SCPR chairman Jarl Mohn to head NPR: Praised as an innovator (updated)

Newly named NPR President Jarl Mohn addressing the Nov. 2013 International Medical Corps Annual Awards Celebration at the Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Beverly Hills.
Newly named NPR President Jarl Mohn addressing the Nov. 2013 International Medical Corps Annual Awards Celebration at the Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Beverly Hills. Kevin Winter/Getty Images for International Medical Corps

Update 3:50 p.m.: New NPR President Jarl Mohn praised as an innovator

Friends and colleagues of Jarl Mohn — named Friday as president and CEO of NPR — describe him as an innovator who hopes to bring a venture capitalist’s approach to one of his greatest passions, which is public radio.

“I know Jarl has always loved NPR,” said Robert Pittman, chairman and chief executive officer of Clear Channel, who first got to know Mohn when they were radio disc jockeys in New York in the 1970s. Later, Mohn joined MTV as executive vice president and general manager, which Pittman co-founded.

“He has an infectious enthusiasm for the product,” Pittman said.

RELATED: New NPR president Jarl Mohn talks about what's next for the network

Mohn has been semi-retired for more than a decade – spending his time serving on various boards and mountain biking – and Pittman said Mohn sought his advice about returning to a top executive position, since Pittman had followed a similar path, becoming Clear Channel’s CEO in 2012 and chairman in 2013.

“This was something that was irresistible to him,” Pittman said. “As he begin to look at it, he got excited, and I think it reignited a passion for creativity and building a team.”

Mohn — who has served on the Board of Trustees of KPCC's parent, Southern California Public Radio, since 2002 — has given close to $7 million to SCPR; the organization’s Pasadena headquarters bears his name. But he has contributed more than just money. Mohn has served as chairman of SCPR's board since 2012.

“Our ‘No rant, no slant’ slogan, Jarl came up with that,” said SCPR President Bill Davis, who counts Mohn as one of his best friends. “He called me from an airplane, and he said he had an idea, and we used it. It was really a fantastic way of introducing public radio to listeners who had never thought about listening to public radio before.”

On his LinkedIn profile, Mohn describes his current occupation as an Angel Investor. He’s well regarded among fellow venture investors, according to Woody Benson, a Boston-based venture capitalist who served on the board of KickApps with Mohn a few years ago.

“Everyone wants to have him on their board,” said Benson, who thinks Mohn is well suited to innovate at NPR. “People like me and him, you believe that because you’ve seen the advent of these new technologies. It’s never a question of if; it’s a question of when and how.”

Putting a venture capitalist in charge of NPR is exactly what the organization needs, said Ernest J. Wilson III, Dean of the USC Annenberg School, who served on the board of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting from 2000 to 2010.

“If we look at the turmoil and challenges faced by traditional journalism, one has to innovate,” Wilson said. “We have got to think outside the box.”

Mohn joined the USC Annenberg Board of Councilors in 2004 and was chair until this fall. And like others who know Mohn well, Wilson believes he is an ideal choice for NPR.

“He brings an extraordinary combination of talents that are difficult to find in one person,” Wilson said. “In Jarl, we have extraordinary talents from across the public sector, the private sector and nonprofits all wrapped up in one person.”

—Ben Bergman

Previously: Jarl Mohn — chairman of KPCC's corporate parent, Southern California Public Radio — was named on Friday as the next president and chief executive officer of NPR. He succeeds Gary Knell, who left last year after only 21 months on the job to head the National Geographic Society. Mohn is NPR's seventh president in about seven years and begins the new position on July 1.

"This is not a job for me. It is a mission," Mohn, 62, said in an NPR press release. "I love public radio and NPR. It is a national treasure and more important now than ever."

In addition to his leadership of KPCC and SCPR, Mohn was a radio disc jockey for nearly two decades before rising through the corporate ranks to create E! Entertainment Television, Inc., which is now part of NBC Universal.

Mohn assumes the top job at NPR at a challenging time for the network, and not just because of the high turnover in the executive suite. With a multimillion-dollar deficit, NPR reduced its staff by 10 percent last year through voluntary buyouts, which were some of the most substantial staff cutbacks in the history of the network.

“What I think I can do and be helpful on, hopefully, is to make sure that the organization has the resources that it needs,” Mohn told KPCC’s Take Two. “Budgets are tight, there have been deficits reported for NPR and what I hope I can do is help raise money and help the organization not just survive, but really grow and thrive in a very new and competitive media landscape."

Last year, NPR's  board approved a budget for fiscal year 2014 that included an operating cash deficit of $6.1 million. Paul G. Haaga Jr. has served as acting president and CEO of NPR since Knell left in September.

Mohn has served on the SCPR Board of Trustees since 2002 and as its board chair since 2012, SCPR said in a statement:

Through his Mohn Family Foundation, he has been one of SCPR’s leading donors and helped fund the Mohn Broadcast Center in its Pasadena studios. He led the board through a significant expansion and diversification of SCPR’s newsroom and in transforming the organization into a multi-platform public media news organization.

"On a personal level, I am thrilled for Jarl. It is as if my older brother got the best job in the world," said Bill Davis, president of SCPR, in a statement.  "As someone who has toiled in the public radio vineyard for three decades, I am thrilled that NPR will have such a passionate, intelligent and creative leader. As the President of SCPR, I will be eternally grateful for Jarl's wise and generous support of our public service mission." 

Before his affiliation with SCPR, Mohn is credited with creating E!, where he served as president and CEO from 1990 to 1998, and was the founding president and CEO of Liberty Digital, which invested in mid-stage cable networks and Internet companies.

Mohn also served as executive vice president and general manager of MTV and VH1, where he oversaw the networks' transition away from music videos in favor of longer-form programming, including shows like "Yo! MTV Raps" and "Remote Control."

A 2005 article in TV Week offered praise of Mohn:

He has shown a knack for recognizing business trends in communications early on and then working or investing in the areas he found promising. In the 1970s that meant moving from AM to FM radio just as FM was becoming dominant. 

Prior to his career in television, Mohn enjoyed a successful 19-year career in radio. He began as a disc jockey by the name of Lee Masters and moved through the ranks as a programmer, station manager and then owner of a group of radio stations.

Mohn served on the Board of Councilors of the USC Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism for nine years, according to NPR.

Originally from Doylestown, Penn., Mohn attended Philadelphia’s Temple University, where he studied mathematics and philosophy. He lives in Brentwood, Calif., with his wife and two children. 

Correction: An earlier version of this story mistakenly said that Jarl Mohn was the seventh president of NPR, rather than the seventh president in about seven years. KPCC regrets the error.

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