Best Book I’ve Read This Year:
A Delicate Truth by John Le CarrÃ©
Red, White, or Beer?
Favorite Vacation Destination:
Anywhere in Europe
WSJ or NYT?
After a rapid rise to high-echelon jobs at the Wall Street Journal, journalist and author Dave Kansas returned to his hometown of St. Paul in 2011 to become chief operating officer at Minnesota Public Radio’s parent, American Public Media Group. We sat down with him to explore how public radio is faring in a difficult era for legacy media.
Back home again, after a storybook career at the Journal. Why leave all that excitement and national exposure?
I’ve always loved Minnesota. I never changed my driver’s license—just renewed it at my brother’s address. I came back a lot, for the State Fair, family events, the holidays. I’d go to the Boundary Waters. I had season tickets for the Wild games. Monica and I got married in 2008 and we’ve had two children since then. It’s really nice to play with them in our backyard instead of having to walk to a concrete park seven blocks away.
Why take this job?
I talked about several jobs here, but didn’t want to come back just to come back. I wanted something really interesting and challenging. This job has that. It miraculously combined my background in business journalism with my love of music, particularly classical music. If I had written my own description for a job I’d like, I would’ve had a hard time coming up with something more attractive.
What do you do?
It’s very eclectic. I’m responsible for all content and, I joke, everything from Bemidji to the BBC—from making sure the transmitter towers work to our business program, Marketplace, to hosting the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
Nationally, the three biggest players in public radio are PRI International/WGBH in Boston, NPR, and APMG/MPR. How are you different?
We all create and distribute programming, but we’re alone in owning and operating many stations—50 in the Upper Midwest, Idaho, California, and Florida.
What surprised you about the job?
The biggest surprise was the need to make decisions quickly. Also, I didn’t expect the opportunity to distribute BBC World Service programming, which came up shortly after I arrived. Another organization (PRI) had done that for years.
How has the Twin Cities changed since you left?
More economic disparities. We’re trying to ease that with strong reporting, supporting school music programs, and bringing together the many people working on this problem.
Where did you go to school here?
High school at St. Paul Academy, a year at Macalester. Both had strong academic standards. I was quarterback for both schools’ football teams. That taught me leadership and how to deal with the intense disruption that would later hit journalism.
How did you get established in the Big Apple?
In 1987, I transferred to Columbia University. I got a job answering phones at NBC Radio Network News. Later I covered high school and college sports for New York Newsday. After I got my undergrad degree, in history, I went to California to find a job as a singer. After two months, I came back to Newsday.
When did you begin moving up at the Journal?
In 1991 I got on there as a proofreader. My big break came in 1993, when the editors moved me to the spot news desk. A year later, they asked me to write the Journal’s daily stock market wrap-up. It was a bit like sports—opening and closing bells, lots of numbers. I really got into it. In 1996, I covered markets and finance in Tokyo for seven weeks.
Yet in 1996, you left for TheStreet.com, Jim Cramer’s risky Internet startup. Why?
Friends called me crazy, but by 1997, after two editors were fired, I became editor-in-chief. We got great scoops. In 1999, we went public.
Then the stock shot up to 60 and the New York Times reported that “Mr. Kansas, who says he has a hole in the toe of his right loafer,” held shares worth $9.1 million. Right?
Yes, but eventually it fell below $1. I was able to sell in 2002-’03, most of it for $3-$4. I left in 2001. Then I went to Spain and ran with the bulls.
I returned to The Journal as deputy managing editor of online operations, then editor of its Money Section, then European markets editor based in London, and back to New York again as chief markets commentator.
Last July, APMG sold its for-profit lifestyle magazine publisher, Greenspring Media Group, which was losing money. Why sell?
To focus more on our core—radio and digital/mobile. We have very minimal for-profit operations left now, and no formal print anymore.
Over the last 20 years, public radio’s audience has increased a lot, but hasn’t it tailed off lately?
When you think about the proliferation of other media, holding the line or increasing slightly is good. We serve from 950,000 to 1 million Minnesotans weekly. Overall, our audience share has increased modestly over the last 12 months. We’re seeing more challenges in programming that isn’t time-sensitive.
What led you to restructure and lay people off?
We needed to get out in front of the disruption hitting media, strategically and in what we do every day. Revenue growth has been more sluggish since 2008 than in the mid-’00s, largely because of the weak economy, but when I came in 2011 public radio was still relatively cocooned from the turmoil. Since then, an enormous amount of disruption has hit radio. Digital, and digital mobile, are extremely important to our future, but the intensity of the disruption was a little bit surprising. I feel well-suited to deal with this issue.
What’s happening with mobile?
About a fourth of our site’s users are coming in via mobile devices now, up 55 percent from a year ago.
What’s radio’s biggest strength?
Providing live, local, and time-sensitive information. Ever since the advent of the eight-track tape 40-some years ago, broadcast radio has faced competition from cassettes, CDs, satellite radio. Time and time again, people demonstrate they want that live, local broadcast experience. They may access it in different ways in the future . . but they want to know what’s happening in their community.
Are you interested in new stations?
We’re not actively looking. We wouldn’t rule it out, but the bar has gotten higher since I got here.
I have much better shoes than I did in 1999, thanks to my wife.