It provides three distinct radio
services to about 900,000 radio listeners every week: News,
Classical Music and The Current contemporary music. About 1
million people come to the websites and other digital formats
every month, according to MPR CEO Jon McTaggart.
Nineteen million people listen to a
program created or distributed by American Public Media (APM).
American Public Media Group (APMG) is the parent company of
Minnesota Public Radio, American Public Media and The Fitzgerald
Theater in St. Paul, Southern California Public Radio in Los
Angeles and Classical South Florida in Miami. It has staff in
Los Angeles, New York, Washington and other bureaus around the
country, as well as in London and Shanghai. About two-thirds of
the entire APMG staff are in the Midwest and the other one-third
are spread throughout the country and the world.
There are four specific pillars to
- Enrich the mind;
- Nourish the spirit;
- Expand perspectives; and
- Strengthen communities.
MPR's mission has not changed, even
though our community and the world have changed dramatically,
McTaggart said. "The way we work and the way our audience
experiences us are different, but our fundamental purpose is
not." MPR's 50th anniversary is in 2017.
"We want people to be inspired and to
be informed," he said. "We want them to understand issues and to
appreciate art. We want to motivate solutions to the common
good. That's what a public service does. It leans into the
common good: the good of society and the good of citizens."
McTaggart pointed out that MPR is not
beholden to stockholders. "As a public service, our motivation
is to create value for the community," he said. "We're committed
to an informed democracy. We want to be part of informing the
Informing the public is not as simple
as it used to be. "We're living in a time when headlines are
outrageous," McTaggart said, "when we're speaking in sound
bites, when story lines and stories are written before the
sources are ever interviewed and news is delivered in tweets.
Digital media is changing the way we work. It allows us to get
news only from people we agree with. It allows us to live in an
ideological echo chamber. I don't believe that's good for a
He commented that some media
companies' paid pundits are making huge profits by inflaming our
fears and making us angry. "But our job is not to inflame or
How does MPR grow, survive and thrive
in this environment? "We're clear-eyed about the condition
of society," McTaggart said. "We're not looking through
rose-colored glasses at anything. We have a compelling vision
for the future and we believe we can have an impact on the
"We're trusted conveners," he said.
"We want to convene the most important conversations that we
need to have as neighbors, as community members, as citizens of
the state and of the country. We want to inject civility and
mutual respect in an increasingly polarized world. We want to
inform and inspire some of the solutions."
"We're doubling down on journalism and
investigative journalism," McTaggart continued. APM Reports is a
new investigative journalism unit, he said, that will be going
deep on a number of issues that matter to people in Minnesota
and the whole country. "Our role is to inform," he said. "We try
to go broadly enough to a broad number of issues and deep enough
on a few issues."
MPR is committed to music and the
arts. "Music and the arts are essential, because they
nourish the soul," McTaggart said. A city or a country that does
not appreciate music and the arts does not have a soul. "Music
and the arts elevate all of us."
MPR is working every day to inform and
inspire. "When communities are informed and inspired, they
will be motivated to seek solutions that will be good for all of
us," McTaggart said. "We have to find solutions to the things
that matter to us and those solutions are more elusive today
than they have been in a long time."
Media are spending far more time on
diagnosis than on prescription. Diagnosis is fun and
prescription is hard, McTaggart argued. Prescription moves from
what we think to what we do. It's easy to get fixed on debating
the diagnosis. We're spending 80 to 90 percent of our time on
diagnosis that scares us. When so much energy gets invested in
diagnosis from the media perspective, it overwhelms the
"Legislators and elected officials
need to be held accountable for having a firm grip on the
diagnosis," he said. "The questions on diagnosis are
important. But not enough time is spent really probing what
someone is prescribing. We're so wrapped up in diagnosis that
the prescription rarely gets the attention or time it should. We
as a society and the media have become conditioned to debate the
diagnosis and to reach for a simple solution to the symptoms."
"As a media organization, I have to
challenge us to look beyond the diagnostic debate, to look to
contributing factors and probe whether a suggested solution will
be good in the long term," he said.
The news cycle used to be measured in
days and weeks, but now it changes every second. An
interviewer asked what keeps public-policy proposals from coming
forth to be debated. McTaggart responded that now the news cycle
changes every second. Because of the compression of time, there
is little opportunity to think through and sort through things.
"A timeless news cycle doesn't allow people to step back and
take time to distill things," he said.
That's why APMG created APM Reports, a
new investigative reporting unit, he said. It took six months
before the recent APM Reports piece on Mesabi Academy, a
treatment facility for vulnerable kids, was aired. He noted that
APMG is spending $1 million on the investigative unit this year.
Most media organizations will never invest in that.
"Why are we doing it?" McTaggart
asked. "Because some stories can't be told in a sound bite or
reported on a daily, relentless news cycle. You have to take the
time to step back, reflect and consider."
We believe if we inform people, they
will move toward the common good. An interviewer noted MPR's
decision to put a heavy focus on water issues in Minnesota and
asked whether, when the station focuses on an issue like that,
it has a goal of influencing public policy.
McTaggart responded that MPR's sweet
spot is in building understanding and awareness. We're not a
public-policy organization. If we inform people, our belief is
they will move toward the common good. We're not advocating for
a particular outcome. We want to hold those organizations
involved in the issue accountable.
"We think building awareness and
understanding takes time," he said. "It also takes trust. We
want to be a source you can trust to deliver information without
polemic or an expectation of a certain ideological response.
It's easy to raise awareness; it's harder to build
There's no profit to be made by media
in the middle. But MPR doesn't have to make a profit,
McTaggart said. "So we can play between the 40-yard lines and
have a chance to inform on some of these issues. And we can seek
conversations across that common middle. No one scores a goal
without having to cross the middle. But most of the profit is
not made between the 40-yard lines. Most media are in either end
of the field. If you try to play in the middle, you will be
Through independent monitoring and
volunteered information, MPR knows who's listening.
McTaggart said the station knows the age and ethnicity of the
- The audience for The Current station (under age 35) is the
youngest of any public radio station in America.
- The average age of listeners to the News station is 55.
- The average age of the Classical Music station listeners
McTaggart noted that outside of years
when a presidential election is on the ballot, MPR's audience
self-identifies as 40 percent Democrats, 25 percent Republicans
and 35 percent independents-approximately 1/3, 1/3, 1/3
ideologically. In presidential election years, those numbers
change significantly, he said. The independents evaporate,
falling to 10 percent or less, and the poles grow larger. The
progressive-leaning liberal audience is bigger than the
conservative audience, but not by much, he said.
MPR's audience is growing slowly on
radio and growing rapidly on digital media. McTaggart said
MPR is very focused on audience growth right now. It's a mission
imperative: We want more Minnesotans and more Americans to
benefit from the public service we offer. That will also be good
business for us. Increasing our audience requires behaving in
some different ways. We have to make some changes that will
bring us audiences who aren't finding us now or who aren't
finding us as relevant as we'd like.
Membership is MPR's most important
source of revenue, he said. MPR has 135,000 members, which
amounts to about 10 percent of the audience. Seventy percent of
those are sustaining members, who give automatically each month.
"We take that very seriously," he said. "That is a deep trust we
have earned and we're not going to risk it."
MPR's audience development has
historically been focused on a college-educated audience, but
now is changing its focus to curiosity. McTaggart said
stations were put in communities where the incidence of
college-educated people is high. He said 28 percent of
Minnesotans have college degrees and MPR touches about 25
percent of the state, with one million radio listeners alone.
"We must rethink how we're going to be
appealing," he said, "and how to get to an audience that's
broader than just the highly educated. Curiosity is a better
definer of the audience. It includes all ages and demographic
groups. It includes a much broader swath of Minnesotans. We
should try to inspire curiosity at a higher level."
That means hiring curious people, he
said, who are not always the same as college-educated people.
And it means learning how to serve curious people in a more
complicated world. "Can we ask a better question and does that
lead to better understanding?"
We want to be partners with higher
education, but we want people to know that our particular focus
is curiosity, McTaggart said. "It's a very interesting change
for us and will have a significant cultural impact within the
organization. It's already having a significant impact on
audiences that previously found us irrelevant."
He noted that MPR has kind of an
academic sound that has worked well for a long time. But if MPR
is going to sound more curious than educated, he believes, it
must sound different. He said the station is moving toward the
sound of the "Marketplace" program, which he called smart,
accessible and very curious. "You learn, but it doesn't sound
like a college classroom every day," he said.
If public media is not highly relevant
in today's polarized environment, then it is irrelevant.
McTaggart said public media must be "an important, contributory
value-add in a polarized environment." It's an advantage now for
public broadcasting to be located in Minnesota, he added,
because, "it's not a bright blue or bright red state; we're
"There's an obligation for us to find
a place where we can bring very divergent views to the table,"
he said. "We need to have a civil conversation leading to
understanding, without flame throwing or bumper stickers. We
need to help people understand how the solution works, not just
what the diagnosis is."
"That's the role we should have," he
continued. "You get to judge how well we're doing that every
MPR wants to be the context setter on
complex topics. "We are very interested in the appetite for
complexity, but we want to be the sense maker and the context
setter," McTaggart said. "That depends on who we choose to work
here, their expertise and who we have come in to speak. We set
the context on talk shows like Kerri Miller's."
The Civic Caucus is doing the public a
great service. "There is definitely a role for informed
citizens to come together and share information on issues,"
McTaggart said. "If there were more of this going on, our job
would be much easier."