Four station leaders share how they’re setting priorities after taking the reins

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Judith Smelser: S.T. Cardinal, The Community Paper; Tina Pamintuan: August Jennewein, University of Missouri-St. Louis

Facing the challenges of assuming leadership of a public broadcasting station in today’s media environment is difficult enough on its own. Add to that inflation, a pandemic, and the hard work needed to make real progress in diversity, equity and inclusion, both internally and with audiences.

Current is looking at how stations’ executive ranks are evolving as a founding generation of leaders makes way for the next innovators. As part of this coverage, we interviewed four station GMs and CEOs who have stepped into their roles within the past two years. They told us about how they’re seeking to build teams, improve workplace culture and strengthen community service. These interviews have been edited and condensed for length and clarity. 

Judith Smelser

GM, WMFE, Orlando, Fla.

Started in role: February 2022 (after serving on an interim basis since September 2021)

Mike Janssen, Current: In the press release that announced your hiring, you said that you had never aspired to lead a station. Why weren’t you focused on that?

Judith Smelser: I’m a journalist, and I still think of myself as a journalist.  I’ve also realized that I had an idea of what a GM looks like, and it doesn’t look like me. It looked like an older man in a fancy suit. I had that idea even though I know and have worked with some very talented women who lead stations. Because I hadn’t worked for any of them when I worked at stations, that just wasn’t what I thought of as a GM.

I still think of myself as younger, even though I know really I’m middle-aged, and I’m not a slick, fancy person. I’m not a corporate person. All of that made it difficult for me to see myself in the role. But as I started thinking about it and getting into it, and as people were very encouraging, the more it made sense and the more I felt like this was something I needed to do for my station.

Current: At the Public Radio Super-Regional conference in April, I heard you talk about how you’re changing WMFE’s management structure. Rather than have one head of content, you plan to have four roles assigned to a content team. What are those roles?

Smelser: The roles are news director, digital director, director of audio content and director of community collaboration. Three of those four roles are new. Obviously, we had a news director. The digital director is an internal promotion, essentially from a digital manager–type position. And the audio content director is what I like to call a mashup of a traditional program director with an audio innovations–type of position.

We just posted the community collaborations director job a couple of weeks ago, and it’s generating so much buzz in the community. I’m really excited about it. It’s a recast of a position that had been a marketing and communications manager, and it had lived in the development department. I felt it was important to move that position into content and also to reframe it a little bit. My whole team wants to switch to a situation where we are doing journalism that’s a two-way street, that’s a conversation as opposed to just talking at the audience. We’ve been talking about that in public media for a long time. But I know that if it’s not somebody’s job, it’s unlikely to happen.

Current: You’re also working on a mission refresh for the station. What does that involve?

Smelser: We have a new mission statement and supporting language. My two main goals were to put a stake in the ground for journalism and to say that our focus is journalism and fact-based content, and to make clear that we are here to empower our central Florida community with that journalism and fact-based content. Central Florida wasn’t mentioned by name in our mission statement, and I felt it was important that we did that.

Another thing that came out of that mission conversation was an identification of four problems that we aim to address: misinformation/disinformation; the shrinking journalism infrastructure, otherwise known as the crisis in local news; division in society; and uncertainty. Everybody I show this mission language to gravitates towards that section. It’s very actionable, and that’s what I wanted.

Current: Many public media leaders have been working to improve diversity, equity and inclusion within their stations and their audience service. How are you approaching that work in your new role?

Smelser: This director of community collaboration [role] is going to be a big game-changer when it comes to this. The job description says the position is focused on building and nurturing genuine connections between WMFE and the diverse community it serves, to further the goal of creating and distributing content for and with those communities. A big part of their job [will be] making sure we are reaching out and including and reflecting those communities that we haven’t traditionally served as well.

“My whole team wants to switch to a situation where we are doing journalism that’s a two-way street, that’s a conversation as opposed to just talking at the audience. We’ve been talking about that in public media for a long time. But I know that if it’s not somebody’s job, it’s unlikely to happen.”

A specific example of something that we have done over the past year: We had a weekly economic analysis segment that’s been running forever, since before I worked here the first time. It was popular, and it was good. But we revamped it because we felt like we needed to bring in more diverse voices. So instead of the same economic analyst every time — who was great — it’s a rotating group of diverse people that are coming into that segment.

One of my first priorities when I got here was to finally do a compensation study. So we did a compensation pay equity study by an independent third party, and then we did pay adjustments at the beginning of this year. We brought everybody up to 88.5% of their target salary. The idea is, with my board’s support, hopefully we will go the rest of the way this next fiscal year.

Current: Are you still finding time to keep up your wine blog?

Smelser: No. I have not posted on the wine blog in quite some time. Every now and then I post on Instagram when I have a glass that I like. But my wine writing has, I’m afraid, taken quite a back seat to this.

Although, just last weekend we had the annual meeting for Florida Public Media, the umbrella organization for all of our public media stations here in Florida. They did a little quiz where they asked for fun and unusual facts about all the GMs. That was mine, so everybody got to hear about my wine blog and my wine certification.

Tina Pamintuan

CEO, St. Louis Public Radio

Started in role: December 2021

Karen Everhart, Current: When you accepted the CEO job at St. Louis Public Radio, you said you wanted the station to take “bold steps to meaningfully connect with new and existing audiences across perceived and real differences.” What paths do you see to do that?

Tina Pamintuan: We have this real opportunity with community engagement, particularly with our public affairs show. They’re taking a hiatus from being on the air to really dig deep and see how they can meet our diverse audiences in St. Louis and engage with them.

When I think about audience, I think about not just people who are listening now, but people who we could be reaching. We have to be more inclusive in terms of inviting more people in. I see us doing that right now in our public affairs space and in the ways in which we are trying to use design thinking.

Current: In 2020, journalists of color spoke out publicly about the racism they’d experienced at STLPR, and what they said triggered the leadership change that led to your hiring last year. How would you characterize the workplace climate now?

Pamintuan: It’s a workplace that is still asking questions and is very ready to take on the challenges of working together to create a more equitable workplace. Does that mean that we agree on every single issue? It absolutely doesn’t.

It does mean that we now have forums that are more responsive. We have biweekly staff meetings, and we have a DEI committee that was created before I came on board.

When I came on in December, we were trying to figure out the committee’s mission. I’ve seen real leadership in the individuals who are on that committee. I feel there is more engagement from staff and that we’re working on this together.

When I was being interviewed for the job, I saw a staff and a workplace that had gone through quite a lot. But I also felt that they were deeply ready to do the work. That meant a lot to me, because when people are ready, there can be a lot of growth in a short time.

Current: What things have you have learned in your first months in the job that changed your priorities or approach?

Pamintuan: It’s made me think a lot about challenges at the station and in public media overall. Like much of journalism, public media is recognizing where it has strayed in terms of equity, particularly racial equity, but also inequities based on sexual orientation, identity, generation and physical abilities.

STLPR had a very public racial reckoning in the summer of 2020. But we weren’t the only station. It’s hard for those of us who’ve been in public media for a long time to see that, even though some of us may have been experiencing it, too.

Since 2020 we’ve been part of a cohort of stations that is learning together. In the leadership groups that I’m in, it is a constant topic of conversation. It’s important for us to feel this kind of siblinghood of stations who are all trying to do better.

… From where I stand, it feels like we have a bright future because there’s that deep recognition from our staff and leadership team that we’re in it together. We have to exhibit generosity with each other to live out the equity goals that we all deeply desire.

Current: Another thing that you talked about after accepting the job was working to create possibility and belonging across the industry, so that staff feel supported to do their best work and can grow at every stage of their careers. You came into the public radio system as an intern and worked in a variety of roles, including in education. Now you serve on the NPR board. From your perspective, what changes need to happen at STLPR and across public radio for people to find that sense of achievement and career growth?

Pamintuan: I’ve been able to find people who support me, who’ve taught me a lot. I started as an intern and never thought that I would lead a public media station. Along the way, I had people whispering in my ear, “Is this something you might want to do?”

“From where I stand, it feels like we have a bright future because there’s that deep recognition from our staff and leadership team that we’re in it together.”

The experience of teaching and mentoring gave me a lens on how to be a leader. It’s so easy in our workplaces to talk yourself out of possibilities and things you can do. I worked at a public university, the City University of New York, where I started and led their audio journalism program for several years. My students were from all different backgrounds. That experience served me well. There’s something powerful about telling someone you recognize their skills — you can see it whether or not they can.

Current: When you look back over your career, what experience best prepared you for leadership?

Pamintuan: Practicing empathy and compassion are so important. Being able to emotionally navigate a space, to see things from other people’s perspectives and to have compassion — and not just for your staff, but also your audience and the audience you don’t have. It really allows you to see the totality of an organization and its possibilities.

That doesn’t mean that there aren’t tough decisions. It’s being able to analyze a business situation while empathically and emotionally understanding the stakeholders and the people involved. Bringing those two together is something I’ve been working on and see as one of my strengths. It came through the process of having hard conversations as a leader where people challenged my way of thinking, and I had to respond in an open way.

Carla McCabe

CEO, WVIA, Pittston, Pa.

Started in role: June 2020

Julian Wyllie, Current: How did the pandemic affect your transition into your job?

Carla McCabe: I had this plan that I was going to have a lot of time to really invest with staff one-on-one. I thought that was going to be a really important start for me. … It was a challenge to really deliver on that. It probably took three months for me to meet each individual in person.

Current: How has your staffing changed since the pandemic?

McCabe: An events coordinator who started before COVID … I moved her into a new social media role. I’ve also added a multimedia producer and an HR director who works 20 hours a week. And I combined the CFO and general counsel roles, which was a very proud moment to be able to get someone with both skills.

I’ve just set up a news department with a news director, three full-time journalists and a freelance pool. It was a really important move for me to identify some other talented freelance reporters that could contribute stories from other parts of our service area.

Current: You mentioned the struggle of getting to know the staff during the pandemic. How did you handle getting to know your team?

McCabe: We had to have more frequent meetings and all staff meetings. We didn’t have those in person initially. I hired an organization called Work Wisdom to work on authentic communication and to help me understand the internal communication style as it stood. That was an opportunity for us to do workshops and understand different personalities, and for staff to know my personality and expectations.

From the beginning, I set out to ensure that the team understood that I’m an open communicator, that I can sometimes be direct, but in a way that is respectful. I learned over the years that employees’ biggest frustration is feeling that they’re not heard. I overcommunicate to ensure that that’s not the case.

Current: Were there goals from your first months on the job that you couldn’t accomplish?

McCabe: The hardest parts were board and staff engagement, and getting to know community leaders and supporters of the station. The pandemic … really slowed down the opportunity for me to fully understand the community.

I’m in a much better place now. I went to just about every event that I could go to. I’m on a local board for a university. I just joined the Scranton Chamber Board, and I’m on an advisory panel for the Institute for Public Policy and Economic Development. I’ve tried to identify opportunities in different parts of the region to build relationships with business leaders and existing donors — and to attract potentially new supporters. I’ve had to push myself a lot out of my comfort zone.

Current: Prior to becoming CEO at WVIA, you were COO of Kansas City PBS. Before that you worked for the BBC and for an independent production company in the U.K. How did those earlier experiences move you toward your CEO job at WVIA?

McCabe: I previously worked with Kliff Kuehl of Kansas City PBS, a CEO who’s very innovative and a forward-thinker. He challenged me on a daily basis. I loved the position, and I genuinely wasn’t thinking about moving. But I have a mentor, Deanna Mackey from Public Media Women in Leadership, who’s now GM of KPBS in San Diego. She told me that it’s worth taking calls from recruiters. She encouraged me when this job came up.

“In the back of my mind, I always wanted to work in America. I truly believe that there’s more opportunity here, and there has been more opportunity for me.”

Kliff also encouraged me. He also gave me the opportunity to represent him, for example, at the Public Television Major Market Group, and have that opportunity to meet with other leaders and get that exposure and experience. I gained a lot of confidence. I thought “Maybe one day,” but I didn’t think that day was going to be as quick as it was.

Current: When you were working internationally as a producer, did you have a long-term career goal to become a CEO of a station?

McCabe: Yes, I thought it would take a lot longer for me to prove myself. I did know that I wanted to lead a station, set my own vision and create my own culture within an organization. … At Tern Television, I worked on a very hard-hitting documentary [Breaking the Silence] about suicide. After producing that, I felt I could never produce anything as good. It made me rethink working as a producer long-term and decide … I wanted to move in a different direction overseas to contribute to the creative part by attracting talent, building a team and working on budgets.

In the back of my mind, I always wanted to work in America. I truly believe that there’s more opportunity here, and there has been more opportunity for me. The Kansas City station was making new investments and thinking differently as an organization. That’s what truly excited me.

Current: When it comes to leadership growth, what are the things you want to get better at?

McCabe: I want to enhance the digital side more. I read about the media landscape as a whole right now, but it’s so overwhelming and there’s so many platforms that are competing, like TikTok. I want to better understand the pros and cons for a station like ours with limited resources. I am thinking about how we position ourselves as a station that is much more than a PBS and NPR station. How do we tap into those younger demographics that I know all stations are trying to attract?

Sean Plater

GM, WHUT, Washington, D.C.  

Started in role: July 2021 (after serving on interim basis)

Tyler Falk, Current: What are your priorities for WHUT?

Plater: The big priority for me is original content creation, making sure that we’re meeting the needs of the audience. We’re licensed to serve here in Washington, D.C., and making sure that the programming aired on WHUT is reflective of that community, that we’re addressing the issues that really matter to folks and that we’re really using WHUT to be almost like a community center. … Homelessness, gun violence, whatever the issue is, that we’re using our platforms to really talk about these issues and address them as a full community. … We’ve just made some new hires over the last few months to align ourselves in that way, to be able to start bringing more content through to the area in that model and in that mission.

Current: What are some of the challenges you’re facing?

Plater: Everybody’s facing challenges around how people watch our stations. We’re going away from “tonight at 9, tonight at 10” to more of a “whenever I feel like it” type of viewing experience. Being able to meet those demands and making sure that content is up on these platforms, and that when I get a new TV that I understand that there’s a PBS app that I can go to and connect with my local station.

The other piece is pledge. Everybody acknowledges … seeing a decrease in some ways. So we have to continue to innovate in that space. Pledge the way it’s been … just won’t continue to work like that. If people are viewing television in different ways, you just can’t depend on that model as being the only avenue for them to experience your brand. How [do you] make an ask on YouTube or even on Facebook? They’re not going to sit with it for 10 minutes, but it may be a quick ask that talks about the work we’re doing as a station. But it’s just a platform we’ve never really explored.

Current: You mentioned vacancies. Are you having challenges around hiring?

Plater: Yeah, I think everybody is at this point. But at the same time, I’ve had some really good hires over the last few months that I’m really excited about. … Part of my management philosophy is, hire a great team with people that are good at what they do. And then my job is to give them the tools to do it. We’ve got some great team members. I think we’re making some progress. But it’s tough in this environment.

“We’re excited about touching on issues that are not just what everybody else is doing but taking different approaches.”

I’ve actually just hired a new director of content. She’s on her fourth week right now. … We’re working on a four-part series for October that focuses on different aspects of domestic violence for Domestic Violence Awareness Month. We’re excited about touching on issues that are not just what everybody else is doing but taking different approaches. We also rolled out a new music show, DMV The Beat. That was in June for Black Music [Appreciation] Month, four episodes celebrating different artists across Washington, D.C.

Current: You’re in a unique situation where you’re running both the public TV station but also a commercial radio station owned by licensee Howard University, WHUR. What challenges do you face with that setup?

Plater: There’s a lot more regulation on the public side with PBS than with commercial radio, so really understanding the do’s and don’ts and nuances of public television versus commercial radio. But there’s a lot of crossover, and we’re exploring ways we can put things together. The radio station has built a legacy on the community. It’s the number one music station in Washington, D.C. So it’s got a huge reach and a loyal audience.

Current: Looking over your career, what experience do you think best prepared you for leadership?

Plater: My career really has been coming up through the ranks through what I consider more of the operations side of the house. I came out of production and engineering and was actually physically doing the work. Promotions was my first job. … I worked in almost every department within the station. So I understand how they connect to each other, why they need each other and the conversations that should be taking place.

Correction: An earlier version of this article provided the incorrect date for when Tina Pamintuan started as CEO of St. Louis Public Radio. She began in the job in December 2021, not August 2021.

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