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Radio Days

As Bill Kling steps down, 45 years after founding Minnesota Public Radio, he leaves behind the nation’s largest public-radio network—and a model for restoring reason to the airwaves

Radio Days
Photo by David Ellis

(page 1 of 3)

Bill Kling used to destroy radios. He was a kid in St. Paul then, stringing long antennas from his parents’ garage to trees around the yard so he could pick up faraway radio stations in Chicago, St. Louis, and New York.

He would tinker with one radio after another until their guts were hanging out and he had figured out how they worked.

A decade later, fresh from graduate school, he was building radio stations. He began in 1966 at St. John’s University, his alma mater, where the resident Benedictine monks and the new college president, Father Colman Barry, wanted a station to broadcast arts and culture programming. Benedictine monks had always been patrons of the arts, but at St. John’s they could no longer afford to commission orchestras and the like on their own. Kling was asked to helped them find a new way—via radio—to continue their mission.

The station, known then as St. John’s University Broadcasting, offered classical music, lectures, and cultural conversations to the rural listening area around the school. It lost money. Then it lost more money. It was listener-supported radio, a rather new concept in 1966. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting wouldn’t be created by Congress until 1968. Kling and others wouldn’t form National Public Radio until 1970. And even then, Sesame Street would be the only thing most people knew of public broadcasting.

Kling enlisted a board, comprised initially of St. Cloud business leaders, to help out. Sally Pope (who later became Sally Kling) introduced Kling to the philanthropic set in the Twin Cities. The station soon had major supporters and became reasonably sustainable.

St. John’s gamble on Kling had paid off. But it was clear that the venture’s potential exceeded the university’s mission and resources. So it let the station go.

That proved to be a pivotal decision. Kling moved the station to St. Paul and now, some four decades later, he’s strung together nearly four-dozen public-radio stations in Minnesota and several more across the country (most notably in southern California and Florida). Together, they comprise American Public Media, with Minnesota Public Radio—the nation’s largest public-radio network—at its core.

MPR, with 110,825 members and about 900,000 listeners a week, can claim the highest percentage of public-radio listeners in the country—nearly one in five Minnesotans. From its St. Paul headquarters, MPR produces the most classical-music programming in the country and, under the umbrella of American Public Media, it’s become the nation’s second-largest producer of syndicated public-radio programs after National Public Radio, including Marketplace, The Splendid Table, and A Prairie Home Companion. (Minnesota Monthly is a part of American Public Media.)

And MPR is no longer strictly radio. Online visitors number some 800,000 a month, logging more than a million requests every month for streaming audio and expanding MPR’s audience far beyond Minnesota. Content is also available in new media, including an iPhone app, satellite radio, and an iPad format, along with all the requisite social-media interfaces. As Kling puts it, “CBS stands for Columbia Broadcasting System, but no one calls it that anymore—it’s a mega-media company well beyond broadcasting.” Same for MPR.

“In 1967, we had a very hard time getting an FM radio signal from St. John’s to audiences in the Twin Cities,” Kling recalls. Indeed, for a while the signal would cut out every Saturday afternoon until someone realized the janitor was unplugging the amplifier to plug in his floor waxer. “Today,” Kling continues, “we get requests for ‘Friday Favorites’ on our classical service from listeners in Shanghai. The opportunities are mind-boggling.”

In his office in St. Paul, Kling recounts a few weeks of MPR programming that he believes showcased the network’s full potential. “On the classical-music service we had Brian Newhouse bringing you live coverage of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, one of the most exciting orchestras in the world, making its debut in London,” he says. “That night we broadcast the opening of the New World Symphony’s new concert hall in Miami and the next day we gathered members of the Minnesota Somali community in our studios for a live broadcast with the Africa Service of the BBC that was heard in Minnesota, London, and the full continent of Africa. On the news service, we had live coverage of the demonstrations in Egypt, such that Ken Doctor, the national media critic in California, wrote an article saying he couldn’t find good coverage on the radio locally until he began streaming MPR. Then we got a tweet during the Current’s sixth-anniversary celebration that week from someone who told us, ‘The Current’s why I live in the Twin Cities.’ ”

Kling pauses, searching for the right word to sum this all up: “That’s impact.”

At the end of June, Kling will step down as MPR’s president and CEO. Yet after 45 years, he’s still focused on the future. Commercial news media is hurting, he notes. Ad revenues have been eroded by the digital revolution. And news programs, especially on the airwaves, have morphed into shouting matches between partisan talking heads, stirring up controversy and ratings if not the facts.

“Media-driven public discontent, single-issue politics, and even veiled threats make it increasingly impossible for our national leaders
to address our country’s most pressing problems,” Kling wrote last year in a Wall Street Journal editorial.

His proposed solution: a more robust public media.

“Back when we started, in the late ’60s, the country was polarized then, too,” Kling says. “But the media wasn’t polarized. It wasn’t clouding the issues with ideology. It was Walter Cronkite, the most trusted man in America.

It was just the facts.” As balanced media outlets become weaker, Kling believes, it becomes increasingly important for public media to grow stronger.

“Offering the facts to help people make decisions about the issues we face—that’s what public broadcasting was supposed to be,” Kling says. “But it hasn’t begun to touch that potential.

“If you look at the BBC in England,” Kling continues, “it’s a sort of centering institution of the country—fact-based, reportorial-driven, a strong news service. You have tabloids to the left and right, and people read them, but then they get re-centered by the facts on the BBC. And, in this country, that’s missing.”

Kling is now working with a handful of public-radio stations across the country to build up local news coverage. And he doesn’t have to look far for a prototype.

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