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October 30, 2014

MPR's Bill Kling Steps Down -- and Up -- From Public Radio

It takes someone with the animal energy of a Bill Kling to announce both a retirement and a grand, new quest in the same breath. Yet, that’s so Klingesque.

Kling announced today that he’s retiring as head of Minnesota Public Radio in June, 2011 — and that he’s off on an adventure to greatly multiply local public media news coverage across the country. That’s fitting and true to his career.

When I think of Kling I think of just a part of the old Kris Kristofferson standard, The Pilgrim:

“He’s a walking contradiction
Partly truth and partly fiction”

Kling, a still-driving-in-fifth-gear 68-year-old, is an entrepreneur and a non-profit guy. He’s a competitive guy who never had much comfort with the consensus-driven world of much public radio. He’s a marketer who talks audience and revenue per listener as much as talks news and democracy.

Out of those contradictions, he saw connections others couldn’t see, but unlike a few others who could see them, he forced together the connections. So beginning in 1966, the paleolithic news era as I recall, he took a first step, launching a little public radio station out of Collegeville, Minnesota (not far from Lake Wobegon), at St. Johns University. Today, his American Public Media Group includes 44 stations across the country including Southern California Public Radio in Los Angeles.

And, in Minnesota, it’s a wild success, The company employs 700 people and reports about $100 million in revenue. Minnesota Public Radio  says it has 111,000 members, the most of any public radio station in the United States. Most significantly, it’s a player in the statewide news world, and an agenda-setter. Its MPRNews.org is one of several prototypes for the next generation of digital-first public radio news sites. (Good quick interview today with Kling, on MPRNews and MinnPost’s David Brauer providing great color)

Along the way, we’ve seen a blizzard of acronyms with which Kling has been associated and/or competitive with — Minnesota Public Radio (MPR), Public Radio International (PRI), American Public Media (APM), Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), National Public Radio (NPR),  PRX (Public Radio Exchange), and numerous others. It’s an alphabet soup that the country’s tens of millions of public radio listeners don’t understand. Those organizations, though, collectively push forward this notion: Public radio, and now public media, should be a growing force for journalism and public service across the country and in communities, small and large.

I first remember tangling with Bill Kling when our Saint Paul Pioneer Press published a series on non-profit Minnesota Public Radio’s for-profit arms, in the ’90s. We took apart all the company’s non-profit filings, dissected higher than average “non-profit” salaries, and, as I recall hazily, naively described the horror of a non-profit public radio enterprise acting like, well, a business.

Of course, Kling didn’t really care about the nuances of non-profit and for-profit; that’s why he had well-paid lawyers. What he cared about was building a public radio station, and then a nationwide network, that had impact. If he and a number of associates did pretty well for themselves financially, why shouldn’t they; they were building something new and something that advanced community news and service.

If that attitude fried journalists and others in Minnesota, it also grilled many others in the public radio industry. In fact, one public radio source recently told me he thought of Kling as “the Mr. Burns of public radio.” That’s uncharitable, of course, but tells you something about the sensibilities involved.

I talked with Kling privately after I spoke at MPR’s “Future of News” summit earlier last November. It was vintage Kling, seeing the vacuum that cratering of local newspapers had created and raging, quietly, about how slow public radio stations had been to seize the opportunity created.

This is a bit of what we hear as he talks about his next work, raising money for lots more public media. He talked — on his hometown station — this morning about increasing MPR’s news staff from 30 to 100, and sees that as a prototype for what big, metro public radio stations should do. In this view, the Project Argos and Local News Initiatives of the public radio world are fine, but too small, too onesie, twosie. He envisions vast new enterprises — funded as he funded MPR on whatever worked, T-shirts, mugs, syndication, grants, memberships, sponsorships  — to fill the vast news holes growing across America.

Maybe it’s a last hurrah, though I wouldn’t count on that. More likely, it’s a yin and yang thing, with Kling’s raw, in-your-face energy complementing the logical, yet cooler building of public media’s new face, coming out of Washington (Vivian Schiller and Kinsey Wilson, among the leaders) and out of a number of metro public radio stations from Boston to Austin to San Francisco. Whichever, it’ll be fun to watch — and listen to.

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