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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21 comments
Kristin Carlson
Kristin Carlson

Here is the article I was talking about for MPR. #MLSu2011

Willie McManus
Willie McManus

The real story here is that all this has been known for years, and reporters at City Pages and every other news outlet in Minnesota have been too chickenshit to call out that the emperor had no clothes. Pitiful.

Commonmandan
Commonmandan

There is absolutely no justification for United States taxpayer support of any public broadcast network. Right now, I'm listening to Dutch classical music radio on the internet for FREE! Klingon has duped a lot of sheeple, like the planted lapdog that just posted.

Afroblueeyes
Afroblueeyes

Dear Andy - I have to remain anonymous because I am an employee of MPR - but I have some serious issues with this article of yours. In no way do I wish to argue with your condemnations of Kling's business practices - in fact, I'm sure it's all considerably 'worse' than you suggest. However . . .

The subheading to the headline reads " . . . but can he save NPR?" This is probably your editor's fault - but what happened? The article has nothing to do with NPR - Bill Kling has nothing to do with NPR - NPR doesn't need saving. Why is that there? That's merely the first of many indications that you (City Pages) do not understand the nature and organizing principles of public radio ( I don't mean that as an insult, just a point of fact). It's also an indication that the content is merely written to evoke ire - it's not about informing your readers of some issue that needs to be addressed - it's about past issues that everyone who cares already knows about.

I've worked at stations all across the country for 26 years. Unless supported by a university, public radio stations survive by the skin of their teeth - if at all - everywhere. Conglomerates like MPR are the only known way to make a flimsy infrastructure healthy. A sad but true fact that would do a great service to the article and perhaps might form an "issue" to organize the rest of your thoughts around. Again, you really don't know enough about the industry to form and assert/infer the opinions that you do. It's really disturbing that you would simply talk smack for however many words just to suck readers into the rag.

Lastly, the article doesn't even whisper the words "The Current". A gift of extraordinary proportions that has everything to do with your readership, the music scene of this city, and Bill Kling's greed. Like I say, I wouldn't argue with analyzing and decrying the means, but the end result is something that deserves respect, if not merely mention. And it continues to give and grow - The Current Local, Radio Heartland, Classical 24 . . . these things would not be possible without a savvy, aggressive business-minded ethos. Kling beat the system and we've all benefitted madly. Sure he profited personally - but the profit we share as a community (which now spreads all over the world via the web) certainly validates a certain level of consideration. MPR was made possible by a combination of member need/support and visionary business people. It ain't perfect, but it's absolutely the best network of stations in the country.

Sincerely - Anonymous

Samwst56
Samwst56

ROFL! Hey sleazylag00ny, don't be shy. Don't hold back. Tell how you really feel about BK/MPR. HA! I think you are technically correct in your assessment of Just Plain Bill's empire and maybe even his character. One flaw though. I think the feds gave MPR 6 percent. Maybe it was State of MN and feds. Anyway, it's a convoluted path that Kling travels. He is typical of a lot of big biz guys. He manages, so far, to stay within the law. But not in the spirit of the law. I'd laugh like crazy if the feds pulled a surprise visit to the MPR fortress and asked to see the books: both the nonprofit and the for profit books. He has something called Greenspring as the biz side of the house. Sorta sounds like Greenspan, another shifty guy. Regarding MPR ownership just here in the Tin Twitties, on the FM side, it's KCMP 89.3, which was the ill-fated WCAL that Kling grabbed when the St Olaf trustees were short of cash. It's a shame, all right. Far as I can recall it was the only other classical music source. And it had Scandinavian oriented shows, too. Now it's pretty unlistenable. Like grade school kids playing radio disc jockeys. Next MPR is KNOW news at 91.1. Then 99.5 KSJN itself. Used to be home of WLOL-FM, the first for-profit 100 percent classical music station. Irony? Methinkx not! Then I recall that an owner donated 1400 AM to MPR. It became WMNN. It gets really cloudy now for me. Takes a crooked bookkeeper to keep up with MPR's winding patchs. Oy gevalt! Somewhere along the line MPR sold one of their news or public affairs entities for $10 million. And so, that goes into the other set of book. Wonder how many sets of books Bill Kling has. Reminds me of an old say, "Uneasy rests of the head that wears the crown."

If the whole MPR legendary empire can be summed up in one word, it would be "greed." And sleazylag00ny brought up the FCC. Makes me wonder why they don't investigate MPR? Humm?

Well now, time for a bottle of beer and some munchies, whilst I tune in an internet classical music station. There really is no reason at all to even listen to KSJN or their news stations. There are a great many sources of classical music stations on the web that don't cry poor and ask for money. And lots of news sources on the web, too.

Sleazylagoon
Sleazylagoon

Klingon is a robber baron asshole that should not be granted any license to be on the air. He is a FOR-PROFIT organization. Let him buy ads and see how fucking hard it is to make a living as a REAL broadcaster. He is the octopus of radio.

Big Ole in Alex
Big Ole in Alex

How did the writer manage to avoid mentioning the WCAL debacle? It's the definitive example of MPR's ruthless empire building.

Kennedyland
Kennedyland

Like the rest of Minnesota I appreciate Minnesota Public Radio, however, unlike others who live in Minnesota, I think it is far from wonderful. The constant talk about how grateful we should be for the "service" MPR provides tends to mask some realities. First of all, the station is more into promoting its own APR programming than giving the Minnesota public the best of what is available on public radio. As I've driven around the country I've heard some wonderful programs on a wide variety of subjects that most people in MInnesota have no idea are being broadcast. There is a rich variety of programs out there that MPR is ignoring in favor of it's own profits. This brings me to my second point. MPR is getting blind by it's own hubris. Rather than offer a wide variety of shows on the weekends it simply repeats the Saturday programming on Sunday. And, let's face it, Car Talk, Prairie Home Companion, and the Splendid Table could be reruns from 10 years ago they have grown so complacent and unimaginative. Mixing up the order is no excuse for avoiding trying programs that are different. I like what I hear from MPR, but I'm not under any illusions that it is the best it can be. Minnesota is the test market for APR and the huge profits they make off of the state ignorance of what else is being offered to America. It's smoke and mirrors. Yes, it's good smoke and mirrors, but it's not what it could and should be.

Dan Hendricks
Dan Hendricks

You misspelled Cisco in the article as Sysco, he wasn't talking about the foodservice company.

Sparky
Sparky

BIll Kling is one of the few people left in Public Broadcasting that 'gets it'. He knows, and has proven, that given unique, original programming that serves a clear public purpose other than to 'bash the opposition', funding will come, talent will come, and most importantly, listeners & viewers will come and stay.

His personal challenge is to stay in place and in charge to deflect the poseurs who are riding the coattails of the successes that built up 1970-1995. This is the core challenge of public broadcasting today. It's not the political attacks, it's not the attacks on funding, it's not the competition from commercial niche cable channels and web/pod casting; it's the rot and leaching from within that is turning public radio and television into personal playpens for the entitled instead of what it once was.

Afroblueeyes
Afroblueeyes

Who do you think pays for the Dutch station you are enjoying? The Dutch taxpayer. You can also enjoy a variety of other music, all downloaded for "free" from the internet - this is commonly known as "piracy". These things cost money, and if you read my comment below, Common Man Dan, you'd understand that it's a complex issue - and that I don't necessarily approve of the means used to build our nation's public radio netowrks. It's complex and hard to demonize a single individual. I too don't think the US taxpayer should pay for pubic radio - listeners should. But with less than 10% of listeners contributing, it's essentially given freely to pirates like you.

Kennedyland
Kennedyland

Once again I find the unlimited praise for MPR to be like the applause at any performance in Minnesota - always a standing ovation no matter what the quality of the program may actually be. "The Current" is good, however, it's pretty tame. One half hour of WCAL aka Fresh Air Radio at 90.3 FM shows far more imagination, daring, and over the edge programming than any six hours of "The Current". While "The Current" claims to be cutting edge, it's very tame and safe. If MPR is in it to just keep going on and play it safe, then it has succeeded. However, MPR is not anywhere near high quality and forward thinking music. "The Current" is indeed current, but it's not anything other than that.

Mark Jeffries
Mark Jeffries

Proud to be a raging homophobe, wingnut teabagger moron Bachmann lover?

And what's your opinion of African-Americans, Latinos, Asian-Americans, Native Americans, Jews and non-submissive women--as if we didn't already know? And how big is your shrine to your idol Adolf Hitler?

Sleazylagoon
Sleazylagoon

Right on, Big Ole! He bought out WCAL with his vast "non-profit" war chest and killed their classical music format with the most UN-listenable music format in the world. The limp-wrists amateurs they hire pick whatever record they want with total disregard to what few listeners they have. WCAL was his only local competition. It has a very long history of classical music as its main format. Before that he bad-mouthed KTWN, which was the last commercial classical music station in this area. He coveted the Chicago Symphony concerts that KTWN ran. Klingdon should NOT even be licensed by the FCC. If all of us who see this octopus for what he is and wrote the FCC about yanking his license to broadcast because he is operating under false pretenses as a "non-commercial" broadcast "service, he would be off the air. It would take a large show of force. Fifty to 100 signed letters would do it. Why? Because the FCC will not put up with frauds. He buys radio stations and FM repeaters with his huge war chest. He forces out competition. Just go up and own the radio dials here in Minneapolis and St Paul. He owns the MOST radio stations, locally. As for his lapdog Gary Keillor, let his slimeball go out and make it on his own. He fucking can't because he has a very small audience. No real radio network would take him. You couldn't see enough time. Keillor got rich and arrogant off of MPR. Let him work hard for a living like the rest of us. In general, there should be NO PUBLIC FUNDING OF ANY BROADCAST SERVICE in this country. That goes for MPR, NPR, PBS and any other alphabet soup so-called "public broadcast system." You want classical music? It's all over the internet for FREE! And no limp-wrist pansy fag telling you what you heard and the weather forecast.

Commanmandan
Commanmandan

Dear Laptop Afroblueeyes, an obvious Klingon boot licker: There are several issues here. Let the Dutch pay for it. It's on the web. If the Dutch music source didn't like it, they are free to boot a no-access in their server. I don't mind at all the Dutch providing this service. What I do mind is a greedy gorgon like Bill Kling wanting to take it all and kick off or buy off any competition.

Nice thing about the Dutch, they don't pretend to grovel for money when they already have it all. Nor do they have fruity voiced announcers telling people what they will play and what they have heard. What we do hear is a manly-sounding Dutch chap from time to time doing at ID. And instead of blithering about the music, they play excerpts from longer classical music works. And it is all on a sequential list.

You can't get it through your pointy head that Klingon is a pirate. He wants it all. He wants to be a nation onto himself. He has a phony non-profit organization. That is really for-profit. He wants to not just provide the ONLY classical music service across the country, he also wants his very own news and so-called pubic affair networks.

Now report back to Klingon, so he can pat you on your head. In fact, you may very well be Klingon.

If anyone else is out there reading this, then I urge you to write the FCC and question whether Klingy ding dong should have any of his stations licenses renewed because he is unfair competition. Restriction of free trade is the overriding issue here.

Otherwise just be sheeple, like Klingon's yes-person here.

Afroblueeyes
Afroblueeyes

Certainly there are far "better" stations than the Current peppered all over the country. But there are very few major cities, let alone entire states, that enjoy this quality of programming with the strength of signal and no commercials. Chicagoland, Denver, Milwaukee, NYC - great cities with nothing like The Current (WFUV in NYC is amazeballs, but its signal doesn't even reach Brooklyn!). It's a difficult thing pleasing a wide swath of people, but in its tameness MPR reaches & rocks millions - and its support of local musicians is undeniably awesome. I don't disagree with your tastes, but I think this City Pages writer ought to recognize the millions that do.

Afroblueeyes
Afroblueeyes

You should cut back on the pharmaceutical cocktails - maybe get yourself a little closer to working out those daddy issues, angry man.

Wordsmythe
Wordsmythe

LAL! Just happened to read the cover-your-ass letter full of NON-standard English phrasing. Pathetic fruitcake.

U showdlern2rite gud lern2use COMMAS and not half-assed dashes.

Afroblueeyes
Afroblueeyes

You really enjoy yourself, eh Dan? It's too bad your reading skills don't quite match your incredible pun and insult abilities. If they did, you might see that we actually agree about the nature of Kling - but unfortunately you don't recognize that any point on Kling is moot. He's a shit. Nobody likes to work for him. He's done terrible things to little radio stations that couldn't . . . all irrelevant. Public radio stations can't survive in this country. They are a dying breed and have been sucking air since 1980 - 14 years after they were created. A few small exceptions aside, 1000s of public radio stations have come and gone. Some interesting, some cutting edge, some shitty and sloppy - all dead or dying. It's an industry fraught with dysfunction. Kling doesn't deserve to be lionized nor demonized - this journalist & City Pages owe it to the reader to discuss the entire issue. Instead, what we have is a cry baby issue about a bad bad man, who did bad bad things, and waaaaaaa - it's all so bad. (except that millions of listeners are happy, and the entity is able, despite all the odds, to thrive). MPR Classical sucks ass. Listen to KANU/KPR - it crushes all classical stations in the country - might even surpass the Dutch (whom I worship for their government and culture). Point is: you. don't. get. it. A complex issue deserves complex coverage - and this article is a simple minded exercise in whining about the past, saying nothing about the present, and gives the public not a shred of information about their power to influence and be involved in the future. By all means, enjoy your music - reading, thinking and writing are not your forte.

Deepthinker
Deepthinker

Oh yes! Speaking of an OUTSTANDING classical music network, there is WCPE, originating in Wake Forest North Carolina. It came be accessed via tunein on the internet. I listened to a Brit there do his classical gig this morning. Music choices there leaves Klingdom's mediocre ticky tacky tinhorn network in the dust. And guess what? It can be rebroadcast simply by registering. So if a local TRULY non-commercial station anywhere wanted to run their feed, just register. No fee.

Would be great for a neighborhood radio station. Or even a regular FCC licensed station here. And it just turns out that a new AM here has applied for a construction permit and is thinking about classical music programming. A TRUE community station.

Wouldn't that give Kling a panicky pain in the ass! :)

 
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