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  • Deirdre McCrohan

Media investor, philanthropist Arthur H. Kern was an owner, publisher of Ark


Arthur H. Kern, an entrepreneur who co-founded radio conglomerate American Media and served as co-owner and co-publisher of The Ark for more than a decade, died Nov. 16 at his home in Belvedere after a long illness. He was 76.


Mr. Kern was born Aug. 16, 1946, in Bronxville, N.Y., to Beatrice and Irving John Kern. He grew up in Scarsdale, where his father ran Dellwood Dairy, which was founded by Mr. Kern’s maternal grandfather, Aaron “Harry” Rubenfeld.


Mr. Kern used to say he “scraped his way out” of Yale University in 1968 with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy, with a little help from his “friends and fellow reprobates,” as he called them, in the a cappella singing group the Society of Orpheus and Bacchus, the SOBs.


He began a successful media career as a media buyer at Grey Advertising in New York. He quickly moved into TV, first in ad sales for KDKA in Pittsburgh and then managing stations for KDKA’s parent company, Westinghouse, starting with Pittsburgh before moving on to Chicago, Philadelphia and Baltimore. He eventually arrived in San Francisco in 1980, where he managed KPIX and hired and mentored Larry Baer, who is now chief executive officer and part owner of the San Francisco Giants.


“I was blown away by the way he thought about journalism, media and television,” Baer said last week about first meeting Mr. Kern, who joined the Giants’ ownership group himself in 2002.


“The Giants kept our connective tissue going. Our business relationship became a friendship, and we remained friends,” Baer said. “Art was very special. He was so intellectually curious, so thoughtful, so personable. He was wonderful to be around. He could talk about anything.”


In 1981, Mr. Kern became, as he would later tell people, a “reluctant entrepreneur.” With business partner Alan Beck he bought Long Island radio station WALK 95.7 and built it into American Media, a national network of 20 AM and FM stations. Amid a flurry of broadcast consolidation in 1990s, they sold American Media in 1994 to Chancellor Media, which soon became AMFM Inc. and the largest property acquired by the Clear Channel empire, now iHeartMedia.


Longtime friend Mickey Luckoff said they met when he was president of KGO radio and Mr. Kern was vice president of KPIX.


“Art and I came from the era in which broadcasters had the responsibility of serving the community, and we were both interested in the betterment of the community,” Luckoff said. “The whole idea was to bring women and minorities into the industry.”


He said the two played a lot of golf together — Mr. Kern had a great golf swing but wasn’t addicted to the sport — and the two became good friends. For the past seven years, he said, they had a weekly FaceTime chat with two other broadcasters and called it the WMBA for their first names.


“He was so well thought of and a really good thinker,” Mr. Luckoff said. “If you were a friend of Art’s, you were a good friend. … When you scheduled a lunch with him, he wanted to schedule the next two.”


After selling American Media, Mr. Kern went on to invest in the internet and served on the board of Yahoo for 16 years, from 1996 until 2012, when he and three other members, including the chair, announced they were stepping down as the brand looked to reinvent itself and investors sought new leadership amid the dominance of Google and Facebook.


He and his wife, Alison Gray, bought The Ark in 2010 from publisher Marilyn Kessler, who was looking to retire after the 2009 death of her co-publisher, Barbara Gnoss. Under the couple’s tenure, the paper has won hundreds of state and national awards for its coverage of the greater Tiburon Peninsula, including back-to-back first-place awards from the National Newspaper Association in 2018 and 2019 as the best small community weekly in the U.S.


“Art was — he’s still — an inspiration,” said Executive Editor Kevin Hessel, whom the Kerns hired in 2011. “Beyond his savvy in media, he was warm, sincere and always supportive. He always had a tidbit of trivia or a joke ready to deliver with boyish enthusiasm, and he never failed to ask how you and your family were doing. I’ll miss his banter, his mentorship and his friendship.”


Mr. Kern was a prostate-cancer survivor, as was his brother, and he had a niece who died of brain cancer. The experiences made him a keen supporter of cancer research; he served on the boards of the National Brain Tumor Society, the Prostate Cancer Foundation and the University of California at San Francisco Foundation. He was also on the boards of the Environmental Defense Fund and the Tiburon Peninsula Foundation.


He treasured his involvement with the Giants and the Young Presidents’ Organization, a worldwide community of chief executives in 142 countries.


Among his friends and family, Mr. Kern was known for showing up, especially in difficult times. He accumulated affectionate nicknames, his wife said, including “Buff,” “Guapo,” “(Not So) Smart Art” and “Funcle,” aa portmanteau of “fun” and “uncle.”


He was passionate about music and played piano by ear. During his Yale years, he both sang with his a cappella choir and played keyboard and synthesizer in a rock band, The Third Section. Mr. Kern maintained his ties with his college a cappella group, hosting small summer reunions in Chatham, Mass., and holiday dinners in San Francisco. He loved singing with friends around the piano and harmonizing with his wife.


He spent summers at his home on the Little Mill Pond in Chatham with his family and friends and proudly supported the Hyannis Sound, a Cape Cod a cappella group.


Mr. Kern moved from San Francisco to Belvedere about 25 years ago and loved socializing with the Belvedere Sailing Society, particularly the annual progressive party on the Belvedere Lagoon, in which residents would start off with cocktails at one resident’s house and kayak or row to different homes in succession for drinks and dinner, singing carols to piano accompaniment, often with Mr. Kern at the keyboard.


The party started at the home of Claude Perasso, who met Mr. Kern at one of those parties when Mr. Kern offered to help him tend the bar. They quickly became friends.


“He was one of the most thoughtful, insightful, interesting people I’ve ever known,” Perasso said. “Even in his darkest moments, he would ask you how you were going and what you were doing. He was very selfless that way.”


He called Mr. Kern “an incredibly compassionate, empathetic and loyal friend.”


“If you asked him how he was doing, he would respond, ‘All the better for being with you.’”


In addition to Gray, his wife of 14 years, Mr. Kern is survived by his brother, Robert M. Kern of Bronxville, N.Y.; his cousin, Judy Kleinberger of Manhattan; his sister-in-law, Valerie Hurley of Charlotte, Vt.; niece Erin Kern-Page and her wife, Terra Kern-Page, of Toronto; two grandnephews, Grady and Jasper Kern-Page; Harry the cat; and a wide circle of extended family members and friends. His older brother, John, died in May.


Celebrations of his life will be held in early 2023, first in the Bay Area and then in the New York area, where he will be buried.


Donations may be made to UCSF Adult Hematopoietic Malignancies, the Environmental Defense Fund or to the charity of one’s choice.


Reach Deirdre McCrohan at 415-944-4634.

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