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June 7, 2011, 10 a.m.

Don’t call it retirement: An exit interview with Bill Kling, public radio’s original entrepreneur

Portrait of American Public Media CEO Bill Kling in St. Paul, Minn.

As he prepares to step down from the top of American Public Media, his job for the last 44 years, I recently made the mistake of congratulating Bill Kling on his retirement.

Kling launched what would become Minnesota Public Radio in 1967, the year President Johnson signed the Public Broadcasting Act. He was a founding board member of National Public Radio in 1970. He helped create American Public Media, in 2004, to distribute MPR’s portfolio of hits, including Marketplace and A Prairie Home Companion. His company is the largest owner and operator of noncommercial stations, reaching more than 15 million listeners per week, and is expected to make $110 million in FY11.

So I guess I thought the man was ready to retire.

Nope. On the contrary, Kling said, he is out to make public radio bigger and, he hopes, save local journalism in the process. He departs American Public Media on July 1 to become a freelance fundraiser, lobbyist, and, maybe most importantly, cheerleader.

“What I’m passionate about now is the potential that public media has, particularly public radio,” Kling told me. “If you look at the potential it’s got and then you look at the way it’s structured, organized, and the impact it’s having, there’s a huge disconnect. It’s simply not living up to the promise.”

“The tempering element”

Kling has put forth a bold proposal to hire 100 reporters in the largest American markets, starting with pilot stations in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and the Twin Cities. (A hundred reporters is about the equivalent of a large newspaper staff.) As metro dailies shrivel in size — including the two greats in his state, the Strib and the Pioneer Press — Kling views public radio as the institution best positioned to pick up the slack.

“Radio and television and cable seem to be picking up a lot of money by picking up the polarized news agendas, neither of which is good for any kind of civic literacy,” he said.

“Eighty percent of the British public absorbs news from the BBC in some form,” Kling noted. “You can have the wildest tabloids in the world, ginning people up and getting people angry, et cetera, but at some point they get re-centered by their exposure to a trustworthy brand.

“In this country, you think about the anger that’s there — well, the anger is really being driven to a large extent by the media, and the media is making a lot of money doing that. Where is the tempering element? It should be us. We should be reaching 85 percent of the American public and we’re not. We’re reaching 10 percent.

All right, but where will the money come from? No pledge drive, after all, can likely support that kind of growth.

Kling isn’t daunted, though. He views the expansion of nonprofit journalism as a public good, like adding a wing to an art museum, and he is depending on foundations and, yes, the government to support it.

“Communities do get behind things like that,” he said. “And when they do, they find the money. We’re talking about $5 million per year per city and probably the need to keep that funding alive for a five-year period, at which point the job will have been done.” Audiences will have grown, underwriting will have increased, and, he hopes, the operation will have become self-sustaining.

And then there’s that little matter of federal funding, sure to come up again in September on Capitol Hill. Kling is calling on Congress not just to protect but to “significantly increase” funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The CPB’s total appropriation for public radio is $110 million — the same amount in real dollars as in 1980, Kling said. Only a small slice of CPB funding, between 1 and 2 percent, goes directly to NPR; the rest is doled out to stations, who in turn buy programming, much of it from NPR, PRI, or Kling’s APM.

And Kling would prefer to keep the stations in charge. He thinks programming, fundraising, and governance should happen on the local/regional level. “National Public Radio, on the other hand, should get out of the lobbying business,” he said. And that’s just what NPR is, or was, trying to do: A month before Vivian Schiller’s highly publicized exit in March, she quietly worked with counterparts in public television to create a separate lobbying group, the Public Media Association.

Moving up to the big leagues

Kling wants public radio to be an enterprise, rather than a niche. He wants CEOs and boards of directors running stations, rather than universities. Most of America’s 800 or so public stations — 60 percent, he said, but some tallies have it lower — are owned by university trustees. This leads to what Kling calls mission clash, a newsroom’s agenda at odds with that of the university’s PR department or its financial administrators.

“A university station manager said she had the funding to add another reporter to her staff but wasn’t allowed to do it because it would have made the Speech Department larger than the Drama Department, and the Drama Department objected,” Kling said. “That’s not what this is about.” Stations, instead, “need to be governed by the communities they’re serving.”

Michael Marcotte, a public media consultant and former longtime news director, thinks a lot of universities would be reluctant to give up their broadcast licenses, and he thinks the academic environment can incubate, not stifle, innovation. Though he was a little terrified to be on the record disagreeing with Bill Kling.

“In an ideal world we would have standalone independent stations…with really strong boards of directors and no other masters. But this is the system we have, and it got us to where we are. And where we are is pretty good,” Marcotte said.

Marcotte was more blunt in a January blog post: “I refuse to believe that university licensees are structurally compromised in their editorial integrity. And I believe Mr. Kling has some self-interest in play — hoping to pick off a few more stations for his empire.”

Kling did not build his empire meekly. He coined the term “social purpose capitalism,” the idea that unbridled capitalism is justified in the pursuit of public service. His for-profit publishing and mail-order companies funneled millions into MPR, made him rich, and drew a lot of unwelcome attention from lawmakers and lawyers. In the 1990s, state legislators forced Kling to reveal his eye-popping salary. Minnesota’s attorney general investigated the company’s finances but found nothing illegal.

A Clear Channel model for public radio?

In 2000, Kling engineered the takeover of KPCC in Los Angeles, a flailing NPR station run by students in a college basement. It was renamed Southern California Public Radio. That station has since seen a remarkable turnaround, having moved to a $25 million newsroom last year and expanded to serve some 600,000 listeners per week. SCPR has acquired two other frequencies to serve as repeaters and is looking to build a statewide empire of its own.

“I like to look at Bill Kling as the epitome of the entrepreneurial leader in public radio,” Marcotte said. “He has shown the power of consolidation of resources. That you can get more done, you can put our a better product, you can touch more lives by consolidating your business operations instead of having many, many, many small, little operations.”

It can sound a little Clear Channely, sometimes — you know, “better living through consolidation.”

“You go back before Clear Channel, stations were owned by mom-and-pop operations and they made a lot of money,” Kling said. “And you wonder: Why didn’t somebody come in and consolidate the package and syndicate the public company concept sooner? It’s because they didn’t understand it. They couldn’t get their arms around it until someone was smart enough to say, ‘Wait a minute. We could make this much more profitable, efficient, and effective.'”

Am I hearing you’re a Clear Channel fan, Mr. Kling?

Definitely not, he said. He does think the future of news is not new technologies or business models; the future of news is more. More money, more reporters, more ambition.

“My point,” he said, “is that the industry has always been hard to understand, and it takes real, effective leaders to figure out that it could be changed and how to change it. And how important it is that it must be changed.”

Photo of Bill Kling courtesy of American Public Media.

POSTED     June 7, 2011, 10 a.m.
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