Off-Ramp host John Rabe talks with incoming NPR President Jarl Mohn. Mohn has been a top radio DJ, a guiding force at MTV and VH1, and now promises to raise the kind of money NPR deserves, given its audience numbers and quality. Mohn served on the SCPR board (KPCC's parent company) from 2002-2014, acting as chair the last two years, and has given close to $7 million to the station.
"To reach 38-million people in the United States each week, reach that number of people, and be struggling financially, is silly. Particularly given the kind of person that listens to NPR or KPCC, it's silly; that's just outrageous." -- Jarl Mohn
On July 1, Jarl Mohn will take over NPR, an organization with a troubled bottom line, but, in his words, "spectacular" programming. While some may scoff at his commercial background — he helped shape the modern media by programming MTV and VH1 — Mohn promises to bring commercial business practices to public radio to leverage the power and quality of its huge audience.
In a long interview for Off-Ramp at the Mohn Broadcast Center, Mohn talked about his upbringing, his career as a DJ and station owner, the MTV and VH1 years, his time at the ACLU of Southern California, and his plans for NPR.
His name, Jarl Mohn: "Weird, very weird. Very bad name for radio," he said. His father, instead of naming him Earl Mohn, Jr., turned to the Norwegian original, Jarl. Mohn is a German last name.
Radio career: His family didn't have a TV or radio; he was expected to entertain himself by reading books. "So this whole thing has been an overreaction and a rebellion. My whole career has been a rebellion," he said.
He began dreaming about being a radio DJ and when he was 13, created a "mystery persona," Lee Masters, which became his radio name in the pre-NPR era when names like Ofeibea Quist-Arcton and Martin Kaste were not acceptable for radio personalities.
At 15, at WBUX, Doylestown, 30 miles north of Philadelphia, he had the "God squad" shift, playing religious programs on Sunday morning. Ten years later, he was doing afternoons at the Top 40 station WNBC in New York.
But he was at WNBC for only two years.
"It was like many things in life, a bit of a letdown. It was so heavily formatted; it was kind of boring," he said. So he bought into a radio station in El Paso, then a few more, and then wound up programming MTV and VH1.
MTV: Mohn says ratings started to decline after the Michael Jackson "Thriller" phenomenon. "Ultimately, I concluded that what the network needed was not a radio guy, but a television guy, but I figured I better not tell them that, so I figured what would a TV guy do?"
That led to Kurt Loder, Downtown Julie Brown, the game show "Remote Control" and more. Plus, when they realized the impact they were having on society, Mohn says, the collaboration with Rock the Vote and PSA's about AIDS prevention. He says he's very proud of providing a platform for "very talented video directors, who were trying very different things. Some were spectacular." Like:
ACLU: Mohn was chairman of the ACLU of Southern California from 1994-2009, which stemmed from his wife Pamela pointing out that they were doing well and should start paying it back. His initial focus on First Amendment issues shifted to the rights of people of color, gays and lesbians, and now, "the people that really don't even have well-funded organizations that represent them," like the homeless, extremely poor, and prisoners," said Mohn. He is a democrat, but says he's backing off on "political things" with his new job about to begin.
NPR: Listen to our full interview for more details, but in short, Mohn says he'll apply his commercial media expertise to help NPR sell more of its underwriting inventory (what would be commercials in the commercial world) and get a much better price for underwriting.
"I'm really lucky in that almost everything else I've done in my career I've had to go into something where there was a massive problem with the product, and with NPR the programming is spectacular," said Mohn. "It's the business part of the business that needs the help."