What upcoming changes at MPR will actually mean for listeners

What upcoming changes at MPR will actually mean for listeners
One dilemma for MPR is that its audience is so remarkably invested in its programming that any kind of change risks a significant downside.

Heads up, Minnesota Public Radio loyalists and obsessives! Change is afoot! 

What exactly is going to change “sometime this month” at MPR and its parent organization, American Public Media Group, isn’t ready for official announcement, but CEO Jon McTaggart’s internal e­mails last week have been confirmed by MPR Chief Operating Officer Dave Kansas, with just the slightest additional illumination. 

Here’s McTaggart, the boss, in messages to his staff:

“Between now and the end of July, we will be making changes across the American Public Media Group (APMG) that will enable us to focus our resources in ways that will create stronger and even better experiences for our audiences. We will organize our work differently and set new priorities for how we spend our time and our money. We will stop some programming and create capacity for new content and innovative audience services. We will eliminate and change positions in some departments, and create capacity for new positions in others. … Leaders in each area will implement their decisions and discuss details with you over the coming weeks. Collectively, these changes will enable us to expand our services in health, education and sustainability — adding to our current strengths in business and public affairs journalism, and classical and contemporary music.

We will invest in distinctive on­-demand offerings, in growing and knowing our audiences, and in developing new ways to earn greater support for our public service.

We started this work two years ago when we launched Audiences First, and now we must accelerate our pace of change. …We cannot succeed with ‘business as usual.’”

For all the gung-­ho executive-­speak there, it was difficult for skeptics to read all that without evoking a sense that some things are not right and splendid in the empire. In every other media context, the words, “we will stop some programming” coupled with “we will eliminate and change positions” are immediately translatable to “belt­-tightening” and “retrenchment,” or, put another way, “things aren’t going so well.”  

Kansas, a Minnesota native and former Wall Street Journal reporter, sought to dissuade that kind of glass-half­-empty thinking. “We’re expecting to grow in 2016 like we are in 2015,” he said. “I would disagree it’s about ‘belt-tightening.’ It’s more like ‘reallocation.’ ”  

He insists MPR (i.e. American Public Media Group) is growing both in terms of revenue and listenership, while conceding that radio, basic live radio (as most traditional radio consumers know it), “is not growing dramatically.”

MPR Chief Operating Officer Dave Kansas
MPR COO Dave Kansas

The picture he paints is of a large, multi-faceted operation simply rethinking its business plan and adapting to shifting tastes and technology, which is itself a not-so­-veiled reference to the steadily growing appeal of “on-­demand” programming, which is usually synonymous with “podcasting.” With that particular technology now readily available in cars and understandable even to techno-illiterate geezers, the news and music “service” that fails to exploit the platform in all its iterations is dragging its heels at its peril. 

All of public radio, it seems, is still in a dither from the enormous success of “Serial,” last year’s “This American Life” spin-off that proved to be compulsive entertainment — both live and as an “on-demand” podcast. (The show has been re­upped for two more runs, with the second season premiere slated for later this year.) No discussion of the future of radio is now complete without a reference to “Serial,” as though everything produced for “on-demand” has the same pulp appeal as a murder mystery. 

“On­-demand,” says Kansas, “is becoming very important at the national level. There’s a lot of work going into building programs and building talent.” 

MPR has, of course, been at the “on­-demand” game for a while already. Programming is available at the tap of a (few) screens via its “Infinite Guest” network.

So what more does MPR think it can do with it? 

“I can’t get into details right now,” says Kansas. 

But he offers the network’s superb coverage of the Archdiocese sex scandals as an example of the kind of investigative work they hope to devote more resources to. Suggestions for future investigative work might include the local business community, a landscape MPR — with its traditionally tight relations with the state’s corporate giants — has rarely probed to the point of discomfort.  

MPR CEO Jon McTaggart
MPR CEO Jon McTaggart

Public radio in general, though, is better positioned for success in an “on-demand” marketplace than most other formats. The various forms of talk radio, for example, are highly transient, feeding off the hot topic of the moment, be it sports, gossip or politics, and then evaporating without a shelf life. As for music: Well, other than the goofball jocks and the giveaways, I for one have a hard time understanding why anyone still listens to music on commercial radio. 

But public radio, especially a comparatively well­-financed operation like MPR, with highly-­to­-excessively produced programming on an eclectic array of topics, is a natural for serving the interests of the audience that no longer has to remember to dial in at a precise time to catch the program of its choice. 

One dilemma for MPR is that its audience is so remarkably invested in its programming that any kind of change risks a significant downside. (Anecdotally, the persistent kvetching by obsessive-­level listeners over one host or another’s inflections or verbal tics would make rich material for a social psychologist.) Point being, whatever moves MPR makes will be met with howls of literate indignation.

Asked specifically if MPR’s morning line­up of Cathy Wurzer, Kerri Miller and Tom Weber were under consideration for “reallocation,” Kansas said “the morning drill” was unlikely to change.

Probing for Minnesota Public Radio’s financial well­-being is not an easy task, certainly not until tax-filing season. MPR’s pop music station, “The Current” recently staged its annual concert weekend, “Rock the Garden.” (“Current” listeners may have caught one of the approximately 600 promos per hour that the station ran during the months leading up to the June event.)

“How were the proceeds on that one?”

“It met our expectations,” said Kansas, deftly.

Ironically, in the context of produced programming for the “on demand” consumer, one facet of the live radio game that MPR might consider for re-examination is expanding its role as moderator of the electronic agora in moments of controversial events.

In contrast to the flagrant nitwittery that tends to dominate commercial radio in moments of crisis — the Charleston church massacre being the latest example — MPR’s more, shall we say, “sophisticated demeanor” would provide a true public service by guiding a comprehensive airing of vox populi, more often than it does. 

But that’s just an opinion.

Comments (25)

  1. Submitted by Bruce Bednarek on 07/09/2015 - 12:08 pm.

    Brian,Is the following

    Brian,

    Is the following correct – Current” listeners may have caught one of the approximately 600 promos per hour that the station ran during the months leading up to the June event. Is this correct, doesn’t that equate to 10 promos per minute or one promo every six seconds. I must be missing something.

    Thanks,

    Bruce

  2. Submitted by Cheryl Salo on 07/09/2015 - 12:27 pm.

    There would be mutiny

    if Kerri Miller and Tom Weber were “reallocated”. Wurzer – not so much.

    • Submitted by Pat Berg on 07/09/2015 - 03:34 pm.

      Speak for yourself

      Kerri Miller shouldn’t let the door hit her on the way out.

      Losing either of the other two would greatly diminish the quality of the morning programming.

      • Submitted by Donna Koren on 07/09/2015 - 07:44 pm.

        Until 3:00..

        I like listening to Wurzer on my way in to work, and I particularly loved her soulful series with the courageous professor living with ALS. Weber has some interesting stories. Miller.. I agree with the poster who said that two hours is two too much. She clearly loves books and the people who write them; perhaps an occasional book club would be a better fit. Also, her constant references to being on Twitter should probably be dialed back to zero. I also would love it if management decides to “re-allocate” some of the afternoon – way too much time with the BBC and on international events. I miss the interesting, quirky, informative stories that used to be all over MPR and now are only reliably on This American Life. I will schedule my weekend errands to listen to This American Life. Also, I like Brian’s wit; good, literate writing!

  3. Submitted by Alan Muller on 07/09/2015 - 01:03 pm.

    Pardon?

    This article is basically incomprehensible to me.

    The good about MPR is that it sometimes does what one can almost call “investigative” journalism, as in the Archdiocese scandals.

    I seldom listen to MPR as I loathe having to listen to adds for the Nuclear Energy Institute and other bad-actor interests. It seems easy to understand why the environmental coverage has become rather weak.

  4. Submitted by Kit Stormcloud on 07/09/2015 - 02:00 pm.

    “Point being, whatever moves MPR makes will be met with howls of literate indignation.”

    Unless Brian Lambert writes it, then it’ll be howls of illiterate indignation. What kind of sick joke is MinnPost playing that your worst writer is on media coverage?

    • Submitted by Jim Camery on 07/09/2015 - 02:31 pm.

      Pretty sure he meant that…

      Hate to have to explain someone’s joke, but he was pointing out that MPR’s audience tends to be better educated. Have a good day.

      • Submitted by Kit Stormcloud on 07/09/2015 - 02:41 pm.

        I definitely don’t need the joke explained. Since it appears you might: I was plucking but one poorly-written line out of a lengthy and unintelligible article to call its author a bad writer.

        • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 07/09/2015 - 03:42 pm.

          Lengthy?

          It took me less than 10 minutes to read the story.

          At the risk of being accused of asking a lengthy question, how short should an article about changes at an important media outlet be?

  5. Submitted by kay smith on 07/09/2015 - 02:34 pm.

    ‘Flagrant nitwittery’. You do know how to turn a phrase, Brian. Keep it up.

  6. Submitted by Jim Million on 07/09/2015 - 03:50 pm.

    Kling-On Empire

    I think many of us fairly well understand the suggested tactics of McTaggert and Kansas, just not Lambert.

    As a classical listener, I pretty much ignore all the rest of Bill Kling’s carefully crafted empire. Perhaps The Current is not. I wouldn’t know, having not listened to 89.3 since MPR met its long-standing goal to buy the frequency and kill WCAL. In a history of unsurpassed excellence and market growth, that is perhaps the only less than professional orchestration of the franchise. But, that gave birth to The Current, not just a lowly wave, but a significant Current, indeed. But, then, I really wouldn’t know how strong The Current is these days.

    I just hope they don’t mess with 99.5, that’s all. It was almost too much to have the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra management toss the organization upside down and largely out the door in quest of a newer/younger adventurous classical market. Please, MPR, don’t mess with your classical hosts and their well-earned status as frequency modulating masters of broadcast musicology. Just don’t mess with those who got you here, OK?! But, then, when Minnesota Public Radio is run by a former WSJ reporter named Kansas, one really cannot know, can one?

    Jeez! Now I’ve got to worry about ISIL, campus courtship documentation, old flags, and hidden turmoil at my one source of solace…all in one short summer! It just ain’t fair, you guys, not fair at all. Just shoot me, I’m old.

    In the immortal words of Linda Ellerbee: And so it goes…

    • Submitted by Karen Sandness on 07/10/2015 - 10:25 pm.

      As one who doesn’t listen to ANY talk radio

      of any political stripe, I echo your hope that they leave 99.5 alone.

      Oregon Public Broadcasting eliminated all classical and most other music about 15 years ago, much to the chagrin of its audiences, but at least Portland and Eugene had other classical stations to pick up that audience.

      With the demise of WCAL, 99.5 is all we have, and the community has proved its interest in classical music through its support of the locked-out Minnesota Orchestra musicians.

  7. Submitted by Linda Miller on 07/09/2015 - 04:48 pm.

    Cathy Wurzer is a Minnesota treasure

    I have been really annoyed with MPR lately as they seem to be steering us only to shows they create, rather than paying for and broadcasting NPR shows. For instance, the 9:00 PM slot is now a replay of whatever they aired at noon.
    I love Cathy Wurzer, she is the last true great radio broadcaster at that station since Eichten retired, they cannot possibly think it would be a good idea to reduce her role.

    Kerri Miller is not capable of carrying 2 hours everyday, they need to do something and ideally they would do something that would be of interest to people under 35 – where is the next generation of MPR listeners coming from?

  8. Submitted by Barbara Skoglund on 07/09/2015 - 04:54 pm.

    Rock the Garden

    When Rock the Garden was a one day event it sold out very quickly. Some years, non-MPR members couldn’t even get tickets. Now it is a two day event, and never sells out. Hence the DJs quite forced repetition regarding the event. Probably not every 6 seconds, but it sure felt that way 😉

  9. Submitted by Ray J Wallin on 07/10/2015 - 08:11 am.

    .org or .com?

    I’m sure the programming changes MPR makes will be like the last ones a couple years ago, where they shortened the morning shows, then called them “In Depth.”

    With their more obvious ads and marketing moves like above, they are walking that fine line of becoming just another news source where marketing drives the content.

    I still listen, but each time they change, they become more commercial… Let’s see, Glen Beck is on when?

  10. Submitted by Doug Gray on 07/10/2015 - 10:37 am.

    stronger and even better experiences

    does this mean they’ll stop taking four weeks out of every year to ask us for money to support the kind of programming dozens of for-profit outlets also offer, or cut back on “extended sponsor acknowledgements,” that is, their six-bit word for “commercials?”

  11. Submitted by jody rooney on 07/10/2015 - 11:36 am.

    There is very little to interest me on MPR anymore

    Other than Wurzer, Splendid Table, and Science Friday I have pretty much dialed it off. The BBC programing is a waste of time although I do like CBC.

    I much prefer WPR and their connection with the UW Madison keeps their programs fresher. Not to mention that they are actually aware that the state exists beyond Madison.

    So whatever changes the make they would have to be pretty drastic to get me back as a listener and contributor.

  12. Submitted by Steve Soudbash on 07/10/2015 - 01:48 pm.

    MPR not so public

    These announcements sound a lot like something coming out of most corporations these days. It also reveals the truth that MPR isn’t the benevolent organization we’ve been led to believe.

    Can we seriously continue to call NPR, or MPR for that matter, “public radio”? MPR is a corporation with shareholders, that also happens to be a non-profit. Look up the definition of a non-profit – doesn’t mean they don’t generate loads of cash.

    Rather than asking for us to donate money, why not make MPR truly “public” and offer the citizens of Minnesota the chance to own a piece of this great institution?

  13. Submitted by Jim Million on 07/11/2015 - 08:05 am.

    Lambert’s Balk

    While pitching this rather schizophrenic piece, Lambert stopped short of pursuing the financial issues at MPR, excusing his negligence as: “Probing for Minnesota Public Radio’s financial well­-being is not an easy task, certainly not until tax-filing season.” Brian’s delving with Dave Kansas reveals this: “He insists MPR (i.e. American Public Media Group) is growing both in terms of revenue and listenership” I guess Lambert missed the piece on Current.org posted the day prior to this bit of his own confusion.

    June 8, Current.org: “American Public Media Group is cutting its losses with the $21.7 million sale of Classical South Florida…” This after putting about $10 million into the business unit after the initial 2007 purchase price of $20 million. That’s a simple loss of about $8 million so far. Well, Brian, you only had to ask.

    So, when Lambert equates MPR with APMG, he confuses his own argument, whatever that might be. Brian cannot even delineate the market units of MPR, itself, further confusing his premise: “Change is afoot!” Please, someone, give Brian Lambert the reporter’s cheat sheet: Who, What, When, Where, Why.

    This truly is bad writing/reporting. Kit Stormcloud is more to the point.

  14. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 07/11/2015 - 11:59 am.

    I stopped reading at:

    “I can’t get into any details right now” Without details there simply is no story here. So changes are comming… let me know when you have some information about that. The only thing I figure is that this is supposed to be part of some kind of advance campaign intended to generate buzz about the upcoming changes on the off chance that people will take an interest. If so, it’s a poorly conceived campaign. What do they think, we’re all gonna move to the edge of our seats and wait to hear the changes?

  15. Submitted by jason myron on 07/11/2015 - 07:38 pm.

    I’m struggling to find a reason

    for all of the Kerri Miller hate here. I realize it’s subjective, but I think Ms. Miller does a great job with her show. Frankly, she has a lot more to do to keep her show moving than Ms. Wurzer does. Sorry, but with all due respect, Wurzer spends a great deal of her time offloading to different national feeds while Miller is handling multiple person interviews and call ins. I guess my bar for referencing someone as the “last great true broadcaster” is a bit higher. That’s not a knock on Wurzer’s talent, I happen to like her (although I’d love to see her and Eskola be a bit more challenging towards their political guests on Almanac).
    In any event, I’m with Mr. Million…as long as they don’t mess with 99.5, I’m a happy camper.

    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 07/13/2015 - 08:39 am.

      I don’t hate Ms. Miller…

      But she is one reason I stopped listening to MPR in the morning. Her style just annoys me in a lot of ways, but that’s me, it doesn’t necessarily mean she’s not talented, and she certainly has her fans. I guess if I had to produce an example, the last time I remember turning the channel in disgust was one morning a couple years ago when they were talking about some kind of legal issue. Miller actually spoke into her microphone and said the words: “So if you’re a lawyer we want to hear from you”. Lawyers were well represented, she had one on as a guest, that’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard anyone say on a call-in show. And she did that a lot, announcing who she wanted to call in, it makes for boring radio and alienates the audience. The last thing I wanted to hear was a bunch of lawyers regurgitating what the guest had already said in one or another, and that’s what you get when if you restrict comments that way.

      Another thing, and this is just me, but it seems like Miller has turned the morning shows into a book club, and the books she’s talking about, and her conversations about those books, simply don’t interest me. Even when she’s got an interesting topic the conversation is dulll. Miller’s not the only reason I don’t listen to MPR anymore so it’s not fair to blame it all on her. But really, who cares whether or not I listen to MPR anyways? I don’t listen to country music either, so what?

  16. Submitted by Pat Reynolds on 07/15/2015 - 12:47 am.

    Changes are needed

    to keep MPR working well for me. I listen to a lot of WPR and I like how they work with University of Wisconsin to bring experts in on topics. Why doesn’t MPR do this with our U of M and other colleges we have here in the TC? Their shows are superb and I suggest the MPR management listen to what WPR does for programming. If I miss a show on WPR, I like how easy it is to use their app to listen to archived programs. In addition, once you get done with the morning programs on MPR, there is very little to listen to after that. There is WAY too much BBC! It’s overdone. Kerri Miller and Tom do a pretty good job I think. I’m a book lover so enjoy the book talks Kerri has but somehow sometimes the book talk gets a bit disjointed, perhaps concentrating on discussing in depth one book for a longer period of time is needed without too many books bring discussed and commented on. That way you can go into more depth with a book. I’d hate to see the book talk discontinued but I do think it could use a fresh look at what and how book programming is presented if that makes sense. Again, I think WPR is the star here over MPR and I think listening to what and how they do their programming would help MPR. Also, the ability to listen to archived programs through their app is outstanding, I find MPR’s app seriously lacking in this functionality.

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