Neenah Ellis

Neenah Ellis, siiting on a railroad track

Intro from Jay Allison: When we heard that Neenah Ellis was making the move from her long career as a national producer to become a station manager, we asked her to keep some notes to put up on Transom. She's been on the job at WYSO in Ohio now for two years and has written her manifesto, Seven Good Things About Working at a Small Local Station.Transom lives in the same building as our local radio station and we know the rewards and difficulties of deciding just what "public service" means. Neenah helps with that definition, bringing in elements like variety, serendipity, teamwork.The future of each local public radio station is in that station's hands. Any station that relies primarily on a national feed is wasting resources and is subject to obsolescence. Localness is the only value we bring that can't be created somewhere else. Neenah's transition from national to local is an important one; come read about it.

Download “Working At A Small Local Station” Manifesto (PDF)

Seven Good Things About Working At A Small Local Station

If you are considering as a career making radio stories as a producer or reporter, there are three basic paths you can take: work for a network program, be an independent producer and sell your work to others – or work at a station. I’ve done all three and right now I’m pretty high on working at a station.

Neenah Ellis at WYSO
Neenah Ellis at WYSO

Here’s my frame of reference: I work at WYSO in Yellow Springs, Ohio a town of 3,500 people. We’re 20 miles from Dayton and we have a million people in our coverage area, so we have a large enough listener base to support a full-time staff of nine with four part-timers and more than 20 weekly volunteers. WYSO is licensed to Antioch University. I’ve been the general manager for two years.

My parents owned a small commercial station in Valparaiso, Indiana when I was growing up. I worked in the news department in high school and then studied journalism in Iowa.

My first public radio job was at WAMU in DC, and nine months later I became a staff producer at NPR. I stayed there about ten years and then spent the next twenty years as an independent producer selling most of my work to NPR. I married Noah Adams, the host of All Things Considered back then, and we pretty much lived and breathed the business and art of making radio stories for NPR but we both always hoped to get out of DC and go to a small town one day. We landed in Yellow Springs – he’s still working for NPR. So far, so good.

These are my seven best reasons why you might want to consider working at a small, local, station, too.

One: Connection with the Community.

The number one reason, and the most powerful one for me, is the connection with the community.

WYSO has deep roots. It started as a student station in 1958 at Antioch College and many of those former students and early listeners are still loyal members. They like the network programs but they insist on local ones, too. They volunteer happily for whatever needs doing. They give feedback – a lot of it. We always know where we stand with them.

Three Ellis kids in front of their parents' radio station, 1965, just after the station went on the air. Neenah, age 11, in the middle. Neenah's brother, Leigh (on the right) runs the station now.
Three Ellis kids in front of their parents’ radio station, 1965, just after the station went on the air. Neenah, age 11, in the middle. Neenah’s brother, Leigh (on the right) runs the station now.

During our fund drives many of them answer phones and in the quiet times, we have great conversations. They talk about their driveway moments and the things that made them so mad they nearly drove off the road. We hear about their kids, their jobs and their wide variety of political opinions. Viet Nam veterans and Peace Corps alums sit side by side. Policemen and retired professors. Business owners and students and Odd Fellows. I hear what they like about the station and what they don’t.

Radio is illusory but these conversations make my job tangible and rewarding.

During my first week at WYSO a soft-spoken gentleman came to my office and told me that his grandson needed a bone marrow transplant. Could we publicize that? (We had no mechanism in place to get community events and needs publicized. We do now.)

A grandmother from the senior center called and wanted us to do an interview about potential cuts in social services.

A former WYSO staff member works at a food bank now. She asked me – “Can WYSO please interview someone during the holiday season to get the word out about all the hunger in Dayton?”

When I worked at NPR – admittedly before listeners could fire off e-mails – I never felt this connected to listeners. They were somewhere out there but I only met them when I traveled to cover stories. There were great rewards at NPR, but they were not about being closely connected to a community.

Two: Variety.

Secondly, and I know this is not for everyone, I love the variety of the work at a small station. Some days I edit news stories, on others I pull my hair out working on budgets. During fund drives I’m on the air asking for money and I answer phones, too. I write grants, shovel snow, give studio tours, shake hands at festivals and emcee events. We have no news director or program director so I brainstorm like crazy with staff to plot the direction of our coverage.

Everyone at WYSO does many things. Our webmaster, Juliet Fromholt, is also the deputy operations director, so she can program the automation, take feeds from the network and do all those other tasks that require technical expertise – plus she’s a volunteer music host and features live, local bands every week, which she books and engineers and produces for on-line distribution. Until recently she was a reporter, too.

At NPR, I did pretty much the same work for ten years, hardly ever straying from my job description.

Three: Teamwork.

Neenah Ellis in 1981 working as a production assistant at All Things Considered
Neenah Ellis in 1981 working as a production assistant at All Things Considered

That gets me to teamwork. I worked for All Things Considered throughout the 1980s and we were a strong unit, especially in a news crisis. That was one of the best things about working there.

– For this spring’s fund drive – in the midst of a terrible local economy and pending cuts from the state and from Congress – we conducted an on-air campaign that surpassed our goal by 50 thousand dollars.

– Last December we deployed our news staff, interns and volunteers and spent 12 hours at the local post office to create a feature program about how the p.o. acts as a local hub for stories and history.

– We worked with the local public television station on a reporting project called “Facing the Mortgage Crisis” that leveraged all our resources to create more programming and useful information on a single subject than we ever could have managed on our own.

Four: Community Service.

If you have a need, the urge for community service, you can fulfill it at a public radio station. At WYSO, we have local news, twelve different local music programs, a book program, a public affairs program, a resident poet, a nature commentator, a weekly politics module, a film program and a quiz show. Over the years hundreds of programs have come and gone and we are developing new ones, too.

Five: Creative Outlet.

Need a creative outlet? This winter we started a free, monthly, radio production-training course. It will meet for five months. Ira Glass is coming in May and the trainees will have a master class with him before we send them into neighborhoods to collect stories.

One of our radio production trainees has begun an oral history project, collaborating with three other community groups. WYSO provides the meeting space, the recording gear and the archival storage.

Another one of our trainees is beginning a radio project in the Dayton city schools – based on our course and using our trainer, Salt alum Sarah Buckingham. His goal is to create something in Dayton like Youth Radio or Radio Rookies. He’s got a theater background and always loved public radio. He tried to get an internship at one of the big stations in Boston, but without radio experience, they turned him down.

Last year, StoryCorps spent a month in Dayton. When they left, they gave us 25 hours of local interviews for our use. All of them were edited for air by volunteers. I have a proposal on my desk now to begin a StoryCorps-like project of our own.

Six: Serendipity.

After the 2009 WYSO fund drive; Neenah Ellis on the left with WYSO's All Things Considered host, Emily McCord
After the 2009 WYSO fund drive. Neenah Ellis on the left with WYSO’s All Things Considered host, Emily McCord.

How many reasons is that – five? Number six is serendipity. We always say that so much can happen if we can just connect the dots. There are amazing coincidences all the time. We’ll meet someone with a great story to tell and then someone shows up who wants to tell it. Or a volunteer appears who wants to be on the air and after six months, one day in a weather emergency, she gets her chance – and she’s great.

Seven: Local means local.

Number seven is a plug for Yellow Springs in particular. I have gone a week at a time without getting in a car. In good weather, I can ride my bike to work and then walk to town for lunch. We’ve had a doe and her twin fawns visit our parking lot. Our town has a movie theater and a local newspaper. The New York Times and Wall Street Journal are on my porch at 4:30 am. There is more to do than you might believe and people here who have traveled all over the world. But if you need anonymity, forget it.

Oh, alright. The Downside.

There are difficulties to working at a station. It’s far from perfect. Here are a few.

  • The work never ends and the resources are always limited. We don’t have enough staff and we can’t pay them well.
  • We’re in the damp basement of an empty office building with plastic covering drafty windows. Last summer we had a serious mold outbreak. (There are plans to move us, though.)
  • With a high profile in a small community, you have to have a thick skin. When listeners complain, there is no firewall between them and us. I get their angry voice mail messages and when I call them back they yell at me in person. And it’s not just the general manager who gets it. Listeners call the studio and talk to whomever is on the air. People might see one of us in downtown and let loose a complaint. I even get it in yoga class. If management makes bad decisions, the whole staff is vulnerable and that can be hard. At NPR, I wasn’t in touch with the listeners much, but I didn’t have to take their complaints, either.
  • Technical problems can derail the best programming efforts. WYSO had a lightning strike once and the manager spent months and months and thousands of dollars to fix the damage. In Yellow Springs, the electrical grid is fragile. In the early summer when there’s a lot of wind and lightning, we can go off the air many times a week. Dead air in a radio station is like working in an emergency room when the patient stops breathing: code blue – everyone runs down the hall to see what needs fixing. This winter during a two-day ice storm, Jerry Kenney, our Morning Edition host, slept on the couch at the station. There was no internet connection in the air studio so he couldn’t get traffic and weather reports – and no local phone service, either. Cell phone coverage in our basement is spotty at best. The low point was when we called the fire department because the generator belched a cloud of diesel smoke into the ventilation system and we thought the station was on fire. At NPR, my biggest technical problem was running out of splicing tape. The engineering staff worried about those issues and they were great at it.

It’s challenging to keep from burning out in this atmosphere: to focus on the positive, to adhere to the mission and the vision, to remember the legacy and the great need in the community for information and inspiration. A consultant told me recently that most people who run non-profits never run a second one. I nodded.

Still…

Frustrations aside, I’m glad to reach a point in my career where I know a little bit about every aspect of running a station but there are days when I wish I was 25 again, walking into a public radio station for the first time. I did that once, drove across the country after I graduated from college, stopping at radio stations along the way, wondering every time if this was the one where someone would give me a chance. I don’t know how many places I stopped. I do remember these: KSJN in St. Paul, where Garrison Keillor was the morning host, a one-room radio station on the Flathead Indian reservation in Montana, fifty thousand watt KING in Seattle, and legendary community stations KBOO in Portland and KPOO of San Francisco.

Every place I went someone gave me a tour and looked at my very, very short resume but no one offered me a job so I went back home to work at my parents station and plot my course from there. Soon, I went to DC where someone did give me a chance: first at WAMU and then at NPR.

One of the things I love most about WYSO is the sense of possibility. People show up regularly – like I did once – wanting a chance to make radio and for more than fifty years, it’s been a place where someone said yes. The list of folks who got a start here: Jo Anne Wallace of KQED was the first professional manager, NPR reporters Greg Allen and John McChesney were here, film audio engineers Kim Aubrey and Randy Thom, community media activists Nan Rubin and Carol Pierson, documentary filmmakers Julia Reichert and Jim Klein. The list is long and impressive.

Last year I met Ed Richard, one of the three students who had the remarkable vision to start WYSO in 1958. He’s a Broadway producer now. I gave him a tour of the station, interviewed him for our archives, introduced him to the staff. He was happy and proud to see WYSO healthy and thriving.

I like to imagine that when I’m nearly 80 years old, I’ll come back to WYSO and find it thriving then, too.

And maybe you’ll be running it.

Neenah Ellis

About
Neenah Ellis

Neenah Ellis has been in radio all her life, at her family’s radio station in Indiana, at WAMU and NPR in Washington, as a show producer for MPR, an independent correspondent and now as the general manager of public radio station WYSO in Yellow Springs, Ohio. For NPR she traveled all over the world, with wide-open ears.  She is the recipient of an Alfred I. Dupont-Columbia University Award and three Peabodys. Her Morning Edition series about centenarians resulted in a best-selling book: If I Live to be 100 which as been published in five languages, selling more than 100,000 copies. “The One-Room School in the Twenty-First Century” aired on NPR and PRX. She was an interviewer on a fifteen-year long oral history project at the United State Holocaust Memorial Museum and a founding member of the DC listening group HEAR NOW. She is a long-time member of AIR and remembers going to the first Third Coast International Audio Festival in Chicago. At WYSO she’s guided the small but mighty staff to numerous reporting awards, collaborated with many local non-profits to bring into being an innovative training project called “Community Voices,” helped launch locally-produced programs and modules and took part in the creation of an archive to house WYSO’s significant audio collection. She’s married to Noah Adams and lives in Ohio but considers the public radio community home and feels lucky to have known so many creative and generous people over such a long time. She’s never done anything but work in radio but just started teaching yoga to have something to fall back on in case she lives to be 100.

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  • Steve Robinson

    4.28.11

    Reply
    GREAT ARTICLE

    Neenah: This is such a great piece! Having worked at small, medium and large stations I resonated with all of it. I’m now managing a station in a large market (Chicago). Although WFMT is commercial, we’re non-profit and member-supported so it certainly feels very much like the public radio stations I’ve worked at for the three + decades before I started here 10 years ago. I mention working at a large station to make only one point: everything -and I mean everything- you’ve said about working at a small station applies to working at a large station. There isn’t a single difference. Anyway, WYSO is a great station made only greater by your presence there. Continue good luck.

    Steve Robinson
    General Manager
    WFMT and the WFMT Radio Network
    Chicago, IL
    wfmtvp@aol.com
    Y

  • Steve Robinson

    4.28.11

    Reply
    PS

    Please tell Noah I said hello. Also, I heard that Vermont is running out of maple syrup so maybe he should go up there and update the Maple Syrup Special he helped produce at Vermont Public Radio almost (and I shudder to say this) a quarter of a century ago. Oy.

  • Michael V. Marcotte

    4.28.11

    Reply
    Issue: Growing Your Local Public Service

    I really enjoyed this piece by Neenah Ellis. There’s nostalgia for the local roots of public radio. There’s high contrast between the network and the station experience. There’s the joy and misery of doing community radio.

    Among the many issues facing stations like Neenah’s is how to grow.

    Growth is needed, in my estimation, because the need for greater public service by public media demands it. Yet growth has its costs.

    Think about your local NPR franchise. The bulk of stations that have grown tremendously over the years have hewed closely to the strong news model. They make NPR news their primary service. They grow local news for its added value. They beef up their development operations. They lean toward professional talent and management and away from volunteers in key positions.

    These stations that have grown large have measured their success in terms of listeners and subscribers (and now online users). I think of these local NPR stations as the success stories of the public radio system. But I also see them as victims of success in that they now don’t take risks and they are less accessible and less diverse.

    Neenah’s station, literally, is still in the (moldy) basement where a lot of stations used to be. It doesn’t have a news director. Everyone’s working for low wages and putting up with poor equipment. I might have thought that cool once upon a time… but not so much any more given my own professional growth.

    More to the point, given the many audio options now available to the population in Southwest Ohio, what’s the future of the grassroots station?

    And what can we say about this growing dichotomy between some stations that have grown rapidly and those stations that seem to be operating pretty much the same way they were decades ago?

    Don’t get me wrong. I have a rather romantic notion of radio as community. Local as unique. The station as a hub. I’m actually wondering if the experience that WYSO offers is what has been lost by many along the way?

    Put another way, might WYSO have lessons to offer the large NPR stations? And vice-versa. Might those successful stations have more to offer WYSO?

    If so, how do we do that?

  • Laurie Jackson

    4.28.11

    Reply
    Great Radio, Crappy Buildings

    Our station(s) (KPBX, KSFC, KBIX, and over the air broadcast of Remix Radio on KPBZ) is also in an old brownstone building, but upstairs rather in down in the basement. The staff used to be about the same size as WYSO, but is now bursting at the seams. The plumbing is terrible, the carpet is dingy and holey, pigeons soil the balcony in back, every inch is filled with people and stuff, and the mechanical systems are constantly breaking down.

    But the radio emanating from their towers and translators is golden. I’m a little biased as my husband is the Morning Edition host, and I am a former producer of an eclectic music show that ran for 12 years. And the other staff are some of our closest friends. Most of the staffers are musicians, either in the Spokane Symphony, local bands, or are awesome "sidemen" Jazzers.

    Our engineer, Jerry Olson, (yes, we have our very own dedicated engineer) plays Tuba in the Sacramento Symphony, Spokane Symphony, and keeps all of our stations on the air through everything nature and Murphy’s law can throw at him.

    They spend a fortune on NPR programming, but also have their own local news staff of two and a half and a bevvy of terrific local producers of music shows. Changes to programming have been few and far between over the last thirty years.

    When we travel, we are struck by other public radio stations that function more as translators for NPR and APR, and lack the varied local programs KPBX airs. They are limited to Classical music, while KPBX airs Jazz, World Music, Meditative, and mixed genre shows on the evenings and weekends, mixed in with strong network shows like Jazz Profiles, the Brazilian Hour, and Performance Today.

    Keeping a healthy mix of local in and amongst the flagship network programs like PHC and Car Talk keep KPBX membership growing, but sadly, not the building.

  • Neenah Ellis

    4.28.11

    Reply
    thanks Steve

    Writing this piece certainly made me think about folks like you who have worked so hard (and now I understand HOW hard) to keep the local stations strong all these years.
    Since I grew up near Chicago, I listened to WFMT in high school and college (well, okay, WLS, too) – and remember so well hearing Studs AND those phenomenally well-written underwriting spots.

    I’ll tell Noah about the maple syrup update – you know, Art Silverman was in on that, too and, sorry to say, 25 is a low estimate.
    Take care.

  • Neenah Ellis

    4.28.11

    Reply
    Hi Laurie

    We, too, are crowded but Antioch University, which holds our license, has recently announced that they will spend nearly a million dollars to renovate a building and move us into it. So we will be above ground, we’ll have mens AND womens bathrooms and room for the growth we believe is on the horizon.
    A year from now we should be in our new home and we won’t be on top of each other. But now everyone passes by my office all day long – we can’t avoid each other – and there is something good about that. I expect that I’ll get a lot more exercise when we move to the new building – making sure I get to talk to every person every day.
    I love the energy at WYSO, the scrappiness, the improvisation, the constant problem solving we do.
    Sounds like we are radio soul-mates.

  • James Gralian

    5.05.11

    Reply

    How Do I Help Change My Local Station?
    Thanks for the article. Hearing how other stations create a loca

    The public radio network in my area (and it’s not a small market) only dedicates a half hour a weekday to a local interview show (the other half of the hour is BBC news), and the show frequently repeats old interviews. On the weekends, they have an hour for a ‘best of’ the local interviews. In their weekly programming, outside of the NPR news magazines, they have six regular shows (Car Talk, Wait Wait, Fresh Air, Prairie Home Companion, This American Life, and The World (another news magazine)). Once a week, they dedicate an hour to a rotating stock of shows, like Radiolab, American Voices, and the like. No Studio 360. No Marketplace. But there are a lot of repeats.

    The worst part to me is, if they wanted to add in a new show, or do something local, nights on the weekends seem like a good place to start. Right now, they cut to BBC Programming at 9PM on weeknights, 8PM on Saturdays, and 7PM (!!!) on Sundays. There is nothing they can do on Sunday nights other than BBC?

    For a few years, they spent their money buying smaller stations, and network building. They have a classical station and a lot of smaller stations throughout the state. But now they just seem to be stuck on easy street, simply broadcasting the standard fare.

    As a listener, what can I do to change that? I look at the news and talk stations in Minnesota, Chicago, NYC (I even prefer to listen to them online to my own local station), and am envious of what they are doing. I would love to see my local station open it’s doors to the city, or the state, and do more with the listeners that support them. I want to see some local arts, or some local talent and new voices on the air. I want to see the local station thrive, but repeating everyone else’s programming isn’t getting them there. How do I help to change this? I feel like this should be part of the ‘public’ part of public radio, that the public should be able to have some hand in the local programming.

    Thanks for any insight you can provide.

  • Ira Flatow

    5.09.11

    Reply

    Good for YOU! Enjoy…
    I loved my days at a small public radio station. And I’m glad to see you returned to your roots from that giant Monolith of an organization. Addition by subtraction.

    Good luck!

    My best,

    Ira Flatow

  • Nancy Finken

    6.17.11

    Reply

    Neenah,

    Thanks for a great article. I found it inspiring!

  • Elizabeth Scheltens

    1.12.15

    Reply

    Neenah, as a long-time WYSO listener (and former intern) and current newbie radio producer, I couldn’t be more thrilled with the work you’ve done as station manager. Thanks for putting your heart and soul into this treasured institution. Keep up the great work!

  • Beverly Wright Coleman

    5.10.17

    Reply

    Neenah, I have discovered your WYSO story (wonderful, of course!) by way of my ongoing Wright brothers research. I was inspired by your husband’s book The Flyers to follow in his footsteps as well as Orville’s and Wilbur’s. What an adventure that book touched off! Please thank him for me. One word about your work: Nothing compares to the joy we receive when we listen to someone who doesn’t have a voice unless we provide one. Thank you for all the times you have given a voice to someone who needed one.
    Beverly Wright Coleman in California

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