Milwaukee has become one of the country’s great public media towns, and Dave Edwards can take some of the credit for making that happen. Dave became GM of university licensee WUWM — Milwaukee Public Radio — in 1985. Under his leadership, the station’s newsroom staff expanded from two people to 15.
With this growth in news gathering, the station has planted flags on some of the most urgent issues facing the city, including gun violence, segregation and water quality.
WUWM’s Precious Lives project, funded by the Association of Independents in Radio’s Localore initiative, was one of the groundbreaking efforts that inspired creation of Current’s “Local that Works.” Precious Lives amplified the voices of people impacted by gun violence in Milwaukee and modeled the power of multi-platform media collaborations. WUWM partnered with the city’s daily newspaper, an African American commercial AM radio radio station, a statewide nonprofit investigative journalism center and an independent video production company to create and publish content.
While running WUWM, Dave has been active in leading public radio’s national organizations and affinity groups. He chairs the board of the Radio Research Consortium and led the NPR Board from 2010-2012. He also held board posts for the Station Resource Group, Public Radio in Mid-America and the University Station Alliance.
Dave received the 2018 Madison Hodges Innovator Award for Public Media Advancement, presented by the University Station Alliance to recognize “forward-thinking” media professionals whose leadership made a difference in their communities and in public media as a whole. The award cited Dave’s achievements in improving the station’s local news coverage and convening community dialogues on difficult issues.
How did you come to work in public media?
I remember listening to the radio for the very first All Things Considered. The journalism ATC did was the kind of reporting I wanted to do.
But, when I graduated with my degree, the only available jobs were in commercial radio, so I spent the first years of my career as a reporter for a top-40 station. Later I became an anchor for an all-news radio station. But I kept listening to ATC, and I freelanced some stories for them along the way.
When the commercial station I worked for about to be sold and drop its news format, I heard that WUWM wanted to start a professional news department. I was hired as news director of a two-person department.
A few years later, I became program director, and in 1985 I was named general manager.
What do you consider your single most important accomplishment at WUWM?
When I first joined WUWM as news director, we were a two-person newsroom with a gaggle of student interns. The coverage we produced was pretty unremarkable.
We now have 15 journalists on the team, and in 2009 WUWM was named “Best News Operation of the Year” by the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association. I’m proud that the station has become a go-to-source for radio journalism in Southeastern Wisconsin.
What’s your No. 1 piece of advice or key message for people entering the public media field today?
Be flexible and community focused. The industry will continue to change. In order to be successful, we will have to be less focused on our role as a radio station, and more on creating content that is meaningful to the communities we serve.
What do you wish you knew or understood before becoming a public media executive?
To listen and learn from the best. As someone who came up through the programming ranks, I had lots to learn about fundraising. I sought the advice from some of the best in our industry, as well as from successful fundraisers and CEOs at other nonprofits. They helped me become much more comfortable in that role.
Fundraising has taken up much more of my time than I would have ever predicted.
What are your concerns about the future of public media?
Sometimes we don’t appreciate what we have accomplished and the advantage we have over our competitors.
I’ve been at too many meetings listening to the pessimists who work in our industry. I remember when people on a panel proclaimed that satellite radio would destroy us. I remember a former NPR CEO predicting the end of the radio transmitter. Did you hear that podcasts were going to destroy our audience? Ridiculous. Ask iHeart’s Bob Pittman if he is worried about the future of serving his audiences.
We need to stop worrying about things we can’t control and focus on our unique position. Then, let’s continue to build from our strengths.
Do you think the public media system needs restructuring? If so, how would you do it (if you could)?
For as long as I’ve been in this business, people have said our “system” needs to be restructured. First of all, we aren’t really a “system,” so it will be next to impossible to evoke significant change in the ways our stations are licensed or operate. We all have different owners who want their stations to be successful. The mood for sacrificing for the good of others is low.
I’ve heard managers of smaller stations say that the answer is that NPR gets more major grants from donors and reduces the costs to stations. Yet, I know of managers in larger markets who don’t want NPR to talk to “their” donors.
I wish NPR well in developing its new compact. Any such revision will result in new “haves and have nots.” So, five years from the day that the NPR Board adopts a new plan, there will be a call for new restructuring.
I’m willing to bet that in ten years, our public radio “system” won’t be much different than it is today.
Anything else you want to say as you leave this perch?
I decided to step down from WUWM because I want to take on a number of other projects.
For some time I’ve heard people say that public media is not doing a good job in recruiting and training individuals who will be the next leaders in our industry. One of the projects I am most excited about is a handbook I’m writing to help new managers understand the many things they need to know about managing a public station. It will cover a range of topics — from compliance with FCC regulations to effective management techniques. There will be a companion website and I hope to do some individual coaching.
I want to share what I’ve learned throughout the years.