Reflections on the Work of Anti-Racism From WUOL’s Daniel Gilliam

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In October, the member services department at WUOL Classical in Louisville received a listener letter objecting to the station’s increase in music by Black composers. The letter stated that the anonymous writer - a self-described long-time donor - was discontinuing their support as a result. 

Member services shared the letter with Daniel Gilliam, WUOL program director and director of radio, who decided to read a Statement to a Racist Listener on-air, stream it on Facebook Live, and publish the statement online. We asked Gilliam about this response from the station, and about the larger anti-racism work being done at WUOL.

Greater Public: What was your reaction when you received the listener letter?

Daniel Gilliam: I don’t think any public radio station is a stranger to receiving negative or controversial letters, particularly around race. Whether it’s someone complaining that a triple-A station is playing too much hip hop, or that they dislike someone’s way of speaking or the coverage of race on a news station. But at a classical station, we’ve been largely immune to these kinds of letters because, historically, classical has not been a very diverse format. There are some people in the classical radio world who are coming to terms with that and being proactive to change it. It’s something I've been trying to work on at WUOL. 

When the letter arrived, it did a couple of things. First, it signaled that somebody is noticing that we’re playing more composers that aren’t white. I wondered how they knew; did we say on-air that this is a Black composer, do they know enough about the music to know which composers are Black, or did they Google the composers to see who was Black and who was white? I had questions about why that would catch their attention. But I’m glad it did, because I want more people to recognize themselves in the music we play on WUOL. And we still have a long way to go.

But the writer of the letter also said they wouldn’t be supporting the station because we’re playing more Black composers. We often get letters at stations that threaten to discontinue support and we let them roll off our backs. But this one struck me for how explicit it was. And it angered me quite a bit. We say “listen to relax and escape” and all is fine in the world. But when you encounter a listener who’s an avowed racist, it kind of shakes you. This is not “peaceful let’s-all-get-along” listenership.

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Strategy Is Not Enough: The Importance of Changing the Culture of Public Media

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Once in a meeting with a senior manager of a station I worked at, I was discussing why I felt that the structure and culture of the organization could do a much better job of fostering respect, empowering innovation and providing psychological safety to its employees. Though new ideas were often seen as threatening and feedback was rarely well received, I was daring to speak up because I believed that these changes were imperative for creating the collaborative spirit of innovation needed to ensure the long-term survival of the station. 

Well into the conversation, the manager said, “you know, you’re in a tough spot.” Immediately, I thought of a dozen different things he might be referring to, but, not wanting to assume, I asked him to elaborate. He explained that even though I had been working there for almost three years, I still had to prove myself. 

This was an organization where people were often shamed for being “too sensitive,” and fear of perceived failure routinely drove management decisions. Perhaps he meant to be helpful by suggesting that if I only kept my head down and worked hard there for a decade the other senior managers would finally take me for my word and respect me. But I went back to my desk and cried. 

In that moment he’d confirmed one of my darker fears about our industry: Our overwhelmingly traditional, white, patriarchal culture is killing public media.

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The State of Our Institution

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I dare ask, my fellow colleagues, are we not institution builders?

Do we not see ourselves as a “society” of media makers with peculiar “customs”? At the very least, don’t we “set in motion” the constructs of well-designed and articulated best practices and core values?

In doing so, we take great pride in the intentionality from which we create content, the teams that produce, and the well-manicured models employed to monetize. All of this and so much more, we exclaim, in the name of public service.

This racist-drenched and pandemic-entrenched society has come upon a “reckoning.” At once, that bend in the arc of justice is revealed to not only be stubborn towards justice but rooted in design, intentionality and maintenance, suggesting the end game - covertly and with a wink - has been achieved.

It was James Baldwin, the great American literary who confessed:

“I don’t know how most white people in this country feel, but I can only conclude what they feel from the state of their institutions… You want me to make an act of faith… on some idealism which you assure me exists in America which I have never seen.”

Public media is an American institution not spared of these charges. The titans of our institutions are overwhelmingly white. I’ve heard it said that we suffer a “whiteness problem” despite years of inclusion, diversity, equity and access efforts. Like Baldwin, I don’t know how we feel, I can only conclude what we feel from the state of our institutions. I say we, for like so many of my colleagues of color, it can be argued that we have co-signed this institution-building by our very presence and efforts and yet failed in molding it to at least reflect a shared space inclusive of our images and voices.

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Public Media: Existing Within the Shadow of White Supremacy Culture

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White supremacy is all around us. If you are aware of this, congratulations, you are on the road to recovery; the first step is admitting it. If you are struggling to grapple with this concept, know that you are not alone. This statement may challenge your inner spirit, causing denial and a sense of panic followed by a twinge of anger. I know this because I have felt it. These powerful, pessimistic feelings show up in our actions, and interactions with others, when merely the ideas of racism and racial bias are hinted at. This is how white supremacy wins every time.

Conversations around systemic racism in our society are far from new. Mountains of data, studies, and reports offer stark evidence that, in the United States, the systems we all rely on were intentionally designed to marginalize and oppress Black and brown people. Yet little progress has been made to change them. Why? Because white supremacy has been the standard throughout. We default to beliefs, actions, and characteristics that promote and uphold whiteness. If it’s not white, it’s not right.

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Leadership for the Now Generation

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We are experiencing a reawakening in America: A global pandemic and failure of our democratic systems. Nearly a decade of watching Black Americans murdered from multiple video angles. The Karens. Mask polarization. The psyche of America is crying out: When will it end? Enough is enough.

The overwhelming feeling is that few solutions - or even substantive conversation - have come from those in power. 

It’s no different in public media.

My heart aches when I see/read/hear so many of my media colleagues and particularly those in public media, who have expressed during these past few weeks their lived experiences inside of newsrooms and organizations as being made to feel less than or even invisible.

Those words come from a tweet that I posted back in mid-July. But it’s a statement I’ve been making for the better part of the last decade. These are years when my BIPOC colleagues have been speaking up about their experiences working in public media. Applying for c-suite roles and never being interviewed, being passed over while whites with less experience and questionable pasts get promoted, discovering that white colleagues in similar roles make significantly more, and enduring retaliation for speaking up or filing complaints with leadership or HR.  

While some diversity might exist at the bottom of our organizations, as you summit the peak of leadership, it’s snow-capped white. It's the public media version of a 1960’s lunch counter. It’s modern day segregation.

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Navigating Power and Privilege in Public Media

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The city where I grew up – San Antonio, Texas – was majority Latinx, but by no means unsegregated. The East Side was predominantly poor and Black, and much of the South and West Sides were poor and Brown. If you were an upwardly-mobile POC, you moved to the city’s whiter, more affluent northern suburbs. That’s where my assimilated, single mom – originally from the West Side – raised me, with help from her Mexican immigrant parents and, eventually, my SoCal Chicano stepdad. 

As a white-presenting mestiza (raised in white suburbs, no less) I am, in the words of Leslie Arreoloa-Hillenbrand, “both colonized and colonizer.” To be white-presenting is to live a duality: to both benefit directly from racism and be privy to the psychic pain it inflicts. It’s an eternally uneasy place to live.

When I was 31, I moved to Minnesota, and it was nothing short of culture shock. Exposed to people and cultures with which I’d had no prior experience – Somali, Hmong, Ecuadorian, Ojibway, Dakota – Minneapolis made me realize how diverse San Antonio actually wasn’t. New to me was the experience of feeling my whiteness so blaringly. 

Shortly after arriving, I landed my first job in public media as an administrative assistant at Minnesota Public Radio. At the time, I was one of very few ethnic minorities or people of color at MPR. There were a few – I bonded early with another Tejano colleague, a fellow Black assistant who eventually rose in MPR’s ranks, and a rotating-door of Latinx journalism fellows – but there weren’t many. At one point in my ten-year tenure, despite Minnesota being home to the largest Somali population in the U.S., the only Somali in the building was on the janitorial staff. New to me was the experience of feeling like the only minority for miles.

Minneapolis was also the first time I’d witnessed acute segregation. Months in, I learned that the city’s predominantly Black North Side was a kind of island, when three consecutive taxis refused to drive us to a friend’s house there. I knew San Antonio’s East Side suffered grave inequities, but I’d never heard it spoken of as if it were some dangerous other country. 

To be clear, racism and the inequities it creates are global; Minneapolis is not unique. But, for me, my ten years spent in the Twin Cities was eye-opening and oftentimes uncomfortable, even with the protections my whiteness afforded me. There were things I loved about the place, too, which made leaving – when I took a job in Texas – feel like the end of a failed marriage. On my last ride to the airport, I watched the buildings of downtown Minneapolis shrink in the car’s rear window and thought: Welp, we tried.

Last month, I sat in the safety of my Austin living room, phone in hand, watching video footage of a gas station burning two short blocks from my last apartment in Minneapolis. I felt a lot of things – sadness, anger, worry – but surprise wasn’t one of them.

* * *

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A Time for Change

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The killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks and too many other Black Americans, along with the anguish being felt in cities nationwide, have pulled back the curtain for many on injustice and the need for systemic change. And we are part of the need for change. Our industry grapples with the same issues of implicit bias and whiteness that exist nationwide.

Change is tumultuous. But the beauty of change is that it brings opportunity.

Public media has everything it takes to learn, grow, and serve all the people of this nation just as our mission has called us to do from the beginning. We have always lifted each other up in service of our mission, and our capacity to come together remains undiminished. In fact, the way forward for our entire industry exists within the wisdom and practices of individual stations and teams. We have the advantage of being able to learn from one another.

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Why We Need to Talk About Whiteness in Public Media (And Why It’s So Hard)

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I bet you read the byline of this article and quickly, implicitly thought, “this person is not white.”

It’s okay if you did. You’re right. And that is not a racist thought.

Now, if your second implicit thought was, “Well, I don’t have to pay attention to anything they say,” well, then, maybe we have some unpacking to do.

In my first blog post for Greater Public, I wrote about unconscious or implicit bias – what it is, how it affects our decision-making, and therefore, how it affects the marketing and fundraising at public media stations.

Today, at the risk of being trolled by people I don’t know on the Internet, I want to talk about Whiteness and why it’s crucial we begin, as a country and a planet, to be able to talk about Whiteness whenever we want to talk about race.

It is curious to me that we try to address racial disparities and diversity while trying to avoid talking about this construct humankind invented called Whiteness. It’s like trying to talk about climate change without talking about greenhouse gases. (Which I suppose some people are trying to do, but I don’t think it’s going very well in terms of leading to sustainable solutions.)

Perhaps, because race is a social construct, we think we can justifiably avoid this conversation. For a period in the 1990s, social science took great strides to show that there is no biological determinant of race. This was during the same period when Tiger Woods rose to fame, a dark-skinned man with African American and Asian heritage, whose father proclaimed on The Oprah Winfrey Show that Tiger’s race was “the human race.” Proclamations like this led us to believe that perhaps we had accomplished Martin Luther King’s dream and we, as a society, were finally able to judge people by the content of their character, not by the color of their skin.

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The Paradox of Bias in Marketing and Fundraising

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Bias is a tricky thing. 

We all have it, and sometimes that’s okay and sometimes it’s not. 

For marketing and fundraising professionals, this nuanced understanding of bias is even more important because cognitive biases are so often used in marketing and fundraising efforts to nudge potential donors into giving. But without any examination of the unintended consequences of such efforts, our tactics to get more donors or more dollars can reinforce harmful stereotypes. In addition, the demographics of the United States are changing, and public media needs to represent and engage new audiences if it wants to survive. 

So let’s break down what bias is exactly, and how we can use it responsibly and ethically.

Harvard professor Mahzarin Banaji beautifully sums up her decades-long research on implicit bias as “the thumbprint of culture on the brain.” In brief, implicit bias occurs because our brains are powerful machines that process millions of data points outside of our conscious awareness and make meaning out of that data in lightning fast time. It’s how we slam the breaks when we see a red light without “thinking” about it. But it can also lead to a “gut” feeling that a person is “bad” and we don’t realize that it’s because of the media images we’ve been fed about a certain race or culture. Implicit bias has gotten re-branded as unconscious bias in popular culture (despite the inaccuracy of the name, as many of our biases are triggered subconsciously, not when we’re asleep), and has come to be short-hand for the type of bias that leads to discrimination.

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