Goli Sheikholeslami: Building listening habits and audience loyalty on new platforms ‘is critical for all of us’

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© Andrew Popper 2018

After leading a dramatic expansion of Chicago Public Media’s newsroom and revenue over five years, Goli Sheikholeslami is moving to New York City.

Beginning in October, she will take over as CEO of New York Public Radio, one of the most influential executive positions in public broadcasting.

Sheikholeslami

Before joining Chicago Public Media in 2014 — her first job in public radio and as a CEO — Sheikholeslami spent about two decades in leadership roles for news media and digital publishers, including the Washington Post. But she has decided to stick with public radio, she told Current, because she believes it has “the best model to support a healthy, vibrant, dynamic, local newsroom.”

Sheikholeslami spoke with Current about her priorities for NYPR, her approach for building a positive workplace culture and her ideas for positioning its stations and digital properties to withstand competition as audiences move to on-demand and interactive media platforms.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Chicago Public Media was your first public media job. What was it about that experience that attracted you to the CEO opening at NYPR?

I have to say that the past five years at Chicago Public Media have really been the most fulfilling of my 25-year career. When I look and see the work being done at public radio stations all across the country to build vibrant local newsrooms, it’s really the most exciting place you can be in the world of journalism.

Public radio has the best model to support a healthy, vibrant, dynamic, local newsroom. In my time at WBEZ, I think we’ve proven that you can build a growing newsroom and better serve our communities through the public radio model.

Chicago Public Media had the opportunity to acquire Chicagoist as part of the Gothamist deal but didn’t. Gothamist is now part of NYPR, the station you’ll be leading. How does it fit into your plans for digital news at WNYC?

There was another group in Chicago that was interested in that brand, and they were willing to pay more for it than what we were. It wasn’t that we didn’t want the brand — it wasn’t the right time for us. At that point, we were very focused on building out our enterprise desk and growing the newsroom.

I think that Gothamist is a really fantastic brand that has built an engaged and loyal audience. And it does a terrific job covering New York. From what I’ve heard from our peers in L.A., Washington and New York, LAist, DCist and Gothamist are all really resonating with the local readers and communities. So I think Gothamist is a fantastic part of the portfolio.

As you prepare for the CEO position at New York Public Radio, what goals and priorities do you have in mind for your first year on the job?

I don’t presume to know enough to really answer your question completely. But I am looking forward to expanding and extending the very innovative work that is already being done at New York Public Radio.

WNYC was one of the first stations to aggressively get into the world of podcasting and on-demand programming. They recognized that consumers were changing how they wanted to access content, and they have made significant investments in reaching audiences on new platforms. That has resulted in a significant audience in the podcast world for New York Public Radio.

My focus is really going to be on helping us think about how we can better serve audiences and consumers who are changing how they want to consume content and interact with media. It’s really thinking about how we can better connect with them and how we connect with that next generation of news consumer and audio listener to build that habit [of public radio listening].

One of the things that makes public radio so strong is the listening habit that we have built. People have very entrenched ways of listening to public radio, and building that habit on new platforms is critical for all of us.

You described WNYC as an early leader in podcasting. How will you continue to lead in that space as competition increases? What opportunities do you see to build on that success?

That success is really about the quality of your programming. It is about creative and engaging work that serves your audience.

Public radio created this art form of audio storytelling, and no one does it better than our producers. When I think about how to respond to competition, for us it’s really about staying focused on creating quality programming that is engaging and connects with our listeners.

At the end of the day, that is really what is going to succeed. And it is something that you can’t just generate without having the experience and the talent to do it.

At Chicago Public Media, you have focused on building the newsroom and hiring more journalists. Are you looking to make a similar expansion at WNYC?

Honestly, until I get there and have a chance to sit down with the teams and better understand what’s going on, I’m not able to answer that question.

But I can say that I see an opportunity for us to replace what were large local metro newspaper newsrooms. Investing in our newsrooms, in journalists, reporters, editors and producers — that is core to fulfilling our mission.

New York Public Radio staff and management has been working through issues of bullying and harassment that came to public attention around 2017. What have you learned about efforts to improve the workplace culture at NYPR, and how do you plan to build on that?

As a leader, one of your primary responsibilities is to create an environment where people can do their best work, where people feel safe and where people can come forward not only with their ideas, but also their concerns.

Creating a transparent, fair and equitable workplace is the job of the CEO and the leadership of the organization. And workplace culture is really about how we treat each other every day. [It’s important to] set the right tone and the right example.

I really do believe in leading by example, of making sure that we are not tolerating behaviors that we find unacceptable.

How do you personally hold yourself accountable to those ideals of making sure you have a fair and equitable workplace culture? What have you done in the past?

Much of it is making sure that you are well connected to the organization, that you are accessible and available. Equity and inclusion have everything to do with making sure that we have the right performance management process, compensation strategy and talent assessment and development processes.

There are lots of nuts and bolts of making sure that when people come to the organization they are paid fairly and treated fairly and that they have the opportunity to grow and expand within the organization. And by making sure that you are accessible and connected to the broader organization, you know when things are going right, and you know when they’re not.

Looking back on your time at Chicago Public Media, what do you see as your most significant achievement?

Expanding our newsroom and our content team.

We have doubled the size of our newsroom. We have created a podcast team and unit where one didn’t exist. We’re in the process of launching a new, two-hour local daily talk show hosted by the very talented Jen White. We have significantly increased the funding that comes into the organization and invested that into expanding our community service through our journalism and programming.

In retrospect, what do you wish you would have known or understood before you became a chief executive in public media?

This was my first job as the CEO. For me, it was also a learning process in terms of being the one who is ultimately accountable.

I would have liked to have known how critical it is to stay focused on the most important priorities of the organization. In my time here, I’ve learned that as the CEO you get pulled in many different directions. It’s important to be steadfast and focused about driving the organization forward from a strategic perspective and from a cultural perspective. Those two things need to always be top of mind.

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