Minnesota Public Radio Celebrates a Half-century of Community Connection

In the kitchen. In the car. In a local shop or an office. These and other locations, both private and public, are the places where the MPR audience has been listening for 50 years. Saint Paul Magazine spoke to several MPR staff members, some of whom you hear on the radio daily and some you don’t, and asked them to tell us their stories of what it means to them to belong to the MPR community. And throughout the course of their year-long celebration, MPR staff members hope listeners will share their stories as well.

Minnesota Public Radio Mission
“To enrich the mind and nourish the spirit, thereby enhancing the lives and expanding the perspective of our audience, and assisting them in strengthening their communities.”

Jon McTaggart
President and CEO of Minnesota Public Radio
At MPR since 2011

Jon McTaggart first became part of MPR in the early 1980’s – at only 23 years old – when he was hired to become the station manager for the under-construction MPR station in Bemidji, in charge of coordinating the logistics as they prepared to get it up and running. “It was a wonderful opportunity that was miles ahead of my experience at the time,” he says, adding that he keeps in touch with many of the volunteers from those days.

Today  McTaggart, who became president and CEO after the retirement of MPR founder Bill Kling in 2011, praises “the real risk” Kling took in 1967 when launching Minnesota Public Radio at St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minn., saying Kling had “a heart, passion and imagination” for the mission of MPR (see sidebar) which McTaggart says still remains true today.

McTaggart and fellow staff members are welcoming the opportunity to connect with listeners, volunteers and others across the state in a series of special events, forums and other happenings taking place in 2017. “We believe in, and we love, radio. This is our chance to celebrate and look forward. We want to find out what they [listeners] want MPR to be,” he says. “We’ve changed over 50 years, but we are still meaningful for our audience, and we wouldn’t be where we are without our members. We want to ask them how we can be more relevant.”

Michael Barone
Host of Pipedreams, Classical MPR
At MPR since 1968

When Michael Barone was growing up in Pennsylvania, he says that while he wasn’t “immune” to popular music, “classical music seemed like part of my DNA.”  It could be said that Barone has been part of the DNA of MPR for close to 50 years – with Kling’s retirement, Barone, the former classical music director, is now the longest-term MPR employee.

Many are familiar with the sonorous voice of Barone, host of Pipedreams, a Sunday program dedicated to organ music which will celebrate 35 years on the air in October.

Connecting with listeners over the years has brought Barone much gratification. “The thing about radio is that you mostly sit alone in a studio doing things,” he says. But what Barone has done – and continues to do—is bring the beauty of organ music to a national audience. He relays a few stories about fan letters he has received over the years, including one that caused him to become emotional in its telling.

It was written by a woman not long after her husband suffered a serious pool accident. He had been in the hospital for several days, in a coma, when she visited on a Sunday evening. The pair had been longtime listeners of Pipedreams; she turned on the program.

“She told me that she was sitting there, just holding his hand,” says Barone quietly, adding that after the program ended, her husband passed away.

Brian Newhouse
Managing Director, Classical MPR
At MPR from 1983-1992, returned in 1999

Memorable MPR career highlight:
“Last July we created a community-singing event called “Bridge of Song,” in response to the Philando Castile shooting and violence that erupted in Dallas afterward. With three days’ prep, we filled Westminster Presbyterian Church, Minneapolis and linked video/audio to a companion event happening at the same moment at the other end of I-35 in Dallas. Our crowd in Minneapolis/St. Paul sang the same piece of music at the same time with a crowd in Dallas as we all grieved together and tried to create community in all of our shared humanity. We used Facebook Live for the first time and gathered an enormous digital audience. I look back on that and I love how “Bridge of Song” served a powerful community need, had great music in its middle, and used new technology to find new audiences.”

Significance of the listening community:
“There is some magical aspect of classical music that people turn to in times of personal stress; something about it that calms the soul. We saw our radio audience solidify and strengthen during the 2016 election cycle, perhaps because people needed a moment of calm to regroup. At least to me, at this point in 2017, I see the audience still needing that same oasis, and we’re glad to provide it.”

Vaughn Ormseth
Community Impact Manager,
Classical MPR  At MPR for almost 25 years

Memorable MPR career highlight:
“Just a few months ago, we traveled through Northern Minnesota with Tiny Desk Concert winner Gaelyn Lea as part of our Class Notes artists program. After a heartfelt performance and presentation at the Bug-O-Nay-Shig School on the Leech Lake Reservation, the students thanked her with a grass dance and a drum circle in full regalia—a deeply powerful exchange.”

Significance of the listening community:
“I have a non-native’s theory that a public radio network of MPR’s reach and stature could only have taken root in Minnesota because of unique values here that set the state apart -- passion for arts and education, volunteerism, civic engagement, literacy, creativity. MPR’s listening community reflects those values and has helped export them nationally.”  

Future role of MPR:
“For several years now, new technologies have splintered and blurred media radically. How content is delivered and at what speed have mushroomed. To some extent, those forces have shaped the content itself, and have changed listeners’ relationship to MPR. The intrinsic value of great content stays roughly constant; more than ever listeners need sharp, skeptical, searching voices. They need the consolation of music, humor, and the humanities.”

Mindy Ratner
Host, Classical MPR 
At MPR since 1983

Memorable MPR career highlight:
“Too many to mention! One of the greatest growth experiences I’ve had, personally and professionally, was made possible when I was granted a leave of absence to spend time on the other side of the world at China Radio International in Beijing…and then MPR welcomed me home.”

Future role of MPR:
“I think MPR will only become more important to listeners as time goes by, and that, I believe, holds true whether listeners seek information presented in an intelligent manner, or music to add a bit of tranquility in tumultuous times.”
Brian Oake
Host, Oake & Riley in the Morning, The Current 
At MPR since 2016

Memorable MPR career highlight “I loved my first Rock The Garden because I got to see up close just how passionate people are about The Current. I’ve also really enjoyed getting to know (and building a morning show) with my co-host Jill Riley and the show’s producer Anna Reed. They are both so great.”

Significance of listening community “It’s vibrant and dynamic. People with an almost impossible passion for a very wide range of music.  As commercial options for a diverse range of music dwindle, and news outlets become less reliable, people will come to rely even more on MPR as a source they know and trust.”

Jill Riley
Host, Oake & Riley in the Morning, The Current 
At MPR since 2005

What brought her to MPR:
“The idea of working in public radio, professionally, really excited me.  When The Current was launched, there weren’t many stations that cared that I loved The Postal Service and Elliott Smith, if you catch my drift.”

Memorable MPR career highlight:
“The opportunity to interview Paul McCartney via phone. It’s a career highlight for me.  He was warm, friendly and very kind to us as we were shaking in our boots.”

Laura Yuen
Editor for New Audiences, MPR News
At MPR since 2008

What brought her to MPR:
“I was a long-time listener, but initially had never considered working in public radio. But when there was a reporting opening that came up, I got a call from MPR. At the time, I was working as a reporter at the St. Paul Pioneer Press. I decided that migrating to radio was not only a practical move, but one that I would find gratifying. I’ve always loved telling stories, and working for MPR would give me an opportunity to do that in such an intimate medium.”

Memorable MPR career highlight:
“One of my highlights has been reporting on folks and issues in the Somali-American community. Going deep into a community, finding untold stories, building relationships and winning people’s trust have been the most rewarding part of my career. I’ve been fortunate enough to meet individuals with incredible stories – not only of their experiences of escaping war but of building a new life here while adding such richness to our state.”

Nancy Cassutt
Executive Director, News & Programming
At APM since 2010, in her current role at MPR for almost a year.

Memorable MPR career highlight:
“I would say overseeing an historic 2016 election night was a highlight. Watching the presidential results roll out across the country and seeing how those results were affecting our statewide races, how tight the races became and into the wee hours of the evening when we did think those state races would be wrapped up by a reasonable hour was another memorable moment in our state’s history.”  

Future role of MPR:
“Without listeners or readers, we don’t have a news service. My job is to create a productive work environment so our reporters and editors can find, tell and produce interesting and important stories that will help our audience better understand how things work in this state, what makes a place like this unique. We understand that trust is hard to earn but we are focused on earning trust with our audiences every day.

We will be doing that by first, sticking to our fundamentals, taking on complicated issues and making sense of them for our audiences through our strong reporting. We will also continue to engage our audiences through our local, daily programming. But soon, MPR News will be taking our team out into the community so we can better understand new communities that don’t find us relevant today.  We want to listen, ask questions and therefore be able to serve a more diverse community once we better understand their needs. We need to get out of the newsroom and out of our news bubbles.”  

Ali Lozoff
Director of MPR’s 50th anniversary
At MPR since 2005

Memorable MPR career highlight:
The unexpected death of Prince on April 21, 2016 was a day that Lozoff will never forget  “On that day, the whole company was operating at a level I’m sure no other organization could pull off, “she recalls, citing the 4 to 5 days of news programming, music on The Current, and the memorial block party outside First Avenue. “MPR went into the mode of doing what we do best,” Lozoff says.

On MPR’s anniversary year:
“During the 50th year, we want to highlight moments critical to our formation and to the history of Minnesota,” Lozoff says. “It’s an opportunity to meet with and hear from listeners, and talk about what we at MPR are thinking about for the future.”

MPR 50 By the Numbers

January 22, 1967: The official air date of the first program, featuring the Cleveland Orchestra.
Number of MPR stations in Minnesota: 45
Approximate number of MPR members: More than 130,000
Year MPR become a member-supported station: 1973
Number of MPR employees statewide: 600
Approximate number of planned 50th anniversary events: More than a dozen