“One of the things I like about the world of art and the world of venture capital is that it's a matter of believing in and supporting ideas.”
Jarl Mohn is President Emeritus and CEO at NPR. His expansive career in media includes founding and serving as President and CEO of E! Entertainment Television, serving as the Executive Vice President and General Manager of MTV and VH1, and founding the cable networks investment company Liberty Digital. He has made over 60 early-stage venture investments in companies including: StubHub, App Annie, Red Car Wine, FreshPet, Oxygen Media, Bitium and Riot Games. Mohn is also a philanthropist and art collector who created The Mohn Family Foundation 2000. His foundation supports philanthropic missions for social justice, civil liberties, public radio, and the arts in his hometown of Los Angeles.
In this interview, Jarl Mohn takes us through his journey from working as a 15-year-old disk jockey to becoming a leader in the media industry. He also shares his insight into collecting art and the importance of supporting artists.
TGL: Where did you grow up?
JM: I grew up in a town right outside Philadelphia called Doylestown.
TGL: What did you study?
JM: My majors were Mathematics and Philosophy, but I had fallen in love with radio when I was a teenager, and I decided that I was going to be a disc jockey. It was a kind of dumb career choice, but I pursued it. I began working professionally when I was 15 as a disc jockey in and around the Philadelphia area.
TGL: How did you get into being a disc jockey?
JM: My parents let me do my thing. I had three jobs after school, saved my money, and got my engineering license - an FCC, Federal Communications Commission, license. I went to a school to get this license one summer when I was 15 so the little radio station in my hometown could hire me. First, I just ran tapes on the weekends - the religious tapes with the Preachers on Sunday - and then I started playing records and being a disc jockey. I was doing this while I was in high school and in college. I ended up working at a radio station in Wilmington, Delaware, midnight to six a.m. and commuting into Philadelphia to take classes during the day. It ultimately got to be too much, so I stopped going to class and never finished college. I am a college dropout.
TGL: Were you a successful DJ?
JM: When I began at 15 I wasn't very good, but I ended up here in New York when I was 25 at WNBC. I did that for sometime, and then I got into programming stations and managing stations, and I bought some stations - that's how my career began. Then, I got into the cable business. I ran VH1 and MTV, and then I created E! Entertainment.
TGL: How did you make the transition from being a DJ to being in a management position?
JM: Before I came to New York, I was actually programming some radios, because one of the stations I worked at needed a program director, and I raised my hand. I ended up being more successful as a program director than I ever was as a disc jockey. I didn't necessarily want to be a manager, but it was kind of the next step. After a period of time, I started to be bored of being on the radio, I wanted more of a challenge.
TGL: Were you in New York or Los Angeles when you created E! Entertainment?
JM: I was in New York for MTV, but I would spend a lot of time in LA. I really loved being there with the record companies, recording artists, and managers. I was hoping that at some point I could make it there. When the opportunity came up to create E! in Los Angeles, I took the opportunity.
TGL: What was your starting point for creating E! Entertainment?
JM: There was an existing cable channel called Movietime, but it wasn't doing very well. A number of cable operators owned it, including HBO. They approached me and asked if I would be interested in being CEO, so we negotiated, it was a collaborative effort to come up with this idea. They had the basic idea to do entertainment or celebrity news 24 hours a day. Together, we built a management team, we had great people to make it happen.
TGL: What is your secret formula for successfully managing a team?
JM: I had managed as a program director and radio station manager, but they were much smaller teams. Most of the radio stations were 30 or 40 people; when I got to VH1, it was must have been about 100 people, and then at MTV it must have been 300. I was progressively managing larger groups of folks and learning the way many people do: trial and error, making mistakes, trying not to duplicate some of the errors. I had seen a variety of experiences myself.
TGL: Are you still involved with E! Entertainment?
JM: No, I sold my shares there in 1998 and I went to work for Liberty Media. We had a publicly traded company called Liberty Digital, which we did for a number of years. Then I did venture investing for myself for 13 years. That's how I went to NPR.
TGL: Did you have any training in finance?
JM: No, again, it's just like many things, it was accidental. When we created Liberty Digital, Liberty Media had been an investor, and they wanted to create a company that created interactive channels for cable television. That matched my background, not the interactive part, but the programing part. For some technological reasons, however, that never came to be, so the company's idea was to use this to invest in interactive technology. I don't have any background in investing, but I'm the CEO of the company, so I hired a bunch of folks that worked at strategic consultant groups and had backgrounds in finance and performing due diligence of investments. They became the team that worked with me on investing, so I was given this opportunity to do venture investing. I liked it, and our group was successful, so after a period of four or five years, I made the decision to invest from my own account. I invested my money in venture and start-up companies in Los Angeles for 13 years until I took this job at NPR.
TGL: How did you transition from venture investing to becoming the CEO of NPR?
JM: I was spending some of my personal time on not for profit activities, one of which was the public radio station in Los Angeles, KPCC. I became chair of that board and I was involved in USC, University of Southern California’s School of Communication and Journalism. NPR was interested with my not for profit activities in Journalism and my background in media. NPR had high turnover in CEOS. Counting interim CEOs, I was the 7th in 8 years.
TGL: Why did you take this position?
JM: I looked at it from afar and said, "I think I can be helpful." They approached me and asked if I would consider it, and I said, “Yeah.” Then, they asked if I would do it for five years, and I said, “Sure.” I just completed my five year term, and the team that we put together turned around the finances, going from losses to surpluses. We had five years of surpluses - That's something that is really meaningful to me.
NPR has always been a great organization, a great institution. The people have done great work for many, many years. The business side of the equation wasn't tended to as well, in my opinion, and we now have a team here that's done a great job of making the business work.
TGL: What was the biggest challenge at NPR?
JM: Putting a focus, being able to do great journalism, great storytelling, good public service journalism, and doing it in a financially responsible way. I focused on building the business side, doing what we needed to do to bring money in through sources to support us.
TGL: You have lived many lives already, what’s your next chapter?
JM: I don't know exactly, but it will probably have a lot to do with art - collecting and supporting artists. One of the things I like about the world of art and the world of venture capital is that it's a matter of believing in and supporting ideas; in the case of art and artists, it's people with creative ideas, and with entrepreneurs, it is business ideas. I get exposed to new ideas and great thinkers, so I find artists and entrepreneurs very inspiring.
TGL: You created the Mohn prize at the Hammer Museum in 2012. How did you begin engaging with art?
JM: My introduction to the arts has been in three phases. The first phase was the way many people collect art: as a neophyte, as someone who didn't know anything about it and really wasn't educated in art. I was buying a little of this, a little of that. "Oh I like that photograph," "I like that painting," "I like that sculpture." Then I started reading about art, what collecting is about, and learning more and more. Much of what I was reading said that if you want to have a collection it should mean something, it should have a theme, it should have a thread, it should have some kind of underlying piece.
TGL: What was your underlying thesis?
JM: I kind of stumbled onto what I wanted to collect after collecting haphazardly for or 8 or 9 years. I bought a John McCracken stainless steel piece in New York. I'd never spent that much money on a work of art, but once it was installed, I knew that it was what I wanted to collect: Minimalism and the California response to light and space. New York minimalists and California Light and Space artists, and that's the bulk of my primary collection.
About 10 years or so into that, after I learned and studied and understood what I wanted to collect, I knew the artists and the work and the series. It was just a matter of finding them, and I missed the element of discovery. At the same time, I realized that something amazing was happening in Los Angeles in terms of creativity, so I started another collection of emerging LA artists - that's where I got involved with the Hammer.
I had these two collections going, the historical collection of Minimalism in the United States and this exciting collection of new, emerging artists, or in many cases, the under recognized artists that the Hammer had recognized.
TGL: Are your collections exhibited at your house?
JM: The Minimalism and the Light and Space collection exists at my home in LA, but the artworks I collect from LA artists I keep in New York, so people here can see it.
TGL: You once said in an interview, "Anyone who buys any art, from anyone, for any reason, is a hero." Could you explain what you mean?
JM: I think art is such an important thing. You're so engrossed it, engaged in it all, but most artists barely make it and many don't, so I think anyone that is supporting artists, the creation of art, for whatever reason, is a hero. It's a great thing, and it keeps the craft alive, it keeps the artisans alive, and hopefully, being able to make their work. Some people are critical of what other people collect, or are critical of the way people collect or buy things, but it doesn't matter to me. Anybody that's engaged in supporting art and artists, I think it’s a good thing.
TGL: Who would you like to have dinner with that you don’t already know?
JM: The first thing that pops into my mind - this is going to sound really corny - but the Dalai Lama. If it was a musician, it would probably be Bruce Springsteen. My reason is, although I am a fan of his work, I'm also a fan of the way he approaches his work. He's very committed.
TGL: What advice would you like to give to The Genius List’s readers?
JM: I don't give anyone any advice, and the reason is, everybody is in a different place, everybody's situation is different. It's presumptuous of me to assume that I know something that's going to be of any interest or value. I don't want to give anyone advice, but for those that are making art, just thank you, continue making art. Those who are buying art, I encourage them to continue doing that. Support artists and support institutions that support artists, like museums, particularly ones that are allowing artists to do really unusual, interesting, experimental stuff.