SPCO & MPR: The Grand Duo

Garrison Keillor and the SPCO at the 1993 “Save Our SPCO” Radiothon.

In celebration

By Kyu-Young Kim

On October 29, 1993, Minnesota Public Radio saved the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra from going out of business. It’s not hyperbole, just a simple statement of fact. The SPCO was on financial life support that fall—$1.6 million in the hole, its line of credit about to run out and no plan for how to dig itself out. Michael Barone, the longtime voice of the SPCO on MPR broadcasts, was our savior-in-chief, coming up with the idea for a “Save Our SPCO” radiothon with MPR President Bill Kling.

MPR needed to get a special exemption from the Federal Communications Commission in order to even raise funds for an outside party. The only two times the FCC had granted this waiver had been for natural disasters. While you could call the finances of the SPCO at that time a disaster, it wasn’t the same as raising money for recovery efforts from an earthquake. Nevertheless, the exemption was granted. Over a period of 35 hours, starting at 6 a.m. that Friday morning in the fall of 1993, MPR raised almost $750,000 through over 5,300 pledges from community members, and breathed new life into the SPCO.

I first came to the Twin Cities as Associate Concertmaster of the SPCO in 2000, and I was immediately struck by how close my orchestra colleagues were with the MPR engineers and hosts. Michael Barone became my hero not because of the radiothon (about which I knew nothing at the time), but because he offered to record pro bono some chamber music concerts that my wife Pitnarry Shin, a cellist with the Minnesota Orchestra, and I were organizing at our church. How generous and selfless can one guy be? Then MPR offered to record my wife’s and my chamber concerts and broadcast them. It was almost too good to be true, and to be honest, I think we took it for granted. Pitnarry and I moved to New York in 2005 to pursue other musical opportunities. When my wife and I organized a benefit concert at Lincoln Center, WNYC (New York Public Radio) didn’t come knocking on our door to broadcast the concert. By the time we moved back to the Twin Cities in 2011, our eyes were wide open to how special the Twin Cities’ musical community is and to MPR’s role as the glue that holds it all together.

A year after we returned from New York, concurrent lockouts occurred at both the Minnesota Orchestra and the SPCO. MPR’s coverage of the crisis was in-depth and exhaustive. There is no doubt that the intensity of the media coverage helped to keep the community’s focus on the immediacy and importance of finding a resolution.

Pitnarry and I came very close to picking up and moving back to New York, but we’re so glad that we stayed. When the SPCO came out of its lockout, I took on the additional role of artistic planning with the organization, essentially doubling down on my bet that the SPCO would survive and thrive. Four years later, we can look back and marvel at how completely things have turned around.

At the SPCO, we have recently adopted the following as our guiding principle: the SPCO exists to enrich our community by sharing transformational performances with the broadest possible audience.

Compare that to MPR’s mission statement: to enrich the mind and nourish the spirit, thereby enhancing the lives and expanding the perspectives of our audiences, and assisting them in strengthening their communities.

MPR and the SPCO are bonded together by this shared mission to improve people’s lives by connecting them more deeply to their humanity. When you think about it that way, it makes sense that the FCC gave MPR the green light to raise money for the SPCO back in 1993. Making people’s lives better on a daily basis the way that MPR does—whether through its in depth news shows, thoughtful commentary or unparalleled classical music programming (including lots of SPCO recordings and broadcasts of course!)—is just as important as disaster relief.

Happy 50th Anniversary MPR from your friends at the SPCO and thanks for all that you do for the community!

–Excerpt from the upcoming book to be published in conjunction with Minnesota Public Radio’s 50th anniversary