How two of pubmedia’s youngest station leaders got where they are

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Loya, Srbinovich (Photos: KCOS, Knight Foundation via Flickr)

If they’re not the youngest general managers in public media, they’re certainly among them. Michelle Srbinovich, 30, is g.m. of WDET-FM in Detroit; Emily Martin Loya, 32, holds the same job at KCOS-TV in El Paso, Texas. The two appeared on our podcast The Pub in September to talk about how they got where they are, the challenges they’ve faced as younger leaders, and advice they’d give to young women looking to move up in the business. This is an edited transcript.

Michelle Srbinovich: I started at WDET in December of 2009. I came from advertising, actually, so it was my first job in public media. I started as a digital specialist — obviously a new area for the station — and I became a digital manager and started building a department, working with almost every single department on a regular basis, so I had a pretty good understanding of, overall, how the station operated.

I worked very closely with our program director, and I also worked very closely with my predecessor, who was our general manager at the time. And when he left to take another job, I was made co–general manager along with one of our talk show hosts. It was an interim solution, and after about six months I said, “I don’t know how interim this is, because it doesn’t seem as if it’s going to change.”

Another six months later he left to take a job with the city of Detroit, and I ended up being the sole general manager, so it’s been a year of kind of steering the ship. By chance and some good timing, I stepped into a lot of roles and was willing to take on additional work and learn the business — but it is not something I grew up wanting to do.

Adam Ragusea, Current: What did you grow up wanting to do?

Srbinovich: I wanted to be a zoologist and study cheetahs, but I quickly realized it was probably not the most lucrative career. I always liked media and marketing; I came in on the marketing side, but now I realize media is actually the side I’ve always wanted to be on. And public media in particular was something that I didn’t actually grow up with, but I realize that I can look at it as a movement; I look at WDET not just as being a media organization or as being a nonprofit but almost kind of creating a movement in our region. That’s exciting to me — it‘s this perfect world of media and marketing and nonprofit combined. Community organizing, almost.

Current: There are a lot of public radio stations, and, for all we know, there may be a younger radio g.m. out there. But certainly you are by far the youngest g.m. at a major market station. Emily, I believe we know for a fact that you are the youngest public television g.m. How did you get where you are?

Emily Martin Loya: Well, it could be a long story, but I didn’t come from a public media background. I came to the station after I had been doing Latino marketing for a large financial firm, but prior to that I had been at a nonprofit and had a nonprofit management certificate. I worked at United Way in El Paso and learned a lot about our nonprofit community, and I am very much part of our community — I’ve been here for going on 10 years — and I was on a board with somebody who also was on the KCOS board, and I was ready to leave marketing and ready to go back to nonprofit.

I just started a conversation with them and, I’ll be honest, I wouldn’t have the position if it wasn’t a timing thing like Michelle mentioned. Our station really was in a struggling place financially; they had struggled, having had several interims, they hadn’t really committed to an interim, they let him be an interim for quite a while, and he had come back from retirement from commercial media, and the station had just kind of lost its way, to be honest, and they were really talking about closing it.

I came in and I was like, I’ll come co-manage and we’ll figure this out and let’s see where we go from there. I did a year of co-managing, and after a while I said I can relate to the co-managing too, but co-management is not a great idea in certain situations. So I was the chief marketing officer officially in my first year, and then I became the general manager about a year ago, and it’ll be a year here in September [2015].

Current: I’ve been in a few newsroom management positions in my life where I’ve had to manage people who were older than me, and it was really awkward. What’s it like for you managing people who are considerably older?

Srbinovich: Everyone with the exception of one person is older than me, and I think age was not really the thing that struck me. It was people who’d been there for a longer time and said, “Well, this is how it is.”

But I didn’t understand why and I didn’t believe it has to be that way, so there’s been tension there. There’s also just people you’ve got to work alongside, and the biggest transition for me was that people were used to me, that before I was even in this co–general manager role there was a lot of day-to-day operations work I was doing. I was leading our strategic planning meetings, I was leading our weekly status meetings, I had a project management background and I needed certain information and a structure to do my work, and so I kind of created it in some way for the organization and people thought, “Well, you’re the general manager, but you also do this.”

So for me the hardest part has been getting out of the weeds, because I’ve always been in the weeds. I came from being in the weeds every day, and there’s never been somebody to do that work. So now I actually hired somebody to help manage me; it’s like an executive assistant but is actually a business operations coordinator, so somebody a little bit higher-level than just managing my schedule, that can be at meetings I can’t attend, that can help document many of the things we’re talking about. They can literally manage my schedule, because I fundamentally can’t do both, and that’s been the awakening this year as I can’t play both of those roles.

I don’t think it’s about age, because I’ve worked with people who are older than me who are really progressive in their thinking and really open to having someone younger bringing new ideas. I’ve had people who are younger than me who are stuck in a certain way. No, it hasn’t been age. I do think I was intimidated in some ways about experience, and now that I’ve been here for a year and I better understand different units and I’ve talked to people outside of our station, I recognize that, no, that’s not the way things are always done, and that if we do things the way we’ve always done them, we will continue to be in this place. So there’s value to what I’m bringing to the table, and it’s not from having years and years of public media experience. But being here for over five years and having worked with every department, I do feel like I generally understand what works really well and where we have opportunity to grow. So age really hasn’t been a barrier with my staff.

I do think sometimes think that there are conversations I might not get brought into the same way, and that sometimes that does feel like it’s because of my age, like, “Oh, you’re keeping things moving, but you’re not at the table for certain conversations.” I would like to think that’s not the case, but that’s the only place I felt age that might be a factor.

Current: How about you, Emily? Ever had any sort of awkward social situations with older people kind of coppin’ a ‘tude?

Loya: Well, let’s see what I can actually share. Definitely, I can relate to Michelle, but for me it hasn’t been as much about the age as coming in from a different background. I have several staff at the station that had been there 15, 20 years and had a way of doing things and have had a lot of leaders that didn’t question those ways. So it’s been more coming out with the approach of, “I’m here to learn. Yes, I’m in charge and you guys are experts, but it doesn’t mean I’m not going to question you on the way we do things.”

The best resource for me has been other leaders across the system from other places … because — let’s face it — no matter your age, sometimes when you come into a new leadership role, your staff is going to try to pull a fast one on you, or they just want to keep doing what they’re doing because it’s comfortable for them. Once you can win them over and show some successes with your new approaches or new ideas or what have you, it changes, it moves the ship in a different direction.

But, to be honest, with the person I was co-managing with, age was an issue; he was my dad’s age and I was his daughter’s age, and he didn’t really like that and he’s only part-time now. It depends on the individual; it’s a two-way street.

Current: Let’s go back to the fact that your age means that you both bring a lot of fresh perspective to how stations do things. All organizations in public media have young people with a fresh perspective; it’s just very rare for them to be in the position to actually enforce that fresh perspective on the way the things are done. Can both of you give me a specific example of something that you’ve done as the top manager that maybe someone older might not have done?

Loya: I have one. It’s still in test phase, so I can’t claim great success for it, but I just decided that we had to invest in mobile messaging for staying in touch with people that want to be in touch with us in different ways. We do a lot with kids and families, being a PBS station, and it’s really silly to make people handwrite entries to be in our email list and to enter into raffles and dumb things like that. And we’re starting to look at leveraging that for donations, too. We do a lot of events, but just because people show up to that doesn’t mean that they become donors. And it’s not like I’m going to throw the baby out with the bathwater; I’m not trying to get rid of pledge, but I’m trying to differentiate all the different ways we can approach people and ask them that’s relevant to them.

In our age group we all have a relationship with our phones — and a lot of people a lot older than us, too — and that’s an area that we’re starting to test and innovate with. I think the radio stations are doing it way before PBS stations, but there aren’t a lot of PBS stations doing that yet. We just gotta make the investment and start testing with this and getting better at it, because we’re going to be left behind if not.

Current: Michelle, anything come to mind?

Srbinovich: Even when I came to WDET, our former general manager was pretty progressive-thinking. I just feel like we were already doing things. We’re pretty atypical for most public radio stations, but one thing that I’m working on right now is I’ve actually eliminated the digital department as a department, which is funny because I started it. I re-created a marketing engagement department but don’t have digital [as] a silo, because I’ve seen the effect of that across the board. Not that if you have a larger station, you don’t need people who specialize in certain platform, but I realize that there’s a lot of day-to-day operations that are in the digital marketing departments that are not even marketing tasks.

I’m working right now on how we across the board as an organization think about digital and mobile in everything we do. It’s not directed to the young people or the people in that department, and that’s a shift. I don’t think people have to come from a really strong digital media background — which you very well couldn’t regardless of age — but that’s one of the first things you would realize needed to shift.

Current: You two are more remarkable both for your age but also for the fact that you’re both women; the ranks of g.m.’s across radio but in particular television are still really male-dominated, and that’s a major problem. One of the biggest impediments that anyone faces as they’re trying to get to the tippy-top levels of management is how you get experience or expertise that bridges both the content and the kind of money and operations sides of the organization. I would feel confident as a chief content officer or a news director, but in terms of operations, engineering and money, I wouldn’t have the first clue. How do you get read in on all of the totally disparate facets of what you have to do to run the station?

Loya: Well, you’re never going to know it all; you’re always learning, and if you’re not a learner in public media, then you’re going to get left behind, right? I was thinking about all my past positions prior to being in this role, and I’ve always been like the first-time-ever role or entrepreneurial.

So, inherently, when you are building your own position or when you’re at the top of an organization, you’ve got to learn everything from the ground up, and you’ve got to learn all your partners in between. So for me it helped to know some of those other pieces, operations and finance and all the things from serving and leading on other nonprofit organizations and being involved in my community and being part of some other boards. So I had some frame of reference on a public media board and could say, “With this organization, I know what their financials look like, I know how to read them, I know how to interpret them, I know how to come in and look at that, and I know how their fundraising works and those pieces.”

I would say for me the hardest part was the broadcast engineering side of the thing. I still am learning things about that, but also I have to hire good people and trust them. It doesn’t hurt when you have a dad that’s an electrical engineer. But I do think that I cross-trained a lot from outside of my job experience.

Srbinovich: I agree that some of the things I learned from other organizations … I’ve always served on nonprofit boards and been familiar with the fundraising and nonprofit messaging. It’s really helped me having a marketing background when it comes to programming because it’s not that I’m coming and saying, “Let’s do things because there’s a revenue piece attached.” It’s just thinking about who’s your audience. That kind of thinking helps, especially with your programming at large.

I came in and I did not do a lot of content when I first started at the station. I worked at the news team, and there were actually times when I worked on some editorial content, but I work really closely with different units. I kind of had the last five years to understand what different departments do in my interactions with them, even if I wasn’t managing them. But the news piece was where I had to spend a lot of time. I don’t feel like I need to get into the day-to-day on all of our broadcast operations. I asked questions to understand what people were working on, but I don’t have to be the expert at everything. That’s not my role, but I need to know enough about what’s working and challenge people to resolve an issue or to think more progressively; I know enough now where I feel like I can do that.

Current: Any last tips for people, particularly young people, particularly younger women, who want to get into top-level management?

Loya: Find a mentor. That’s easier to say than just doing it, but in media and public television we’ve created this women in public media partnership. Get involved with that; there are great people that want to share, and we’re a lot further on than some other industries, so it’s not like there’s a void of women in leadership. We still have room to grow, but we have a lot of progressive people, no matter their gender or preference, in public media. And be honest and put yourself out there and also recognize where you need to grow in order to be ready for a leadership position — and then pursue what you need to in terms of training or mentorship to get more prepared.

I also know that your first role in leadership is often going to be a challenging situation. I’m in a group with like 18 other new general managers across PBS, and we get together every couple of months. And no matter our age or gender, almost all of us inherited challenges, very big ones, some of us. Be careful what you ask for, because when you take up a challenge it takes some personal sacrifice, and it’s OK to be honest and say, “I’m in my 20s or 30s and I’m working more on my family, and I’m still working on my career, but I’m going to learn and do this much.”

Because it takes some sacrifice; you start to make decisions based on, well, now I’m in charge of something, and it’s like having another family that I’m in charge of and kids and all that. So just enjoy the time that you’re in, but decide where you’re going and what you want to achieve, but also be ready for opportunities, too. Because for both of us, as you can hear, there’s a bit of timing involved, too. So don’t get too frustrated, keep making the most of the opportunities that are before you, but don’t sit back — take the initiative even on smaller projects and lead across the system when you have the opportunity, too. We’re always looking for good leaders.

Srbinovich: I would echo that. I think that the reasons I was considered for the role when the opportunity came about was because I was already doing so much work that it would have made sense for me to take the role on. I didn’t even step up and say “I want this job” initially; it’s just, “Well, here’s what I’m already doing, here’s what I’m interested in doing more of and I will put myself out there and say I’m willing to do this work. In the meantime, what do you need from me?” I never just find a job based on a title, a sheet of paper that says this is what your job is. I just made my job into what it is, and there’s things I’ve done and projects I got involved in because I want to learn.

I’m very curious; I developed a curiosity about so many departments even before I was in a position of having to lead them. And it helps when people think, “Who do we rely on?” and your name comes up. Whether at your current organization or somewhere else, you’ll start to have a more well-rounded experience because to come in a leadership position, particularly at a level of g.m., even to start to develop a more well-rounded experience, that’s part of the general manager role, so there’s some general things that you should be learning.

And there was definitely times when I was like, “Oh my gosh, don’t remind me of the fact that I’m in this role.” Adam, you said something when we were in D.C. at a PMDMC [Public Media Marketing and Development Conference]. I talked to [Morning Edition host] David Greene, and he was the first person that said, “You’re the general manager at a major-market station,” and I said, “Oh, really, I don’t even think about that.” It’s not what I set out to do. I’m always thinking about, what are we doing? How do we get better? How do I grow my team? How do I make them feel fulfilled? I guess there are financial goals each year, but what impact are we making?

My focus has always been on the work in the organization first before myself, and that’s probably the reason why I’m in this position. If I was just looking out for myself, as much as this is an amazing opportunity, there’s been a lot of sacrifice, there’s been a lot of soul-searching, and do I even want to do this? Am I the right person for this? But I love doing the work and I care about the organization, and all those times where you go through those thoughts — especially when you’re young and people are questioning and you sit at a table and you don’t have an answer and someone’s looking at you with doubt — but it’s easy to doubt yourself.

But I fundamentally want to see this happen, and if that means I have to be the one leading the change and putting myself out there, that’s going to have to happen. If you’re the kind of person who loves the work and you care about the organization and you’re curious, if you’re just setting out to be the one in charge, I don’t know if that’s going to be the approach that is probably going to come off that way. But if people come to realize that you’re someone who’s really passionate about this, and you’re going to stick it out and you want things to fundamentally get better for your organization, your community, they’re a lot more willing to listen to you when you have what I call crazy ideas. I’m notorious for the statement of, “Hey, guys, this might be a crazy idea, but stick with me.” That’s what I’m here for; I didn’t come here to just remain in stride, I didn’t stay here to just maintain the status quo forever. Who knows what will happen? Maybe this will open up opportunities; I don’t know where this will take me, but the reason I got here is because I just wanted to do the work. That’s what it is.

Current: One of the problems that I see across the system — this is my little parting ageist shot — is that we’ve got a lot of general managers, people in top positions who aren’t really motivated to change how we do business very drastically because they don’t want to rock the boat. They want to keep the boat floating for as long as they’re going to be on it, and they’re not going to be on it for that much longer. Now you guys are going to be on it for a really long time, and I can’t wait to see where you take us.

Srbinovich: If we fall off the boat, I think we’ve developed some pretty good swimming skills.

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