Toward the Next Standard

State-of-the-Art Air

It has to be  one of the few radio station libraries on earth where you’ll find impressionist classical composer Claude Debussy sharing shelf space with rockers Tina & the B-Side Movement. Walking through its aisles—long, towering racks lined with every manner of compact disc—isn’t unlike traipsing down Manhattan’s windowed canyons; you get that same overwhelming sense of profligate enormity. You keep thinking, What an awesome CD collection! But the spell is broken the moment you emerge at the far end of the stacks.

There, you’re abruptly transported to something resembling a college kid’s dorm room. This is the place where half a dozen public radio luminaries are crammed together like boxed saltines along a short strip of countertop that masquerades as a workspace. The dorm-like ambiance is only enhanced by the piles of music discs resting at the feet of each employee—veritable houses of song that, a visitor is assured, topple with some frequency. Employees’ faces are all but pressed against the glass of several third-story windows that overlook the glorious vista of a downtown St. Paul parking lot. Not that anyone is gazing out the windows; these folks are busy going about the work of reviewing CDs for possible airing on Minnesota Public Radio’s hip new BBC-style pop-music service, the Current.

Welcome to just one small corner of Minnesota Public Radio’s St. Paul headquarters, a place so jammed with humanity that the old agitator Jacob Riis might have been tempted to photograph it. Not that Current DJ Mark Wheat minds his work environment. “It’s not bad,” the clean-pated Brit informs a guest with a happy grin that seems to say, “It’s all a bit free-form, really.”

Wheat, then, might be among the few insiders regretful of the changes on the horizon at Minnesota Public Radio. Launched in 1967, MPR is among the oldest and most successful public broadcasting operations in the United States, claiming 800,000 regional listeners who tune in for at least seven hours each week. Having reached the millennium not only intact, but with a growing audience—in contrast to most commercial media outlets—MPR is about to get a 120,000-square-foot, high-tech new headquarters, doubling the size of its existing campus on St. Paul’s East Seventh Street.

It can’t happen too soon for Sarah Lutman, MPR’s senior vice president of cultural programming and initiatives. Space is at a premium all over MPR, from the Current to the classical music service to the newsroom. There are just too many people, too much activity, not nearly enough breathing room. And that doesn’t even take into account the syndicated programming, such as the Classical 24 service produced by MPR’s national arm, American Public Media. “Everyone thinks it’s all glamorous and everything, but the fact is that we are so squooshed in our current facility,” Lutman says. “I have a half-cube outside my office door that we set up as a little workstation in case people needed an extra computer; it’s now the cube for six employees.”

Steve Nelson, program director for the Current, is philosophical about the predicament he and his staff find themselves in at the eclectic new pop station he manages. That’s mainly because Nelson knows it will all end when the new building is finished, probably sometime around January. “I think we’ll all look back on this and have a good laugh about how funny it was—once we move into the new building,” he says. “I’m ready to move today.”

The Smart Box

Still, MPR is doing much more than creating a bigger space for its employees, as necessary as that is. In a very real sense, by building a brand-new, all-digital headquarters, MPR is also developing a new, 21st-century mission for news and cultural programming. It’s a mission, according to MPR president Bill Kling, that is motivated in part by a desire to avoid the missteps made by mainstream commercial broadcasters.

“We looked at what’s happening in the commercial media,” says Kling, who founded MPR in 1967. “Their audiences are changing. Their idea of news is also changing; their responsibility for delivering reliable, important public service is gone now. Our concern was, Are we nourishing our audience as well as we could be? Is the news as thorough as it could be? Are we telling the right stories, the most important stories? Is the agenda right?”

These are some of the key questions behind MPR’s ongoing $46 million capital campaign, which the organization has named the Next Standard. It’s the most ambitious fundraising initiative in MPR’s history, and only the second it has ever conducted for facilities expansion. The effort went public in the summer of 2004, after MPR had privately raised some $32 million from large corporate and philanthropic donors, including a $1.5 million challenge grant from the Kresge Foundation and an $800,000 matching grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

At this writing (late July), the capital campaign was within $5 million of its goal and was expected to be taken directly to MPR listeners in early August, in a fundraising push conducted separately from the periodic membership drives. Assuming its goals are met, the campaign will wrap up in December.

According to Jon McTaggart, MPR’s senior vice president and chief operating officer, the money is needed to fund two ambitious, simultaneous facets of the Next Standard initiative: the new building itself and a new approach to the content created there.

First, the building. McTaggart describes it as a $41 million “R&D lab for programming,” and “a creative factory for content.” The center will include nine new state-of-the-art broadcast studios, numerous new editing booths, and a number of multimedia conference rooms. The full campus also will comprise the MPR-owned Fitzgerald Theater and a triangular outdoor plaza on Cedar Street.

Don Creighton, MPR’s senior vice president of technology, says the new headquarters will function, in computer-networking jargon, much like a local area network. All sonic transmissions will be formatted using Audio over Internet Protocol (AoIP) technology. This means that virtually every device in the building will be networked with a unique IP address so that, for example, a DJ could access a CD player in one studio from another studio without needing a sound engineer to patch the audio in from one room’s soundboard to the other’s. At a touch, the DJ could then put the sound of that remote CD out over the air.

Even more vital, according to insiders at MPR, is the architectural design of the building, which will unite all MPR staffers under one roof for the first time in a decade. (Currently, employees in marketing, human resources, finance, development, and new media occupy separate rented spaces in the Wells Fargo Tower and the US Bancorp Piper Jaffray Building in downtown St. Paul, working separately from on-air and content-support staff.) Designed by the Minneapolis firm Hammel, Green and Abrahamson, the new building, the exterior shell of which is complete, has a strongly horizontal feel, extending from East Seventh Street all the way to Central Presbyterian Church at the corner of Cedar and Exchange streets. When finished, its wings will be separated by a large, airy, glassed-in atrium and central staircase that will allow virtually anyone working in the building to spot anyone else from a distance.

“I think the main advantage for the new building, in addition to just space—everyone can fit and everyone can look at each other—is that it’s going to be built for what we do now,” says Mike Mulcahy, MPR’s longtime capitol correspondent and now its political editor. “Hopefully, we’ll be building in enough flexibility so that when the technology changes over the next 20 or 30 years, we’ll be able to work with it instead of work around it.”

In short, says McTaggart, the whole building is designed to spark communication among members of all departments. The architecture alone, he maintains, will help make MPR better for its radio listeners and Web visitors alike. Even the lobby is part of the plan, he says. It will include an expanded gift shop and technological exhibits that MPR executives hope will draw the public onto the campus, the better to share their ideas for improving the organization’s news and arts coverage.

“The cultural anthropologists will say that communication between people is directly proportional to their proximity—as people get farther apart, they communicate less,” he says. “Bringing them together will increase the kinds of programming and the quality of the programming. This is about our ability to create more and to create better.”

Radio Culture

That leads to the second major component of the Next Standard initiative: a planned $3.75 million investment in enhanced content, both for radio and MPR’s well-regarded website ( This effort includes the launch of what MPR has dubbed Public Insight Journalism (PIJ), which Bill Buzenberg, MPR’s senior vice president of news, calls “a revolution in sourcing.”

“It’s using new technology to tap into the knowledge of our audience,” he says. “We have created a large database of people with expertise all over the region who can feed us information.” These newly identified expert sources are then contacted via e-mail when MPR reporters begin preparing stories that touch on their fields of expertise. The experts’ responses to the reporters’ queries are handled by a small group of PIJ analysts, who process them and forward the most promising ones to reporters, often introducing the journalists to new sources they might otherwise never have encountered. “The reporters are tapping into a wide information source base that goes into their reporting,” Buzenberg says. “We’re doing this on a daily basis now, and we’re trying to roll this out nationally as well.”

Even in its Public Insight Journalism effort, MPR’s new building plays a significant role, in the form of a rather odd-looking rooftop “clubhouse.” If you’ve driven or walked past the expanded MPR facility, chances are you’ve seen the strange cubic outcropping perched aloft on its roof, looking for all the world like some yellowing, spotless die, partially draped with silvery plastic foil. This is the Forum—or, as Kling puts it, “the metal box on the roof.”

The Forum’s function, then, might be described as encouraging people to think outside the box while inside the box. “This PIJ is not only reaching out with e-mail,” Buzenberg says. “It’s also bringing experts we identify and setting them down to work with journalists in a forum or a panel. [The Forum] is a meeting room for ideas.”

Kling notes that the concept has already been tested—though not inside the as-yet-unfinished rooftop box. MPR recently brought together scientists from around the world for a discussion on global warming that also included National Public Radio’s science editor, a producer from PBS-TV’s Nova program, and a documentary maker from American RadioWorks (ARW), a division of American Public Media.

“All went away saying, ‘I’ve got a totally different understanding,’” Kling says. “The scientists were so interesting themselves; they hadn’t met that way before, and they exchanged information. ARW did a documentary. NPR did a series of science programs for All Things Considered. It spins out in ways you never anticipate. But the media get smarter because of that convening process.

“My attitude,” Kling adds, “is that reporters can’t possibly know as much as the most knowledgeable people in a given area. And those knowledgeable people are the first to jump up and say, ‘Those reporters don’t know what they’re talking about!’ We want them to know what they are talking about, and the way to do that is to bring in the expertise and meet, talk, think together, and learn.”

There is room for the PIJ concept in MPR’s cultural programming, too, according to Lutman, who says the mega-Rolodex approach is already in use in its cultural coverage. “We had a salon in Minneapolis to talk to the cultural community, to try to get a network established in that field. So, from the journalistic perspective, there is direct integration of cultural coverage with other news coverage when it comes to Public Insight Journalism. The concept of content from the audience is pervasive here.”

And there are just about as many ways to exchange ideas with the audience as there are audience members, Lutman suggests. For instance, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that MPR might begin using its new digital muscle to help distribute, through its website, audience members’ “podcasts”—those do-it-yourself radio programs produced by amateurs and recently made famous via Apple Computer’s iTunes site.

The final part of the capital campaign is a $1.25 million investment in a new digital archiving system that will capture and preserve 38-plus years of MPR broadcasts—some 30,000 hours of surviving tape that includes speeches by such Minnesota political titans as Eugene McCarthy and Hubert Humphrey and all 31 years of A Prairie Home Companion.

Most of the recordings will be made available free to listeners over the Internet, says Kling, provided MPR has legal rights to online redistribution (a limitation that McTaggart says will mostly affect recorded musical performances). MPR has already purchased the big blue digitizing box and some high-performance reel-to-reel tape machines, along with a special oven that is used to “bake” aging oxide onto old tapes to render them usable, so they can be played back—just once—and captured digitally.

Jon Gossett, MPR’s senior vice president of development, says the entire Next Standard initiative is geared toward furthering MPR’s nonprofit mission. Moreover, this capital campaign represents the first time the organization’s leadership has made a concerted effort to communicate directly with the public, often in face-to-face conversations with donors, about “the depth and breadth of what we do.”

“I think it has changed the perceptions people have about our nonprofit and what we provide to the community,” Gossett says. “They just haven’t really thought about it in these terms. So by having these personal conversations, people are saying, ‘Wow! We had no idea.’”