The president and CEO of NPR has a broad background in commercial broadcasting ranging from top 40 radio to cable networks including MTV and E!. He’s also spent time as a venture capitalist. In his current role, he strives to make sure that NPR stands out as a last bastion of pure news and information. This profile is the fourth in a series featuring individuals who will be honored by the Library of American Broadcasting Foundation as Giants of Broadcasting & Electronic Arts on Oct. 15 in New York. This year’s other honorees: Don Mischer, Gracia Martore, Bill Persky, Herb Granath, Gene Jankowski, Mel Karmazin, the Carter family and Don West.
Broadcasting has been in Jarl Mohn’s blood since his first live broadcast as a 15-year-old high school sophomore at WBUX-AM in Doylestown, Pa. After building a stellar resume in virtually all facets of the electronic media industry, today he serves as president and CEO of NPR, where he oversees global operations and partnerships with more than 1,000 public radio stations and 30 million weekly listeners.
Mohn’s extensive media experience has crossed all media platforms and has been influenced by numerous changes in social and cultural trends. He spent almost 20 years in radio, many of them as on-air personality Lee Masters at a variety of stations, including WNBC in New York. Toward the end of that stage in his career he became co-owner of a station in El Paso, Texas, and then another in Louisville, Ky., before his long-time friend Bob Pittman asked him to join the staff of MTV as vice president and general manager. Nobody knew Top 40 radio better than Masters, and MTV/VH1 seemed a perfect match for his programming talents.
Masters quickly realized one of the challenges at the fledgling video network was convincing his cohorts that MTV was far more than a radio station with pictures. Indeed, it was a television station designed for teens and young adults, and Master understood that viewers in this demographic group did not watch television the way their parents did.
Masters’ approach to the cable network succeeded and MTV’s resurgence led him to attempt a similar metamorphosis several years later at Movietime. Best described as a cable channel that was to movie trailers what MTV had been to music videos, he came in to oversee the entity’s transformation to E! Entertainment. Masters and his talented group of programming execs concentrated on original, yet cost-efficient programming-and the creation of a powerful brand. As Masters — now Mohn — told C Suite Quarterly last fall: “Desperation led to innovation.”
Mohn went on to become the founding president and CEO of Liberty Digital, a public company that invested in cable networks and online businesses. As a venture capitalist, he worked with a number of tech startups, and in public media he has had a long involvement with Southern California Public Radio, where he chaired the board of directors. He also spent more than 12 years on the board of The Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism, including six years as its chair.
When he was tapped to lead NPR in May 2014, Mohn took over an organization that had been shaken by deep budget cuts and staff reductions, and was struggling to hit its goal of a break-even budget by fall 2015. To realign itself for a new fiscal discipline, the network had implemented a voluntary buyout of staff and had canceled Tell Me More, a weekday show focused on news topics related to people of color. Just a few months into his new job Mohn made some major restructuring moves and launched an initiative to boost listening opf the popular Morning Edition with heavy on-air promotion of the show.
“We want to excel with all of our programming and all of our content,” he told Current.org Editor Benn Mook in an extensive interview last fall. “One of the mistakes a lot of businesses make is trying to do 12 things at once and do them well. I’ve seen it a lot, especially with startups in the venture capital world, but also with larger media companies and within this organization. My goal is to do one thing at a time, make sure we really have it nailed, and then move on to the next one…. It’s going to be continual improvement across each of our shows: the storytelling, hosting, production and marketing — every element.”
Mohn believes it is critical for NPR to strengthen its on-air programming while focusing on developing digital content and services. “Digital is the present and the future,” he told Current.org. “We are in the golden age of the spoken word, whether it’s about news, culture or science. Some of it’s going to be broadcast, and some will be digital. It’s not an either-or. Radio listeners and digital users aren’t making either-or choices. For them, it’s an à la carte world, selected from radio, mobile phones and laptops. It really just boils down to resource allocation, but we have to play all those games.”
In an era where paradigm shifts have become commonplace, industry pundits seem to predict the death of this or that medium or business model on an almost daily basis. One of the perennial whipping posts has been commercial radio, which numerous critics for the past decade have said will be dead in five years. Mohn is of a different mind, however, noting that “broadcast radio is the cockroach of media. You can’t kill it. You can’t make it go away. It just gets stronger and more resilient.”
Still, he’s convinced that commercial radio is struggling because of lagging economic and creative factors that stem from overheated merger and acquisition activities since ownership restrictions were loosened almost 20 years ago. “Over-the-air commercial radio is suffering, in part, because of the incredible consolidation and cost-cutting that has occurred in the business,” he told Current.org. “There’s less room for creativity, innovation and local relevance. Most often, it’s not live. People have become less interested in it. That’s one of the reasons I’m wildly optimistic about public radio — because public radio is committing money to being local and live. And many stations are investing in journalism.”
While Mohn has built an exceptional personal profile in the greater media and financial spheres, his reach extends into the philanthropic realm, as well. He actually credits his wife Pamela for laying the groundwork for the Mohn Foundation which, since its inception in 2001, has provided funding and assistance to the International Medical Corps and the American Civil Liberties Union. Indeed, the Mohns are true “put-your-money-where-your-mouth-is” patrons of the arts and humanities, with contributions to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, the Hammer Museum and the J. Paul Getty Trust.
A strong believer that “art becomes activated when people see it,” Mohn and his wife open up their home multiple times a year so the public can share in their private collections. They also generously loan works to international museums and exhibitions. As C Suite Quarterly notes, “Their collection doesn’t need dusting — it needs passports.”
In a life and career that has been filled with untold challenges and successes, Mohn remains most proud of NPR and what it means to its 30 million weekly listeners. “Every study I’ve seen shows NPR is the No. 1 trusted brand for news in the United States, and the No. 1 for quality,” he told Current.org. “It’s news for people who are smart, not intellectual.”
He’s also critical of today’s news media — or the lack thereof. “Newspapers are dying,” he observes. “In many cities, newspapers are greatly cutting back or not being printed every day. Radio news is headline news or it’s ideological talk. TV news has gone to fire, crime or car chases in the case of Los Angeles. Cable news networks have become ideological, sensational or exploitative.”
By contrast, he says, NPR stands out as a last bastion of pure news and information. Mohn’s promise to his listeners, benefactors and future generations is to make NPR “the one-stop shop for truth.”
The Library of American Broadcasting will honor this year’s Giants of Broadcasting & Electronic Arts at a luncheon at New York’s Gotham Hall on Oct. 15. For tickets, congratulatory ads and other information, please contact Joyce Tudyrn at [email protected]. The luncheon is presented by the International Radio and Television Society Foundation. TVNewsCheck is publishing these profiles as an in-kind contribution to the library. You may read other profiles in the series by clicking here.