Radio Radio

We search the airwaves for signs of intelligent life

The core problem for public broadcasting has always been funding, since it has no ongoing method of financing--like public broadcasters in Europe who are funded by various fees and taxes. Public Television has eased its financial burden by watering down content to attract corporate underwriting. MPR has taken a more nuanced approach: They've cultivated a moneyed audience and set up a complex corporate structure that mixes nonprofit and for-profit companies, then shares member lists and resources. Both strategies have created a sort of independence--but at a price. Public television, for example, is rarely worth watching anymore. And for those of us who are not part of its target demographic, listening to MPR has become an increasingly underwhelming experience.

Of course, unlike most commercial broadcasters, MPR actually works to objectively report the day's news and put it into context. That higher journalistic standard goes a long way toward explaining why MPR has become a national media juggernaut that raised more than $41 million in revenue in 2001 and controls more than 30 broadcast licenses. Still, there is a gaping distance between the kind of radio that people need to function in a democracy, or even would just like to listen to, and what is available from commercial broadcasting. MPR's standards would have to drop exponentially for most listeners to observe its shift away from the sort of populist programming most assume public broadcasting was designed to deliver. It seems those running the show hope that by the time people do notice, they'll have ceased to care.

MPR's Web site ( advertises its success in audience cultivation, boasting that its listeners possess an annual "spending power" of $4.1 billion, that they are "110% more likely to have $100,000 or more in securities than the average Twin Cities adult," and that 50 percent have incomes greater than $50,000. A section called the "Appeal of MPR" highlights its audience's "High Discretionary Spending" and the fact that "43% travel internationally at least once per year."

These promotional talking points have started to influence the network's direction, on and off the air. Flip on the station anytime during the day, and chances are better than ever that the topic will somehow involve money, how to invest it, and where. One of MPR's longtime syndicated programs is Sound Money, an hourlong Saturday-morning show, repeated on Sundays, that focuses on personal finance. (Chris Farrell, the star of Sound Money, is the second-highest-paid journalist--the first being Bill Buzenberg, senior vice president of news--at the network. His $130,000 in compensation as "chief economics correspondent" dwarfs that of morning host Katherine Lanpher, who emcees two hours each weekday on Midmorning for the still eyebrow-raising salary of $90,000.)

Then there's MPR's Marketplace, a half-hour show on weekdays about, well, the marketplace. The show is such a franchise that it is spliced up and splashed throughout MPR's broadcast schedule. And no news report on MPR or NPR would be complete without an accounting of the day's stock-market action, sometimes played to the strains of "We're in the Money," replete with moral assessments about whether it was a good or bad day for the index.

Marketplace was purchased in 2000 from the University of Southern California in a package deal that also gave MPR Savvy Traveler, a one-hour show aired on weekends and aimed at listeners who travel internationally. These two new syndicated programs complement other MPR programming that targets well-to-do listeners, such as The Splendid Table, a cooking show aimed at gourmets, and Future Tense, a show that follows the tech industry.

Meanwhile, MPR's flagship talk shows, Midmorning and Midday, are frequently used to cross-promote the network's stars and their upscale appeal. Farrell occasionally gives investment advice on Midmorning, and Splendid Table host Lynne Rossetto Kasper frequently joins Lanpher to give advice on the joys of gourmet cooking (Lanpher also shows up on Kasper's radio show and Farrell's public TV program on personal finance). And if that's not enough fine dining for you, there's always the Winemakers' Dinner (part of the Twin Cities Food & Wine Experience), a yearly black-tie fundraiser for MPR hosted by Minnesota Monthly where, for $200 a head, supporters can rub elbows with the local glitterati.

The cultivation of this golden audience would all be for naught if MPR's corporate relatives could not capitalize on it, paying for the content itself and justly rewarding those who made it all possible. In this regard the executives at MPR are geniuses and have actually been called just that in the popular business press.

MPR can't just sell commercials to businesses and play them on the air. But it can offer underwriting deals that give companies opportunities to insert messages into the daily broadcast. The fact that many of these spots contain Web addresses and toll-free phone numbers shouldn't confuse you, dear listener. The messages merely give credit to underwriters. They are not actual advertisements. Yet, in fiscal year 2000, underwriters including the drug giant Merck, Northwestern Mutual Insurance, City Business, West Group, and DFL legislator Matt Entenza, forked over some $4.6 million to MPR for access to airtime.

Technically, the network meets the "commercial free" standard that's been set by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which is funded by Congress and subsidizes MPR. Earlier this year, however, MPR spokeswoman Marcia Appel--in an effort to explain a $2 million drop in corporate financial support that required MPR to lay off 13 employees--told the Star Tribune that while the network doesn't run traditional commercials, they "do have sponsors and underwriters, and that pool of money is a subset of advertising."

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