In 1967, in exchange for free grad-school tuition, Bill Kling agreed to help Minnesota’s St. John’s University start a radio station. Today that effort’s descendant, Minnesota Public Radio, operates a forty-four-station network heard by more than nine hundred thousand people each week—the largest audience of any regional public radio network. After forty-four years as MPR’s first and only CEO, Kling stepped down in June, leaving a legacy of aggressive expansion; he launched American Public Media, the nation’s second largest public-radio distributor and programming producer, and was a founding director of the largest, NPR. Joel Meares spoke to Kling in April about the role and future of public media. This is an edited transcript of that conversation.
You’ve written and spoken about a crisis in the media, and the opportunity it presents for public media. What is that crisis?
We see two key trends: one is the polarization of commercial media, which is a pretty good business model and therefore one that’s likely to stick around—you see that trend happening in cable and radio. Then, in newspapers, you see this unfortunate continuing decline in revenues. So some kind of strong non-profit public journalism needs to be available and it needs to be structured in a way that it serves local communities. In many communities, public broadcasting is probably going to be the default alternative, and it’s not ready for it.
Its governing structure isn’t ready. For instance, there was a grant made to put two reporters in every state capital, in public radio. It sounds like a good idea except that some of those reporters were working for state institutions that have the license for the public radio station, while they’re trying to report on the state government. It isn’t the best circumstance to have the governor able to stay to the chairman of the board of regents, I want that story killed, or I want the notes. It happened at Chapel Hill in North Carolina. It was a story about Alcoa. You want to be very careful that you have your structure right.
You’ve spoken about a lot more than two reporters. You say mid-sized cities should have one hundred reporters and editors in public radio newsrooms. How do you even begin to get there?
Well at Minnesota Public Radio we have eighty-six people in the news department of which about thirty-five are reporters and editors. Our newest news operation, Southern California Public Radio, is less than ten years old and it has seventeen or eighteen reporters, and more editors, and they’ve just raised $3 million to add additional reporters. They have an objective of raising enough, to try and get them close to that goal of one hundred.
What’s the timeframe for your one hundred-journalist goal?
The critical timeframe is to be there when there’s no one there to do the job and no one to do the job well. You could say, there will be a renaissance. Let’s say the tablet will save the newspaper, they make it through the digital transition, they stop printing, save the distribution costs, save the printing costs, and they’ve got a business model that works. So far they haven’t: the cost of advertising on a tablet page of The New York Times versus the paper version is very different.
It took decades for MPR to get to eighty-six people in the newsroom. The moment you’re talking about is imminent. I don’t see the math.
I’m disappointed we didn’t see it sooner. It was like climate change. There were early signs and a lot of people missed them. I wish we had set up a plan with the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. I wish I’d been able to go to congress and say to them, “I don’t care what party you are affiliated with, getting a strong, independent, factual news service ready to serve this country is probably as important as anything you could do.” And getting them to fund it at a level that is appropriate. Not $150 million a year but something that would bring it closer to what a BBC does.
Public radio’s been in the political crosshairs this past year—does that complicated the goal?
It’s a double-edged sword. You’ll notice that Congress didn’t cut the funding. Part of that is that we woke up—“we” as a system of public broadcasters. We enabled the audiences to tell congress what they think. And there were over 500,000 letters and e-mails, and we don’t know how many phone calls, from people saying that for Republicans and Democrats alike, this is very important to us.
One of the criticisms directed at NPR is that its board members—mostly local station heads—are its customers. Is that a complication?