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Former Louisville DJ to lead NPR

By Andrew Wolfson The Courier-Journal

LOUISVILLE - The time was the early 1970s and the place an apartment on Zorn Avenue, where young disc jockeys Coyote Calhoun and Mick Dolan were getting ready to hit the town one Friday night, only to realize their roommate, WAKY's Lee Masters, wouldn't be coming along.

"I'm going to be staying in the next couple of weeks," Calhoun recalled him saying. "I have been neglecting my reading lately."

More than 40 years later, Masters - real name, Jarl Mohn (pronounced Yarl Moan) - has been named CEO of NPR - formerly known as National Public Radio, with 350 news staffers worldwide and 835 member stations, including three in Louisville, that are heard by 35 million people a week.

Calhoun, Gary Burbank and other former colleagues in Louisville, where Masters worked off and on from 1972 to 1982, say his appointment this month is hardly a surprise, that even when he was in his 20s they recognized him as a media genius.

Calhoun says Mohn, now 62, was the "smartest person I ever worked with in broadcasting." And Ed Henson, who hired Mohn to program music at album rock station WLRS, said he had a keen ear for music and his audience.

"He realized that running a radio station wasn't playing the music you want - that is what record collections were for," Henson said.

Johnny Randolph, who hired Masters in 1972 to spin records at WAKY, then one of the nation's leading Top-40 stations, said: "I remember at the time thinking that this guy is really going to do something. I just didn't know what."

What Masters went on to do was to shape nearly every aspect of modern media culture.

He ran MTV and the VH1 networks from 1986 to 1990. He founded the E! Network, stayed there nine years, and made his first fortune by selling it. Then he started and ran Liberty Digital, a pioneer in interactive television and Internet enterprises, which he sold, making his second fortune.

"He has enough money to live on the beach for the rest of his life - and for several lives," said Henson, now a radio-station broker. "Running NPR is a mission for him."

Mohn owns residences in Manhattan; Deer Valley, Utah, the ski resort; and Brentwood, the affluent suburban Los Angeles neighborhood, where he and his wife, Pam, host an annual film festival, dubbed "MohnDance," in their $2 million screening room.

In 2010 he gave $4 million to a public radio station in Pasadena to build a new headquarters, which now bears his name, and he has been the chairman of Southern California Public Radio.

Humble beginnings

Mohn has come a long way from his hometown of Doylestown, Pa., where at age 12, he said, his parents couldn't take care of him and his two sisters - and a court sent them to live at a home for destitute children.

In a phone interview, Mohn said his family had never had a radio at home, and at night he would go up to the attic of the Tabor Home for Children and pretend to be a DJ.

His dream came true when he was 15 and got his first job behind the microphone at a Doylestown station. By the time he arrived in Louisville at age 20, he was already a veteran of more radio gigs than "Elvis has Cadillacs," The Louisville Times Scene magazine said in a 1976 profile.

Mohn said he learned how to manage talent from Randolph, whose lineup at WAKY included superstars such as Burbank, Bill Bailey and Calhoun.

Mohn took over the coveted afternoon-drive slot from Burbank in a mock incident - they pretended on air that an angry fan stormed into the studio on River City Mall and shot Burbank, who, as he lay dying, turned over the microphone to Masters.

Old sound checks show Masters was relentlessly upbeat as he spun hits by artists such as Dawn, Rare Earth and the American Band and reached out to the station's teen audience.

"Don't forget to tell us what high school you go to when you call!" he said as he opened the request line for a March 1974 show.

At WLRS, he cultivated a laid-back image, his hair in a huge Afro and wearing aviator glasses, but he was a stickler for the format and would call announcers from home whenever they deviated, recalled Duke Meyer, who was one of them.

But Terry Meiners, whom Masters teamed with Ron Clay for their popular show "Morning Sickness," said he would also call as they went on the air at 5:30 a.m. and simply say: "Go get 'em. Make 'em laugh."

 

Louisville 'like a magnet'

During his tenure in Louisville, Masters left twice, for stations in Miami and New York, but kept coming back, the final time to buy stations, including what was then WAVE-AM, with the Hensons.

"Louisville has been like a magnet to me," he said.

Part of the attraction is his wife, the former Pam Orwin, of Somerset - whom he met on a date set up by then-rock 'n' roller Will Cary and his wife, Kathy Cary, now owners of La Peche. Henson was the best man at the Mohns' wedding.

Mohn said he still chats with Burbank and Calhoun, and met them a couple of years ago for dinner when he was in Cincinnati for a meeting of Scripps Networks Interactive, one of nine boards on which he serves.

"We said, 'You're buying,' and hell yes, he did," Calhoun said.

As the eighth head of NPR in eight years, Mohn inherits a projected deficit of $6.1 million and an "impossible" job, said Donovan Reynolds, president of Louisville Public Media.

"You have to deal with staff, with the board, with Congress and with the audience," Reynolds said. "Plus you have to decide where to make investments when people's media habits are changing almost daily."

Some conservatives, who have blasted NPR over the years for liberal bias, already have complained about Mohn, who chaired the Southern California chapter of the ACLU from 1994 to 2009 and has given $217,000 in political contributions since 1990, most of it to Democratic candidates and political committees.

Mohn has said he will stop making political contributions when he starts at NPR July 1.

He has told NPR reporter David Folkenflik in an interview that he realizes others may be alarmed at the prospect of an entertainment executive running the cerebral public network.

"'Oh my God. This guy's coming in. He's worked at MTV. He's worked at VH1. He's worked at E! This is the direction we're going?' And I can tell you with 100 percent certainty: Absolutely not."

Reynolds said he's never met Mohn but has heard great things, including from Meyer, who now works at WFPK.

Will the Louisville stations get more money because of Mohn's ties to Louisville?

"We'll have to see about that," he said.

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