Did manage to talk to Bill Kling for a quarter-hour on Friday, and rather than ask him about the past (sorry, salary haters!) I wanted to know more about what he sees as his future.
In his interview on “Midday,” Kling mused about expanding MPR’s reporting crew from 30 to 100. That would clearly be the biggest news for local news junkies, but it was an odd thing to talk about on the day he announced he was stepping down as CEO (in June). Isn’t that quantum leap better achieved being in charge?
Still, Kling seems to be holding out the prospect that he’ll do more good as an uber-consultant, or maybe the head of a governance-and-fundraising SWAT team.
Kling the consultant was not uncritical of Kling the soon-to-be-former CEO. He is proud that MPR’s model, locally anyway, is sustainable, and the digital tools are there. However, he added, “What’s missing is the strength of content. It’s good, but not as good as it should be. We don’t win Pulitzers, we don’t have 200 reporters or editors.”
Kling sees this as more of a scale problem, than one of aggressiveness. “Compare us to the great European systems and we don’t show up,” he says. “We reach 27 percent of all the population in Minnesota, and they reach far more.”
This is a version of something I’ve occasionally muttered: “When was the last time an MPR story sent someone to jail?” (It’s also a MinnPost problem, but MPR has 41 years on us.)
There are those who blame any lack of aggressiveness on the very thing that makes Kling so successful — his shark-like business sense, which many don’t associate with the nonprofit sector. Kling’s elaborately connected board of directors likes what he calls “no rant, no slant” coverage, but it also rarely threatens powerful institutions.
When it comes to a kick-ass newsroom, “I think the foundation is in place,” Kling says. “We do have studios and technology and lawyers and benefits and payroll administration. We don’t have enough strength in news and information” to fill the gaps left by retrenching newspapers and other traditional sources.
Because he touches everything, Kling gets blamed for everything. Perhaps the MPR newsroom is ready to be unleashed the moment he leaves his desk.
But one of the big questions about Kling’s leaving is whether he really will give up control. If the soon-to-be-ex-exec and his donors can triple the newsroom’s size, would they really seek zero control? I guess this will be a nice problem for MPR to have.
Still, can even a prodigious fundraiser like Kling raise enough money to have this much impact?
At MPR’s splashy “Future of News” conference in November, Kling announced a $5 million grant for an “enterprise news fund.” At the time, I noted that cash would fund the Strib’s newsroom for about three months. MPR isn’t using it that way — it will be an endowment whose investment income will help sustain the newsroom. A 5 percent return would spin off $250,000 annually — less than what MPR received from the state for its two-employee news aggregation effort “Minnesota Today.”
And here’s the thing: 10 months later, the grant deal still hasn’t closed. “It requires a certain change of assets for it to occur,” Kling says, adding it is only a matter of time and the amount could top $5 million. “We will probably announce it in the context of something bigger.”
It’s unwise to bet against Kling, but he’ll have to find a lot more funders like this — or entice some Buffett or Gates types — to have a game-changing impact. And there are only so many elephant-like gestation periods a grant-getting 68-year-old can navigate.
It’s possible Kling will have more impact with smaller operations. MPR is by far the nation’s biggest public-radio affiliate. As Kling notes, MPR’s board supports his move because their American Public Media division produces national shows such as “Speaking of Faith” and “Splendid Table,” and they need healthier customers to sell to.
While Minnesota could be the first market test, Kling said he might roll out the effort in “10 or five” markets. As an example, he offered Pittsburgh’s WDUQ, whose licence is currently for sale.
“It’s owned by Duquense [University]. If they sell to the highest bidder, it will likely be a religious broadcaster,” Kling says.
He sees his role as energizing the “civic leadership” to save public radio as they would an orchestra or an art museum. Kling, a proven wrangler of elites, would also help craft a board with substantial business and civic experience (he has long criticized smaller station boards) and in return, leaders would open their checkbooks.
[Update: I should note Kling envisions donors (which could include major foundations such as Annenberg or Ford) providing a five-year cash infusion; if the station dramatically improves, local members and sponsors would be expected to keep the ball rolling.]
“We’ll see,” Kling says. “Everything I’ve done is controversial.”