I've been writing this blog for a LOOONG time now – since February 2005 to be precise. I have written SOMETHING every weekday all these years, excluding “Best of's” (like today's post) during holidays, Throwback Thursday posts, and the occasional guest posts (lately, few and far between).
I am often asked how I write a daily post, and how difficult it is to come up with new stuff every Monday through Friday. Actually, it's not as bad as you might think. Admittedly, some days are just tough, especially when I'm on the West Coast, dealing with a three-hour time change. And yes, there are the days when the ideas just don't flow.
But on most days, I've got a good topic in mind, thanks in part to a number of quiet contributors who forward me interesting articles, research findings, and other tidbits I call “blog fodder.”
Then there are small number of posts that are simply joys to write. As I joke, they write themselves. And that's not too far from the truth. These particular posts are often about someone I like very much who is doing (or has done) notable things worth celebrating because they help others, and in cases, lift the entire industry.
That sums up today's “Best of” post that originally appeared last March. It's about a good friend, a mentor, and one of those truly great people you hopefully get to meet – and better yet, work with – during the course of your career.
Please take my advice for this post seriously: ENJOY! – FJ
In the executive wing these days, there's a lot of talk about “best practices” and “scale.”
That is, how can we discover the optimal ways to run our business and how can we seamlessly duplicate those good habits and protocols across the company?
But what about when those so-called “best practices” define the behavior and interactions between high-ranking executives and their rank and file workers? Talk to most broadcast honchos these days – in radio and in TV – and they'll likely admit their businesses are being tested by two serious problems: employee recruitment and retention. How can broadcasters find talented, young people who desire a broadcasting career? And how can they hang onto their current team, many of whom have been buffeted and dispirited by two years of COVID? Or perhaps they're seeking industries with more perceived upside?
Much of this is being driven by the disruptiveness of two years of a global pandemic, of course. Veteran employees may be taking this moment to re-evaluate their lives, their careers, and how they spend their time. Fresh faced college grads have a lot to think about, including the companies for whom they wish to work and what they stand for.
So much comes down to company or organizational leadership. Is it aspirational? Better yet, is it inspirational? Does corporate have a vision? Better yet, do they have a clue? Can you imagine working for this person, this company, and its values for the next five years?
Much of what determines “how it's going” at the many companies that own radio stations emanates straight from the corner office. Setting the tone, building a culture, and being true to yourself and your staff isn't an automatic. The CEO title may convey authority, but it most certainly does not ensure loyalty, trust, values worth embracing, or a mission meant to be followed.
That's why I was taken by the recent story about Jarl Mohn, former CEO of NPR. This past December, Jarl celebrated the big 7-0. And he did it in style by becoming a member at all 251 NPR affiliate stations. For him, this meant writing a check for $1,000 per station, I don't have to do the math for you.
It was a sizable contribution to be sure. But there's nothing all that newsworthy about a generous donation or gift. Many well-heeled executives do it all the time. And simply writing a big check isn't going to make an indelible impression with staffers throughout public radio. They're smarter than that.
Jarl's contributions to public radio in general, and NPR specifically, are what so many celebrated when they received his check.
But of course, there was a catch. As Jarl explained in a recent Greater Public blog post, “I didn't want to be buried in tote bags,” the symbolic public radio membership gift that has become as much of a running joke as the old SNL bit, “Schweddy Balls.”
Instead, Jarl insisted on a station mug from each member station. And as you read this blog, Jarl and Pamelia Mohn are having a wall built in their kitchen for all those mugs. There's a lot to be said about symbolism, and it starts every day when Jarl pours that first cup of coffee. It's a reminder to him about what public radio not only represents to him, but to the nation.
Besides this amazing financial gift, what can managers, CEOs, and owners learn from Jarl Mohn? I reflected on this gift, as well as Jarl's contribution to public radio and other organizations over the years. For chief executives and for those who aspire to the top of the organizational chart, there are many leadership lessons here, just waiting to be told:
1. Authenticity – Jarl is the real deal. He spent years behind the mic and as a program director. They still talk about him in Louisville where he helped make WLRS a venerable radio station.
In the 80's, Jarl connected with Bob Pittman who had recently launched MTV. Jarl was about to take a major market radio programming job. Instead, Pittman made him the offer he couldn't refuse. He went on to run MTV and Vh1, and that where he and I first worked together.
Jarl's a radio guy, through and through. Some years back, Jarl had a medical issue. I gave him a call to see how he was doing, and 10 seconds in, he's quoting me public radio ratings – market by market.
Your staff knows if you've been there and done that. Not everyone has the wealth and breadth of experience of a Jarl Mohn. But being able to relate to your team, from the DJs, reporters, traffic managers, and salespeople instantly breaks down a lot of barriers.
2. Thinking big – At each step of his career from rock radio to MTV to E! and to, of course, NPR, Jarl has always embraced the big idea. Remember that amazing Vh1 promotion where they gave away a Corvette from each and every year from their inception – TO ONE WINNER?
That stunt was dreamed up by programmer Jeff Rowe and promotions guru Jim Cahill back when Jarl ran the place. And of course, Jarl had to “green light” the expenditure and approve the contest that ended up netting Vh1 millions of dollars in free promotion (now known as “earned media”).
So, the magnitude of becoming a member of 251 public radio stations is classic Jarl. But it's no stunt.
Jarl's commitment to and support of public radio – from the network in D.C. to a public radio station in Bangor or Anchorage – is what his 70th birthday gift was all about.
To the biggest stations like WNYC or KQED, $1,000 is a very nice donation. To a public radio operation in a small market, it is more than symbolic. It pays for myriad things, it is very generous, and it's a reminder that someone in power actually cares about more than stations in Chicago, Boston, or L.A.
3. Show up – Jarl is obviously a huge believer in Woody Allen's famous saying, “80% of success is showing up.” Jarl's donations to so many of these stations resonates more powerfully because he has actually gotten to know most of the people on the receiving end of his checks.
During his tenure at NPR, Jarl went on two “world tours.” The first encounter began on his third week as CEO back in 2014. A friend of his who owned a single-engine Beechcraft Bonanza convinced Jarl to journey all over the U.S., stopping in scores of smaller public radio markets, hanging out with the staff, and making his presence known.
Again in 2016, Jarl embarked on a driving tour of America, taking three weeks to stop and visit public radio stations along the way. And throughout his tenure, Jarl made it a point to visit stations, while attending and supporting numerous conventions, conferences, symposiums, and celebrations.
It is easy for the head honcho to gravitate to the big photo ops. But showing up in Logan, Utah or Vermillion, South Dakota is a definite sign of commitment to shaking hands and getting to know everyone in the system.
4. The power of relationships – Why undertake these tours, while also showing up at myriad public radio events? Jarl is a believer in author John Naisbitt's “Megatrends,” particularly “high-tech, high-touch.” As the world becomes more technology driven, the power of face-to-face meetings become evident.
Naisbitt also preaches about the impact of the handwritten note. And that's the “platform” Jarl has used to respond to all those mugs pouring into his Southern California home. As he explained to Greater Public:
“On a purely personal note, it’s important to me if I’m going to do something with other people to really know them and connect with them, so what I’m doing is not transactional.”
And even though NPR is a national service, Jarl has always recognized the value of a strong and meaningful local presence, whether it's in public radio or back in Louisville when he was earning his chops.
You can see it in the Instagram story Jarl wrote when he received his mug from WVPE in Elkhart, Indiana:
5. Every station (and everybody counts) – By generously spending his time with all-sized stations in the full spectrum of markets, Jarl communicates he cares about everyone. When he first got the NPR job, he told me his routine on that early morning elevator ride with members of the staff always engaged the employee.
He'd ask them what they were working on, and took the time to listen to NPR staffers of all stripes. As he told Greater Public:
“Personal relationships are even more important in public radio. You can’t do it without people, and without people in each market, because local is so important. That relationship between national NPR and the smaller markets is so important.”
CEO's believe in key metrics that measure their progress. And Jarl is no stranger to the numbers. No one enjoys poring over a ratings book more than Jarl.
But when it comes to how a leader approaches his job, there are no KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) on forging relationships. It's a process with no discernable R.O.I. But for those who believe in acknowledging and validating everyone, from the journalist behind the mic to the custodian pushing the broom, it matters.
Public radio operations – even at the network level – have not historically had the highest of salary ranges. You can visibly see that when you walk through the parking lot or garage. Those who commit to public radio often do so out of a sense of commitment to the mission. And that starts with the person in the corner office.
6. Have fun – This is a guy who must have a “carpe diem” tattoo somewhere on his body. Jarl never misses a chance to try something new, while also challenging his people.
And he sees things many of us don't see. His Instagram feed is full of photos he's taken that emphasize shadows and lights. Jarl notices the world around him, and takes great joy in doing so.
When he was on the job at NPR in the early days, he agreed to keynote the Public Radio Program Directors conference. Now, this is not a crowd of pushovers.
Jarl took the time to talk about his own programming days, making sure these public radio execs knew where he came from. And then he threw down the gauntlet.
He took the liberty of giving “ratings” to many key aspects of public radio's programming – its journalism, its branding, its connection to listeners. He gave them all stellar grades.
But then he came to on-air marketing. And Jarl's grade was barely passing. He laser-beamed the audience, reminding them how NPR is one of the most trusted media brands in the world. But when it came to self-promotion, Jarl told them in no uncertain terms they needed to do better – with the quality of their messaging and its frequency.
And from the dais, he announced “Project Spark,” an initiative for affiliate stations to create “electric promos” for NPR's fabulous “Morning Edition” – and to air them with intentional frequency.
Of course, there was a prize.
One year of “Morning Edition” free.
Most stations jumped into the fray. By and large, they created better promos and they ran them with frequency.
The result? Higher ratings, of course.
I have taken something away from everyone I've ever worked for, as an employee and as a consultant.
In the early days, it was Marty Greenberg at ABC Radio who mentored and guided me.
Over nearly four decades as a consultant, I've had no one to report to nor have I endured performance reviews. Instead, I watch, I listen, and I observe the hundreds of CEOs, market managers, and programmers with whom I've interfaced with for the best part of four decades.
There have been some superstars, and some truly great people and leaders. I've also worked for some real jerks who perhaps should have pursued a different line of work.
Bottom line: You can learn from them all.
In the case of Jarl, I had the chance to see him in action twice in my career – at MTV/VH1 and thirty years later at NPR. His wisdom, his enthusiasm, and his values are worth emulating. I've seen some “important people” in action over the years, and none has done it with the panache, class, humanity, and sincerity as Jarl.
I'm looking forward to my next visit to L.A. where I hope to have a cup of coffee with Jarl.
He can bring the mugs.
And Happy Birthday, Jarl! – FJ
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Phil Redo says
Nice post, Fred – I really enjoyed my time working with Jarl while we were both doing public radio. He loves the medium as do I and he also tried to make the work a little more fun than some others think it should be. Thanks, Jarl.
Fred Jacobs says
You explained Jarl well, Phil, with a lot fewer words than I needed!
Jarl brought a tremendous spirit to NPR and public radio – the right person at the right time. Good to hear from you.