Lunch at Michael’s with NPR CEO Jarl Mohn

By Lunch at Michael's Archives
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When NPR President and CEO Jarl Mohn was 15 he decided to begin pursuing his dream of working in radio.  That involved leaving his home in Doylestown, PA to earn his FCC license, learning to live on his own, working as a deejay and, in a most unusual move, changing his name – all with the full support of his parents.

“I knew at 12 that I wanted to be a disc jockey, and I knew that my name, Jarl Mohn, would not work,” he told Jack Myers and me over a recent lunch at Michael’s restaurant.  “You had to have a catchy name.  When I was 12 or 13 I created the name Lee Masters.  It sounded big and powerful.  I used it for years.”  Jarl (pictured top right with Jack) wasn’t kidding – he was known as Lee Masters throughout most of his career, from young deejay to radio station owner to programming executive at MTV Networks and E! to CEO of Liberty Digital.

“My parents said, ‘whatever,’” he recalled, continuing the story of how he launched his career, taking him from his first deejay job in his hometown to radio stations in towns and cities all over the country.  “I had to get my FCC license.  I got my First Class license when I was 15.  I had three jobs.  I saved up my money and I bought a train ticket to Sarasota, Fla., where I paid for tuition for a five-week cram course.  I went there by myself, lived in a motel for five weeks.”  His parents were cool with it, sending him off with their blessing.  “They never got in my way.  They said, ‘Yeah, okay, if that’s what you want, go ahead.’  I would never let a 15-year-old kid do that!” he laughed.

“I was mesmerized by radio; I fell in love with it,” Jarl said as he recounted the full-circle story of starting out as a deejay in small town radio stations, landing a sweet on-air gig in New York City at WNBC, moving through executive positions at television networks and media companies and ultimately landing in his current role at the helm of NPR.  “Most of the people I know who stayed as disc jockeys have not fared particularly well.  I was very lucky to move up into management.”

That luck began when Jarl was working for “a big top-40 station” in Louisville, where the competition was fierce with another leading station.  “A friend of mine from another market got a job at the competitor and needed a place to stay for a couple weeks,” he explained.  “I said, ‘Why don’t you crash at my house and look for an apartment?  You just can’t tell anybody that you’re staying here.  My boss would kill me!

“One night he was out working or something and the phone rings,” he continued.  “I pick it up and it was Bob Pittman!  Bob knew this guy and was calling to talk to him, so I took the number down and Bob and I just started talking.  He told me to stay in touch.  I sent him one of my air checks.  He’s from Mississippi and told me he drove through Louisville all the time when he was going to visit his folks.  One time he drove through town we had dinner and drinks together.  We became friends.  He went to Chicago and tried to hire me at WMAQ and WKQX.  I didn’t go.  Later he went to New York.  He kept calling me wanting recommendations for disc jockeys for WNBC.  At this point I was off the air.  I wanted to do programming.”

Jarl supplied Pittman with many names, but Pittman rejected them all.  And then it happened:  Pittman said he wanted Jarl to come and work in New York as an afternoon radio personality on WNBC.  “I was 25 at the time,” Jarl said.  “My goal when I started was to be on the air in New York by that age.”

Jarl left WNBC in 1978 and acquired a radio station in El Paso, Texas.  “In early 1979 I bought the AM/FM in El Paso and I moved down there,” he said.  “A 26-year-old Jew from New York going to El Paso!  I was single and I had more fun in El Paso than I had in New York.  In one year we were No. 1 in the market doing country music.  I sold the station a couple years later and bought another one in Louisville and moved there.  Ultimately that’s where Bob hired me for MTV.  He had launched MTV and he wanted me to be the first program director.  He wanted me to be part of the original team.  I became head of programming at VH1.  That was my first gig.”

With his gig at MTV came a memorable first impression people talk about to this day.  “I hadn’t been there three weeks and we had a sales retreat in Boca Raton,” he recalled.  “It was a typical MTV function, and I’m the new guy.  We had dinner.  After dinner people were drinking.  They were doing flaming tequila.  They’re blowing them out and drinking them.  I had spent years in El Paso.  I knew how to do a flaming shooter!  So I said to everybody, ‘Let me show you how it’s done.’  I remember everyone standing around in a semi-circle, and I threw this thing back, and at that moment there was dead silence.  I had thrown lit flaming tequila onto my beard!  It caught fire, and I was going up in flames!  I put it out and they yelled and screamed."

Jarl’s fleeting moment as a human torch proved to be the best ice-breaker in the world.  Pittman had not been there, so an embarrassed Jarl got up very early the next morning to call him and apologize.  But Pittman had already heard about it.  “He said, ‘Are you kidding me?  You’re a god to these people!’  And that’s how I began at MTV -- a place where if you were not accepted as one of the cool kids you were dead.”

At that time, Jarl reported to Tom Freston, then the Executive Vice President and GM of MTV and VH1.  Three months after starting there, Jarl recalled, rumors were flying that CEO Pittman was going to leave.  Jarl was concerned, because Bob had brought him into the company.  “I called Tom and asked if I should be worried.  Tom started laughing.  He said, ‘I’m going to promote you to my job.’  He was being promoted to Bob’s position.  ‘Do you want my gig?’ he asked.  ‘It’s yours!’  He thought it was pretty funny.”

After MTV Jarl moved on to a network then known as Movietime and oversaw its conversion to E! in 1990.  Eight years later he became CEO of Liberty Digital.  He had originally been approached by Liberty to run Fox Sports, which Liberty owned 50 percent of at the time.  "'I think that would be a mistake,' I told them.  'I don’t know anything about sports.  I don’t care about sports.'  They came back to me with two or three different ideas.  Then Liberty Digital. The Internet. Interactive TV.  I said, ‘I’m in.’”

Jarl said he “loved” working with the legendary and formidable John Malone.  “Unlike most corporate environments, the only thing that mattered to John was how well you were doing,” he explained.  “It was all numbers to him.  You didn’t have to be politically correct or be nice.  It wasn’t about his relationship with you.  The guy is brilliant.  He has a great sense of humor.  Most people don’t know it because they’re scared to death of him.  Everybody is trying to be the second smartest guy in the room, because he’s so smart.  I thought, ‘I’m not going to win that one, so I’m going to go for funny.’”

It was after he left Liberty that Jarl decided to stop using the name Lee Masters.  “I didn’t need to change it,” he said.  “When I got into the cable TV business people knew me as Lee, and when I went to Liberty it was the same thing.  When I left I started going on public boards.  I remember reading a proxy statement and it said Jarl Mohn (a.k.a. Lee Masters) and I’m thinking, ‘That does not look good in an SEC filing.'  So because I wanted to be on public boards and invest I made the decision that I would go to my legal name.  I was never legally Lee Masters.

“It took about two or three years for the rebrand to take,” he laughed.

One of Jarl’s great passions is collecting art.  “I was always interested in art,” he said, noting that his late father “vocationally taught English literature at the University of Pennsylvania but would define himself as a poet” and that his mother is an artist.

“Collectors always ask each other, ‘What was the very first art that you bought?’ and people are always stunned when I tell them, ‘You may know him from the movie business … Larry Clark,” he continued.  “One of his first series was called ‘Tulsa.’  I was attracted to that because I had lived in Tulsa.  It was one of my many stops.  He took these amazing raw photographs of junkies that he lived with in Tulsa.  I bought three photographs.  One is Larry Clark sitting on a bed shirtless with a revolver in his hand.  Another is a picture of a pregnant woman sitting in a rocking chair with a window behind her and she’s got a syringe and she’s shooting up.  The other is a baby being buried -- presumably the baby.  Everything about it looks staged.  Everything about the scene looks bad except the baby, a beautiful baby.

“I bought those, and I brought them home, and my wife Pam said, ‘Are you out of your mind?  Are you insane?  You cannot hang them in the house!’  Our two daughters were really young at the time.  I couldn’t hang it at the office – at the time I was at E!”  The photos found a home at the ACLU of Southern California, where Jarl served as Chairman for 13 years.  “They sat in the ACLU for probably ten years and the punchline to this story is, when Katrina, my oldest daughter, went off to graduate school in Chicago and had her first really nice apartment, she said she would like to have those photographs.  Now she lives in Los Angeles and those three photographs are in her house.”  (Katrina is an editor for Pearson Education and writes for arts magazines.  Youngest daughter Larkin is in the graduate program at Columbia studying bio statistics.)

Jarl has two collections; one historic, which he defines as “minimalism, California Light and Space, movements in the ‘60s and ‘70s,” the other work by emerging L.A. artists.  “I think L.A. is the creative center of the world, not just the United States, in terms of the visual arts,” he explained.  “There are more art schools and there are more artists working in the city of Los Angeles than any city in the world, by far.

“The Mohn Family Foundation helps to underwrite a biennial event at the Hammer Museum at UCLA called Made in L.A.,” he continued.  “Every other year we put on a massive show with 35 or 40 young emerging artists.  We underwrite the prize, the Mohn Award, which in the art world is a big number.  $100,000 cash, unrestricted, for whatever they want for a great artistic breakthrough, and we publish a book just for that artist.  We’ve already launched three careers out of the show.

“I hang all my L.A. art in New York,” he noted.  “I have tours for international collectors so they can see what’s happening in L.A. in a non-commercial environment.”

Reflecting on his long and varied career, Jarl said, “Each of the brands that I have been involved with had at that moment deeply loyal fans which really accounted for the success of those organizations at the time.  That’s one thing we have at NPR.  We understand what matters to people and what they are absolutely passionate about and we make sure that we don’t violate that trust.  I see an incredible analogy with MTV in the ‘80s and NPR in 2017.  What could they possibly have in common?  We were/are in both cases very, very conscious of not doing anything that would in any way harm the brand and the way people feel about it.”

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