Bill Kling Predicts The Future For Public Media

Bill Kling was a 24-year-old student in Minnesota when he founded what would become Minnesota Public Radio. He went on to serve as one of the founders of NPR, and in 2004, helped launch American Public Media. At the end of June, Bill Kling turns his focus to the future of public media.

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NEAL CONAN, host: Bill Kling was a 26-year-old student in Minnesota when he started a small college radio station that would become Minnesota Public Radio. He would go on to launch Garrison Keillor and "A Prairie Home Companion," Marketplace and PRI. He figured out that listeners would buy CDs and T-shirts and founded a separate company for that. He also helped launch NPR in 1970. At the end of this month, Bill Kling steps down as the president and CEO of MPR and American Public Media - not to retire, but to take on a new mission. As local newspapers cut staff and coverage, Kling sees both an opportunity and an obligation for public radio stations.

If you'd like to talk to Bill Kling about the future of public media, we want to hear from you, 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION. Bill Kling joins us now from the studios at Minnesota Public Radio in St. Paul. Nice to have you on the program.

BILL KLING: Nice to be here, Neal.

CONAN: And you've been at this 45 years. Why move on now?

KLING: Forty-five years started when I was 24. I just had to correct you there.

CONAN: OK.

KLING: Why move on now? Well, I think moving on is probably the right word. There is so much potential in public media - public radio, in particular - that if you concentrate all day, every day, on the operating parameters of the systems and stations that we all put together, you don't really get to the bigger picture of what could this be and, frankly, how important does this need to be as media changes.

CONAN: As media changes. You're talking about pretty much the death of print journalism. Maybe it's been slightly exaggerated, but nevertheless there's been papers going out of business all over the country. And the kind of coverage that they used to provide - the boots on the ground, the city council meeting, the zoning commission meeting - that is going by the boards.

KLING: Well, you know, I love newspapers, and I hope that they survive. They've got to go through this digital conversion. And revenues are declining steadily, so I'm rooting for them. But I'm also worried that if they aren't there - just what you suggest, it's the local news coverage, the state house coverage, the education issues, health care that have to do with the city you live in. If you're in Arizona right now, you are much more worried about the wildfire probably than you are about Afghanistan. And those are the kinds of issues that public media could and should be dealing with.

The other piece of it is polarization. You know, you've seen what's happened with talk radio, with cable channels, where people are being pulled to the left, pulled to the right, where, I think, probably more damage is being done to the democratic process and the destruction of bipartisan governance than anything else has ever done in the history of the democracy. And it makes money, so it's going to continue to move forward. People are going to continue to try to make me angry every day. And, you know, that's just not the formula for success in this country.

CONAN: And we all see that problem. Nevertheless, there's another reality, and that is that we live in austere times. The government, which has helped fund public media, television and radio all these years, well, a lot of people argue that in a world where they're cutting the supports for heating oil that people need in the winter time, well, public broadcasting has to take its share of cuts too.

KLING: Public broadcasting probably shouldn't take any cuts. As a matter of fact, it probably ought to be doubled or tripled in funding. And I suspect that people listening to us right now are saying, what is this guy thinking?

CONAN: Yeah.

KLING: But if you consider that getting accurate information out to the decision-making public that we all serve - the people who vote, the people who are in positions to make change in their communities - if you get accurate information out to them, you'll probably save more governmental money by making the right decisions and making them at the right time than any other thing that Congress could do.

I wrote an op-ed for The Hill newspaper a month or two ago and basically said public broadcasting should be Congress's best friend. And I didn't mean that we were going to kowtow to Congress in any way, but rather that Congress needs people to understand what they're thinking, both sides, the middle, the left, the right.

And if we understand it and if we understand the options, we'll make better decisions and money will be better allocated. So I think you could spend a billion or a billion and a half on public broadcasting and save multiples of that by having better decision making.

CONAN: And you're going to have a hard time convincing Congress of that.

KLING: Well, you know, you are if we continue to play partisan politics. But if you think about it logically, if you look at the other models in Western civilization - look at the BBC, domestic BBC, for example. And you've got polarized tabloids that dwarf anything we have in this country, and yet you've got a credible, balanced broadcasting system that re-centers people in the course of their daily life in the course of their week. They reach 83 percent of the British population in the course of a week.

And I can get all ginned up about some issue, and then I'll hear a balanced story on the BBC and bring myself back to reality. So I think we can find many, many examples that show you how wise that investment is. It's like investing in education.

CONAN: And that's being cut in a lot of places too. We're talking about state budgets primarily at this point, but yes, in places like Texas, education funding is being the victim of budget cuts, and indeed in places like Florida and New Jersey, public broadcasting is being cut severely too.

KLING: It's being cut in - across the country. South Carolina seems to be at risk. New Jersey is being sold. These are not good signs. And of course, we're seeing many of our - as our system has matured, it started - public radio, at least - started in colleges and universities, which now have both budget pressures and increasingly focused mandates. So those stations are somewhat at risk. And what I'm hoping is that we can get communities to understand the importance of these stations to adopt them as community institutions to create the kind of governance that will bring them up to the full potential that they have.

And you do that by creating some models of excellence, some demonstration so that people can look and say, I had no idea that public broadcasting could play that role in my community, that it could make that much of a difference in the society we live in. And that's what we've not done yet. That's what I hope we might do in the future.

CONAN: And where are you going to try to do that?

KLING: Well, I would start with the major cities because that's where the audience is, the large percentage of the audience, and I would start with stations that have an interest in moving forward. Cities like New York, Chicago, Minneapolis, St. Paul, certainly Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston, quite a number of them that have strong newsrooms already, a good start. But I'm talking about a newsroom that might have a hundred reporters and editors. And most of what we have in public broadcasting ranges from - in the stronger stations, ranges from 10 to maybe 30.

So we've got a ways to go, and it's going to cost some money to get it up to a point where you can demonstrate it. But once you demonstrate it, then community leaders from cities across the country can come take a look, meet with the board of directors, talk about how this could be done in other cities. And, you know, just like having a great orchestra, a great university, a great art museum, these are assets that make communities function more effectively.

And once you see it, you know, a city sees a great art museum in San Francisco, they want one in Pittsburgh. And they, I hope, would have the same reaction to public broadcasting.

CONAN: Let's get some listeners in on the conversation. Our guest, of course is Bill Kling, about to leave as president of Minnesota Public Radio. Joe's(ph) on the line calling from Boulder, Colorado.

JOE: Good afternoon. Thank you for taking my call. I have a question that in part pertains to what you've been discussing but also goes back historically. I've been a longtime listener of public radio. When I came back in the 1980's from working overseas, it seemed to me there were some very incisive investigative reports by NPR dealing with companies like Waste Management, talking about some campaigns regarding McDonald's. Now, those companies or endowments from those companies or major shareholders of those companies sponsor NPR.

And I'm wondering - and it seems to me that there is less incisive, investigative reporting. And I'm wondering what effect do you believe sponsorship has on willingness of NPR to do serious investigative reporting?

CONAN: Bill Kling?

KLING: Well, I can't speak for NPR because I'm not a current board member, but I certainly know it historically, and I certainly know what we do here in Minnesota and what we do in Los Angeles with Southern California Public Radio, which is our sister company. And I can tell you there is no influence whatsoever. As a matter of fact, underwriters give us the resources to hire the kinds of people that can do those kinds of in-depth reports. It's one of the things we don't have enough of.

But I have never seen, in my 45-year career in this industry, the situation where a news director said, you know, we're not going to touch that because they're an underwriter. These are - if you have a credible newsroom and you've got a credible news director, this is what they are. Their integrity wouldn't - they couldn't stay in their job if they did that even once. They'd lose the loyalty of their reporters. They'd lose the credibility within the community as soon as somebody told that story, which they inevitably would. So I wouldn't worry about it. It's important to have underwriting sponsorship. It's a third of our operating income. And without it, we wouldn't be as good as we are.

But I would not worry about that if I were you. I'd worry more about how we get the resources to be what public broadcasting should be from any source that is a reasonable funding source.

CONAN: Joe, thanks very much for the call.

JOE: Thank you.

CONAN: Here's an email from Dave in Charlotte, North Carolina. Why do we need all the local NPR affiliate radio stations all over the country? There are many markets - Minnesota is not one of them - but many markets where any number of NPR stations, public stations compete with one another. And, indeed, the same might be said of public television too.

KLING: It's part of the way that the system was built, and I can't tell you that that's my proudest achievement. I think we did what we had to do. In the beginning, I was a founding board member of National Public Radio. I was part of the team that looked at how funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which is so critical to what we do, how that funding should be allocated among stations. There were some politics involved. I don't think we are organized as efficiently as we could be. I think that there are many in our system who are beginning to look at that. You can see consolidation taking place. You can see stronger services coming forward in communities where consolidation has occurred.

It won't solve the problem that I'm talking about in terms of getting a base of reporters and editors that is appropriate to the communities we're trying to serve, but it will make a difference. And I would agree completely with you that we need to do more there. And, probably, we need some prodding from our regulators and our funders.

CONAN: When do you start your project?

KLING: I'm going to start it July 1st, officially, Neal. And, in fact, it has started. I've talked to quite a number of major foundations. We're looking at trying to bring in about $5 million a year per model. So if we did three, let's say, it's $15 million a year. And we need it for about five years in order to really demonstrate what could be done. In that period of time, you can build up your news department, you can build up your quality, you can build up your audience, ultimately you will build up your revenue.

We've - we had the first - we, at Minnesota Public Radio, had the first major public radio news department in 1971 or '72, funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, again, as an experiment. And we now have the strongest, largest news department in public radio. So my view is give it a chance, demonstrate what can be done. It will stick. It will hold. And it will advance us.

CONAN: We're talking with Bill Kling. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's get Isaac(ph) on, Isaac with us from Lancaster in South Carolina.

ISAAC: Hey. How's it going?

CONAN: Oh, not too bad.

ISAAC: Hi. I'm pretty intrigued by the conversation. I do have a question. I've been listening to NPR for a couple of years now. In high school, I used to listen to it to study. The music was great. It's really peaceful. But now, I do it to keep up with the news. And, you know, shows like Marketplace, I love them. I don't consider myself to be of the majority of the listeners at NPR. I have a couple of friends that I, you know, talk to and, you know, say, hey, did you, you know, happened to catch, you know, TALK OF NATION today? But it's very far and few.

Now, who is listening to, you know, public radio? Is it the older generations? Is it, you know, kids that are like me, 25 years old? And also, you know, with other media outlets of radio, like satellite radio and like digital radio, how are you going to compete with that?

KLING: Well, first of all, who is listening, there are about 35 million, something in that range of people listening to public radio across the country. And our philosophy and, I believe, National Public Radio's philosophy, is to make sure, first, that we create the content. First, you've got to have original reporting. Once you got it, you put it out every place that you can find an audience. You tweet it. You stream it. You put it on satellite radio. You broadcast it, obviously. You podcast it. You go to where the audience is. And that's part of how you keep that average age down a bit from atrophying as new technologies begin to serve newer audiences. That's happening.

We have, here in Minnesota, as an example, about twice as many people listening through a new media or digital media than we have on broadcast. In Los Angeles, the statistics are about 50/50, about the same number of people listening both ways. So you want to keep it relevant. The other thing that we've done is start something that we call Public Insight Journalism. And it's got about a hundred thousand people that are sources for us so that the news, the information you hear is more credible, because it is being sourced much more broadly. I hope that helps as well.

CONAN: Isaac, thanks very much for the call. Bill Kling, best of luck with your project.

KLING: Thanks, Neal. It's good talking with you.

CONAN: Tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION, we'll talk about the FDA's new graphic images that are going to be put on cigarette packages. Join us for that. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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