What the Hell Has Been Going On at MPR?
We asked former workers about the years-long exodus of staff talent.
7:47 AM CDT on June 15, 2022
What, exactly, the hell has been going on over the past decade at Minnesota Public Radio?
With the publicly aggravated, freshly unionized workers at its radio stations. With the messy, high-profile staff departures. With the entire APM Reports investigative unit getting slashed. With the years-long exodus of talent—reporters, photographers, hosts, DJs, producers, audio engineers.
For answers, we reached out to almost 20 ex-workers from MPR News, 89.3 the Current, and YourClassical MPR. With the exception of one single person who fondly recalled their tenure, the overwhelming consensus resulted in some tiny variation of: an out-of-touch board of trustees running the public institution like it’s a Fortune 500 company; stifling, bloated managerial ranks; and a general attitude of perceived indifference from top leaders toward the people who actually make the product.
The uniformity of that assessment was genuinely remarkable, and the term “Stockholm Syndrome” was deployed by three separate former workers. Eight ex-employees were willing to go on the record about their belief that the once-great gold standard of public media has sold its soul, trading its mission—“to enrich the mind and nourish the spirit”—for a dollar-obsessed mindset that makes life for its workers untenable, especially for women and people of color.
“This could be one of the best newsrooms in the country, and it feels like it chooses not to be,” says Evan Frost, a photojournalist with MPR News from 2016 through last fall. “You should be able to see the absolute hemorrhage of talent happening at that place. They just take really fantastic people and kinda dump ‘em on the side of the road.”
Is MPR worried about a bubbling PR crisis, considering the steady drip of grim personnel headlines and so many workers harboring deeply negative attitudes toward their old organization?
“No," says Jean Taylor, the CEO/president of parent company American Public Media Group.
"I don’t know why those people feel that way,” she continued. “I don’t know that I buy that that’s the only belief that’s out there.”
A Tumultuous Timeline
The layoffs of 2015 loom large in the memories of MPR staffers. Several cite that cleaving of nine MPR News jobs—13% of the St. Paul newsroom—as the catalyst that began an almost decade-long trickle of unsavory staffing news coming from 480 Cedar St.
“Our first layoff was I think ’94, and that was clumsily handled. They got real good at it,” Bob Collins, an MPR News staffer from 1992 through 2019, says with a weary chuckle. “I thought at the time–and still think–that MPR was never gonna recover from the big ’15 layoffs, and it never really did. It sent a message to the staff.”
Two years later, APMG—the parent-company umbrella that covers MPR, American Public Media, and Southern California Public Radio—would be forced to cut ties with Garrison Keillor as allegations of "dozens of sexually inappropriate incidents" between the superstar personality and a subordinate coworker emerged. Keillor, whose show A Prairie Home Companion was syndicated across hundreds of public radio stations for decades, was a cash cow for MPR.
“It is, and probably always will be, the place that Garrison Keillor built, because of the money that thing generated,” Collins says. “They knew once he was gone they were gonna be in big trouble financially.”
In 2016, the company had anointed affable bluegrass musician Chris Thile as the heir to Prairie Home, though the show would later rebrand as Live From Here to further distance itself from Keillor. A radio insider told MPR News that the succession plan had a high probability of failure, noting that APM could afford the risk considering its “annual revenue of $123 million and an even larger endowment.”
Live From Here would last until mid-2020. Citing tight finances and pandemic uncertainty, APMG President/CEO Jon McTaggart axed the program, as well as 28 jobs, that June; 14 staffers had accepted voluntary buyouts the previous month. Transform MPR, an employee-created task force, alleged that “leaders were unwilling to offer a furlough program that would have enabled employees to receive enhanced federal unemployment benefits under the CARES Act. Had they done so, they could have saved money—member-donated money—and likely, our colleagues’ jobs.”
Executive compensation was trimmed during COVID-19 but, as Transform MPR points out, no executives lost their jobs. Dave Kansas, a top exec who made $572,679 in 2019, saw his position eliminated earlier this year, though an MPR spokesperson framed it as Kansas "[choosing] to leave the organization.”
Several recent high-profile departures can’t be blamed on the pandemic. Four months after the 2020 police murder of George Floyd, the company fired Garrett McQueen, the only Black host at YourClassical MPR, for making "unauthorized changes to playlists."
“I don’t have any bad blood with MPR,” McQueen says. “At the end of the day, they were concerned about their majority white audience and I was concerned with positioning myself and MPR as one of the changemakers in the field, one of the organizations that’s willing to have conversations of race, classical music, and contemporary culture. They weren’t interested in that.”
Days later, Marianne Combs resigned after almost three decades inside the MPR newsroom. The veteran reporter had assembled eight sources, all women, who alleged they’d been “sexually manipulated and psychologically abused” by Eric Malmberg, a host at 89.3 the Current. Alleging that her editors “failed to move forward” with the legally vetted story, Combs quit in protest. MPR President Duchesne Drew said in a statement that, while the station was “blindsided” by her resignation, the Malmberg story did “not meet our journalistic standards.”
“At a certain point, I had to step back and say, ‘OK, I keep trying to make this place better—around diversity, equality, more meaningful coverage, training opportunities—and I realized, despite my best efforts, things are getting worse and not better,” Combs says. “For me, leaving was as much about signaling a warning to the public about a terrible backslide in ethical leadership.”
MPR fired Malmberg the day after Combs resigned. Later that month, McTaggart announced his retirement plans, news that coincided with an open letter from workers that claimed the company “fostered a harmful working environment for women and journalists of color.” That same week, workers at MPR’s recently scandalized music stations—the Current and YourClassical—alerted the company that they’d begun unionizing under SAG-AFTRA, the L.A-based union that represents 100,000+ film/TV/radio workers. This past April Marketplace workers joined the same union; the folks at MPR News did so back in 2017.
Which brings us to the very recent past.
Mary Lucia, the Current’s most prominent DJ since its launch in 2005, announced in April via Facebook that she’d be leaving the station to "effect positive change at the company,” adding: “I've been concerned with equity and fair treatment of all of my sisters at the station.”
Moments after Lucia’s final broadcast—which was widely viewed as a protest against the company via biting song selections like Margo Price’s “Pay Gap”—Drew announced the departure of Lucia’s boss, longtime program manager Jim McGuinn. "Jim McGuinn is no longer with Minnesota Public Radio. We are proud of the programming we delivered with Jim and are appreciative of his contributions,” an APM spokesperson told Bring Me the News. The company declined to address specifics.
“Losing Mary is so painful,” says Andrea Swensson, former host of the Current’s Local Show. “As a listener, as someone who cares about that place, as someone who cares about her… it’s a huge symptom of this inability to actually address what’s going on with their staff. It honestly doesn’t seem like they care. I mean, you let her walk out the door? Then there’s no talent they actually value enough to fight for.”
One month after Lucia’s acrimonious exit from the Current, word arrived in late May that APMG was killing APM Reports, its award-winning investigative arm responsible for longform journalism like the In the Dark podcast. APM Reports launched seven years ago, and In the Dark—which dug deep into the disappearance of Jacob Wetterling and wrongful imprisonment of Curtis Flowers—won two Peabody Awards.
“It positions us to reinvest in local news reporting,” Drew says, adding that parts of the unit will be shuffled around and salvaged, though he wouldn’t confirm whether In the Dark is among them. Drew and Taylor both reaffirmed MPR’s commitment to investigative journalism.
The union isn’t happy.
“After almost three weeks, MPR management has not provided us with any information regarding the fate of the work and the employees of APM Reports,” members of the MPR News/APM Reports union told Racket in a statement. “We will not allow them to divide and demoralize the journalists who have dedicated their lives to this company.”
It’s unclear how many of the APM Reports’ 18 staffers still have jobs, but we know that Chris Worthington, the unit’s respected managing editor, does not. Neither does Sam Choo, a well-liked content manager for MPR’s “mental health initiative” dubbed Call to Mind.
“If APM Reports getting shut down shows you anything, [it’s that] you can do really fucking good work year after year and still get hosed,” says Alex Baumhardt, a former producer with APM Reports. “MPR management is not looking out for you, and in that case, obviously not trying to work with you.”
The 990s serve as an endless source of fascination and frustration for rank-and-file MPR workers. Because American Public Media Group is designated as a non-profit organization, it must file annual 990 tax documents that detail where all of its tax-exempt dollars flow. The executive compensation ledger is of particular interest to workers.
“One way to drive your employees to the 990s is to nickel and dime them in compensation conversations, because you’re looking at executives who were getting bonuses that were the size of entry-level salaries,” says Baumhardt, who helped conduct pay-equity studies during her time with the company. “There’s an attitude that they’re irreplaceable, and everybody else isn’t. It’s deflating.”
Baumhardt says her study revealed that the lowest-paid producers were earning less than $45,000 per year. At some point, she says, the 990s became too painful to even look at. Six executives collected bonuses higher than that figure in 2019; at $161,877, McTaggart’s more than tripled it. American Public Media Group is the 36th largest nonprofit in the state, according to the Star Tribune’s 2021 “Nonprofit 100” survey. With around $745,000 in total compensation, McTaggart drew the 23rd highest pay among the executives leading those firms. He out-earned Jarl Mohn, CEO of National Public Radio, by over $100,000 despite NPR's revenue more than doubling MPR's.
According to the latest available 990, APMG’s 12 top-earning executives took home a combined $4,063,324 in 2019.
“That number has changed since I've been here,” Taylor says. “I don’t know if it’s significantly lower, but as I get chances to look at how we compensate, I’m looking at it. I think about that a lot.”
Taylor has been on the board since 2013. She was elected chairwoman of Star Tribune Media Co. in 2018, succeeding her billionaire father, Glen, who bought the Strib four years earlier. The board of trustees is chaired by Jim Dwyer, the former CEO of Michael Foods. His fellow officers come from C-suite positions at HealthPartners, Thomson Reuters, Aethlon Capital, and Winslow Capital Management. (The complete list of members is available here.)
“There was a general sense that we had a bunch of retired, CEO-level Fortune 500 people on the board who had little relationship to the actual day-to-day work,” Baumhardt says. “When it comes to new board members, the bottom line is: Are these people capable of bringing in more money?”
The company’s endowments are currently valued at $229 million, according to the latest MPR/APM annual fiscal report. Revenue has held steady at just over $100 million for each of the past few years, per the reports. Earlier this month, MPR received an anonymous donation of $56 million, all of which will be funneled into YourClassical, in accordance with the donor’s request. It’s the largest gift in the 55-year history of MPR.
Yet management perpetuates a “culture of scarcity,” Frost says, one that workers are beginning to poke holes in.
“They have a shitload of money,” Collins observes.
Fight for Unions, Fight for Diversity
Employees began scrutinizing how MPR spends its money well before COVID-19 and unionization, Baumhardt says, though those events certainly poured gasoline onto their grievances. “They saw executive compensation going up while there were fewer and fewer people in the newsroom, fewer and fewer enterprise projects going on,” she says.
Eventually, that scrutiny led to five recently minted unions operating under the APMG banner: MPR News/APM Reports, 89.3 the Current, YourClassical, Southern California Public Radio, and the L.A.-based Marketplace. Combined, they represent 200+ union radio workers. Over the past decade, more than 200 news publications have initiated union drives, Poynter reported last year, with a successful unionization rate of more than 90%. Nicole Cohen, an associate professor at University of Toronto, said that uptick is more than a wave: It's a movement. Newsroom unions are forming at a “nonstop” clip, labor reporter Hamilton Nolan tells Nieman Journalism Lab.
“Management issues were the main reason we unionized,” Swensson says. “They started all these passive-aggressive union-busting things. There was an email to staff that was like, ‘Some people have been trying to unionize, and we wanted to let you know your manager’s office is a safe space where you can ask questions about the union, because it can be confusing and you may feel pressured into it.’ We were all completely silent on a Zoom call where they told us that. We were completely united.”
Rank-and-file workers have questioned the company’s labor-specific legal expenses—including $371,000 to the law firm Fredrikson & Byron in 2019, MPR/APM Transform alleges—and whether those spends amount to union-busting. Taylor says it’s typical for companies with unionized workforces to enlist outside legal counsel, and she wouldn't characterize their services as “fighting the union.”
At the forefront of the unions’ demands: Better treatment and, thus, retention of women and people of color.
“MPR is a boys’ club and it was beyond difficult to be a woman in a position of power there,” says Melanie Walker, the Current’s music director from 2006-2011. “I get teary-eyed just thinking about it. I work with 90% women now and it's a hell of a lot better than being with a bunch of overstuffed egos boasting about how they knew Hüsker Dü back when. Who gives a shit?!”
Among the findings unearthed by Transform MPR/APM: from 2015-’20, 19 women in leadership roles left the company; from 2015-19 the highest paid female executives earned about three-quarters of what their male peers did; and, since 2017, more than $700,000 in severance money was paid out to three top female executives, signaling the presence of confidentiality and non-disparagement agreements. A typical member drive brings in just shy of $700K, the group notes.
The employee-led Transform group re-stated its lists of demands around anti-racism and gender equality last fall after Taylor assumed her role, concluding, “We remain tired, perhaps more tired than ever before. But we will not stop trying to force this company to change. It is simply too important.”
The April 2021 hiring of Managing Editor Sarah Glover, a well-liked former president of the National Association of Black Journalists, was viewed as a win for inclusion. Earlier this month she announced her impending departure for WHYY in Philadelphia, where she’ll serve as that station’s VP of news and civic dialogue. Glover didn’t respond to Racket’s request for comment.
Drew didn’t want to see her go, but celebrated her move to a more powerful position in public radio. He says the company is actively trying to “restore some of the reporting muscle” MPR News has lost since 2013, when it boasted almost 40 reporters. There are just 18 today.
“[Issues of race and gender are] improving on the whole, it’s one of the reasons I pursued this role [in 2020],” reports Drew, who’s a Black man. All four union contracts are being negotiated at the moment, he notes, adding that he anticipates “challenging” talks and lots of compromise. “We’ll get there,” he says.
For some ex-workers, change didn’t come fast enough.
“That place broke my heart,” Swensson says. “Honestly, I think the thing that makes it worse is this company advertises itself as a progressive, ethical, community-oriented institution. When, in fact, they treat their employees like a corporation does. They consistently make very confusing, heartless decisions that are all rooted in money.”
How Do You Fix MPR?
After McTaggart announced that he’d be stepping down, the board assembled a search committee that spent seven months scouring the country’s executive ranks for his replacement as CEO.
Taylor was appointed to that committee in October of 2020, but she eventually "stepped down from her role as a search committee member" and "disengaged" from the board, an APMG spokesperson told MPR News. In August, Taylor was named CEO of American Public Media Group. The search was over.
She and Drew acknowledge that the “challenged” workplace culture needs repair. Taylor believes she’s uniquely positioned to correct it from the top down.
“I think I figured out why I’m frustrated by this: So, what you wanna talk about is seven years ago what was happening here, or four years ago… I came prepared to talk about what’s going on at MPR, and we’re just talking about the past,” Taylor told Racket from inside a conference room at MPR’s state-of-the-art HQ.
“Organizations change and people leave organizations,” she continued. “Yup, that happens. That keeps happening. I’m fixing the culture. That’s what I’m here for. I was hired because I have two levels of expertise the board was looking for: digital transformation and to evolve the culture to support that. Change happens when you change cultures. I believe a strong culture is based on two things: trust and accountability.”
Former workers believe fixing the culture requires more transformative change.
Says Baumhardt: “First and foremost, you need a board that has way more skin in the community. You just have way too many people coming in from corporations; this is a vanity position for them. Currently, they reflect the people we should be investigating.”
Says Combs: “I wonder what has to happen to transform management. Grassroots change? We’ve tried that. We tried unions. It’s a waste of a legacy institution. It’s sad to see what's happening to it. I just don’t know how we get there without a complete change in upper-level management.”
Says Collins: “They always believe they’re the smartest people in the room, and that they’ll outlive every controversy. And they have! They do a pretty good job of keeping the store window looking about the same. As long as [Cathy] Wurzer and Tommy Crann are doing their thing, both of whom are wonderful people, I think the average donor is none the wiser. It's a brand that’s been built over 50 years—both nationally and regionally—and, ya know, your reputation is usually the last thing to go. But before it does you can milk it a long, long way.”
Mary Lucia, the voice, heart, and soul of the Current since its formation, is the most recent example of an APMG worker who refused to stick around and see if things improve.
“No matter how self assured I was in my work, it’s futile to persuade a company into acknowledging your value,” says the Twin Cities radio icon. “I know who I am, I know what I put forward, and the idea of perpetually trying to convince management to see it? I’d rather drink bleach.”
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