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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Give us the nod.
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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.