How a Former D.J. Turned Philanthropist Became a Force in Public Radio

In 1967, Lee Masters launched his broadcast radio career as a 15-year-old disk jockey in his hometown of Doylestown, Pennsylvania at WBUX-AM. The biggest hits that year included “All You Need Is Love” by the Beatles, “Ruby Tuesday” by the Rolling Stones, and Bobby Gentry's “Ode to Billie Joe.” That year was big for non-commercial radio too since the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and National Public Radio (NPR) both trace their roots back to the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967.

For 19 years, Masters plied his trade on AM radio, while NPR grew into national network. If you’ve recently listened to NPR in New York on WNYC, or in Los Angeles on KPCC or KCRW, you’ve probably heard mention of support by the Mohn Family Foundation. What does Mohn have to do with Masters? They’re the same guy—Jarl Mohn (pronounced Yarl Moan), following a stellar career in commercial broadcasting, has shifted his focus to the left side of the FM dial. He is now the CEO of NPR.

Masters worked his way up in radio, moving to WNBC-AM in New York in the 1970s, becoming a station programmer and general manager. He bought a piece of a radio station in El Paso and another in Louisville. He kept buying until old friend Bob Pittman, the CEO of MTV networks, approached him about running the music video network. Facing a declining audience as the novelty of music videos wore off, Masters realized that MTV was not a radio station with pictures but a TV network for young adults. As executive vice president and general manager of MTV and VH1 from 1986 to 1990, he restructured both networks to include programming beyond music videos.

His success there led to tackling another challenge: reshaping a company called Movietime into E! Entertainment Television. As the network’s president and CEO from 1990 to 1998, he brought in low-cost programming like Talk Soup that rebroadcast clips from talk shows on other networks with comments by the host. The show launched the career of its original host Greg Kinnear and is still the only E! Entertainment show to win an Emmy Award.

In 1999, Masters was hired by Liberty Media to take advantage of pending desktop programming technology that never materialized. Instead, Chairman John Malone gave Masters a stake to invest in internet-based ventures. Masters' first two investments were in Priceline.com and TIVO. Within 4 years, the Liberty Investments portfolio topped $1 billion.

By the year 2000, he and his wife Pamela thought that it was time to give something back to society, so they founded the Mohn Family Foundation. Recipients of the foundation’s largesse include the International Medical Corps, and the American Civil Liberties Union. The Mohns also gave heavily to Los Angeles museums, including the LA County Art Museum, the Museum of Contemporary Art the Hammer Museum, and the J. Paul Getty Trust. It wasn’t just his own money he gave away; he cajoled fellow philanthropists into giving as well.

In 2002, Mohn left Liberty Media and reassumed his given name. That year, he joined the governing board of KPCC-FM in Los Angeles, Southern California Public Radio (SCPR). He was the major force behind the opening of a new studio for the public radio station in 2010 called the Mohn Broadcast Center. For two and half years, he served as SCPR’s Chairman of the Board. In 2014, Mohn threw his hat in the ring for a more demanding job.

Last May, NPR announced that it had chosen Mohn as its president and CEO. NPR programs are carried on 959 stations that average 34.1 million weekly listeners. Mohn faces a considerable challenge—expanding NPRs audience while tackling its financial shortfalls. He has made a major outreach to corporate America one of his priorities. “What I think I can do and be helpful on, hopefully, is to make sure that the organization has the resources that it needs,” Mohn said interview on the KPCC show Take Two. “Budgets are tight, there have been deficits reported for NPR, and what I hope I can do is help raise money and help the organization not just survive, but really grow and thrive in a very new and competitive media landscape.”

Since Mohn’s background is commercial media and philanthropy, he is an unconventional choice, but in a challenging media environment, Mohn’s success with rebranding and fundraising could be just what NPR needs. "This is not a job for me. It is a mission. I love public radio and NPR. It is a national treasure and more important now than ever," said Mohn.