NPR taps E!, MTV veteran as new CEO
WASHINGTON — NPR named a veteran media executive and investor as its new chief executive Friday, the eighth person to head the Washington-based digital and radio news organization in the past eight years.
NPR’s board approved the appointment of Jarl Mohn, 62, as the new chief executive at its regularly scheduled meeting. Mohn, who lives in Los Angeles, is the founder of the E! Entertainment Television cable channel and has a long list of media investments and corporate board appointments on his resume. Among others, he was general manager of MTV and VH1 cable networks between 1986 and 1990.
He and his wife, Pamela, are also prominent art collectors and philanthropists. They have made the list of top collectors compiled annually by ArtNews several times, most recently in 2013.
Mohn’s strongest connection to public radio is through KPCC-FM, the Pasadena, Calif., station that is among the top-rated noncommercial stations in the country. Mohn gave $4 million to the station for construction of its new headquarters building, which was dubbed the Mohn Broadcast Center in 2010. He is chairman of Southern California Public Radio, which operates the station.
He started his career as a radio DJ under the name Lee Masters, which he used during his business career until retiring from daily management roles in 2002. He then reverted to his given name (pronounced “yarl moan”).
NPR has experienced turbulence in its top position since the retirement of chief executive Kevin Klose in 2006. Since then, it has seen a succession of CEOs, including three interim executives.
The last permanent CEO, Gary Knell, left in November at the end of his two-year contract. He joined the Washington-based National Geographic Society as its chief executive in January. He was succeeded on an interim basis last year by Paul Haaga Jr., a former investment executive.
Mohn, who has a reputation as a turnaround specialist, will inherit an organization that has been battling persistent operating deficits. It is projecting a deficit of $6.1 million in its current fiscal year, or about 3 percent of its projected revenue of $178 million. The gap between revenue and expenses led NPR to offer buyouts to its 840 employees in September, in an effort to pare about 10 percent of its staff.
Republicans have periodically challenged federal subsidies for public radio and TV, but those efforts have been unsuccessful for years.
Public records indicate that Mohn supported a series of Democratic candidates in statewide races, including the Massachusetts gubernatorial campaign of Robert Reich, President Bill Clinton’s secretary of labor. Reich lost in the Massachusetts Democratic primary in 2002.
NPR receives little direct support from the federal government; less than 2 percent of its revenue during its last fiscal year came from Washington. But its financial health is nevertheless dependent on continued government funding of its member stations, which pay NPR annual dues in exchange for programs such as “All Things Considered” and “Morning Edition.” Public radio stations, on average, receive about 15 percent of their budgets from federal tax sources.
Mohn became a DJ at the age of 15 in his home town of Doylestown, Pa. He spent 20 years in the radio business as a DJ, station manager and station owner before joining MTV. Under Mohn, the cable network first began playing rap music and began its transition from music videos to long-form and series programs.
Following his stint at MTV, Mohn turned a struggling cable network called Movietime, which mostly showed movie trailers, into E! The network created a franchise with its “True Hollywood Story” documentary series; Mohn is credited with the idea for “Talk Soup,” the channel’s long-running program that shows clips of daytime and reality shows over snarky commentary from its hosts. The show launched the career of actor Greg Kinnear and later, Joel McHale, who performed at the most recent White House Correspondents’ Association dinner.
Mohn was also the founding president and chief executive of Liberty Digital, the investment arm of Liberty Media Corp., from 1999 to 2002. He was eventually rewarded with $50 million in cash and 5.7 million shares of the parent company, a stake worth more than $750 million today.