August 18, 2004

Classically Torn

WCAL is a little publicly-supported classical music station based in Northfield, MN. It's been a must-listen for a very long time.

Minnesota Public Radio's classical network is to classical music as Chino Latino is to food; bland and homogenized, but it sneaks in a thick dollop of preening arrogance just to show you who's boss. Its selection of music in a word; safe. Really, MPR's classical programming is like the K-Tel Greatest Hits of Classical Music - not many risks, and while not strictly "predictable", it's not big on dishing up surprises, either.

WCAL managed to combine much riskier, more interesting fare with a staff that managed to sound glad to have the opportunity to talk classical music with you.

MPR, naturally, is buying WCAL.

Doug Grow writes:

MPR showed its economic clout and its insatiable appetite again a few days ago with word that it will plunk down $10.1 million to buy WCAL-FM, the classical musical station at St. Olaf College...The monster was chewing up another competitor.

"There was sadness, disappointment, shock, all the things you would expect," said John Gaddo, station manager. "People are seeking to understand the whys."

The whys are hard to understand. Why does MPR need to own this station? Its signal already is crystal clear in areas covered by WCAL. Unlike commercial stations, it doesn't need to show dominance to advertisers.

But Bill Kling, MPR's benevolent dictator, does need to dominate public broadcasting in this state. Every public broadcasting dollar, whether a corporate grant, tax handout or public pledge, that goes to a WCAL is a handout that MPR will never get. And that can't happen.

Grow continues:

Disclaimer time here: MPR is as good as public radio gets. You need only drive across the country, listening to other public radio offerings, to get a renewed appreciation for what is offered here.
No, that's not true.

MPR's news operation is good. As to other programming? Their daytime news-talk programs are overproduced yet feeble. And their classical music system manages to squeeze every iota of life out of serious music. They hired Katherine Lanpher, for the love of pete.

Yet, it's hard to understand how a virtual MPR monopoly in the state is a positive. And it's also hard to understand how MPR, or any public radio operation, has an extra $10.1 million to buy the station down the road.
Fascinating, isn't it? Whenever Republicans talk about cutting state funding to the likes of MPR, people like Doug Grow sharpen their rhetorical talons; the Republicans are carrying the water for Clear Channel! They want to dumb down Minnesota! They want no competition for Rush Limbaugh!.

It's not until Bill Kling's empire starts to eat its own that the likes of Grow pay attention. Which is better than nothing, I suppose.

Kigin says the purchase of WCAL means MPR will be able to be even more diverse. It currently has its news and information outlet (KNOW, 91.1) and its mostly classical station (KSJN, 99.5). WCAL may allow MPR to develop a whole new format because the MPR corporate tent is filled with energetic and creative people, Kigin said.
Let's revisit this statement in a year or two. I bet by this time in 2006, WCAL is a repeater station.

And MPR's corporate tent is even more full of the type of deadwood that regard non-profit jobs as sinecures. That's the opinion of a number of acquaintances over the years who've orked for MPR and survived.

Grow asks:

MPR not only has impact, it obviously has money -- enough to go out and buy up other stations. (Hmmm. Are tax dollars really needed to subsidize such an outfit?)
Bingo, Doug!

So the next time the GOP moves to trim back some of MPR's state funding, will you perhaps not act like we're selling orphans to the Mameluks to buy Michael Savage CDs?

My Northern Alliance partners at Spitbull have a great piece on the subject which you need to go and read now.

Posted by Mitch at August 18, 2004 06:00 AM | TrackBack

I have nothing to add, I just like saying:


Posted by: Brian Jones at August 18, 2004 08:59 AM

MPR makes money hand over fist. There's public radio that needs support. MPR is not that type of public radio. (Indeed, pledge week always makes me chuckle. Any station with 10.1 million in the bank doesn't need my $25 a month, even if I do get a copy of Lorie Line's new CD).

And I say this as a liberal.

Posted by: Jeff Fecke at August 18, 2004 10:50 AM

It goes waaaay beyond having 10 mill in the bank.

MPR has a HUUUUGE staff, and their pay is traditionally WAY higher than commensurate jobs in commercial radio. Their news department is very good, and the staffing is arguably justified (to some extent). But their programming department - oy. HUGE staffs of producers and engineers, to produce what amounts to four hours of local talk, and drop-in segments during seven more hours per day - and for programming whose quality is, to be kind, mediocre. "Mid-Morning" has a small staff of producers, researchers, editors and engineers, for example - to produce the kind of thing that a single producer could book at a commercial station. And it's lame, anyway!

The facilities surpass what I've seen at a lot of TV stations, and they're *expanding*. The staffing is what a union station used to be like, in the golden age of union radio (which the market could not sustain even then).

And for all that, Bill Kling is an implacable enemy of *non-MPR* community broadcasting; he's no friend of KFAI (where I used to do news) or any other little community stations; he's one of the big voices *against* low-power FM, the "Blogger" of radio.

He's an empire-builder of the most cynical sort. If he were a Republican, Nick Coleman would be whipping him with his rhetorical wet spaghetti in half of his columns.

Posted by: mitch at August 18, 2004 11:16 AM

You'll get no argument from me. MPR is the Clear Channel of public radio.

Posted by: Jeff Fecke at August 18, 2004 11:38 AM

Ditto what Mitch said about MPR's facilities. I don't think I've ever been in the same studio twice.

Posted by: Lileks at August 18, 2004 01:13 PM

See Brian Lambert's speculation on the plans for MPR's KSJN frequency and it's potential value at

(registration required.)

Posted by: Kevin at August 18, 2004 02:23 PM

EVERY liberal I know agrees with Jeff Fecke.

One who worked there told me it was called the Klingon Empire.

Posted by: BMN at August 18, 2004 02:33 PM

Gotta admit that at least So Cal is good when it comes to classical music on the radio. A number of channels to choose from and a fairly good playlist for all of them (though they DO seem to have matching "mood-to-hour-of-day" lists) means I'm rarely disappointed.

Posted by: ccwbass at August 18, 2004 08:36 PM

Fantastic comments! Cheers to all! Having seen first-hand how Billy Klingon works, the WCAL swallow by greedy-ass MPR is typical. MPR should get no public funding whatsoever. If they want to play big boy takeover like commercial stations then MPR should not call itself a "non-profit" organization. I worked for the last two commercial classical stations in the Twin Cities. He came to WLOL-FM in those days with his tin cup in hand. The then classical format station gave him a huge chunk of its music library. Humm? Wonder whatever happened to some of those collector LPs? Later on, at KTWN-FM, he tried to discredit our little commercial classical station for carrying the Chicago Symphony broadcasts. In typically greedy-ass Klingon form, he put us down when he contacted the Chicago Symphony rep. Didn't do him any good. Made him look like the schmuckerino he is. I think this latest grab by Klingon is cause for the attorney general to look into his operation.

Posted by: ExClassic DJ at August 20, 2004 11:37 PM

Check out These people are attempting to stop the sale of WCAL to MPR. So far they're getting quite a bit done too!

Posted by: Janna at August 29, 2004 11:28 PM