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Bill Kling: The City Pages Q & A

Bill Kling has come a long way since he started what is now Minnesota Public Radio 45 years ago. He's now the outgoing CEO of one of the most financially sustainable and commercially successful radio empires in the country -- which in turn has made for plenty of controversy. Here's a recap of our initial interview with Kling at MPR's headquarters.

City Pages: Let's start with the present. Why are you retiring now, and are you on track financially for your next project?

Bill Kling: There are different phases to life. When I was in college, I loved it so much that I thought maybe I'll just always stay in collge, but you actually can't. You have to move on and do something else.

I love doing this. I've done it for 45 years. It's changed constantly. People say, 'Why did you do that for so long? Why didn't you go off and go to Hollywood or New York or somewhere?' And it's because it's been continually compelling and interesting. Technology changes, audience has changed, our ability to reach local audiences and national audiences and then international audiences has changed over time. So it's never not been fun. Or, put another way, it's always been fun. But it's not good for an organization if there's never a chance for anybody else to move up, and when you come to what is generally the normal retirement age, you start to think about doing something else. There's lots of things I still want to do, and if I kept doing the job that I'm doing now I'd never get to.

You want fresh thinking, and it's not that we don't have fresh thinking. We have lot of young people in this company with endless ideas. But you want them also to know that they'll get a chance someday to make bigger decisions. If no one ever moves up, it's kind of like a glass ceiling for the rest of the company.

CP: And in terms of the next project?

BK: The next project's kind of been overblown a little bit. What I really care a lot about is the structure of public media, and the potential that it has. And the need that I see for it to step up as other media seem to have less and less interest in hard news, or less and less ability to produce hard news. I've talked a lot about it. I've found funders that are excited about it, but so far we haven't had a breakthrough with a major national foundation saying 'we'll help you create these sort of centers of excellence that would be the models to show what a public media organization could be.' This is a good one. It's got 86 people I think in the news department, but it probably should have double that to do the job right.

CP: And if I'm remembering correctly, you wanted to have $5 million per city raised before you left?

BK: Oh, not before I left.

CP: Ok, I think that was in a MinnPost column.

BK: Consider the source. No, the objective was about $5 million per city, per year for 5 years to bring them up to a level of 100 reporters and editors. You can have 86 people in the news department as we have, but if it comes down to reporters and editors, there are only about 34. The rest of them are talk show hosts and people who have been working in other jobs related to news. But it's the street reporting that--you can have all the blogs, all the Huffington Posts and Twitter feeds and any other way of distributing content, but if you don't have the content none of its worth anything. That comes from the street reporters, which I think is what we have to step up.

Getting the angel foundation to say, we get this -- I'm having a lot of good luck having them say 'We get it. We understand. We know how important it is in a democracy to have a flow of quality information to decision makers and to voters. And we understand how that's weakened. We understand the economic models that are causing it to weaken.' But we can't yet get them over the edge and say, 'And so we will help you demonstrate the role that public media clearly should play.' But, I will spend some time on that after I am finished here, but it's not going to be a 40 hour week.

CP: There's a bill congress that would cut funding to public radio. There's been a lot of talk about this, but would this substantially change MPR's operations, or has this been overstated?

BK: No, it's huge. First of all, it did not succeed in the continuing resolution which was finally passed a month or so ago. In 2011, we're fully funded.

CP: Right, in terms of in the future though?

BK: If they do cut it out, it will take about $60 - $70 million out of National Public Radio's budget. It might take as much as $20 [million] out of ours. And people say 'What, do you get that much from the government?' No, we don't. But what happens is this stations that buy our programs - the 500 or 600 stations around the country - use funds from the corporation for public broadcasting to buy that programming from us and from National Public Radio. So if you cut it out, their ability to buy the programming from us, they also lose what they call their local community service grants. So they're hurting to begin with. Then they lose their national programming purchasing money. And, so they drop the national programs.

CP: So that's in total. But directly about $4 million [would be cut from MPR's budget].

BK: Right. That would be for Minnesota Public Radio. But, there's another set of the picture, which is the money that comes into buy national programming. And you can say 'well maybe they'll buy them anyway.' Maybe they will. But what will they use to buy them when they're already facing cuts in their local programming, and they've lost all they're national programming?

CP: So if a bill like this were to pass Congress, it would affect the coverage of MPR?

BK: It would affect the quality of what we do locally because it would take $4 million out of the budget, and it would affect the national programming service in a significant way.

It makes a difference. There's no way that you can say, 'Oh it will be fine.'

CP: So the critics that say this is overblown, you think that they're just not looking at it correctly?

BK: They don't understand it.

CP: There's a recording of you that's on MPR advocating against this. Urging people to oppose it, essentially. What do you say to people that have said: Given that MPR is funded by taxpayer money in part, that it's inappropriate for you to be advocating a political message like that?

BK: Well, number one, we never use federal money to fund any kind of lobbying.

CP: Well, I mean [MPR] is funded partially by taxpayer money.

BK: Six percent of MPR is funded by federal funding. So the other 94 percent can be used anywhere that we want. I promise you that we don't use any of the six percent to record what I put on the air. But that's just a technicality.

CP: How do you differentiate where that six percent goes?

 

BK: Actually, our auditors keep very, very careful care of what we use the six percent for. I can't tell you what we don't use it for, but I can tell you exactly what we do use it for. And we're probably more meticulous about that than anybody you'll find.

But the bigger question you're asking is, is it appropriate for me to go on the air and talk about it? And we've had a policy since we started of telling our consituents what they need to know about something they care a lot about...And I could write them a letter, but it would cost a whole lot more money than if I put it on the air.

There was a time when the Legislature was going to pass a bill to require us to sell 99.5 and give it to minority broadcasters. Well, that's not something that we were interested in doing, yet you never know when the Legislature's in session what kind of bill might get passed. So that was an example of letting our constituents know that they should let their legislators know that they didn't think it was a good idea.

CP: When you first decided to start a for-profit company, what made you think that that would be successful?

BK: Well, you come and you look at the building, and it looks pretty successful. It wasn't that way in 1972. We were overdrawn at the bank. We had no money. When we started a Prairie Home Companion we sold popcorn in the lobby of the theater in order to pay the rent. There was a lot of scrappiness in this company that had to be there because there was no money to do things like that.

CP: My point is most businesses fail. Being a non-profit, why did you think you could start a for-profit and succeed where most people fail?

BK: Optimism I think is the answer to your question.

We started the Rivertown Trading Company because people wanted products related to the shows. Actually, it's a longer story than you have time for. Garrison wanted to send out a poster, a Powdermilk Biscuit poster, and the only way we could afford to send it was to print on the back of it that you could buy something, hoping that some people would--

CP: And quite a few did, as I recall.

BK: Quite a few did. And eventually we discovered that that was a gift catalog. And by the time we sold it to Dayton Hudson, to Target, I would say less than three percent of the products had anything to do with public radio. It was just a gift catalog.

Over time, we earned about $250 million for Minnesota Public Radio through entrepreneurial activities, and it's one of the reasons that the content we produce has more reporters, has more music, classical music staff - that you can go to Royal Albert Hall and broadcast the Minnesota Orchestra when they're there. Because that endowment gives us a third source of revenue that most of our colleagues don't have.

CP: There's been some speculation, accusations in the past. You look back at your time with MPR and these for-profit companies, was there ever a time where there was overlap? Or can you understand why there was a perception of the two overlapping?

BK: No, we were audited by everyone you could be audited by. We had a very strong finance and legal staff to keep it separate. There's nothing wrong with a non-profit running a for-profit company as long they pay the appropriate taxes on the unrelated business income. And we did.

There's always critics of everything...There were some who thought it was a good thing, and there were others who said, 'Oh there's something nefarious about this. They're getting bonuses for doing it.'"

CP: And that's just nonsense?

BK: Well you can not do it, and then you'll have public radio equal to what they have in Dallas. The budget here is $110 million a year.

CP: It's been reported that when KFAI tried to start, that you tried to keep KFAI off the air. Is there any truth to that?

BK: When we were in Collegeville, where our studios were and our original programming was there, we operated at 90.1 FM. We needed to build a station in the Twin Cities to get to the larger audience in order to survive. We applied for the frequency 91.1 The only way you could get the signal from Collegeville to St. Paul in those days was over the air. So essentially we took a radio and picked up the signal from Collegeville and rebroadcasted form the transmitter. Unfortunately, radios in the '70s, FM radios, were not very precise, and so the receiver heard itself, it heard 91.1 like a feedback loop, and we had to create...this four-foot high solid copper tube built by the S. John's plumbing shop that somehow magically enabled the tuner to see only the Collegeville frequency.

For years, that's how people in the Twin Cities heard the programming. And even with that, it had to get far enough away from the transmitter in New Brighton so as not to be overpowered by that transmitter, so we had to put the antenna on top of the Columbia Heights water tower in New Brighton. The engineer was afraid to climb because he's afraid of heights, so I climbed it.

KFAI applied for a frequency that would have been right in the middle of that...It would have interfered with the off-air relay, and it was what the FCC call short spaced, so we said, 'no, we object. This will take a way a service that's existing in order to create a service that is not in existence.'

CP: Since you started a radio station, since MPR became MPR, has the mission changed at all?

BK: It's changed enormously. When we started there were three classical music stations, commercial classical music FM stations. Now there are none. There were very strong news stations, news departments, newspapers. And if you look at the statistics, there's been a steady weakening of revenues for newspapers. There's been a polarization of talk radio and cable channels that makes more money. So the importance of our being able to do what we set out to do better -- I mean, we've been handed mandate that we didn't really expect to be handed: The last man standing that might have an economic model that worked for hard news. And the only one that seems interested in arts and cultural programming.

CP: There's a lot of lore. Why do you think that is? I think people see you as someone who's a harsh competitor--

BK: I am a harsh competitor.

I have wanted Minnesota to have the best service in the country, and I hope we do. Nobody else has the reach that we have. It's an interesting thing think about. Somebody being able to be in the most rural part of the state, and being able to be connected to news and information. To authors and writers, to thinkers. And to the great cultural events. To pick up Gustavo Dudamel -- the most exciting new conductor, they say, on the scene in years -- when he launched the opening season of the L.A. Philharmonic. We did a live broadcast of it. So did Los Angeles. San Francisco didn't get it. San Diego didn't get it. Boston didn't get it. But Austin, Minnesota got it. And Thief River Falls got it. And that's kind of a nice feeling, to think that you can live here, you can live in whatever place you want in the state -- if you want to teach at community college in Bemidji -- and you an still be connected to both the events of the world and the culture of the world. That's a good thing. Now, do you have to be aggressive to get that done? Probably. If you're just kind of standing around and people knock you over, you're going to end up with a mediocre service.


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