The Minnesota Public Radio Founders Circle recognizes and honors founders Father Colman Barry, O.S.B., and Minnesota Public Radio President Emeritus, Bill Kling, whose vision and passion created Minnesota Public Radio. The Founders Circle also recognizes the extraordinary generosity of Saint John’s University as the founding institution of Minnesota Public Radio.
A few miles west of Saint Cloud, Minnesota, past the quarry and the Sauk River, beyond St Joseph and south of the tree-lined highway lies Collegeville and the campus of Saint John’s University.
It was here, on this quiet university campus, that Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) was born. It’s often said that MPR’s broadcasts began on January 22, 1967, and this is true. But it is also true that MPR was born of a much older tradition of service.
Saint John’s University was founded by Benedictine monks who arrived from Latrobe, Pennsylvania. It grew from an abbey and a desire to build something meaningful that would endure long after those who built it were gone. Everything that MPR was, and is today, is built upon that same ambition.
There were many people over the years who were important to the growth and success of Minnesota Public Radio and its mission. But this unique and important cultural entity, which has become a vital institution in the state of Minnesota and a model for public radio nationwide, would not exist but for two people who met on the campus of Saint John’s University: Father Colman Barry, Order of Saint Benedict (O.S.B)., and Bill Kling.
Father Colman Barry, O.S.B, and Bill Kling
Deeply ingrained in the Benedictine faith is a commitment to education and a belief that serving God means serving the community. Father Colman Barry, O.S.B., had devoted his life to monastic service in the Benedictine order, and the well-being of Saint John’s University and its community became part of his devotion. He had a keen interest in history. Late in his career he penned Worship and Work, a history of Saint John’s University. (1) When he was installed as President of Saint John’s University (1964 to 1971), he saw an opportunity to greatly expand the University’s influence beyond the boundaries of the campus.
Saint John’s University had no real college radio station at the time. It did support a student broadcast system on campus, which consisted of a series of speakers hard-wired into dorm rooms and common areas.(2) While it would not have been difficult to license a low-power station to serve the same function for students and faculty, Father Colman had something more ambitious in mind.
He envisioned a radio signal reaching out across the land, covering all of central Minnesota, to bring, in his words, “culture to the prairie” – a beacon that would provide classical music, news and public affairs programs to everyone within range of the transmitters.(3)
He had discussed such ideas before his rise to the presidency of Saint John’s University. One of the students in his history class was Bill Kling, a senior studying economics and co-manager of Saint John’s student station. The idea of a full-fledged radio station had come up in their discussions, and Father Colman recognized in Kling a person who might be able to make it happen.
Bill Kling was a tinkerer but more importantly, he was an ambitious young man with a sharp sense of opportunity and a knack for getting things done. Despite the campus prohibition on rock-n-roll, he’d built a small clandestine transmitter to provide students in his residence hall with the kind of music they craved. He’d wired together his own FM receiver back when such devices were rare. He had even managed to rig the lights to his dorm room so they could circumvent the mandatory 11:00 pm lights-out on the floor. If anyone from outside opened the door to his room the light would shut off, like a refrigerator in reverse. (4) In his conversations with Father Colman, he revealed himself as someone who wasn’t afraid of a big idea, even if it seemed at first glance a little crazy.
Upon becoming president of Saint John’s University in 1964 Father Colman was determined to make the radio project a reality. Kling had expressed a desire to earn a graduate degree in business administration, and Father Colman made him an offer: Kling could choose any school he wanted for his graduate studies, and Saint John’s would foot the bill. In return, when Kling completed the program, he would return to Collegeville and build a new radio station from scratch. It was a daunting project – especially since neither Kling nor Father Colman had any real experience in radio. But Kling agreed to return in 1966 and put the new station together.
Building from the Ground Up
When the 24-year-old Kling returned to Collegeville, he presented an ambitious proposal to the Abbey’s governing body, which was made up of several of his former professors. The proposal said:
“The emphasis will be on cultural, fine arts, public affairs and general education programs. It is intended also to offer timely and informative national and international news and commentary on public issues, applying these issues to and indicating their significance to the local broadcast area.”(5)
Kling began hiring employees. He took charge of the old museum and library space on the third floor of Wimmer Hall, sketching out a floor plan of the new studios. Campus work crews began retrofitting the space to Kling’s specifications, installing a glass-doored lobby, a production studio with a view into the cramped announcer’s booth, a newsroom, some office and engineering space and a small music library lined floor-to-ceiling with classical music LPs.(6)
At the same time, the newly-formed Saint John’s University Broadcasting, Inc. began to take shape. Bill Kling took on the title of Director of Broadcasting for the operation, and Father Colman was named President and board chair of the company, offering administrative and creative advice, and wrangling finances during the station launch.
All of the station infrastructure – towers, transmitters and production boards – had to be built from scratch. In early 1967, station KSJR (the last three letters standing for “Saint John’s Radio”) was ready to go on the air.
“Heed my words, Earth people! You have 10 minutes to live.” On the afternoon of January 22, 1967 an engineer uttered these first words to be heard over MPR’s airwaves. Presumably, nobody but the other station engineers were listening, but the initial air test was successful.
Father Colman hosted a party at the Saint Germain hotel in Saint Cloud later that evening to celebrate the station launch, and he’d brought along a portable radio to tune in the premiere broadcast for his guests. But some unexpected technical issues came up after the test broadcast earlier in the day. After several hours of stubborn silence from the radio, the party broke up and everyone went home.
Late that same evening, the glitches finally sorted out, the station began broadcasting music over 90.1 FM – a recording of the Cleveland Orchestra.(7)
Over the ensuing months, the station continued to be knocked off the air for odd reasons. Gophers chewed through the underground electrical conduits (causing the station to go down and ending their own lives in the process). Telephone lines could be unreliable and high winds could cause static. A mysterious regular outage, occurring for about 10 minutes each Saturday morning, was traced to a janitor who was unplugging an amplifier when he needed an outlet for the floor polisher he was using.(8)
But in spite of these early mishaps, the station was off and running.
Difficult Days, and a Surprise Benefactor
The station’s first-year operating budget was $90,000, a modest sum even at the time. However, it wound up running a deficit of more than $40,000. A contribution from Saint John’s closed that gap, but the station was under considerable pressure to become self-sustaining – and soon.
Some unexpected help arrived in the mail. Kling received a note from a woman named Sarah-Maud Sivertsen. Sarah-Maud and Bob Sivertsen owned a lake cottage north of Randall, Minnesota. The note read:
In appreciation of the great pleasure that your FM classical music programs have brought to me and my husband and our country home, please accept the enclosed check. Keep up the good work.”
The check was for $5,000, an enormous sum at the time, and the largest single contribution anyone at the station had ever seen since the launch of KSJR.
Surprised, Kling drove over to the Sivertsen’s cabin unannounced to thank them personally. It was the beginning of a personal friendship and a philanthropic partnership that lasted for decades. It was a relationship that would help to grow MPR from a small college station to the most influential regional network in the country.(9)
The lean times continued, but a unique, entrepreneurial business model was emerging: individual contributions, bolstered by foundation and corporate grants, could lead the public service organization forward to financial solvency. Kling knew that in order to grow the station he needed to reach more listeners, so plans began to expand the signal with a repeater station – and a separate studio – in the Twin Cities.
A mere nine months after the first KSJR broadcast, sister station KSJN became the flagship of the newly-formed Minnesota Educational Radio (MER). An article in the July 17, 1969 edition of the Minneapolis Star outlined an audacious plan to parley MER into a statewide network.(10)
With MER’s financial picture still uncertain, dissatisfaction was rising within the Saint John’s University community. Neither of the two stations were running in the black, and the aggressive vision Colman and Kling had been advocating began to appear unsustainable. The term “Colman’s Folly” started to be bandied about by some on campus. The station would need to either scale back its ambitious growth agenda or be cut loose from the University entirely. 9
Ultimately, Colman and Kling agreed to formally separate MER from the University structure. The founding radio station KSJR would remain on campus and Saint John’s University would always be recognized as the birthplace of Minnesota Public Radio. Saint John’s divestment of the two valuable broadcast licenses was a generous act that helped to ensure the young network’s viability going forward.
As listenership grew in the Twin Cities, the financial support also grew and the station was now on a more secure footing. The Minneapolis newspaper that had expressed skepticism in 1969 was much more receptive a couple of years later, this time giving a generous write-up to the radio upstarts and declaring that this crazy idea – a listener-supported network that wouldn’t talk down to its audience – might actually work:
“In the overpopulated spectrum of Minnesota radio, we are used to a few records, some commercials and then a COMPLETE roundup of world, national, regional, state city and neighborhood news, weather and sports in five minutes[….]
But now Minnesota Educational Radio, Inc. (MER) has a better idea[….]
It envisions a nine-station net that serves up 24 hours of:
· Aggressive, investigative news reporting.
· Deep features on whys and wherefores.
· Live symphonies and pop concerts.
· Fresh new drama like the good old drama.
· Incisive political opinionizing.
· Criticism of the arts.
· No sports scores.
Outrageous? But true” (11)
From then on, few doubted that the station could accomplish what it set out to do. A small item in Bob Lundegaard’s Views and Reviews column in the December 6, 1974 Minneapolis Tribune mentioned, almost in passing, an important change in the station’s identity:
“The Minnesota Educational Network has renamed itself Minnesota Public Radio Inc. On Saturday at 1 pm the network resumes the Texaco-Metropolitan Opera broadcasts with ‘Romeo et Juliette’.” (12)
On June 28, 2011, Bill Kling looked out the window of his office near the corner of Cedar and 7th Street in downtown Saint Paul. In the park across the street, more than 400 employees of Minnesota Public Radio were waving. They had gathered to wish him farewell. After 44 years, he was stepping down as President and CEO of the organization.
Father Colman Barry, O.S.B., died in January 1994, and over the years Kling had been unstinting in his praise for his mentor, recognizing him as the first visionary of the organization, a man who saw radio as the means of bringing “culture to the prairie.” He also saw some indefinable quality in Kling himself, and put him on a path to build something far greater than even the nine-station network they had envisioned in 1971.
“Father Colman was one of the most effective entrepreneurs ever encountered in any for-profit or nonprofit company or institution,” Kling said on the occasion of MPR’s 50th anniversary. “He founded the Saint John’s Center for State and Local Government and Ford Foundation-funded Micro-City project; the Hill Monastic Microfilm project – now world famous for preserving ancient manuscripts before they are lost or destroyed; the Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research and its Breuer-designed community on the shores of Saint John’s Lake Watab.”(13)
Father Colman’s own assessment of his accomplishments was modest and in his later comments spent as much time looking forward as looking back. “I’ve never wavered in my enthusiasm for Minnesota Public Radio,” he told the Saint John’s student newspaper Independent in May of 1993. “I am most optimistic about the future of MPR, and I am grateful to have been a part of its beginning.”(14)
But for all the accomplishments of MPR’s founders Father Colman Barry and Bill Kling, the dream they shared would never have become a reality without the place that brought them together -- the founding institution for Minnesota Public Radio, Saint John’s University.