A new wind of change is blowing through public media organizations of all shapes and sizes, sweeping through executive offices as top managers opt to move on to their next jobs or retire.
More than 50 public media outlets — from NPR to WKYU in Bowling Green, Ky. — are searching for a new chief executive or general manager or have completed such a search within the last ten months.
Specialists in executive recruitment and outplacements say turnover in pubcasting’s top management jobs has accelerated sharply this year. According to Current’s analysis, 30 organizations went through similar changes during 2012.
Within the past two weeks, the general manager at the top-rated NPR news station, WAMU in Washington, D.C., announced that she had accepted the top management job at Seattle’s KUOW, also among the top five NPR news stations in the country, according to the Radio Research Consortium’s summer 2012 ratings report. Caryn Mathes, WAMU’s g.m. since March 2005, will succeed longtime KUOW chief Wayne Roth in January. Meanwhile, former Rocky Mountain PBS chief James Morgese, who came out of retirement last fall to manage Kentucky’s WKYU-TV, has moved on to KUED-TV in Salt Lake City.
And, on Nov. 5, Iowa Public Radio announced that Myrna Johnson would be taking over the top spot at the statewide pubcaster. Also, in recent months, Nebraska ETV welcomed Mark Leonard as its new c.e.o. and WPBT-TV in Miami promoted Dolores Sukhedo as president.
Since pubcasters tend to move to other jobs within the field, each hiring tends to create another vacancy.
Experts in executive recruitment and placement attribute the uptick in management churn to improvements in the economy. As the financial outlook improved, executives who had been delaying their retirement or job searches decided it was time to make a move. In some cases, licensee boards looking for change decided to make it happen under a new chief executive.
"There's been a lot of activity," said Judy Stone Weaver, managing partner of NETA Consulting, which assists stations with executive recruitment. "The improving economy has created an opportunity for executives to move and retire, and it’s created a few years’ worth of pent-up demand.”
Tom Livingston, c.e.o. of Baltimore-based Livingston Associates LLC, agreed. "I feel like when the economy goes south, everyone kind of hunkers down," he said. "Movement kind of stops, people don't leave, and boards don't hire if they don't have to."
Focus on top management
Leadership transitions at local stations appear to be evenly spread across different types of operations: 24 occurred at public radio stations, which far outnumber public TV outlets; 14 at public TV stations; and 10 at joint licensees.
Current’s analysis of leadership changes focused on top management positions at pubcasting organizations from Jan. 1 through October 31, 2013. Positions as a chief executive officer, general manager, president or executive director were included if they became vacant, were filled or both. Data was drawn from want ads, job postings, press releases, news accounts and other sources.
Recent departures in PBS’s senior management — top engineer John McCoskey, digital chief Jason Seiken, and station relations exec Joyce Herring — were not included in the analysis. Nor were changes in the ranks of chief operating officers, a transition that WETA in Arlington, Va., recently completed.
The data reveal that 50 organizations have recruited new executive leaders or general managers — most often from within the system — or are in the process of doing so. At least eight outlets — including state public TV networks in Idaho and Iowa and WPBT, Miami — have promoted from within.
"There's a lot of talent in the system," said Weaver. "For those potential executives to get a chance is always good to see."
But in more cases, pubmedia executives moved from one station to another. Polly Anderson left New Mexico PBS in Albuquerque for Florida, where she leads WUCF-TV, PBS’s new flagship in Orlando. Texas Public Radio’s Daniel Skinner became g.m. at WKSU-FM in Kent, Ohio, and his predecessor Allen Bartholet moved on to WMRA-FM in Harrisonburg, Va.
Mark Leonard’s move to NET opened a position at WILL, a joint licensee in Urbana, Ill., that was filled by Chet Tomczyk, under a novel agreement to “share” a general manager with WTVP-FM in Peoria, Ill.
Though pubcasting organizations frequently recruited media executives with commercial experience through the mid-1990s and beyond, few are doing so now, according to Livingston and Weaver.
One major exception is KCTS in Seattle, which tapped Robert Dunlop as c.e.o. following the resignation of veteran pubcaster Maurice Bresnahan. According to his profile on the KTCS website, Dunlop has more than two decades of experience with Seattle-based Fisher Communications, which operated multiple radio and television stations in the western U.S. before its takeover this summer by Sinclair Broadcast Group.
Broadcast managers with commercial experience have historically been in the mix of candidates for top pubcasting jobs, according to Livingston, but he estimates that up to 70 percent of candidates are now drawn from noncommercial organizations.
"Boards might think it's risky to bring in someone from the outside," Livingston said. "It takes time to get up to speed, and there might be reluctance about that learning curve."
To licensee boards that are risk-averse, executive candidates with commercial experience are less attractive than veteran pubcasters, according to Weaver.
"Boards that are searching for a new leader — if they're in a good place financially with a strong management team — it's going to be easier for them to look at an outside candidate," Weaver said.
Time for a change
Though many managers seek to advance their careers or to retire during a time of stability, some leadership changes were forced by board actions.
“There are a lot of reasons for an organization or an executive to seek a change,” said John Challenger, c.e.o. of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, a Chicago-based outplacement firm. “These are positions that carry a lot of pressure. And by the nature of the job, they're subject to being asked to leave."
Challenger, Gray & Christmas tracks churn amongst chief executive officers in both the public and private sectors. So far in 2013, 964 chief exec positions at U.S.-based companies have turned over, a 6.5 percent increase from the 891 recorded at the same time last year.
Resignations, which could have been by choice or by force, were most often cited as the reason behind the changes, followed closely by retirement. The firm’s data excludes positions such as general managers and executive directors and isn’t limited to media organizations.
Some of the biggest leadership changes in public media came unexpectedly — notably Gary Knell’s decision to leave NPR for National Geographic and Torey Malatia’s departure from Chicago’s WBEZ — but retirement has played a big role in the turnover experienced within pubcasting this year.
Top jobs opened at big stations and state networks whose longtime managers decided to retire — KUOW’s Roth, Rod Bates at Nebraska’s NET, Daniel Miller of Iowa Public TV, Peter Morrill of Idaho PTV, Randall Feldman at WYES in New Orleans and Elsie Gardner at WTVI-TV in Charlotte, N.C.
"It might be a sign that economic conditions are healing," Livingston said. "People are retiring who might have been putting it off, and boards might be ready to take chances and try new things."
Turnover rate in 2013 may extend into next year and beyond, at least within the nonprofit sector. A 2011 poll by CompassPoint Nonprofit Services that surveyed 3,000 nonprofit executives found that 34 percent planned to leave their jobs by 2012. And 75 percent of respondents said they saw themselves leaving in less than five years.
"There are still people out there thinking about leaving or boards thinking of change,” said Weaver. “I really wouldn't be surprised to see another year of this kind of activity."