Bill Kling conquered Minnesota radio, but can he save NPR?

Republicans suggest government can't afford nonprofit radio

Bill Kling emerges from the crowd, his stark white hair instantly attracting the eyes of the audience. He occupies the podium with the practiced confidence of a Fortune 500 CEO.

As he often does, Kling recites a quote from Thomas Jefferson to highlight the importance of his mission: "When the people are well informed, they can be trusted with their government."

It's vintage Kling—his personal ambition dressed up in populism—and the audience hangs on his every word.

Bill Kling
courtesy of American Public Media
Bill Kling
Even as a young entrepreneur, Kling was a visionary of the industry
courtesy of American Public Media
Even as a young entrepreneur, Kling was a visionary of the industry

After he concludes his speech, Kling prepares to step away. But he lingers a moment, as if he has forgotten something. An impish grin flits across his face, and Kling leans into the mic for one last utterance.

"Go out there and flash those signs," Kling says. "And give them hell!"

To hear Kling tell it, the fate of public radio itself is at stake. With "austerity" being the watchword of the day, Republicans suggest that taxpayer funding for nonprofit broadcasts is an expense the government can no longer afford.

That poses a direct threat to the fiefdom Kling has spent the last four decades building, and he's not giving it up without a fight.

After he retires on July 1, Kling plans to take his show on the road and use his influence to build up public radio stations across America. Other than MPR, he's eyeing Chicago's WBEZ, New York's WYNC, and KPCC in southern California. Ultimately, Kling hopes to take on all the top public radio markets in the country.

In an industry driven by soft-talkers and small community stations, Kling has always treated Minnesota Public Radio like big business. He's credited with inventing the notion of "Social Purpose Capitalism"—the idea that a nonprofit should be steered with a capitalist's eye.

"There was behavior and a mindset that looks more like Microsoft or Cisco than it does like your typical community arts organization," says James Phills, who teaches a case study on Kling at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. "There were people who viewed it as kind of unseemly."

Much of this success came from creating private companies to partner with MPR. While most public radio stations rely solely on federal funding and member drives, Kling bankrolled MPR's growth with tens of millions in revenue generated by his private companies.

This unusual strategy has stirred up no small controversy. In the 45 years since Kling started his station, he has battled politicians, competing radio stations, and the state attorney general. He's never shrunk from the challenge—to the contrary, he seems to relish the fight.

"Whenever there's a conflict, I'd much rather be on his side of the battle, because he is tenacious and single-minded," says George Latimer, former mayor of St. Paul. "He's got sharp elbows. He's not afraid of taking on anybody or anything if he feels whatever it is gets in the way of the mission of MPR."

   

TOWARD THE END of his senior year in college, Kling was still unsure of his next move. He knew he wanted to go to grad school, but was torn between business and communications.

This changed after a meeting with Colman Barry, a crew-cut monk. Barry was intrigued by Kling's lifelong fascination with radios and his work as the manager of St. John's University's student-run station. So he made Kling an enticing offer: If he chose communications, St. John's would pay his tuition—on the condition he come back upon graduation and start a radio station.

The offer sold Kling. He shipped off to Boston University to learn the radio trade.

By the time Kling returned, Barry had mounted a campus-wide campaign to start the radio station, called KSJR, or Minnesota Education Radio.

"The idea was that you would have music and educational programs," recalls Father Hilary Thimmesh, the academic dean at the time. "I remember the president giving a pitch about how it would benefit Stearns County dairy farmers, as they would go out to do their chores to the sounds of Mozart or Beethoven or whatever."

Barry didn't skimp on the expenses. On St. John's dime, he renovated the vacant third floor of an old campus building, re-paneling the old walls with handsome woodwork that almost covered up the lingering smell of formaldehyde. He filled the station with top-of-the-line equipment, some custom-engineered specifically for the school.

Kling was 26 when the station went on the air in 1967, but he appeared unimpressed with the counterculture movement of the time. He was a suit-and-tie man, hair always greased into a careful part, and carried the seriousness of someone much older.

Employees remember him as a taskmaster who pressed them into 60-hour work weeks just to keep up. The hard time paid off: KSJR was an instant hit with its central Minnesota audience.

But it wasn't until Kling met Garrison Keillor that he found a persona large enough to fulfill his grand ambition.

  

TODAY, GARRISON KEILLOR is one of the most identifiable voices in radio. Though his show is about a parochial central Minnesota town called Lake Wobegon, he has captured the imagination of a worldwide audience, even inspiring a Hollywood film.

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