Barnstorming was a fad that ultimately met the same dissolution as zoot suits, dance marathons, and drive-in theaters. Today they’re merely remnants of a very romantic time, now nearly forgotten . . . until recently.
Shortly after assuming his new position as president and CEO of National Public Radio (NPR), Jarl Mohn (pronounced Yarl Moan) took to the air – not the radio/TV broadcast kind, but to the skies for his purposeful “Low and Slow” barnstorming tour.
In July, he boarded a single-engine prop-driven Beechcraft Bonanza piloted by close friend and LACMA director Michael Govan, and the two buzzed small towns across the nation, dropping in on NPR stations. In all, it was 16 stops in 10 days. Aboard their low-winged aircraft, they fought weather, turbulence, and fatigue on a quest to get the word out: Change is afoot at NPR.
Mohn and Govan’s flight plans circumvented large cities, instead zeroing in on places such as Vermillion (South Dakota), Madison (Wisconsin), Logan (Utah), and Charleston (West Virginia). For many of these broadcast outlets it was the first visit by anyone from NPR, let alone the new president and CEO. And that was Mohn’s point. His message: I’m the new sheriff in town and I’ve got your back.
The goal of NPR and the mandate for Mohn is to expand its audience while erasing its considerable operating deficit. The new chief already has programming diversification plans underway to develop a larger audience base. He’s also preparing a united fundraising campaign among all NPR stations. Hopefully, more listeners means more donations. Along with that, Mohn is simultaneously targeting a substantial outreach to corporate America for underwriting to get NPR financially into the black.Considering NPR has had eight CEOs in eight years, you must wonder what are Mohn’s chances? It helps if you know a little more about the man’s background.
Starting out in Doylestown, Penn. in the late 1960s, Jarl Mohn took to the airwaves as Lee Masters (a name he considered more radio friendly than his birth name) as a 15-year-old disk jockey at WBUX. Consider the BUX in the station’s call letters a portent of what was to come.
Like most radio DJs, Lee Masters eyed larger markets and greener pastures. He skipped through a few stations over the next 10 years spinning the hits, ultimately becoming a station general manager. During that time he became the co-owner of a station in El Paso and then another in Louisville. For the next five years he was buying stations while biding time for his next opportunity to come a knockin’.
It came via long-time friend, Bob Pittman who, as CEO of MTV networks, asked Masters to join his outfit. Nobody knew the top 40 radio business better than Masters, and MTV’s signature was music videos. It seemed a perfect fit. Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video had just been released, turning the channel into a legitimate destination. However, as the song’s commercial appeal ran its course, identity challenges became apparent, and the network’s popularity began to wane.
If there was going to be a Lazarus-level resurrection of audience, the responsibility was dropped in Masters’ lap. With it came what he refers to as the “toughest corporate fight I ever had.” He needed to get his cohorts to recognize that “MTV was not a radio station with pictures – which a lot of people thought it was – but a television station for teens and young adults.”
His approach worked and the MTV resurgence brought a new offer Masters’ way. He accepted a challenge to attempt a similar metamorphosis at a company called Movietime. They were to movie trailers what MTV had been to music videos. Who better to oversee that transformation to their new identity, E! Entertainment?
Masters and his talented group of programming execs concentrated on original, yet cost-efficient programming. One suggestion from Masters came to him while he was jogging. It fit the rebranding mandate and could be done on the cheap – a function of short money for this programming renaissance. Says Mohn: “Desperation led to innovation.”
The show was called Talk Soup. “When I presented it to the programming group, they thought it was a terrible idea. They hated it,” he chuckled. “I said ‘if you come up with a better show for the same budget, we’ll go with yours.’ They couldn’t, so Talk Soup went on the air.”
Talk Soup went on to launch huge careers for original host Greg Kinnear, then later Aisha Tyler and Joel McHale. It remains the only E! Entertainment show to win an Emmy.
On January 1, 1999, Masters joined Liberty Media. He undertook the new set of challenges from its chairman John Malone and his CEO Dob Bennett. Masters was hired to generate programming for the 12 to 15 anticipated stations Liberty’s interactive set-top box would provide. This planned technological device was so advanced that “even now, 15 years later, it still doesn’t exist,” chortles Mohn.
It turns out this phantom device was the ship that launched a thousand voyages while never leaving port.
With that vessel tied to the dock, Malone and Bennett changed tack. They gave Masters a new division they called Liberty Investments. He was armed with a small stake of money and charged with going out and investing in uncharted waters, or as Malone referred to it, “that Internet thing.” Masters’ first two investments were Priceline.com and TIVO. Before his four-year tenure concluded, his investment portfolio on behalf of Liberty Investments crossed the billion-dollar valuation.
Venturing into capital
Masters became what he calls an “accidental venture capitalist,” but upon closer inspection, his success is about as accidental as someone completing a Rubik’s Cube on his first try. Modesty is one thing. The Midas touch is another. Masters, who re-assumed his given name for professional purposes after leaving Liberty Media in 2002, has produced golden results whether going by Lee Masters or Jarl Mohn.
Jarl’s wife, Pamela, got the philanthropy ball rolling for the Mohns. After a good year, she suggested to her husband they give back to the community. They made lists—atop hers was the International Medical Corps and heading his was the ACLU. Thus begot the giving bug and hence, the Mohn Family Foundation, chartered in 2001.
Through this trust they would provide name recognition and financial support to worthy and needy organizations. Among the recipients have been children’s charities, human rights advocate groups, and healthcare organizations.
Looking over their charities list, one can’t help but notice that the Mohns are true “put your money where your mouth is” patrons of the arts with contributions to LACMA, MOCA, The Hammer Museum, and the J. Paul Getty Trust. Their passion is not just for art, but particularly for the Los Angeles art scene.
“The L.A art scene is remarkable,” enthuses Mohn. “It’s exactly what was happening in New York in the ’50s with abstract expressionism and is akin to what was happening in Paris at the turn of the [20th] century.” He called recently appointed Museum of Contemporary Art Director Philippe Vergne “an inspired curatorial choice who will bring a great deal of credibility to MOCA.”
Through both the art world and the Mohn Foundation’s charitable work, Jarl and Pamela have mastered the art of fundraising. His speed-dial reads like a who’s who of charities and donors. If there’s a worthy cause that’s desperately in need of a financial infusion, there’s one man to approach.
Add to that his most recent experience – 12 years on the board of Pasadena-based public radio station, KPCC, the last two and a half as chairman – and he became the perfect candidate to take over NPR.
During his tenure with KPCC, the station went from an eclectic mix of programming to an all-news and information format. It paid off too; going from the fourth-rated public radio station in L.A. to a top three public radio station nationally. It’s not just raw numbers that have improved. It’s diversity. KPCC went from a predominantly white audience to now including around 45% people of color as steady listeners.
Radio and television experience? Check. Business acumen? Check. News and journalism experience? Check. AND . . . the skills to raise money, big money? Check and double-check.
During his first month as NPR’s new topper, Mohn put together a working budget that is no longer looking at a $6.1 million operating deficit. He’s accomplished this through consolidation and manpower reassignment. He still maintains that his goal at NPR is to give everyone who works for them the proper tools and budget to succeed.
Mohn is quite proud of NPR and what it stands for. “Every study that I’ve seen shows that the brand [NPR] is the number one trusted brand for news in the United States, the number one for quality . . . it’s news for people who are smart, not intellectual.”
He’s critical of the state of affairs in news today. “Newspapers are dying. In many cities newspapers are greatly cutting back or not being printed every day. Radio news is headline news or it’s talk, ideological. 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.”
NPR stands out as a last bastion of pure news and information. Mohn vows to keep that mantle and wear it proudly. His goal, he muses, is to make NPR “the one-stop shop for truth.”
There’s another strong vow he and wife Pamela have made. It’s to keep supporting the LA art scene. In 2012, the Mohn Foundation initiated an award presented through the Hammer Museum’s biennial “Made in L.A.” exhibit. This year’s edition awarded three prizes: the $100,000 grand prize for artistic excellence, a $25,000 Career Achievement Award, and a $25,000 Public Recognition Award. (see page 130 for the winners). “What [Hammer Museum Director] Annie [Philbin] has done with the biennial completely ties in with what my interests are,” says Mohn.
Asked about his recent art purchases, Jarl indicates he’s focused on the artists who are part of the Made in L.A. exhibit. Some of his acquisitions include the works of Ricky Swallow, Kim Fisher, Brian O’Connell, Samara Golden, and Jennifer Moon.
His personal tastes favor minimalism and the “light and space” movement. A strong believer that “art becomes activated when people see it,” the Mohns open up their homes multiple times a year so the public can share in their private collections. They also generously loan works to international museums and exhibitions. Their collection doesn’t need dusting. It needs passports.
From DJ at WBUX in Doylestown, Penn. to CEO at NPR in Washington, D.C., Mohn has done quite well for himself. And in doing so, he’s doing quite well for the rest of us, too.