For leaders of small radio stations, the job is varied and so are the challenges

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WTJU GM Nathan Moore outside the studios of the station in Charlottesville, Va

For managers of public and community radio stations that are the smallest in the system, their jobs are anything but. 

To lead these stations, managers need to have a wide range of skills and knowledge in areas such as financial management, live hosting and engineering. Most important of all, they need to be a people person — the public face of the organization, whose willingness to engage with the community includes talking with listeners at the grocery store or a restaurant.  

The challenges they face include a constant need for funding, maintaining the capacity to get everything done and the isolation that can develop. 

At the most successfully run small stations, “there’s all kinds of great strategies and tactics, and there’s definitely a resource piece,” said Sally Kane, CEO of the National Federation of Community Broadcasters. “But every single one of them that would shine brightly had a great leader. Nobody really likes to say that because, especially in community radio, it’s supposed to be all about the volunteers and it’s all people power, et cetera. But someone’s got to run the show and inspire people to care about the organization.”

Face of the station

Amanda Eichstaedt doesn’t go to the grocery store when she’s in a bad mood.

Shortly after she became GM of community radio station KWMR in Point Reyes Station, Calif., Eichstaedt broke that rule and went into the grocery store with a scowl on her face. A donor wanted to know why she was mad at them, Eichstaedt recalled.

Eichstaedt

“I’m like, ‘No, I was just having a really bad day,'” she said. “‘It has nothing to do with you at all. I didn’t even see you.’”

As the leader of a small station, “you’re not an elected official, you’re not a movie star or anything like that, but you’re basically a public figure,” she said. It’s important to understand that you’re “just another steward” of this community resource. But as GM, your role is to be the “head steward and be accountable to the board, to the community,” Eichstaedt said. “And that’s the way I really look at the job.”

People and communication abilities are two of the top skills needed in a leader of any station, according to Nathan Moore, GM at WTJU in Charlottesville, Va. But for managers whose  stations serve small and rural communities, it’s especially important, he said. Relationships with listeners and supporters “are really personal, and we’re super-accessible.” 

A few weeks ago, Moore was visiting the local farmers market, and someone he didn’t know greeted him with “Hey, Nathan, how’s it going?” He turned out to be a listener. 

“I’m not sure who I was talking to, but he asked about WTJU and I was glad to … hear about why he liked jazz shows so much,” Moore said.

“My kids actually think I know everybody,” he said. 

Being a public radio manager in a small community also means responding to feedback from people who aren’t so appreciative. KACU, an NPR station in Abilene, Texas, is in a political “red zone,” said former GM Nathan Gibbs. He said he had to “defend the concept” of public radio “more often than probably other places.”

Stations in larger communities have more leeway to respond to email complaints with a generic autoreply along the lines of “Thank you for your input. We appreciate your concern,” Gibbs said. “But at smaller stations, you’re going to see these people when you go out to eat. So you do have to talk to people.” 

“If you’re not friendly, it doesn’t work real well,” he said. “… You need to be able to shake hands, remember a name, ask somebody about how their kids are doing.”

Skills for the job

Basic management and leadership skills are also essential, Gibbs said. That includes the ability to listen to your staff, empower them to do good work and act as a mentor. 

It’s important for staff to feel respected and that “their ideas can get picked up, that the manager … can actually say, ‘You know what, that’s a really good idea, let’s do that,’” he said. 

Gibbs, who previously worked at KPBS in San Diego in various positions, including interactive product specialist, said it’s important for GMs of small stations to be willing to learn new skills. 

WTJU’s Moore agrees. When he became manager of the University of Virginia’s community radio station, he didn’t know much about maintaining transmitters, he said. He quickly realized that he needed to learn. WTJU’s contract engineer is good but isn’t always available, he said. 

He now knows enough to pitch in on some engineering jobs. With the help of a volunteer, Moore installed a new backup studio transmitter link at the station. “I saw there was a need … and I figured if we can fix some of our own stuff, all the better,” he said.

Moore believes that being a “generalist” is a helpful quality for small station GMs because their duties are so varied. “If I had the same tasks all day long, I would not thrive,” he said. “Being in a place like this, I really enjoy the fact that I’m soldering and then doing spreadsheets and then doing audio production and then teaching a class. And that’s all before lunch.” 

It’s especially important to have a range of skills because small stations have fewer employees. A lot of work can fall to station leaders.

Early in the pandemic, KWMR’s Eichstaedt was the only person who went into the station for 15 weeks. At one point, the station was in a zone affected by mandatory power outages, which meant she had to arrive at the studio by 7 a.m. to turn on the generator. She would stick around to engineer shows and play music for the hosts who weren’t able to come in the station. She also hosted her own shows. At night she returned to turn off the generator and power down the station. 

GMs at larger stations aren’t necessarily expected to “engineer your own show and then work hand in hand with the bookkeeper with all the finance stuff, and then go to an event and produce a concert,” she said. “It’s a really wide variety of things that you get to do.”

Additionally, she said it’s important for small station leaders to have a “sense for budgets, a sense for finance.” 

And they also have to know their communities. “You have to respect the community, even if you don’t agree with them necessarily all the time,” she said. 

The ‘big stressor’

Fundraising and development is one of the biggest ongoing challenges faced by small station GMs. 

NFCB’s Kane said it’s especially difficult at rural stations, which make up 65% of NFCB’s membership.  

CPB-qualified stations that serve rural areas receive additional support through the Community Service Grant program, and the funds provide at least 25% of revenues for more than half of rural grantees, according to CPB.   

Kane

“The model in public media has always been that if you need more money, get more members, find more underwriters,” Kane said. “How are you going to do that when you have more cows than people in a county? How are you going to do that on a reservation?”

Gibbs agreed. “The local community can’t give you as much money as in other communities.” he said. “So budgeting is always one of the big stressors.”

“You can’t launch a new investigative podcast,” he said. “There just isn’t time for any of that, there’s no money for any of that. So you really tend to just buckle down and focus on the core nitty-gritty of running the station right, making sure everything’s getting on, that you’ve got some local reporting happening.”

At some larger stations, CEOs and GMs focus on cultivating major donors, Kane said. “But if you’re running a small station, you’re talking to everybody on your way to the post office … and you can’t really get out of that. You have to have good relationship-building skills in the small station as the lead executive.”

Eichstaedt also sees fundraising as a constant challenge. KWMR’s recent efforts around crowdfunding during pledge drives have “made a huge difference,” she said. 

KWMR is located in an exurban community outside of San Francisco, where the high cost of living adds to the financial pressure. 

Her family wouldn’t be able to move to the area and find housing on the salaries from their current jobs, she said. “We’re just lucky we’ve been here long enough to be here,” she said. “And that’s the case for a lot of people.”

KWMR has been working on succession planning for staffers who are preparing to retire, but recruitment is tricky for a station with an annual budget of about $400,000 located in a high–cost-of-living area. Eichstaedt and her colleagues have to consider, “How do we be sustainable in an area where it’s so impossible to find a place to live because it’s so expensive?” she said. 

‘It can be really lonely’

Beyond the financial challenges of running small stations, it can be hard to do everything that needs to be done, Moore said. His to-do list includes updating WTJU’s volunteer handbook — a task he wanted to complete three years ago. “It’s just hard to get to it all,” he said. 

And with limited staffing, there’s only so many jobs you can delegate. That sense of so much to do and few people to turn to can lead to feelings of isolation. 

“It can be really lonely to be a manager of one of these small stations because you have to make certain decisions that really are just yours to make,” Moore said. “You’re still the boss, even if you’re working with your coworkers like colleagues.”

Gibbs

Looking back on his early days at KACU, Gibbs said, having “some form of mentorship from another general manager from another station would have really been helpful. At the time, I didn’t really have much of that.”

Building relationships with GMs of other small stations can be tricky because it’s expensive to attend conferences, he said. There aren’t enough scholarships to go around. 

“What it ends up perpetuating is this isolation,” Gibbs said. He recalled attending a conference and having a conversation with a member of the NPR board who said to him, “What a pleasure to talk to a small station manager that isn’t crazy.” 

But he feels empathy for managers who “end up looking crazy” at industry gatherings. “When you’re isolated from the world around you a little bit, you’re in a small, rural community, you don’t get to go and network all the time … you have a lot of pent-up frustration when you finally get to go to the meeting.”

One thought on “For leaders of small radio stations, the job is varied and so are the challenges

  1. Yeesh. Low pay, high stress, requiring knowledge and skills across six to eight completely different industries…most of which tend to require mutually-exclusive personality types to do well? Where do I sign up?

    Oh wait, I did sign up and it was awful. That’s why I went back to being an engineer.

    No wonder so many stations are finding it impossible to attract and retain good talent at the GM level. Can’t keep this up forever, folks.

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