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?
Sometimes things get set up in one way and no one ever changes them because they think someone who we never met said it had to be that way. When we founded National Public Radio, we wanted a way of linking together the stations and creating a common production center, and, if we pooled the money that we could get together, it might give us some news programming. The result of that was All Things Considered. We were the board, because who else would be? It was our plan, our money, our efforts with the CPB to put funding behind it, and no one knew what it was.
Now, NPR is one of the pre-eminent news organizations in the United States and you could and should look at how you advance that vision and mission. You would want NPR to have the strongest board members that they could have, the people who can stand up—independently, they have nothing to gain. People who have no personal interest in it and who can open doors and get into see key people and say, “This is what we are trying to achieve and we need your help doing it.” Or they can look at the organization and say, “Well, I know that the leader is a great friend of all the stations, but frankly the world has changed and we need someone stronger. We need someone with a bigger picture, bigger vision.” What I found over time is that the stronger the board, and the harder they push you, the further you go.
It is way past time to rethink the governance; the issues that stations are afraid of can easily be dealt with by contracts. Get out of the way, set the contracts in place to protect the interests of those who founded NPR, and let it go.
How do you think NPR handled the James O’Keefe sting video and then the “ousting” of CEO Vivian Schiller?
I’m a great fan of Vivian’s. But I think she came into a situation where, for whatever reason, she didn’t have the time or the inclination to see what internal issues were facing the management of NPR. I think the board had a much more detailed description of the issues within NPR that allowed things like the Juan Williams firing to occur and that perhaps—even though it was “gotcha” journalism—meant it did not have the kind of research that would trigger a caution on that sting.
I am afraid that it had less to do with Vivian than it did with the long-festering issues within NPR that probably go back through several of her predecessors and that should have been addressed. Governance should have seen it, should have done something about it, and should not have put a new CEO in that position.
Fortunately, I don’t know. I wasn’t involved, but I know that there was a major examination of the internal processes of NPR.
How do they move forward?
NPR needs to do what it’s doing—which is keep it’s journalism at the absolute peak. And they need to have self-examination to make sure that their anchors, their story selection, or any other way that bias is creeping in, isn’t. Then they need to let the public speak for them. And the public has been speaking for them. They are a news organization; they shouldn’t be doing anything in regard to public funding or mixing journalism and politics. That was one of my strong themes to Vivian from the day she came on the job: get rid of the lobbying organization. Don’t ever allow yourself to be called up to the Hill to explain why you’re doing what you’re doing.
You often talk about the BBC as a benchmark. Why hasn’t the US been able to achieve what the Brits have in public media?
It hasn’t had a champion. The champion could be political or a lay-leader of some sort. Our federal funding in public radio hasn’t changed, in real dollars, since 1980. If you look at the budget for the BBC or the ABC in Australia, it dwarfs what we’re spending.
The American State Department put an unknown —but I suspect significant—amount of money into the BBC to help it deal with social media in Libya and Egypt. We seem to be willing to fund getting out the message in the name of democracy throughout the world but we have forgotten to look at what that means in our own country. We have taken for granted that Democracy is a solid ethic of the American people. It won’t be if we don’t tend to it.