Radio veteran to lead MPR into a digital future

Jon McTaggart
Jon McTaggart, left, speaks to the board of American Public Media Group on Wednesday, April 20, 2011. McTaggart, the company's chief operating officer, was chosen by the board as the new CEO, effective July 1. He will succeed current CEO and company founder Bill Kling, at right.
MPR Photo/John Nicholson

Jon McTaggart says he's been drumming up creative ways to build audiences ever since the early 1980s, when he'd try by stealth to get people to listen to the Minnesota Public Radio station he managed 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," McTaggart said Wednesday, after being appointed chief executive officer of Minnesota Public Radio and American Public Media's parent company.

From the station manager visiting the Toyota dealer to the chief operating officer expanding a regional network, McTaggart has focused on trying to get people to tune their radio dials to Minnesota Public Radio.

When he replaces founder Bill Kling on July 1, McTaggart will take command of a company flourishing with strong finances and a big audience. But his new job also comes at a time when public radio faces political controversy and doubts about the future of federal funding -- all while its audience demands more news and music in digital formats.

McTaggart said he's confident the company will be able to keep up the changes.

"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," he said in an interview with MPR News. "We are already embracing those devices, and our audiences are responding."

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Like many media organizations, American Public Media Group is still developing its digital products and defining the role online content will play in its efforts to grow its audiences. Media observers say many organizations are falling behind.

"Our challenge is to be extremely responsive and well-connected to our audience."

"The audience has really been ahead of most media," said Ken Doctor, a media analyst who has followed the news media's transition to digital. "Readers are saying, 'I don't really care what business you're in, I want my stuff now and I want it on the device of my choice.' Radio and public radio face that same issue."

Keeping up with technology also means building a bigger online audience by "colonizing" social media to engage with the audience on platforms like Twitter and Facebook, said Rutgers University media studies professor Aram Sinnreich.

"I think he's going to face a learning curve in that kind of stuff," Sinnreich said of McTaggart.

About 900,000 listeners tune in to MPR stations each week, and the organization claims 110,000 members, people who have contributed money. American Public Media programs reach about 16 million listeners on nearly 800 stations nationwide. It is the second-largest distributor of national programs behind NPR, and is the largest producer and distributor of classical music programming.

But Sinnreich also said the auto industry's move to equip vehicles with on-demand radio services like Pandora pose a big threat to public media.

"A tremendous portion of public radio listening happens in Americans' cars, and we're about to see over the next five years the distribution of all kinds of on-demand platforms in the cars that are going to render traditional AM-FM radio obsolete," Sinnreich said.

McTaggart said radio is still a major player, noting that more than 90 percent of Americans still listen to the radio at least once a week.

"Radio is leading the way, and still is our most ubiquitous audience service in our communities," he said. "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."

Besides starting two new music stations, the company launched the Public Insight Network -- a nationwide system that connects audiences to news organizations -- during the time McTaggart was chief operating officer.

Kling, Minnesota Public Radio's outgoing chief executive, said he's confident McTaggart will keep the company growing.

"He knows the company as the chief operating officer, really in many ways, better than I do," said Kling, who started the company in 1967 as a classical music station in Collegeville.

But following Kling, a towering figure in the industry, won't be easy. American Public Media Group is now a public media giant. Besides MPR and American Public Media, APMG also controls Southern California Public Radio, Classical South Florida, the Fitzgerald Theater and Greenspring Company, which publishes Minnesota Monthly.

APMG has 609 full and part-time employees, including 475 at MPR, American Public Media and the Fitzgerald Theater. It reported revenue of $97.2 million as of June 2010, up slightly from $96.3 million a year earlier, according to company officials. Its endowments total $147 million.

The fact that the board hired from within probably means leaders are happy with how things are going, said Peter Cappelli, a professor of management at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School.

"The sense one gets from internal candidates is that we're certainly not throwing out the old model and the old approaches," Cappelli said.

Torey Malatia, president and CEO of WBEZ in Chicago, said the challenge for McTaggart is to take things to the next level.

"To keep an organization that's that highly regarded alive and creative and moving forward is sometimes harder than bringing one that's kind of scrappy up to national recognition," said Malatia, who met McTaggart years ago at a Station Resources Group meeting. "But Jon can do it. I think he has the ability and individuality to build on [what Kling established], and leave something that is distinctive that's his as well."

As for recent scandals involving National Public Radio, which have tainted the public media brand, McTaggart said he believes Minnesota Public Radio's own record of service will shine through.

"We're absolutely committed to fact-based, fair, balanced, nonpartisan journalism," he said.

McTaggart through September holds a seat on the board of National Public Radio, which competes with American Public Media in distributing national programming. He was on the board during NPR's most recent controversies, including the departure of NPR CEO Vivian Schiller.

Asked if he sees any conflict in serving on the board as the newly appointed CEO of APMG, McTaggart said he'll decide in the coming weeks whether to seek re-election.

NPR board chairman Dave Edwards said he hopes McTaggart stays on.

How long McTaggart will stay on with MPR and American Public Media is also unclear. The company did not disclose the terms of his contract or compensation.