Q&A with Jon McTaggart

Jon McTaggart
Jon McTaggart has been named the new president and CEO of American Public Media Group, the parent company of Minnesota Public Radio. He succeeds Bill Kling in that position on July 1, 2011.
MPR Photo/Steve Mullis

The parent company of Minnesota Public Radio and American Public Media on Wednesday appointed its chief operating officer to succeed chief executive officer Bill Kling, who will step down this summer from the organization he started 44 years ago.

Jon McTaggart, a longtime MPR executive, was named by American Public Media Group's board to oversee MPR's 42-station public radio network and a diverse portfolio of national programs that includes the business program Marketplace and Performance Today, a daily two-hour program of classical music.

Starting July 1, he will guide the company into what many see as the next era for public radio, one that's rife with political controversy, financial uncertainty and technological tumult.

MPR reporter Annie Baxter spoke with McTaggart and two board members shortly after the announcement on Tuesday. Randy Hogan is chairman of the American Public Media Group board of trustees and CEO of Pentair Inc. Ian Friendly is the chair of the board's succession team and the U.S. retail chief operating officer at General Mills.

A transcript of the interview is below.

CHALLENGES FROM NEW MEDIA

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Annie Baxter: We have a raft of competitors in the digital world right now, and I'm wondering, Jon, what are you going to do to move American Public Media into this future of the digital realm? What are your plans for growth?

Jon McTaggart: Growth, well, so many organizations look at the technological change as a threat, and I think we have demonstrated already that the technologies that our audiences are using are opportunities for us to reach more people, to reach them in new ways, to serve our current audience in new ways.

Our competitors [are] not really a concern at this point for me because we've not really been a follower. We've always charted our own path. We've always been responsive to our audience. Let me give you an example of how technology, how we're already using technology. I think in 2007 we had 1.5 million podcast downloads every month. Last month, I think we had 8 million podcast downloads. So from a technology standpoint, our audience is embracing it, and we're trying to be responsive to them. We've got terrific people, talented, creative people throughout this organization that are more than ready and already serving audiences in that way.

Baxter: How do you see yourself as uniquely qualified to take on this job? You're a guy who came up in old school radio. You have your chops there for sure. What are the qualifications for this digital endeavor?

McTaggart: Well, you know, 28 years ago when we started the station in Bemidji, it was the seventh or eighth station in the Minnesota Public Radio network, and I had the great opportunity to build that station. Now we have 42 stations in the Minnesota Public Radio network alone. That's not counting Southern California Public Radio or Classical South Florida.

And over the 28 years since then, I've been involved in developing, launching our online and digital service back in the '90s. We've been involved in so many innovative new and digitally-enabled services, and our audiences are taking them up. Public Insight Journalism is one that's digitally enabled, and it goes right to the heart of our mission. So I think not just my experience, but the whole organization's experience gets us ready, and I think we've been ready and been involved in digital for quite some time.

Baxter: Will the model really change for acquiring stations, launching new programs, things that we do on the radio typically? How is that going to change? How will that picture look different?

McTaggart: Well, change is constant around here, right? This is an organization that's been very opportunistic and very strategic about how we will deliver value to our communities and to our audience. I don't know how it will change, other than it will change. I have some ideas that I'm going to add to the plans that we have.

We have a good plan, and it's working. We have record audiences right now. We have more individual contributors and members than ever in the history of the organization, our corporate support. And those are only numerical markers of the obvious value that we're creating for our audiences. Audiences don't support things that aren't important to them. So as we consider the opportunities within the plan, we'll make those decisions at that time, but I don't see a significant change to the plan, but then again, our plan embraces opportunism and change all along.

Baxter: I recall in 2007 when American Public Media bought a station in Florida, Bill Kling said that radio was still the most financially efficient way to reach people. Is that the case today, four years later?

McTaggart: Well, 92 percent of all Americans listen to the radio at least once a week. Radio leads our parade. It's the largest. It's the way that we have developed our audience service most intentionally over the past 44 years. Bill Kling's passion for the audience and the commitment that we have to great journalism in our communities and great art in our communities through classical music and now through The Current, those things aren't going to change. They're only going to be amplified. And I think that when it comes to reaching new audiences, technology is enabling that.

Radio is leading the way and still is our most ubiquitous audience service in most of our communities, but our audiences are changing. They're more diverse. Their media habits are changing, and we want to more than responsive on that, and we will be.

Baxter: You said that there are all these digital opportunities, and you kind of minimized the threat from competitors, but there are issues like Pandora [Radio] going into cars and that can presumably take a share away. National Public Radio may be going onto mobile phones. How real are those threats?

McTaggart: Well, Pandora, as I understand, is one of the services that an entirely mobile broadband environment enables. We are already mobile and broadband. We are already on wireless devices. We are already on your iPad. We're already on your iPhone or your BlackBerry. We are already embracing those devices, and our audiences are responding.

We had over 2 million unique browsers last month to our digital services. That's a significant audience for Minnesota Public Radio, Southern California Public Radio, Classical South Florida, and certainly for the national programs that American Public Media produces.

So I'm not minimizing the opportunity, but as I said, I don't think it's a threat to us. I think that if automobiles embrace mobile broadband and if the technology delivers a high-quality audio experience through more than radio, we're going to be there because we already have started there. And you can already enjoy us off your iPhone in your car, if that's what you choose to do. That's our challenge. Our challenge is to be extremely responsive and so well-connected to our audience that the technologies on the devices that they're adopting are the ones that we're going to be able to provide service on.

CHARGES OF BIASES

Baxter: How will you navigate the turmoil and allegations of biased coverage here and nationally in public radio?

McTaggart: We're absolutely committed to fact-based, fair, balanced, nonpartisan journalism. We have one of the largest newsrooms in the upper Midwest. Our journalists go out into the community every day to find the stories that matter to our audiences and to tell those stories in a compelling, fair, balanced and nonpartisan way. That's going to continue. That is in our DNA, and we'll stand on our record of that service, and we will continue it.

RELATIONSHIP WITH NPR

Baxter: Are you going to maintain your seat on the National Public Radio board?

McTaggart: You know, that is an elected seat, and my current term runs through the end of September. And in the weeks ahead, I'll have a chance to talk to the American Public Media board about that and make a decision in the coming weeks.

LIFE AFTER KLING

Baxter: Successions in founder-led companies are notoriously difficult. You have big shoes to fill. You have a lot of competency, but certainly Bill Kling is kind of an icon in Minnesota culture. How do you step in after him?

McTaggart: I'm not sure I'm the right one to answer that question.

Randy Hogan: One of the most important things that the board of trustees, or a board in any organization does, is manage the succession and choosing and evaluating the leadership of an organization. And the board of trustees for American Public Media and Minnesota Public Radio took this very seriously, this role.

And in fact, we started our succession process two years ago because even Bill Kling, I guess, had to step down some day. There were some doubts in the community that that would happen, but he's earned to right to go play a little bit, I think. So two years ago we began a process, and I've been in a number of these processes on other boards, and it's been one of the most rigorous and I think fulfilling and validating processes we've had. So we're delighted that that process led us to unanimously approve Jon as the next CEO when Bill steps down at the end of June.

REPLACEMENT SEARCH

Baxter: Can you tell me a little bit more about what the field of candidates were like?

Ian Friendly: We started this process a couple of years ago. Jon was always part of the equation for us and we knew we had a very talented executive here, but we also wanted to make sure he measured up against the best of the best anywhere in the country, and so we engaged a national search firm. We literally started with a list of hundreds of candidates and whittled that down to about a dozen that were terrific that we seriously interviewed, then went to another smaller list thereafter, and that culminated in our job offer to Jon.

Baxter: Can you give any sense of what the other candidates' experiences were like? Were they media folks? Were they coming from totally different backgrounds?

Hogan: We largely looked at deeply experienced media executives.

Baxter: And could you tell me a little bit more about your choice to go with someone from inside the company?

Hogan: Well, it really started with what we wanted in a new leader. We didn't start with inside or outside. As Ian [Friendly] said, Jon was always a candidate. We looked at candidates both inside and outside, and what we were looking for was a combination of strategic agility. You asked earlier about Jon's thoughts about how he's going to handle, how we want to handle some of the changes.

Certainly this is an industry that's changing as rapidly or more rapidly than any other, so, strategic agility, being able to deal with ambiguity, being able to make sense of that and move forward, business acumen. American Public Media and Minnesota Public Radio is unique among media companies, let alone public media companies with the range of activities from operating radio stations to national programming to events around the communities that so love this organization.

Obviously, leadership, and then very important, because we are a not-for-profit, we're a mission-driven organization. So that sense of having a mission beyond just getting along, just making money, a mission-driven orientation is vital to this organization. Those were really the four categories that we then blew out into a much longer slate of characteristics that we evaluated everyone against.

Baxter: So when you talk about leadership, what was it about Jon's background and what he brings to the table that really resonated with you?

Hogan: Against those four general attributes, Jon rated very highly and as highly as, certainly cleared the bar on all of them. In particular, the fact is this is a well-run organization. It's heading in the right direction, and being able to have someone who not only has those attributes but who's also intimate with the organization and has a lot of his own fingerprints on the success of this organization is great.

Friendly: Jon has a very tangible real 28-year track record that's impressive. We also reference checked. I spoke to people around the country involved in public media, and I think we have one of the most respected individuals sitting here right with us today in the industry, but as well, as I said, we didn't want to just benchmark against public media, but against all media.

And as we looked at Jon's track record and accomplishments, his leadership and also his knowledge and experience, he was talented. Some people might more of a content background, or they might have a little bit more of a news background. What we found in Jon was a nice blending of executive leadership experience to run the enterprise of American Public Media, as well as the radio knowledge and the programming sensitivity, and, as Randy mentioned, the mission-driven orientation to make sure a nonprofit is responsive to the public and to its members.

Baxter: And so you said the finalists themselves, they were all media executives then, or they were largely media executives?

Friendly: The finalists' list was all media executives.

Baxter: You spoke a lot about the things that Bill Kling has established that you would want to keep because they're working. What would you do differently?

McTaggart: There's going to be an awful lot of time in the coming weeks to talk about what we'll do, but let me give you a quick hint, I suppose. One thing's not going to change. I'll start there, and that is the passion that we have for the audiences themselves. Bill [Kling] over the last 44 years has laid a really solid foundation for this organization, and I'm honored to be able to build from there and lead going forward.

There are opportunities for us, and technology enables those opportunities for us to invite ideas from our audience, to involve them in the content process and in the creative process in ways that we've only experimented with.

I want an opportunity over the coming weeks to ask questions of Bill and ask questions of the board and ask questions of staff and donors and members and the audience, and find out what they're thinking and get some of their ideas before I make any either decisions or pronouncements, but I have a few directions and themes that I'm going to be happy to share with our staff. I'd like them maybe to hear them first.

100 REPORTER-STRONG NEWSROOM

Baxter: How about this plan to beef up newsrooms to 100 reporter capacity? That was something that Bill Kling wanted to do, both in this regional newsroom and in other newsrooms throughout the country. Is that a plan you'd like to keep going with?

McTaggart: You know, I don't have to name all of the examples that you or our audience knows of news organizations around the country that are either shrinking or are threatened in some way or that are collapsing and completely out of business. It is a core fundamental element of our mission to inform audiences and to serve them with great journalism. We're going to continue that. We're going to build on that in any way that we can.

We see our community as having I call it a news ecology, that is all of the organizations that are committed to informing Americans or informing audiences. And right now I think that's threatened. I think the news ecology has a challenge in general. We don't. Our news audience is growing. Our newsroom has been growing. We've been more than stable, and I would argue if audiences and public support and membership support and even the number of journalists are any count, we have a healthy news organization, and I expect that that's going to continue.

Baxter: So, specifically the 100 reporter goal, though, is that something you'd like to keep at?

McTaggart: We have said that we believe that a strong newsroom requires the number of reporters and producers and editors that can deliver the news that our audience needs on a daily basis. I don't know if 100 is exactly the right number, but it's a pretty good number, and I know that a newsroom that's larger than the one we have would provide even greater service than we're already providing. And as our audiences support us in that, and as we engage our community in that vision, I'm sure that we're going to be able to make progress.

Baxter: And that goal, you would maintain some sort of role working in conjunction with these other stations that want to get 100 reporters in other newsrooms as well?

McTaggart: There are other public radio stations around the country that are similarly committed to increasing their news strength and both the quality and the capacity of their newsrooms. And we'll work with those colleagues as our missions intersect.

Hogan: The board and management have worked very closely on this strategy for American Public Media and Minnesota Public Radio. And despite the technology changes or the platforms, there's really three communities that we serve, and you call it a fan culture in those communities. And it's the classical music community. It's the news and information community, and it's the community of The Current, which Ian [Friendly] and I are both members of, actually, all three, right?

But finding ways to serve those communities better at a high quality level, unbiased, engaged, the word we like is curation. I mean across all platforms what really is important is the ability to curate for that community the kind of content that they deserve.

And whether it's 100 reporters as a marker for a quality standard and a capacity standard for news, or whether it's Rock the Garden and things at First Avenue, or whether it's the brilliant broadcasts we bring to classical listeners all over the country, actually, there's a standard that the board and management are wholly aligned on. That standard is to be valued by that community and provide a high level of curation so that the content is exactly what they want.

Friendly: Implicit in your question is something that actually relates to your earlier question on succession. And one of Bill Kling's great skills and talents amongst many is ambition. He had ambition for the organization to grow to get bigger to serve its audience better. That was something we also saw tremendously in Jon. And so whether the right number is 100 or 90 or 120, the fact is that we want a leader who's going to stretch and grow this organization and serve our membership and our audiences better. And Jon is someone who very much has demonstrated and lived that ambition.

REACTING TO PROMOTION

Baxter: Jon, when did you get the news that you got the post?

McTaggart: Not even half an hour ago.

Baxter: So was it that the board voted?

Hogan: The board meeting's actually still going on. We stepped out to communicate the good news, as is good governance, but also it's important that the MPR and APM community knows it first. Now he knew that we were going to vote on it today. You did know that.

McTaggart: I knew that we were having a board meeting. The board's in charge.

Baxter: And so what was your first reaction?

McTaggart: I am humbled and excited. I'm honored to have a chance to lead this exceptional organization. We have such terrific people here. We have a loyal and growing audience, another distinction from what you might have called competitors. We're not like our competitors in a lot of ways. We have real fans, and our fan base is growing as our audience is growing. We have a record number of members and individuals, as I've mentioned.

We also have a culture that Bill Kling has established that is opportunistic, and it's strategic, and it's fun, and it's always focused on what we can create for the audience and creating more value tomorrow than we did today. And we have had the confidence for more than 44 years that if we do that, if we create real value for our local communities, that our communities will respond with support, and they have, and they've been generous. And that's going to continue as far as I can make it happen.

HISTORY WITH PUBLIC RADIO

Baxter: Can you tell me when it was that you fell in love with public radio?

McTaggart: Well, I fell in love with radio on a tractor outside of Campbell, Minn., when I was six years old and my dad strapped an AM radio to the fender of our John Deere and set me up with a disc and I listened to AM radio when I was a kid ...

But you know as I got older, and certainly as I went to college, I was the news director of the college radio station. I worked at commercial radio during college and after for a short time. On commercial radio I was the disc jockey for a country music station. I've been a classical music announcer. I wrote ad copy for the sales department. I reported news stories for a commercial station in Bemidji. I even painted the AM radio tower one summer myself. You sort of do everything you're asked to do.

Baxter: Other duties as assigned.

McTaggart: Other duties as assigned. So I've been in love with radio for a long time, and with public radio, you know I care about an informed democracy. I care about free access to great art in all of our communities, and public radio is a terrific way to do that, to do both of those things. And whether your great art is Mozart or whether your great art is Jeremy Messersmith, it's great art right now. And we're able to do that using even what is now considered to be an old medium, and we are doing it even in more innovative ways on all the new mediums. So I'm in love with public media, and even though that first love was public radio, I'm very excited about the future of American Public Media.

Baxter: I don't know if this story's apocryphal, but I have heard that you once advised that a colleague go into a stereo store and tune all of the radios to public radio. Is that true?

McTaggart: I've not only advised a colleague. I've done that myself. We would go, if we had permission, when I was a manager in Bemidji, we would go to the Toyota dealer, and he'd let us tune all the cars in the Toyota lot to KCRB radio station. Not apocryphal.

Baxter: For the board, what is your position on Jon maintaining a board seat with National Public Radio?

Hogan: We'll discuss that in due time. We haven't really talked about it yet.

NATIONAL PROGRAMMING

Baxter: One last quick thing. American Public Media produces content for both regional and national audiences. Will one get priority over the other under your leadership?

McTaggart: We have audiences in three major regions that we consider regional audiences here in the Minnesota, in southern Florida, and in southern California, but we have some of the best and most popular and I think the most beloved national programs in all of public media — "A Prairie Home Companion" every Saturday night and Marketplace every day, Krista Tippett On Being is just a thoughtful program and such a loyal audience. Splendid Table's having one of its best years ever.

We have terrific national programs, and they're succeeding ... terrifically on new media on all the digital platforms. So I think that's a strength of this organization to have both, and it's always been a commitment to develop those strengths and we're going to continue to do that.

Baxter: So, you'll continue to launch new national programs?

McTaggart: We're going to plant seeds. We're going to ask our audiences. We're going to engage our audiences in that way, and I know that there's already some new things in the pipe that we're going to be excited to talk about in the coming weeks or months.

(Interview edited and transcribed by MPR reporter Madeleine Baran)