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TCB Q&A: Jon McTaggart

A deep dive into MPR's multi-faceted efforts to stay relevant in a new media landscape.

TCB Q&A: Jon McTaggart
Photo by Jake Armour

Jon McTaggart is only Minnesota Public Radio’s second leader since its inception 52 years ago. He stepped into the shoes of MPR’s founder and empire builder Bill Kling in 2011. McTaggart grew up on his family’s dairy and row crop farm in Campbell, Minn., a small town near the North Dakota border. He got his start with the organization in 1983 as a station manager for MPR’s Bemidji station.

When he joined the head office in St. Paul in 1996, it was his third stint with MPR. Since then he’s held a variety of posts: vice president of business development, senior vice president for new media, senior vice president of content and media, and chief operating officer.

McTaggart, 58, is now president and CEO of American Public Media Group, the nonprofit parent of Minnesota Public Radio, American Public Media, and Southern California Public Radio. APMG is the largest station-based public radio organization in the U.S.; APM/MPR is the second-largest producer of public radio programming with a portfolio including Marketplace.

But the business of public radio has changed a lot since 1983. Many of its traditional, core listeners are moving into senior housing. Shows like Prairie Home Companion and Car Talk have fallen silent.

“Until 15 years ago, we didn’t play rock and roll,” says McTaggart referring to The Current, MPR’s alternative music station, which has been on the air since 2005. 

Today, there’s an abundance of new approaches to programming and business. APM/MPR currently has 20 podcasts, one seed-stage investment fund, a startup incubator, and a data-focused research lab. It also has two five-year “initiatives”—one dedicated to water (The Water Main), one to mental health (Call to Mind)—and a third in development. The initiatives combine journalism and public events to tackle big topics. Many of the new efforts and experiments are being bankrolled by a capital campaign, whose original goal was to raise $75 million by the end of 2020. McTaggart says that the money can back ventures that aren’t part of the operating budget. “We don’t have huge profits on an annual basis and we’re not socking away a lot of money to reserves.”

Q | What did you listen to on the radio in Campbell, Minn.?

A | I listened to a lot of radio while I was on the tractor and then a little Panasonic transistor radio with an ear bud and I’d listen to voices from Chicago and Little Rock, Ark., and all these big blowtorch clear-channel AM stations at night that [travel] forever … the thing that fascinated me were these voices way off in these big cities that I never dreamed I’d ever get to see. Voices that sounded exotic.

Q | Where does the $75 million capital campaign stand?

A | We created a strategic plan about five years ago and we had a clear vision in the plan for how we would serve more people. The capital campaign then became the fuel that we needed to make some investments that would allow us to accelerate into that plan.

The campaign includes about $50 million worth of gifts that we would want to come in—call them cash—but over a period of time. It also includes another $25 million—at least as a [combined] goal, $75 million—in gifts that we would expect to be deferred or come later. We’re within $6 million of the cash goal and we’ve also already well exceeded the goal that we had set for the deferred gifts.

Q | You’re also raising money for the $10 million Horizon Fund. It looks like a venture capital fund.

A | That’s brand-new. It’s a venture fund in the sense that we are going to use it for things that are not otherwise in our regular operating plan and we’re going to invest in ideas, and in people and in companies that are lined up with what we think the future of public media’s going to be, and certainly with the future of American Public Media.

If it appears to be a venture capital fund we’re certainly borrowing some of the principles and tenets of how a fund like that would work, but it’s not in any way going to give a financial return to any of the donors. It will be a financial return into the fund that will then, by concept, replenish [itself] to make these new investments on an ongoing basis. 

Q | The capital campaign is paying for this?

A | Not all $10 million was part of the capital campaign, but a significant portion of it was. These are modest, seed-level, early investments that give us access to what the company’s thinking, certainly give us access to the learning that comes along with those kind of early-stage investments.

Q | What does this have to do with public radio?

A | For 45 or 50 of our 52 years, if we wanted to grow, we built or we bought a radio station. Or we created a program that we then offered to many other radio stations. It was a successful proposition for us. Nowadays, building and buying radio stations isn’t the certainty for providing greater public service that it once was. We have to make investments that are quite different than we’ve made previously.

Q | Such as podcasts?

A | Control is in the hands of the media consumer. Choices are nearly unlimited. So you have to think differently now about how to be relevant. Podcasts are just one way that you give the consumer more choice and you let them control how and when and on what device they’re going to consume it.

Q | Are podcasts profitable?

A | In the portfolio of total podcasts? We’re not yet meeting our total expense with our revenue on all podcasts. But not all podcasts are intended to make money. I’ll give you an example of the most popular one, In the Dark. It’s an investigative journalism series. It’s been downloaded nearly 50 million times.

Investigative journalism in any platform doesn’t make money, and the fact that podcasts are a way for us to serve millions more people than we’ve ever served with investigative journalism, [the lack of profit] doesn’t deter us. It is our challenge to figure out how to pay for that investigative journalism.

Q | A podcast like Nora McInerny’s Terrible, Thanks for Asking doesn’t sound like something you would have heard on traditional public radio.

A | Nora has a compelling personal story that fits really well with an organization that is about great storytelling. And she’s a great storyteller—not just of her own story, but of others’ stories. She’s a great listener and a great interviewer. Terrible, Thanks for Asking is one of our more popular podcasts.

Q | There’s no shortage of local business incubators and accelerators. Why Lunar Startups?

A | We found, in exploring how we could get closer to a broad diversity of talented people and ideas much quicker, that being involved in an incubator or startup exposes us to an awful lot of great ideas and really interesting people.

Q | The Current has been a success?

A | We are playing bands who have never been played on the air before. We are recording local bands in our studio upstairs that would never have access to a professional recording studio. We are bringing artists and their music to an audience that’s really curious about that. And that fits our mission really well. Thankfully, the audience has responded with their support.

Q | What is Clearspring Holdings?

A | Clearspring Holdings is a for-profit subsidiary of American Public Media. From time to time we do activities that should pay taxes; Rivertown Trading, the big catalog company, was probably the most notable in our history. That was owned then within the precursor of Clearspring; all of the stock of that for-profit is owned by American Public Media Group.

Q | What’s in there now?

A | I don’t know that there’s any operating company in Clearspring at the moment. I don’t believe there is. We keep it because at any moment there might be an activity or an enterprise that we’re involved in that should be paying taxes and that should be organized then in the for-profit company. We keep the organization there anticipating that there will be.

Q | What’s the difference between Minnesota Public Radio and American Public Media?

A | Minnesota Public Radio and American Public Media are all one business. APM is the brand we use outside of Minnesota for a couple of really practical reasons, and it came to us almost by accident years ago.

We thought that Splendid Table with Lynne Rossetto Kasper would be a great show in—I’ll leave the city nameless—a big city on the West Coast. We were talking to the radio stations there about why they were not putting Lynne Kasper and Splendid Table on the air. We were scratching our heads. At the time it was Splendid Table from Minnesota Public Radio—that’s how we were producing it.

In conversation with a program director or station manager in that major city, they said “If I put on a cooking or a food show from Minnesota Public Radio, my local food community will have me by my thumbs.” We said, “What happens if it comes from another brand that’s not Minnesota Public Radio?”  “Oh, that would be completely different.”

Q | What is the thinking behind five-year programming initiatives like The Water Main?

A | We were looking for things that were relevant across a broad range of diversities in the community—age diversity, socioeconomic diversity, world view diversity, ethnic and cultural diversity. What was relevant to the broadest swath of people?

We looked for things where the science is compelling, or at least not disputed. The need is pretty obvious and sustained; it’s going to be with us for some time. And that what was missing in whatever part of the community that was discussing it was either public will or public awareness or public understanding. Because that’s really what we’re great at: storytelling, sense-making, convening. That’s what we do best.

Q | What’s the idea behind the APM Research Lab?

A | For the vast majority of my media career, facts have mattered. We’re now living in a time when a great story well told—even without any facts—is believed as a fact. So we, along with a generous donor, set out to probe, sort of prove, if you will, that facts still matter. We wanted to test it in a pretty disciplined way.

The Research Lab is really focused on facts: How we can get more facts to more people in a way that is trusted and highly relevant? We’re really interested in the early work, it’s not yet two years old. I’m really encouraged by it. [It has a] really small budget, very modest small team, less than five people. But they’re really impactful.

Q | Your financial reports show a lot of year-to-year bottom-line fluctuations. Why is that?

A | We have an endowment. Most of the numbers you’ll read would reflect variations in endowment performance or market performance or interest income. That explains the vast majority of any fluctuation.

Q | You had a loss of $7.3 million for fiscal 2018, but saw a profit of $29.6 million for fiscal 2017.

A | [In] 2018 we changed the way we’re accounting for sustaining members. 2017 was a pretty good year for the markets. We always have pretty solid performance in our operations, but the “profit,” as you would identify it, is largely explainable through investment profit, investment return.

Q | In round numbers, this looks like this is a $135 million operation.

A | That’s our total revenue on an annual basis, between $130 million and $140 million.

Q | Are you seeing growth?

A | Our year-over-year [top line] growth is modest, but stable.

Q | With all of the new things you’re trying, how do you stay connected to older listeners?

A | We think first about our audience all the time. We know that it is a really rare medium that cares only about one thing. We decided through this strategic planning process a few years ago to focus on curious audiences. Curiosity is really the access point for us. Perspective seekers are not bound by particular age—you can be 25 and curious, and you can be 85 and curious. We’re looking for ... how we can anticipate what is going to be a really rewarding experience for you with us.

Burl Gilyard is TCB’s senior writer.

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