An Unlikely Public Radio Powerhouse
Jarl Mohn’s leadership of NPR is one reason he was honored with the 2016 Los Angeles Press Club’s President’s Award. This article is an expanded version of a profile in the Southern California Journalism Awards program, June 26, 2016
Jarl Mohn shows his 2016 L.A. Press Club President's Award to his wife Pamela moments after his acceptance speech at the Southern California Journalism Awards
Jarl Mohn was a surprise choice in 2014 to lead National Public Radio. After all, this was the man who had helmed E! Entertainment Television, once helped lead MTV and VH-1 and had been a commercial radio Top 40 disc jockey.
Then there was the internal turmoil and mounting challenges of the digital age.
Mohn arrived as the eighth CEO or Acting CEO of NPR in eight years. He arrived at a time competition for listeners was intense, affiliated stations often seemed to be at odds with Washington DC headquarters and the last philanthropic mega-gift has been a bequeath from McDonald’s heir Joan Kroc a decade earlier. Even worse NPR had been forced to cut 10 percent of its employees the year before and was facing a $6 million annual deficit.
“I saw the turnover,” recalled Mohn recently, “and was very concerned about it. I knew the journalism was solid; they were doing great reporting and great work. But they needed to have an organization in place to manage the business better. So I made a commitment to the board, management team and stations that I would stay a minimum of five years and hopefully that would provide some stability and allow the organization to catch its breath and make the right moves.”
HOW HE GOT RICH
For a decade Mohn had invested, mostly in tech companies, making a fortune as an early investor in start-ups like Stubhub, the Rubicon Project (which automates advertising) and Riot Games, a video game developer that organizes eSports tournaments which became the largest multi-player game in the world and in 2011 was bought out by the Chinese company Tencent Holdings for more than $231 million. “I was one of the guys who got a ride on that unicorn,” said Mohn.
What Mohn insisted he didn’t want was a job: “This (NPR) is the only thing on the planet I would do because I believe in it so much.”
“It’s one of the few places where they really do explanatory, fact based, non-sensationalist, non- ideological journalism,” added Mohn, “and not just click bait. It’s more and more unique in the journalistic landscape today, so I think it’s important.”
A year and a half later the stability has been restored at NPR and important changes have been made to improve how it functions as a business and connects with its many communities of listeners, sponsors, journalistic sources, philanthropic backers and even the U.S. Congress.
“It’s too early to declare victory,” said Bill Davis, President of Southern California Public Radio (and KPCC-FM), “but I would say Jarl has put a steady hand on the tiller for NPR and has also brought in people with similar steady hands to run the organization in terms of its content, its strategy and fund raising. He’s done a really nice job setting a clear and stable course for the organization.”
WHY HE WAS HONORED
In 2015, for the first time in years, NPR broke even, and in 2016 may move into the black.
That is among the reasons the Los Angeles Press Club on June 26 honored Mohn, who it has called “a broadcasting change agent,” and a “media visionary,” with its 2016 President’s Award at the Southern California Journalism Awards.
“Now a prominent collector and philanthropist, with his wife Pamela,” reads the awards citation, “this former DJ stands as an example of how one person can bring dramatic, forward thinking change to the media landscape.”
Mohn splits his month between Los Angeles, New York, visits to local stations nationwide and Washington, D.C. where he can often be found on Capitol Hill explaining the importance of NPR. His pitch: With the loss of so many newspapers, public radio in many areas (especially outside the large cities) is a primary source of local news for many people.
“That’s the void we think public radio fills,” said Mohn, “because as local newspapers have cut back in many communities across the country, local public radio stations have started building up their news departments.”
Why has he reached so many politicians on both sides of the aisle? “Maybe they see his interest and vision for it,” suggested his wife, Pamela. “Could there be a bigger time with this election coming up to take the sensationalism out of it and try to be non-biased? It seems like he’s at the right place at the right time.”
Jarl Mohn, then known as Lee Masters, started as a local DJ on pop radio
Maybe that is because Mohn’s connection to the medium of radio is unusually deep and personal. It goes back to when he was growing up in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, 27 miles north of Philadelphia.
TAKEN FROM HIS PARENTS, HE LEARNED TO LOVE RADIO
When he was 11-years-old that Mohn and his two sisters were removed from their parents and placed in a children’s home for about two years. His father, a college lit professor, had been jailed for not making his support payments and his mother was institutionalized with mental illness.
“I really hadn’t experienced radio until then,” recalled Mohn, “but they had it on in the dormitory and I was listening to Top 40 radio from Philadelphia ad going, ‘Wow! I love this.’ And that became my escape because I didn’t like being institutionalized. I was just captivated by it. So my entire career has been a form of escapism.”
He got his first job on a local radio station at age 15 but he had a problem. His name, he recalled, “makes a terrible radio name. It’s not easily remembered or said.” (Jarl is Norwegian and Mohn is German).
HE BECAME LEE MASTERS BUT REMAINED JARL MOHN
So he became Lee Masters in the 1960s, at least on air. Friends still called him Jarl (pronounced Yar-l) and he never legally changed his name.
He began working the overnight shift at a station in Philadelphia while attending Temple University on a scholarship, but when the radio station promoted him to early evening, he dropped out of college and never looked back. He later owned some small radio stations but dreamed of being on the air in New York City.
In 1986, Mohn moved to Manhattan as a DJ on radio powerhouse WNBC. He later left to join an old friend and another media visionary, Robert Pittman, who created MTV and later VH-1, both of which Mohn was to run.
In 1992, he moved west to take command of the fledgling Movietime channel, which he soon renamed E! Entertainment Television. He helped create the mix of celebrity news and reality shows that became cultural touchstones.
Then he was wooed away by billionaire John Malone and others during the first Internet frenzy in the late 1990s to run Liberty Digital. It invested in startups and interactive TV but hit a wall when the Internet bubble burst in 2000. Mohn cashed out around 2002 with a huge payday and little desire for another job.
At that point he also took back his real name, Jarl Mohn.
HE RETIRED FROM WORKING FOR OTHER PEOPLE
“I didn’t really retire,” said Mohn. “My quote at the time was, ‘Working fulltime for other people is over-rated.’ That was later translated as ‘working is over-rated,’ which is not what I said. I just started making investments on my own.”
He also got into fitness in a big way, becoming a body builder for a time. He also became obsessive about doing crossword puzzles, especially the New York Times puzzle on Saturday (he said it is the hardest of the week, even harder than Sunday).
He became a news junkie and also listened to a lot of music and began watching loads of movies, both old and new. In his Bel Air home, he has a theater room with a 16-foot by 9-foot screen, as big as many movie theaters.
He focused on investing in new media, digital and other things that caught his eye (including a dog food company), and joined several corporate boards. He became a noted art collector, eventually growing one of the finest collections of minimalist art in the U.S. He served as chairman of the ACLU and the board of the USC Annenberg School of Journalism.
MOHN BECOMES AN ANGEL FOR SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA PUBLIC RADIO
Around 2002, Mohn met Bill Davis, who was then in his first year running KPCC-FM in Los Angeles. Davis wanted to focus on news, instead of being a mix with music. Davis recalled that a local commentator told the LA. Times around then, “If you tell me you’re interested in local news, I’ll know you’re from out of town.”
There were already news driven public radio stations in New York, Boston, San Francisco, Minneapolis and elsewhere but Davis recalls in L.A. the “perceived wisdom was that this was going to fail miserably.”
Within months Mohn joined the KPCC board, and a few years later was Chairman. He also led a fundraising drive for a new broadcast center and ended up making the biggest gift, an estimated $6 million, which bought naming rights. The facility in Pasadena is now named after the Mohn family.
Mohn credited his interest in philanthropy to his wife of 33 years. After his daughters were grown and his investments were proving lucrative, she told him, “‘You know we are doing O.K. We need to give some of this money away.’” Recalled Mohn “So we made a decision many years ago that we would each pick two or three things important to us and we would give some money to them. We started out very modestly. One of mine was public radio.”
HIS WIFE ON WHAT SURPRISES PEOPLE ABOUT HER HUSBAND
His wife Pamela said people are often surprised when they meet her husband because “he’s just so optimistic. When people meet him they say, ‘Nobody can be this happy.’ I call him the human golden retriever, because he’s just so up and happy all the time. That’s him. I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, when he would turn into a psycho-killer, but he’s not. He’s exactly who he is.”
“The other thing Pam will tell you is that Jarl is just a tremendously fun individual,” said Bill Davis. “He is funny personally. He can be as serious as a heart attack in terms of focusing on strategy and getting work done, but he is just witty and funny and also somebody who, almost instinctively, is grateful for that which he has. And he’s been very generous in sharing all of that.”
By 2014, Mohn had termed out of the KPCC board. He didn’t need a job and wasn’t looking for one beyond his investments, but Davis mentioned he was on a search committee for a new NPR president.
HE DOESN'T WANT JUST ANY JOB, BUT HE WANTS THE NPR JOB
Shortly after, Mohn called Davis to say he was interested in the job. “I said, ‘Jarl, you’re kidding me. Right now the most difficult decision you have to make is whether to ride your mountain bike or road bike in the morning,” said Davis. “And you’re going to take on the mishegas (Yiddish for crazy) that is public radio. He said, ‘Bill, absolutely. I feel like I was born to do this.”
“A lot of people were absolutely shocked,” recalled Davis, “that NPR hired somebody with a deep commercial background, somebody who wasn’t a journalist or from public media.”
A month after he arrived Mohn set out on a ten-day national listening tour, flying in a friend’s single engine airplane to market large and small to visit NPR affiliates. “We called it the low and slow tour,” joked Mohn. We went to small towns where no one from NPR had visited before.”
Jarl Mohn on the air helping promote an Eastern Michigan NPR affiliate, WEMU-FM
He heard a lot of complaints from the affiliates about the way NPR treated them, and concerns in the digital age they would be marginalized by new listeners using new technology. Under Mohn, key NPR shows like Morning Edition are not streamed over the web. Instead, it is up to each affiliate to stream them under their own brand if they choose to do so.
He also heard the affiliates were afraid of the growth of podcasting. Mohn saw it as a way to bring in new listeners, or as he put it, “a pathway to creating new audiences.”
He brought in an experienced news executive and together they got the various stations to cooperate on big breaking news. So when there was a shooting by terrorist in San Bernardino, California, instead of having NPR affiliates from San Francisco to Los Angeles compete for the same news, each was assigned an aspect of the story which fed into the national broadcast.
HE PUTS LOCAL NPR STATIONS BACK INTO THE CENTER OF THE ACTION
He also saw local stations as the key to increased fundraising. “Eight seven percent of all philanthropic dollars come from individuals,” said Mohn, “and 80 percent of that is giving within 20 miles of where the donor lives. Were a philanthropic organization, so who better to partner with than a station and organization that has ties in the community.”
Mohn also has tried to educate would be donors on how NPR works. It does not get money directly from the government. There is money allocated to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, of which three-quarters goes to public TV stations. Much of the rest goes to local public radio stations, who ten use that money for local programming and to buy programming from NPR. “That’s how the money comes back to us,” added Mohn.
The approximately 800 NPR employees are also supported by charitable gifts given directly to NPR, by money raised from corporate sponsorships and elsewhere. “They are human beings and things are going to happen,” said Mohn. “The benchmark is, ‘are we fair? Are we doing our job?’ If we have failed, then let’s have a dialogue.”
“In the roughly 16 months since (Mohn became NPR CEO),” said Davis, “he really proven that you can be a potentially transformational president by focusing on the business, governance and fund raising aspects of the organization.”
“He’s making connections for NPR and its member stations across the country,” added Davis. “We’ve never had a NPR president who has been so committed to creating a real partnership between the local stations and the national programming entity, and not just in big cities. "
AN NPR LEADER WHO IS SENDING A SIGNAL
"He obviously is spending time in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco," added Davis, "but he’s also in Bowling Green, Kentucky and Marfa, Texas. He is sending a real signal to NPR affiliates and to audiences. So individuals are saying, ‘Hey, this guy really does care about what happens in local communities as well as in the Washington-New York corridor.’”
“My goal is to make sure this great group of journalists I get to work with every day have the tools they need to do the kind of work they do best,” said Mohn, “and to encourage them, motivate them and inspire them to continue doing great work.”