there, president of the largest electronic journalism organization in the country was there. We broadcast more news than any radio or TV network in America. Yeah.

''Anyway, the president of ARCO got up to speak and he used the word thought-leader. And I was sitting next to the editor of Harper's, Michael Kinsley, and I said 'I think we're in on the beginning of something.' And he said 'You're absolutely right.' That's the new word. It's going to replace 'interface' and 'resonate.' ''

On the phone to Kinsley he says, ''Hiya. Just wanted to verify it, the new phrase of the year: It is 'thought-leader,' isn't it? Do you think it'll take the place of 'hands on'? Oh, 'infrastructure'? OK, OK.''

Mankiewicz is not only Mr. Access in a city where access is the name of the game. He has also, as befits the man who is king of the earwaves, a passion for words - spoken and written. He is a great storyteller, a speechifier, the Beethoven of the spoken word, who can start with a phrase and create a whole symphony around it.

He is leaning back in his chair at a 45-degree angle, phone grafted to his ear, right arm behind his head, beaming like a cherub, if cherubim can be said to wear blue oxford cloth button-down shirts, silver-rimmed glasses, and sport carefully shaved square jaws and blow-dried gray hair. When he bounds out from behind the desk to point out a picture, he is a man of comfortable girth and medium height who has shucked the jacket of his brown and blue houndstooth- checked suit (but not his blue-and-brown striped tie). There are stories about the sometimes rumpled Mankiewicz's triumphs over his own tailoring, including one that suggests the most famous tailor on the West Coast gives him a clothes discount so long as Mankiewicz never reveals who his tailor is. Ah, well, Frank the Mank has more important things to think about than keeping a knife-sharp press in his pants.

For instance, there's his book on television, ''Remote Control: Television and the Manipulation of American Life.'' The book sizzles with moral indignation. He writes with his collaborator Joel Swerdlow about how TV permeates and changes American life, ''certifying'' and selling as real an unreal vision of violence, race, sex roles, and family life.

''Indeed, it is precisely the validity of the claim that viewers will emulate the characters they see on commercials on which rests the entire financial empire of television,'' he writes. In fact, Mankiewicz says during our interview , ''It may sell violence better than it sells toothpaste. People try the toothpaste and if they don't like it, they don't buy it anymore. But they may only buy the violence once, see, and it's too late. And it isn't so much that they buy it, it's that TV creates a world in which that stuff is accepted, that's what's so upsetting.''

Because NPR audiences have vroomed up from 3 million in 1977 when Mankiewicz took over to the present 8 million, he is asked what the secret of his success is. He likes to deflect the question with a joke; kidding that his secret is ''personal magnetism.'' A somewhat self-deprecatory man, he finds that amusing. He says he doesn't know the real reason, but he suspects that it can be attributed in part to the addition of ''Morning Edition,'' the popular three-hour morning news and public affairs program added a couple of years ago and which has ''anchored'' the member stations early in the day. That show has also increased the audience for the multi-award winning ''All Things Considered, '' a provocative, in-depth evening program that can only be described as ''the thinking man's news.''

He concludes that the secret of NPR's recent success is ''between our really sensational new news programming, good local programming - some stations focus on jazz or news or bluegrass - and heightened skill in public information.'' Such as the big bash thrown at the Hayden Planetarium in New York to kickoff the airing of ''The Empire Strikes Back'' serial on NPR. The party was a multi-media event, twinkling with stellar stars and movie stars and press and a lot of kids. ''Should generate a lot of ink,'' he predicted happily.

In addition, there are the varied programs which have garnered prizes and audiences for NPR, like ''A Prairie Home Companion,'' its Spanish language programming, a series on ''The World of F. Scott Fitzgerald,'' a documentary on People's Temple leader Jim Jones titled ''Father Cares: The Last of Jonestown.''

Vivid posters from some of these programs line one wall of Frank Mankiewicz's beige and purple office, done in standard executive decor which he shrugs at. But the mementos on the wall and the books on the shelves aren't standard: a large color photo of Robert Kennedy walking through the surf hangs just behind his desk, a reminder of his job as Kennedy's press secretary. Mankewicz himself ran unsuccessfully for Congress. On the bookshelves, everything from McGuffey's sixth-grade reader to Studs Terkel to William Blake, his favorite poet, a collection of broadcasting mugs. Across the room, a framed poster of a quote from Camus: ''I would like to be able to love justice and still love my country.''

When we talk about ''freeing NPR from the feds,'' financially, he stresses that the plan is not all his idea but a solution arrived at after a long study by NPR's board of directors. His uncle Joe Mankiewicz says he has an ''honesty in appraising people and situations, a weakness in self-salesmanship. He sells what he thinks (instead of himself). . . . There comes a time in every organization like NPR when their needs are such they can't afford not to have the best man to do the job; they can't take second best. They needed Frank. Frank is somebody you need. Even the politicians he's worked with have found that out and haven't been very comfortable with it.''

''I know you'd like a couple of sentences to wrap him up, but Frank is a package you can't wrap, as in 'Madame, shall I wrap it so you can take it with you?' You take Frank with you, you can't wait to have him wrapped . . . I'm very proud of him, you can quote me on that.''

The Mankiewicz clan is a close-knit and devoted one; paradoxically, it was Frank Mankiewicz's own devotion to his father that made him reject the life of a Hollywood screenwriter for himself. Screenwriting didn't tempt him he says, ''Because my father hated it so much. It was always inconceivable to me that I could do anything that gave him such pain. He hated it and he hated the people. I guess the money was too good to leave.''

So screenwriting had no allure, he says. ''On the contrary, I had a real desire not to. . . . The people who were around (the house) . . . were from where he used to work, drama people, theater people, literary critics . . . he had a few friends in the movie business: Nunally Johnson, Ben Hecht, Harpo (Marx). But they all hated it, too. . . . So I never for a minute thought of it. Also it was clear to me that it was killing him.''

So Frank Mankiewicz turned his back on making movies and went to the University of California at Los Angeles at 17, where critic Eric Bentley taught. Bentley gathered up a small bright band of students who read aloud and interpreted James Joyce's ''Ulysses'' every Sunday night from September to May; the experience turned Mankiewicz into a Joycean and the language-lover he is today.

After serving in the infantry in Europe in World War II he returned to the University of California at Los Angeles, became a California journalist, then a free-lance writer for Newsweek and other publications in Europe. He is both journalist and lawyer, with a journalism degree from Columbia and law degree from the University of California at Berkeley. A former civil-rights director for the Anti-Defamation League in California, he was a movie lawyer for six years. It bored him.

What drives Frank Mankiewicz? His wife, Holly, says it's ''to have had his life make a difference. Yes, there is a moral intellect at work in Frank all the time. It's what drives him. . . . He wants to do things to change other peoples' lives for the better.'' They met at a UCLA class in politics, married several years later after running into each other in Paris and quelling family concern about the difference in her Mormon and his Jewish religions. The Mankiewiczes have two sons, Ben, 16, and Josh, 27, an ABC News reporter.

Holly Mankiewicz says her husband goes full tilt through life, works long hours, travels a lot, blots out everything but what he's working on: ''He dials to another channel better than anyone I know.'' They will have been married 31 years in April.

Mankiewicz is obsessively fond of baseball, likes steak with hash browns, baroque music (''almost anyone who's name ends in a vowel: Tartini, Cherubini, Gabrielli, Corelli, and of course Bach and Mozart''). He reads newspapers as some people eat peanuts, likes uncomplicated fiction, carefully plotted novels, from le Carre to Waugh and John Gregory Dunne. ''I do not like books which I later read reviews of where people say they're 'evocative.' I don't think I've ever read anything that anybody said was evocative that I like.'' He knows what he likes, and he knows how to say no.

He says no to allowing corporations which contribute to NPR having any say in its programming. ''There are always going to be people who say, 'If you treat me right, I will give you money. . . .' There have to be presidents of networks and news directors and programming directors and orchestra leaders and all kinds of people who have to say, 'Thank you very much, but you put up the money, and we'll play the music.' Or, 'You put up the money and we'll decide what goes on the air,' what coverage we'll give the event. . . . It's like Ronald Reagan says in another context, 'You've got to be able to say NO.' ''

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