Bill Kling: The City Pages Q & A

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Kling built MPR from a small station in Collegeville, Minnesota.
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.

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Courtesy American Public Media
The mission of the station has changed significantly since Kling started out.
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.

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Courtesy American Public Media
MPR started a for-profit partner to sell Garrison Keillor swag.
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?

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Samwst56
Samwst56

How many sets of books does BK have??? I'd laugh like heck if the feds paid a surprise visit to MPR demanding to see the nonprofit and for-profit accounting books. How the FCC lets MPR get by with this money mix baffles me. Could it be that BK has charmed them? BK is the classic tale of big biz rising. He manages to stay within the law, but not in the spirit of the law, as someone else remarked either here or in another go-around with MPR. The clean way to go is for-profit and still beg for donations. That would satisfy BKs growing list of detractors.

That's my take on this. Time to listen to 100.3 about space aliens. It makes more sense. 

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