APM picks seasoned No. 2 as successor to founder
Jon McTaggart will start July 1 as the second leader of American Public Media Group in the organization’s 44-year history. As its chief operating officer since 2003, he brings to the job a thorough familiarity with the inner workings of the multifaceted Minnesota-based broadcaster and program producer.
McTaggart, whose promotion was announced April 20, was the unanimous choice of APMG’s Board of Trustees to succeed influential and entrepreneurial founder Bill Kling.
The two executives share a knowledge of APMG that started at Minnesota Public Radio’s early stations. McTaggart, a Minnesota native, joined MPR, now a subsidiary of APMG, as founder and g.m. of its Bemidji station in 1983, when he was 23.
That also happened to be Kling’s age when he was hired to start KSJN, the small college-owned station that would be the seed of the MPR empire.
McTaggart, now 50, went on to have a hand in almost every part of APMG. In the late 1980s, he served as g.m. of MPR’s multistation group based in Collegeville, at a time when the broadcaster started building its two-service network across the state. In 1998 he was named senior v.p. of new media, playing a formative role as public radio ventured into the Internet era.
His other jobs at APMG and its subsidiaries have included v.p. of business development, senior v.p. for new media and senior v.p. of content and media.
APMG stands apart from other public radio entities in its geographical scope and its range of activities, a testament to Kling’s restless drive for expansion. It operates 42 stations, including Southern California Public Radio and Classical South Florida, and produces and distributes public radio staples including Marketplace, A Prairie Home Companion and The Splendid Table.
“I really don’t think you could have a more experienced person in a job like that — from the top to the bottom,” said Bill Buzenberg, who worked as MPR/APM’s senior v.p. of news under McTaggart.
“He’s really passionate about public radio and public media,” said Dennis Hamilton, who hired McTaggart and worked with him at APMG for 20 years. “He’s a very outward-looking person in that regard — he’s always thinking about how to make the service better for the audience.”
Hamilton helped to lure McTaggart back to Minnesota after two three-year stints in other fields that buttressed his leadership experience far from public radio and Minnesota. From 1986 to 1989 McTaggart served as executive director of the Reading Rehabilitation Hospital Foundation in Reading, Pa., joining his father in the business of nursing-home administration. Later, in the mid ’90s, he held the position of v.p. of university relations and advancement at La Sierra University in Riverside, Calif.
The elevation of APMG’s No. 2 executive did not come as a surprise to observers, though it was the result of a thorough search both within the organization and beyond its ranks.
McTaggart, a generation younger than Kling, could well have time to reshape the organization’s priorities in ways that could distinguish his legacy from that of his predecessor and mentor.
“One option in these kinds of circumstances is always to find a distinguished, experienced senior leader who might step in for a career-capping tenure of four to five years in an organization,” said Tom Thomas, co-c.e.o. of the Station Resource Group. “The APM board has gone in a different direction of selecting a person in the prime of his career with a good amount of time still ahead of him.”
The hiring of McTaggart caps a search process that began last fall, when Kling announced his plans to retire. The outgoing leader worked with APMG’s board of trustees to define the criteria that would determine his successor: strategic agility, business acumen, vision and commitment to the organization’s mission.
The search led to a pool of finalists who were interviewed first by a succession committee and then the full board. “Jon really distinguished himself in terms of both experience and vision,” said Ian Friendly, chair of the board’s succession committee.
“Jon is a remarkable leader who has been responsible for a great portion of our success over the years,” Kling said in a press release. “I’m very happy with the board’s decision, and I’m confident Jon will ensure that APMG continues to lead the way in public media’s ongoing evolution.”
“Bill has been a true friend and a mentor to me,” McTaggart said of his outgoing boss. The new leader told Current that Kling taught him the importance of creative talent within the organization and of thinking ambitiously of APMG’s future. He also learned from Kling about listening to radio with a keenly critical ear, he said.
Those who have worked with both Kling and McTaggart say the two leaders are distinguished by the demands of the eras in which they have led APMG. Kling shepherded the network through a period of growth, while McTaggart assumes leadership “at a time that’s probably the most difficult time in our history,” said longtime Washington-state broadcaster Dennis Haarsager, pointing to threats to federal funding and the disruptive shocks of innovations in media.
Haarsager held leadership positions at NPR during McTaggart’s time on the network’s board. McTaggart’s NPR Board term expires in September, and he will consult with APMG’s board of trustees about whether to continue in that position, he said.
The itch to start things
McTaggart acknowledged that he begins his new job at APMG at a time of significant challenges to public media. But he emphasized that he sees opportunities in disruptive media such as podcasts. In 2007, listeners downloaded about 1.5 million podcasts of APM programs a month. Since then, monthly usage has grown to 8 million.
“That tells us that audiences are eager to engage with us in ways beyond radio and are still in love with the content,” he said.
Kling has had “an itch to start things” throughout his career, said SRG’s Thomas. “Jon’s track record has been more in the highly successful running of things,” he says. “What’s ahead for Jon is how he will make his mark, and my guess is that in short order we will see that Jon McTaggart is not bad at starting some things on his own.”
McTaggart has yet to share specific details about his plans for APMG. But he might get a chance when he addresses attendees at the Public Radio Membership and Development Conference, July 14–16 in Pittsburgh.
Thomas and others uniformly describe McTaggart as affable, straightforward and compassionate. Haarsager, also a native of the Land of 10,000 Lakes, describes McTaggart as “quintessentially Minnesotan” — an exemplar of the “Minnesota nice” personality parodied by Garrison Keillor and the film Fargo.
“He’s a very personable fellow,” Haarsager says. “He’s sophisticated without being slick.”
Bob Collins, a longtime journalist at MPR, praised McTaggart on his blog after the promotion was announced. Collins recalled a time when he was leaving MPR’s parking lot to embark on a trip with his son to see a few baseball games. McTaggart ran after Collins, flagged him down, gave him $20 and said, “Buy yourself a beer and a hot dog. You do good work.”
“No boss had ever said anything like that to me before ... ,” Collins wrote, “let alone risked a heart attack for the opportunity to say it.”
This is an expansion of the article originally published online on April 21. Comments, questions, tips? email@example.com.
Copyright 2011 American University