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New MPR head gives credit to Bemidji

Jon McTaggart, president and CEO of American Public Media Group, addresses the audience at "MPR Connects!" event Tuesday night at the Hampton In and Suites in Bemidji. Pioneer Photo/Monte Draper

The time was 1983, and Jon McTaggart, a 23-year-old graduate of Bemidji State, was given the job as station master for the new public radio station, KCRB Bemidji. He had already shown his skill in writing for the Northern Student and as news director for the campus station. McTaggart, while still in school, went from being a deejay at Paul Bunyan Broadcasting to news writer, thanks to the mentoring of Ned Goodwin and Marty Karger. James Rasmussen of KB101 taught McTaggart the business.

"My wife and I got married the summer after my freshman year and her sophomore year (of college) and we moved to Bemidji to go to school. We were two young kids going to college and Bemidji took us under its wing. People here reached out to us and gave us opportunity that we didn't deserve," McTaggart said. "Bemidji is a touchstone place for me and I want to come here because it's where I got my start in public broadcasting."

McTaggart in July became the president and CEO of American Public Media Group, the parent company of MPR. He spoke Tuesday night during an MPR event in Bemidji that featured him and Cathy Wurzer, host of the station's "Morning Edition."

McTaggart was quick to acknowledge professors at BSU who saw something, a spark, perhaps, in a young man willing to try his hand at something new.

"Failing is not a problem," said McTaggart. "Not trying is the problem, and that is something I learned from my father. What I found in those mentors was a challenge and an opportunity, and a belief in me that I probably didn't even have in myself."

He went on to talk about the people in the communications department like Bob Treuer and Roger Paskvan, and James Cecil in political science. McTaggart credits Fulton Gallagher, professor emeritus of music, as giving him the final persuading argument toward broadcasting.

"Les Duly, the president of Bemidji State, was interested in me, and I still don't know why," he said.

McTaggart described how he rented a room in the basement of Birch Hall and set up a studio. He swept out the debris, rented a desk and bought the receiver, which still resides at the Minnesota Public Radio Station in downtown Bemidji. His boss, Dennis Hamilton, who was the general manager of MPR, worked in Moorhead at that time. After a couple of weeks, McTaggart called Hamilton and asked him to clarify for him what he was supposed to do.

"Jon," Hamilton said, "your job is to create such value for the people of Bemidji so that if MPR is ever threatened, the citizens of Bemidji will rise up en masse to protect it."

"That was a watershed moment for me," McTaggart said. "It became my life's work, and now I am the president and CEO and can barely believe it."

McTaggart talked about how blessed he has been throughout his more than 20 years in public broadcasting. He spoke about how the medium of public broadcasting is fragile; it must be tended to and nurtured, built and protected, and how that challenge continues to exist.

McTaggart, in an interview with the Pioneer, recalled when the news was a shared experience because there were the three main networks everyone listened to at about the same time. His father taped a transistor radio to his John Deere tractor to listen to while he plowed. But public media has changed with the proliferation of technology in television and radio, especially in cable. It has allowed a stream of tens of thousands of words, and now a person can find a channel to speak to that to which he or she believes to be true. There are a sufficient number of like-minded people who will coalesce around a channel that basically confirms their world view.

"America is a more complicated place than it used to be," McTaggart said. "I travel so much and meet people every day who renew for me a significant confidence that they know what the American dream is, and they are not necessarily people in authority, they are not necessarily people in high places, but they are the vast majority of America. They are hard-working and take care of their family, and they inspire me."

McTaggart relayed a recent conversation he had with Ahmed, a cab driver in Washington, D.C. He is an émigré from a war-torn African country who said that he is now living in the greatest country in the world. The man is grateful for clean drinking water and safe food to eat, his children go to school for free, he has electricity that doesn't go on and off, he can worship where he wants without being afraid and he can make a living without having to pay bribes.

"These are the kind of stories I hear all the time, but unfortunately they are not the kind of stories that we hear on the radio or watch on television," McTaggart said. "Too many media outlets want us to believe that our country is dysfunctional and financially bankrupt. Too many want us to focus on corruption in our cities, crime in our small towns and environmental threats, the homeless, the hungry. We have many problems in this country, but too many media outlets in this country want to lather us up, to make us afraid, to be anxious, so they can sell stuff."

McTaggart believes that is not what people expect from their public broadcasting station. He suggests that commercial media serves consumers and advertisers, and public broadcasting serves citizens. He agrees that each has its role, but that most of public broadcasting is to inform, inspire, move, enrich, enlighten, to do the things communities expect.

"Public broadcasting can be that institution if we commit ourselves to this," McTaggart said. "If we dedicate ourselves to be editorially independent, fact-based, nonpartisan and trusted news and information -

something that is in increasingly short supply in our country, we will inform our democracy."

More news is read today than in any time in our history. Some newspaper reporter somewhere put the shoe leather to the ground, put the pencil to the paper and created the story, he said. But the question remains, "Whom do we believe today?" Trust is very hard to recapture once it is broke and it appears that very few media organizations invest in the relationship they have with their reader/audience/viewer, he added.

"Public broadcasting must develop a relationship because our economics are loyalty based," McTaggart said. "We try to create value for an audience. People don't give money to things they like, they give to things they love. Trust and love, they are both emotion-based experiences. MPR has earned trust by its integrity, editorial independence, commitment to fact-based, non-partisan, thoughtful, balanced and consistent journalism."