When the search for a successor is done in June, he'll focus on a national effort to boost public radio.
Bill Kling, builder of one of the nation's richest, most respected radio empires, announced Friday that he's leaving Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) and American Public Media next June to work some of the same magic at other public stations across the country.
Kling, 68, has planned the move for some time. A succession committee of about 10 people -- including Kling -- was formed more than a year ago, according to MPR board chairman Randy Hogan, chief executive of Pentair Inc.
In interviews, Kling and top board members said he was not forced out. He and the board have been "working collaboratively" on the transition, Hogan said.
"You can't replace a founder," he said. "You can only find a new CEO. We understand that."
Starting in 1967 from a low-wattage station at his alma mater, St. John's University near St. Cloud, Kling built MPR into the largest network of public-radio stations in the country and a leading distributor of programs, including "A Prairie Home Companion" and "Marketplace." In 2005, he launched the Current, an alternative-music station that's about as far from MPR's classical roots as he could get.
"He has defined the cutting edge of the public radio landscape," said Tom Thomas, co-CEO of the Station Resource Group, a trade organization for 35 public-radio networks, including MPR.
In the process, Kling has collected an assortment of titles: President of the St. Paul-based nonprofit American Public Media Group (APM). President of its subsidiary MPR, whose board includes many powerful executives from Fortune 500 companies in the Twin Cities. Vice chairman of Southern California Public Radio. President of Greenspring Co., a for-profit enterprise that publishes Minnesota Monthly magazine.
Kling is also a founding board member of Gather.com, a Boston-based social networking startup in which APM is invested. He will retire from all his positions at APM but remain at Gather.com, a spokesman for the ite said.
APM's audited revenues of $105.2 million in fiscal 2008 were enough to rank it No. 34 among Minnesota's 100 largest nonprofits, according to the most recent Star Tribune survey of nonprofits. Kling received $654,338 from APM in fiscal year 2009 -- a tidy sum by nonprofit radio standards, and one that puts him on par with the chief executives of major Minnesota companies. Arctic Cat's CEO, for instance, made $566,157 last year.
Some say he's worth it.
"I think Bill is one of a handful of great visionaries in media," said Lynne Rossetto Kasper, host of "The Splendid Table," a food-oriented talk show that's part of the APM family. "He's criticized because he makes it work financially, but that's got to be in the equation."
Others balk at the fact that Kling has successfully lobbied for state funds, despite his operation's financial success and his high salary.
"He's done a miraculous job of taking a publicly funded operation and turning it into a cash cow," said Phil Krinkie, president of the Taxpayers League of Minnesota.
Both critics and supporters agree on Kling's ability to see three steps ahead of the competition.
"If he told me the next big thing in broadcasting was trick horses, I'd go out and buy a stable of them," said longtime media consultant D.J. Leary, who helped induct Kling into the Minnesota Broadcasters Hall of Fame in 2004.
Those who disagree with Kling do so at their own risk. His disputes have often made headlines, going back to 1975 when the editor of MPR's magazine quit after Kling pulled a story critical of Hubert Humphrey.
Most recently he has sparred with the Metropolitan Council over construction of the Central Corridor light rail. Kling has argued that noise and vibration from trains would disturb MPR's studio in downtown St. Paul. The dispute was supposedly settled last year with an agreement to install a 700-foot slab of concrete and rubber to absorb the vibrations. But MPR sued the Met Council in February, saying it wants steel springs under the slab instead of rubber, according to Met Council spokesman Steve Dornfeld. That lawsuit is pending.
Kling's aggressive style and lapses in bedside manner are the stuff of local legend.
"I told someone once that the Korean War and the Vietnam War were very damaging, but neither was as loud as some of the fights I've had with Bill," Leary said. "At the same time, he can be enormously pleasant as he's questioning whether or not your parents are married."
MPR board chairman Randall Hogan said it could take a year or more to find Kling's successor. The committee has hired search firm Spencer Stuart and will be looking nationally. Hogan said they're looking at "some great candidates inside" but wouldn't discuss names.
One possible internal candidate is Jon McTaggart, MPR's chief operating officer, who also sits on the board of National Public Radio. McTaggart couldn't be reached Friday.
Kling said in an interview that for the past two years the board has encouraged him to launch his experiment to beef up other public media. It's the right time to leave, he said, because the company is solid.
He told MPR listeners Friday that his new national initiative is "bigger and tougher than anything I've done so far," and called it the "second stage of public media." He plans to raise millions of dollars from various sources to help public radio stations around the country develop their news operations. Kling doesn't know yet how many stations will join in the effort.
"So many of our colleagues around the country have structures that simply don't work very well," he told listeners. "They're buried in the speech department of a university."
Kling said he'd like to add $5 million or more to the budgets of those stations so that Cincinnati Public Radio, for instance, could go from a handful of reporters to 100 reporters. (MPR currently has 30.)
National Public Radio president Vivian Schiller said she's looking forward to Kling's next chapter.
"I'm thrilled in a way," she said. "Now that he's untethered from day-to-day operations, NPR and the rest of public radio is going to have more access to him."
Jennifer Bjorhus 612-673-4683 Neal Justin 612-673-7431