In early December, NPR chief executive Jarl Mohn announced that he would be stepping down as head of the network this coming June. In the years before Mohn took the helm at NPR, the NPR chief executive was a relatively distant and disconnected player for most local public radio stations.
But, when Mohn took charge things changed. Mohn articulated the business case for developing a stronger relationship between NPR and local stations. He hired a research firm to compare the strength of NPR without local stations, a scenario many stations feared NPR would ultimately pursue, to a structure in which NPR and local stations doubled down on working together in a more intentional, collaborative way. He used data to demonstrate that it wasn’t just a feel-good idea to strategically combine forces, it was a business imperative.
Mohn’s strategy, combined with the relentless fervor and energy he dedicated to promoting it, has paid big dividends for NPR and local stations. During Mohn’s tenure, audiences for NPR’s major news programs have increased more than 20 percent for listeners over the age of 12; NPR has become the nation’s leading publisher of podcasts with 18.9 million distinct users each month; and local station fundraising has achieved dramatic growth. He also led a turnaround of NPR’s financial position, managing budget surpluses every year since his arrival and doubling corporate sponsorship revenue.
Mohn came to NPR with a unique background. First and foremost he was a broadcaster and champion of radio as a medium—some say he put the “R” back in NPR. He worked in radio for nearly 20 years, as a disc jockey, programmer, station manager and owner of a group of stations. After his stint in radio, he created E! Entertainment Television, and served as its president and CEO for almost a decade. He also served as executive vice president and general manager of MTV and VH1 where he designed the strategy of long-form programming that became the heart of the network. And, he was founding president and CEO of Liberty Digital, a public company that invested in cable networks, the Internet and online businesses. While much of Mohn’s professional life has been focused on commercial media enterprises, he is a public radio zealot. Prior to joining NPR in 2014, Mohn served on the board of trustees of Southern California Public Radio/KPCC for more than a decade, including two years as chairman. He also spent over 12 years on the board of The Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism, including six years as its chair.
In announcing his departure as NPR chief executive, Mohn described his work at NPR, and with local stations, as the highpoint of his long media career. Mohn wrote: “I’ve had a lot of jobs in the media … but none have made me more proud than this one. It is the most meaningful work I’ve done, by far. The vital work of this organization and its Member stations—your work—is changing lives and building a better future for this country. That isn’t an exaggeration.”
As he leaves the top job at NPR, Mohn also announced that, with the enthusiastic support of the NPR board, he will accept a new volunteer position as NPR president emeritus and remain on the NPR Foundation board. As president emeritus, Mohn will spearhead a campaign to raise significant contributions to advance NPR’s future prior to its 50th anniversary in 2020. To kick-off that campaign, Mohn and his wife, Pam, announced that they are making a $10 million contribution to NPR. In announcing his gift and new role at NPR, Mohn wrote: “I’m thrilled that I will maintain my connection with you and your work in this new role, and continue the tremendous momentum we have begun together. We have made so much progress in strengthening NPR and public radio… We are creating new, high-quality content for all the ways audiences are consuming media. NPR and Member stations are coming together in a renewed spirit of partnership. There is no other news organization doing what NPR does, and that work deserves the support of more philanthropists and foundations… We invite others who care about quality journalism and public service to join us in investing in this remarkable institution and its journalists.”
CEOs like Jarl Mohn don’t come along often. Part media expert, part philanthropist, Mohn guided NPR and stations around the country toward a common destiny and left us with a clear vision of our opportunities and challenges in the years ahead. For that, we are grateful … the rest is up to us.
Paul Westhelle is JPR’s Executive Director.