Live-blogging: Bill Kling

Bill Kling announced this morning that he’s leaving MPR next year. He’s been a catalyst and a controversy at the same time. He’s on Midday with Gary Eichten and it seems appropriate to use the occasion to see what people think, and what direction MPR should take, and maybe reminisce a bit.

From the inside, there’s always been a perception that when Kling leaves, MPR will be at a crossroads. Despite all the capable people in the company — and trust me, they’re excellent — when there are different paths to take, all eyes turned to Kling for which one to take. The track record has been pretty good but it will be interesting to see how the dynamic of the organization changes with his departure.

12:08 p.m. – Q: Why are you leaving?

A: I signed an agreement to stay for five years and that’s up in June. There’s a time you should be. An organization will atrophy if young people can’t rise up in the company. (Bob notes: This implies, doesn’t it, that the next president will come within the company?). We have a balanced budget. This is the time to attract that person to come in. We set it up so “he did a good job, but we’ve got an even greater opportunity.”

Q: Were you forced out?

A: Absolutely not. We’ve had a succession committee for more than a year, headed by an executive from General Mills. I’ve talked with them about the kind of people who might do it well. We’re looking inside the organization as well as outside. We’re not done yet. You look at other public radio organizations and they haven’t achieved their potential. I want to go out and raise money… to demonstrate how should public media be seen. We have 913,000 in Minnesota, 600,000 in Los Angeles who love what we’re doing. But loving it doesn’t force us to do better.

Q: Why do you have to leave to do that?

A: I don’t want to have the title and not do it justice. Sooner or later, someone has to come in. We have to come up with strong leaders.

(Aside: Back when we were building what’s called the ICC — International Control Center– at MPR, I was on the committee to decide what technical capabilities it should have. As we considered what technology in the future we should account for at the time, someone said, “Who wants to be the one to tell Bill Kling we can’t do something?” That usually settled it.)

12:17 Q: Did you have any thought in 1966 that all of this would come to be?

A: Of course. It was survival. I can remember when the first check for $5,000 came in. At that point, we didn’t know if there would ever be any significant audience support. You couldn’t think beyond…. you always thought, ‘how can we serve our audience?’….

People sent us tapes. We tried to bring the best of what we could get our hands on. As the audience responded, we said, ‘if you trust us, we’ll do more.’ We’ve gone now to where we have 111,000 members. Your technology changes. Your society changes. Look at what’s happening with magazines and newspapers; all of the ways in which people consume news.

12:19 p.m. Q: Why hasn’t public radio as a whole taken hold?

A: National Public Radio is something we were all involved in creating. It’s hitting on all cylinders. It’s got a great president, they’re opening bureaus. What we haven’t gotten right is the local service and it should play.

(Bob notes: Frankly, the problem here is the changing commercial market. As local news has disappeared from commercial radio, public radio has had a chance to fill the gap. The problem is there’s also the tradition of public radio which is we don’t do crime stories, we don’t do breaking news etc. As commercial radio news becomes extinct, there’s a conflict between those who embrace the traditional public radio news model, and those, frankly, who come from a more traditional commercial news model. In the end, the two have to come to an agreement, but that tension certainly exists.)

12:24 p.m. Q: What kind of money are you talking about?

A: We’re talking about adding $5 million plus to the budget of these institutions. Yes, it’s nice that Cincinnati has four reporters in its station. But they should have 100. If public radio is going to pick up the slack as newspapers disappear, you’re not going to do that with four reporters.

12:25 p.m. Q: (Caller Randall) Your article “no good deed goes unpunished” is not going to be true. Are you looking at international models?

A: We’re just beginning so we will clearly. Europe in particular has some wonderful models. When I talk about the BBC, I’m talking about the domestic BBC. It plays on all levels — five live channels of sports and news — they’re with it; they’ve gone where the audiences are. When you think about this country — you’ve heard us say ‘no rant/no slant’ — anger is growing. You go to Washington and if you can get a private conversation with our Senate and congressional delegation, they’ll tell you the change in the decorum in the House and Senate is total. One told me he’s actually afraid of the anger being focused on government.

Why is that happening? Because it makes money. If I said outrageous things today, you’d come back and listen tomorrow and every time I do that, we’d make more money.

You see it on all sides of the spectrum. Look at the British population — I’ve done this. I’ve asked ‘tell me what you think about the news of the domestic BBC” and they’ve all said, “straight as an arrow.” That tempers the anger. They have the same thing we have; they have the tabloids going off in all directions, and yet there’s a centering institution that calms things down. We don’t have that in this country. I’m hoping that’s something we can achieve.

12:32 p.m. (Caller Scott) I’ve noticed a change in the direction of MPR toward social media. If I wanted to hear what everyone thinks, I’d go to their blogs. I think MPR has become too commercial.

A: It’s not a commercial endeavor. Sometimes I think the same thing you do and you switch over and see how much there is. On social media: We have to be where the audience is. I love listening to radio. Now, if I’m in Colorado, I can listen to Minnesota Public Radio, and hear high-quality stereo sound, just as I can in my kitchen.

(Bob notes: That’s not social media. That’s technology. The two are different)

We have 6.9 million downloads a month. The NewsQ page — it’s getting 1.3 million impressions per month. That’s extraordinary. We talk about it and we suggest there are ways to interact. Everyone in the media business says it’s the future for how print media will be distributed. We need to be there for people who want to read their news.

(Tale from the past: When I was first starting the MPR News Web site in 1999, the MPR billboards didn’t have the Web site address. “Why not?” we in online asked. “Because people don’t have computers in their cars,” was the answer. We were so quaint.)

12:40 p.m. -Q: If you’re successful in raising money for stations around the country, does that mean the government can stop subsidizing public radio and TV?

A: No. We’ll be able to jump start four or five radio organizations and demonstrate how good they can be. At the end of five years, we’d expect the community to pick up the cost. When we first got funding, we were able to add 6 reporters for five years. Now we have 80 people in the newsroom. We think CPB funding will be critical toward sustaining the leap forward we want to make.

12:41 p.m. Q: People are worried about competition. When you talk about public media, what are you talking about?

A: It’s all the way our content gets out. When you send out something by computer, that’s not radio, that’s media. We can do video. We can do podcasts. We can do streamed audio. We have public insight journalism, where we have almost 90,000 people in the country, who’ve signed up and said, “I know something about something that might be helpful to you.” They make our reporting smarter. Now we’re thinking there may be a channel where their knowledge may be sent out on an ongoing basis. It’s new ways of getting information to people.

12:43 p.m. Q: (Caller Grace) I don’t know where you’re going or what you’re going to do, but could there be an educational station?

A: We have a lot of options now. We have HD radio. You need to know. HD… I sat in a car the other day, turned on the radio, and there were all three of our channels. On 91.1, there are two other programs you can listen to. It’s an opportunity to get content out in radio, get more content to people. We can already do it on the Web. The kind of things you’re suggesting, are possible. It used to be there was just one way to get content to you. We may send the content you’re talking about in a podcast, or HD radio. HD solves all of the interference problems.

12:45 p.m. – Q: (Caller Matt) – My Republican friends absolutely hate MPR. What can you do to put in people’s minds that not only MPR but NPR is educational?

A: It’s an old, old out-of-date characterization, but it’s there. I don’t know what you do about it. Our COO, Jon McTaggart, is on the board of NPR. The head of our Los Angeles operation, Bill Davis, has just been elected to the board of NPR. If we’re giving you information that is the best-informed content we can produce… it still may not agree with what someone thinks. There are those who say there’s no such thing as climate change and I think you’re liberal every time you suggest the melting of the ice cap in Greenland is because of climate change, some people want to kill the messenger. They don’t want to agree with what they hear. We don’t rant. We don’t try to make people angry. We simply try to get the best thinking out to people and I don’t know anybody else in media trying to do that. The distortion isn’t MPR, it’s the people around us.

12:49 p.m. Q: MPR has an aging audience, what’s the plan for providing programming toward a younger generation? I was a fan of In the Loop, and that went away?

A: It’s one of the reasons why I want a new generation of leadership to come into the company. Some of the media companies have leaders in their 70s and 80s. There’s not much hope for those companies. Our biggest strategy is The Current. It just received every accolade it could in City Pages and other music-related press that play to the 20-year-olds in our communities. People are beginning to talk about “The Current effect.” It’s drawing in young audiences. They’re joining in to see what else we’ve got — like Policy and a Pint, in which we have people talk about positions, and then people have a beer, and dance, and think Minnesota Public Radio is kind of cool. And then they migrate to our news and information service. And we want to be there where they are — social media, Twitter. Your point is right on and we’re making progrress.

12:52 p.m. Q: Why are ratings down for all three services?

A: They’re huge to begin with. Audience measuring systems are up and down all the time. Our trend is a growth trend and I’m not the least bit worried that it’s down in one month for some reason.

(Gary reads an e-mail from Wiesbaden Germany)

12:53 p.m. Q: You have a lot of business program. Are you having discussions about creating that frequency of programming about the state of our democracy?

A: We’ve talked a lot about it. It’s behind everything I’m talking about now, in terms of strengthening our programming. You’re talking about a civics lesson. What you’ve got to start with is the information that helps a democracy function.Public media is the key to reaching audiences at all levels to conduct their democracy as well as they can. Jefferson said when the people are well informed, they can be trusted with their government. The people aren’t well informed right now.

Q: What kind of person should be the new leader of MPR?

A; A generalist. Someone who’s creative. A good manager. A good leader. Someone who can go out in the public and convince them that this is something strong that should be better. We’ll see.

Q: Will members have any input?

A: They can apply for the job. Sure, we’d be open to any kind of communication. The search committee is headed by Ian Friendly of General Mills — a very smart and strategic guy. They’ll get it right. And I’m a member of the committee. You can be sure I will have an enormous vested interest in getting this right.

— End —

(For additional perspectives on the interview, see David Brauer’s notes at MinnPost, and also Hart Van Denburg’s live-blogging at City Pages.)

  • andy

    What gives Bob? You said that your Five by 8 was the only thing you were going to post today. You’re a trooper for sure!

  • Bob Collins

    Unfortunately — for me — there’s nobody to fill in the gap (there aren’t 80 people in the newsroom who can produce actual content) and I haven’t yet been able to walk away from News Cut and let it do nothing when it should be doing something. I’d make a heck of a CEO.

  • jake

    If a corporation is picking the new president then there is no hope for a truly public radio. No rant / no slant is a terrible slogan, it should be don’t offend / on federal money we depend.

  • Bob Collins

    I don’t think a corporation is picking the new president. A guy who works for a corporation is heading the search committee. I don’t know who’s on the search committee.

    MPR has a huge budget, tens of millions, and had hundreds of employees scattered around the planet. There is a certain reality to having someone who recognizes that there’s a challenge simply in the running of such a large organization.

    Why don’t you provide your input — directly — and then see what happens?

  • Nicholas

    Lets hope MPR looks at WPR for a successor for Bill Kling, since that would make MPR twice as good as it is now, just as he stated he wanted it to be after he leaves.

  • Henny

    The MPR/APM empire is as commercial in focus as “commercial” media. It has lost touch with its mission of serving the public; it’s serving itself. It squashes niche content on the specious grounds it doesn’t attract enough audience. What is the criteria for enough audience?

    It’s sad that MPR is jumping so eagerly on the social media bandwagon, the current panacea to attract audience. I agree with the Midday caller. I don’t tune in to hear Betty Anybody’s comments, I want to hear experts. Where are the long interviews of yore? Eroded to fit in more “conversation” with listeners. Such a shame.

  • Bob Collins

    I’m filled with a sense of irony at the moment.

  • John O.

    No matter what MPR/APM does, someone is going to be upset. The question that really has to be asked is whether or not the naysayers even bother to listen any longer, or are they too busy playing Farmville while listening to their collection of 1980’s heavy metal on their iPod?

    Trying to beef up a traditional news operation would be a waste of resources. Anyone can get breaking news faster on Twitter than just about anywhere else. And the mainstream “news” operations (CNN, Fox, MSNBC, etc.) often use the same technology that social media relies on.

    As to the comments regarding folks like “Betty Anybody,” sometimes–SOMETIMES–those folks force a guest to actually think. I, for one, am tired of the prepackaged “talking points” that are put together by a handful of self-anointed soothsayers on both sides of the political spectrum. Like a lot of other things in society, the cackle of shills that each side recruits don’t even bother to ask original questions; they simply take those talking points and repeat them over an over to the point that they actually begin to believe it.

    If an on-air guest knows that the questioning is only going to come from the reporter doing the interview, prep is a lot easier because the guest’s handlers will have the ability to know what to expect. Open the phone lines for Betty Anybody, and all bets are off. Then the guest actually has to think. And that is something that is lacking in most politicians today.