New AIR CEO Ikeda envisions ‘a strong community of co-conspirators’

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The Association of Independents in Radio has selected Ken Ikeda as its CEO, the organization announced Monday.

Ikeda previously spent several years as managing director of Public Media Co. Earlier in his career he was executive director of the Bay Area Video Coalition, a resource for media-makers in the San Francisco area.

Most recently he became a founding partner in Studiotobe, a content development and production studio in Oakland, Calif., where he executive-produces podcasts including Cooking By Ear and Self Evident: Asian American Stories. Ikeda’s partners in the venture are Joaquin Alvarado and Kristin Belden, both alums of  the Center for Investigative Reporting.

The hire ends a period of transition for AIR. Former CEO Sue Schardt left in August 2018, weeks after the entire AIR staff, including the organization’s COO, wrote to the board requesting her immediate removal. Previous staffers had penned a similar letter in July 2016. Both letters cited problems with Schardt’s management style. AIR hired consultant Tom Livingston as interim CEO in October.

This email interview has been edited.

Current: Were you previously a member of AIR?

Ken Ikeda, AIR: No. My first engagement with AIR was in 2006, when the BAVC Producer’s Institute for New Media Technologies launched. AIR staff came to visit the institute, and I’ve been a fan of the organization ever since.

I became a member recently. In launching several shows, I’ve collaborated with AIR members who have called on the hive mind and talent for help. This is sounding like a “long time listener, first time caller” bit, so I’ll stop. I owe a retroactive debt to AIR in the form of membership fees.

Will you be working from AIR’s Boston headquarters?

I will continue to be based out of Oakland. AIR’s board is international, the core staff will continue to work from the Dorchester office, and as we grow the team, it feels less and less critical that everyone be in the same city. Over 10% of AIR’s membership is outside of the U.S., and we are deeply interested in growing internationally, as well as reaching into smaller domestic markets in the South and the Midwest.

What is the length of your contract?

It is open-ended.

Are you planning any hires or layoffs?

There are no changes in personnel planned, but we will be shifting the focus of staff to better serve members.

We currently have five full-time employees, including myself, and will be seven full-timers by the end of May. Our objective is to assemble the best people and manage growth through their collective intelligence, ambition and effort. We are an open door for anyone this resonates with.

What are your specific goals for your first year?

I’m allowing myself a few weeks to formalize goals, but I’d like for us to grow our membership beyond the coasts, redesign the rate card [AIR’s rate guide for freelancers], and grow our programming partnerships to deliver new programs throughout the year.

As an organization, I’d like for us to be a resource to others because we are an organization that embraces and shares deep learning and strategy in all facets of our work.

Why do you think the board chose you for the position?

I believe the board was seeking someone to deliver vision and courage and not merely stabilize operations.

I often speak about promises and accountability. I asked the questions, “What is it that AIR is promising to its members and partners? How is the organization accountable to them, and how does it hold itself accountable?” Answering these questions will set the bar in terms of goals and objectives.

I believe it matters that I identify myself as an independent. I’ve always questioned why the game is played as it is, and whether a different set of rules, game board or pieces might make more sense.

To acknowledge the transition that AIR is in, I believe it also resonated that I have experience working through organizational change and startups and find reward in developing staff and leadership opportunities for others.

For myself, the board was a major draw in applying for the job. It’s an incredibly diverse, smart and talented group that I know I can learn from and want to engage with.

What appealed most to you about the job?

Independents are the content, production and editorial force in so many institutions now, whether it is trade organizations, newsrooms or public media stations. Stories engage the public, and AIR is a powerful association of 1,300-plus storytellers whose expertise is generally undervalued.

I’m very interested in member associations, because they deliver unique and powerful real-time data on the state of journalism, organizational practices, costs of living, market opportunities and hardships that aren’t always quantitatively captured. Stories about storytellers in every state, freelancing or long-term employed with commercial and noncommercial entities, provide AIR with an amazing aggregate view of what is and isn’t working for independents.

We operate as a services, benefits and opportunity entity and haven’t fully developed our powers as a strategy, stories and data entity. The No. 1 draw for me, however, is that I’m not much of a storyteller, yet nothing gives me more joy or inspiration than being in the midst of and, in the best-case scenario, of help to storytellers.

Will AIR offer resources for multiplatform production?

The organization has already embraced “Airmedia” over its full name as a reflection of the abilities of independents to produce across platforms and the necessity for those hiring to find talent who can do it all.

The powerful work that has emerged from investigative journalism also serves as a great example of how stories produced for radio and print translate effectively to television and film as well as shorter video narrative series online.

So yes, we won’t be exclusive to audio and video. All platforms for distribution will be embraced, and ultimately this will be captured in our support for producers around intellectual property, how we help bridge talent and investment and design our programs.

Any update on the future of AIR’s signature initiative, Localore?

Localore is a centerpiece production for AIR. While I am brand-new, the staff has been redesigning it, and we are looking to relaunch in 2020.

We hope to expand our offers as well, particularly in terms of geographic diversity. Full Spectrum Intensive and New Voices have so much unrealized potential, and the alumni network is amazing. There will be more to come on these and future programs.

Any specific long-term goals?

We have board and staff retreats pending, and my sense is that there is a strong interest to participate in collective level-setting and reimagining of what is possible.

A number of the bigger ideas I’m holding will require some time to socialize. Five thousand members is achievable. AIR spaces across the country for members to access and produce in is possible. A fund from which to distribute resources to a broader number of emerging producers and ways to facilitate investment in talent and projects are needed.

My hope is that as we map our near-term steps, our networks can be engaged to inform and focus the opportunities that are in front of AIR. We don’t want to stand alone. We want meaningful collaboration and a strong community of co-conspirators.

Will you continue your role at Studiotobe?

I will not be engaged any longer in day-to-day operations but will maintain an ownership position with the company and as executive producer for several podcasts. My founding partners are extraordinary and have the studio and productions in a strong place.

Studiotobe and AIR are well aligned. My involvement in the studio has brought me into contact with Sirius/Pandora and Spotify as well as freelancers for Frontline and 60 Minutes. And because the studio is home to Snap Judgment, I’ve been in the midst of a number of AIR members for a while already. That said, AIR is my No. 1 priority, and I’m excited about the future.

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