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

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.
 

 

MPR has had a newsroom since the early 1970s, when it received a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to hire a half-dozen reporters. At the time, no other public-radio station had a substantial local news service. “Once we began doing news,” Kling recalls, “we started to realize just how many important, even essential issues had not been previously understood by listeners. We began to see what a public-media newsroom could offer.”

The MPR newsroom today is a warren of cubicles, flanked by soundproof editing rooms, where a few dozen reporters and editors work within a news production staff totaling some 80 people. That’s far larger than the news staff of any other local public-radio network. But it’s about a quarter the size of the reporting staff at the Star Tribune and not enough, of course, to cover every school board meeting across the state. So reporters like Tom Weber, on the K-12 education beat, focus on spotting trends. “If education is a waterfall,” he says, “my reporting is like dipping a coffee mug in it. I can’t possibly capture the whole thing. So I try to find examples of where trends are showing up and knit them together. If something is happening in your district, my job is to say, ‘Did you know this is happening elsewhere, too?’ ”

Over the years, public radio has been criticized for focusing more on analysis than breaking news. But Chris Worthington, MPR’s managing director of regional news, says that’s an outdated stereotype. A straight-talking, sleeves-rolled-up former managing editor of the Pioneer Press, Worthington claims, “We don’t miss much. We’re not the Associated Press, but we’ll be on a breaking news story as fast as we can. And we’re moving faster than ever before.”

Bob Collins, MPR’s news blogger and commentator, says the growth in same-day news coverage is the biggest change he’s seen at MPR in the two decades he’s been there. “Public radio kind of excused its own laziness for a long time by saying we don’t cover the news, we provide analysis,” he says. “That was a dumb argument then and it’s a dumb argument now—you can do both. In fact, to compete in today’s 24/7 news cycle, you have to.”

Weber points to 9/11 as “paradigm shift” for public radio across the country—the only time, to that point, that National Public Radio interrupted its morning show and went wall-to-wall with news coverage, just like the cable networks. The benefit of devoting more coverage to breaking news, Kling argues, is that public media can offer a more tempered viewpoint before more sensational news sources distort reality.

“Take the 35W bridge collapse,” he says. “The media got way off track with speculations of terrorism and explosions. We need to be there with the facts.”

MPR’s “no rant, no slant” approach may be best perceived in its talk shows, where guests are chosen as much for their expertise as their viewpoints and where verbal combat isn’t encouraged. But Weber says it’s also reflected in the news coverage—not so much in what’s said as what isn’t said. “It’s the ability to say, ‘I don’t know’ on the air, rather than speculate,” he says. “We’re programmed to be those reporters who, if we see a truck on fire, we’ll say, ‘Hey, there’s a truck on fire, but we have no idea why.’ ”

As MPR has developed its online and social-media services, its ability to cover news faster has increased as well. Collins recalls the first time MPR put a story on the web the same day the news broke. It was the day after Jesse Ventura was sworn in as governor and college students were protesting his proposed cuts to higher-education funding (“If you are smart enough to go to college, you are smart enough to figure out a way to pay for it,” he famously said). “I had this lame disposable camera to take pictures of the rally,” Collins says, “and I got them developed at a one-hour photo place then scanned them for the web. It was like six hours later that we got the pictures and story up, but still—you could see what the possibilities were for online coverage.”

These days, it’s not uncommon for MPR reporters to lug around video cameras and still cameras, along with their radio recording equipment. While they’re at a news event, they’re likely tweeting as well, and they may be calling another reporter back at MPR to get an online version of the story quickly on the web.

MPR’s greatest breakthrough online, however, may not be in speed but transparency—a way of engaging audiences that few mainstream media outlets have pursued. In October 2002, spurred on by Kling’s suggestion that “someone in MPR’s audience knows more than we do about anything we broadcast,” Bill Buzenberg, then MPR’s news director, called Andrew Haeg into his office and asked if the young business reporter wanted to launch an interactive journalism project. Haeg admits to feeling a twinge of uncertainty: Would reporters be ceding their journalistic expertise to amateurs? Would anything useful be gathered?

The benefits of the project, however, now known as the Public Insight Network, soon became clear to Haeg. After all, he says, everyone has some insight into their profession or even just the place they live. Why not tap that expertise instead of going to the same expert sources, story after story, that reporters happen to know, the so-called golden Rolodex?

The network functions like this: People across the country can sign up online, offering their contact information, the nature of their expertise, and a willingness to be called upon by reporters as a source. “It combines the best of technology and old-school journalism,” Haeg says.

There are now well over 100,000 people in the database, and MPR has licensed the technology to more than 40 other newsrooms, from WNYC in New York to the Washington Post and the New York Times. Recently, a public-radio reporter in Colorado who was looking to assemble a panel of small-business owners found them through the Public Insight Network. Most gratifying, Haeg says, are the stories that change direction after a reporter gathers feedback from network sources, demonstrating how real-life examples can differ from journalistic assumptions.

“We can’t compete with the New York Times or the BBC in terms of digital platforms,” says Collins. “But what we can do is experiment more. We have written the book on engaging the audience through the Public Insight Network and there’s nobody in the country doing it except the people we’ve taught.”

To Collins, that engagement isn’t just a bold diversifying of sources, it’s a move toward transparency, bringing audiences into the newsroom. And that may be helpful for centering, as Kling says, the civic conversation.

“Just look at the comments on the Star Tribune online,” Collins says. “Now someone is moderating them, but previously nobody in the newsroom was engaging those commenters, so they were comfortable hurling crap around. By connecting to our audience through the Public Insight Network, or just by being responsive in moderating the comments we get online, we’re saying, ‘This is your tie to the newsroom. It’s not a vacuum, it’s a dialog.’ ”
 

 

Kling knows that controversy sells in the media, that it draws audiences and always has. “I get it,” he says. “If you get angry enough, you’ll return to the same channel to see who makes you angry today. It’s addictive.” To cultivate an audience for more thoughtful discussions, Kling has encouraged the growth of the Current, MPR’s contemporary-music channel.

MPR launched the Current as its third service in 2005, having purchased the transmitter used by WCAL, a classical-music station, in Northfield. From the start, its programming has been eclectic—you might hear Hank Williams, Bob Marley, and a new band like Mumford and Sons in the same hour.

“We’re trying to find music that deserves to be heard but for whatever ludicrous reason no one else will play on the radio,” says Jim McGuinn, the Current’s programming director. “In my first speech to the staff, I simply said, ‘There are 12 of us in this room. And if we think a song is cool, we should play it. If we don’t think it’s cool, we shouldn’t.’”

Of course, there’s more to the Current’s mandate than that: some 450 local bands and musicians have been featured on the Current as part of its goal to grow the audience for local arts and culture. And then there are the events that the Current hosts or sponsors, from Rock the Cradle, where local musicians play for families, to Policy and a Pint, a venture with the Citizens League where Current host Steve Seel moderates an informal discussion on current affairs.

However the Current reaches out to the community, the result is the youngest listening audience of MPR’s three services: 35, compared to 49 for the news channel and 64 for the classical channel. “The Current brings a new audience to public media that wasn’t there,” says McGuinn. While there are no statistics on how many Current listeners eventually become MPR members, Kling is confident that over time the Current listeners will migrate to MPR’s other channels. “If you can attract people by bringing them the culture of their time when they’re 30,” he says, “while enticing them to listen to the coverage of, say, the fall of Mubarak in Egypt, they’ll get a little bigger idea of what’s going
on in the world.”

Ali Lozoff, the Current’s marketing director, says she thinks of listening to the Current as akin to a lifestyle—which could also be said of public media in general. “It’s about intellectual curiosity and community engagement,” she says. “I work from the assumption that this will be an indispensable part of your life.”

Kling frames the connectivity MPR offers as part of Minnesota’s unusual quality of life. “We have an incredibly high number of corporate headquarters here for our size,” he notes. “And why is that, given that we’re not in a particularly hospitable climate? It comes down to making sure that the lives people can lead here are of a certain quality. And among all the things that contribute to that—arts, sports,
recreation—is MPR.”
 


The MPR Way

Business meets benevolence

When Bill Kling revealed his ambition last year to help strengthen a handful of public-radio newsrooms around the country to as many as 100 reporters—large enough to become a force in local journalism—he assailed commercial media that pass off partisan bickering as news. But he reserved some of his strongest criticism for public radio itself.

“He will tell you that the lack of ambition in public radio drives him nuts,” says Ken Doctor, a former managing editor of the Pioneer Press now working in California as a media analyst. “He’s a visionary.

He saw that public radio could be more than a college radio station playing groovy music.” Which is exactly what many public-radio stations still are—though not MPR.

Early on, Kling realized that if MPR could produce broadly appealing shows, such as Marketplace or The Splendid Table, it could syndicate them, earning revenue for more and better programming. To open markets for MPR’s shows in southern California and southern Florida, Kling negotiated station acquisitions in Los Angeles and Fort Lauderdale. And way back in 1981, when A Prairie Home Companion was becoming a hit, Kling and Sally Pope, MPR’s vice president of development, saw the potential to raise money by selling show-related merchandise. Under Donna Avery, the head of MPR’s print division, the idea blossomed into Rivertown Trading Company, one of the country’s largest gift-catalog enterprises. In 1998, when MPR sold Rivertown to Dayton Hudson for $130 million, its endowment became the largest by far among public media.

“MPR has been very entrepreneurial,” Kling says. “It’s a great way for nonprofits to think about how they serve their audiences. If there’s something you want to do to benefit your audience that can’t work in a nonprofit business plan, maybe you can find a way to do it commercially.”

It’s an approach to public service known as social-purpose capitalism. And in the late 1990s, Doctor was among those who questioned its legitimacy.

“It was a knee-jerk response by journalists like me saying this mixing of nonprofit and for-profit doesn’t smell right,” Doctor says. Now he believes Kling was simply savvy. “It was easy for us to point a finger, but we didn’t find any wrongdoing and we didn’t look at the public gain. He used the tax laws that allow nonprofits to own for-profits, and he put the money back into the endowment. He’s a businessman, and I don’t know any other public-media executive who could be described as such.”
 

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