American Public Media CEO Jon McTaggart to step down amid mounting pressure for racial equity

Photo courtesy of Minnesota Public Radio.

The CEO of American Public Media, the parent company of Minnesota Public Radio, will step down amid mounting pressure from inside and outside the company to improve its internal policies and coverage of racial and gender equity issues.

American Public Media Board Chair Mary Brainerd, the former CEO and President of HealthPartners, announced the decision to replace Jon McTaggart in an email to some 675 employees on Tuesday, and also addressed grievances about the company’s lack of diversity and inclusivity.

[Disclosure: I worked at MPR News as a producer from 2016-2019.]

“We’ve discussed many times this year that change and true transformation can be hard and messy, and that it takes time. We aren’t going to shy away from the change that is needed.

 We are listening to our employees, and we’re taking every point to heart,” Brainerd wrote in an email obtained by the Reformer.

Jon McTaggart. Photo courtesy of American Public Media.

Brainerd wrote that McTaggart had been discussing his eventual departure with the board for two years and that he will remain CEO of APM until his successor is in place.

American Public Media is one of the largest public media content creators and distributors in the country. Its portfolio includes Marketplace, Minnesota Public Radio, Southern California Public Radio and award-winning podcasts like “In the Dark” and “Terrible, Thanks for Asking.”

The announcement comes the same day a group of employees at MPR and APM launched a campaign to “Transform MPR” with a list of demands to improve racial and gender equity inside the company.

In a letter to readers, employees wrote that they had “lost trust in the company’s senior leaders” who have for decades “mismanaged racial and gender concerns.”

“Our company culture and our news coverage routinely prioritizes white audiences and their stories, neglecting communities of color. The company, over its 53-year history, has also fostered a harmful working environment for women and journalists of color,” the letter says.

McTaggart, who is one of the highest-paid public media executives in the country, took the helm of the organization in 2011 from founder Bill Kling. Kling started Minnesota Public Radio as a classical music station on the campus of St. John’s College in 1967 and expanded the operation to be a public media powerhouse with popular national shows like Garrison Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Companion.”

The company publicly severed ties with Keillor in 2018 amid allegations of sexual misconduct. That was just one of a series of issues that have roiled the institution in recent years. For example, seven journalists of color left the MPR newsroom in 2019, a staggering number for a newsroom already struggling to recruit and retain employees of color.

This month, two high-profile departures have led to a backlash from listeners and employees. MPR fired its only Black classical music host, Garrett McQueen, for making unauthorized changes to playlists. McQueen said he was playing music that was more racially diverse and more appropriate for the moment as protests for racial justice swept the country in response to the police killing of George Floyd.

Days later, longtime arts reporter Marianne Combs announced her resignation on Twitter, accusing editors of slow-walking her investigation into allegations that a DJ at the MPR sister station The Current had “sexually manipulated and psychologically abused” at least eight women. MPR President Duchesne Drew defended the newsroom’s editors for not running the piece, writing in a statement that “it does not meet our journalistic standards.” Still, following a wave of public criticism, MPR fired the DJ, Eric Malmberg, the next day.

In July, the company announced 12 actions it would take to improve the company’s diversity, equity and inclusion, which includes investing in professional development, mandating inclusivity training and increasing staff diversity. About a quarter of the company’s employees are Black, Indigenous or people of color.

Brainerd said that effort would continue and hinted that the board had reviewed the list of demands employees announced earlier Tuesday.

“We’ve heard from a number of employees that this plan doesn’t yet adequately address concerns about our workplace. Some of our colleagues outlined a series of actions that would 

further transform MPR to meet the changing needs of the audiences we serve. If our plan isn’t working, we’re going to identify the gaps and expand it to make it work,” Brainerd wrote.

The action by employees at MPR and APM are part of a larger reckoning in the media industry following the events since Floyd’s death. In July, employees at the Star Tribune announced a similar list of demands on their largely white bosses to rectify persistent racial disparities in the newsroom, which they say have eroded trust with their readers.

Employees at the New York Times and the Philadelphia Inquirer, among others, have also challenged their employers to improve staff diversity and their coverage of race.

MPR and employees with “Transform MPR” could not immediately be reached for comment.