KALW and KUT Leaders Speak About Guiding Stations in a Moment of Change

leadership, diversity & inclusion, COVID-19

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As organizations wrestle with the question of whether or when to return to in-person workspaces, public media leaders are aware of the seismic changes that have taken place since their teams filed out of buildings in March, 2020. Some employees have endured great hardship and loss. Many have altered perspectives on work-life balance. There may not be consensus about what constitutes a safe return. And our nation’s wider public consciousness about race and racism demands our attention. 

We spoke with two system leaders, Tina Pamintuan, general manager of KALW in San Francisco, and Debbie Hiott, general manager of KUT Public Media in Austin, Texas to learn about their approach to leadership at this moment in time. 

Greater Public: Have you settled on plans to return to in-person workspaces?

Tina Pamintuan: After we sheltered in place for much of 2020 and into 2021, we put out a survey to understand what was positive about working from home and what had been hard. We’re developing a plan from that feedback. We will likely return to work with a hybrid situation because we know that people do want to see each other, and being in the same space makes a difference. 

We want to accommodate people’s comfort about returning; they want to know that the other people in their workspace are vaccinated [for COVID-19]. We will require that volunteers and staff be vaccinated, but there are conflicting opinions about how to work with interview guests.

We are also going through intense cultural change right now which has its very real challenges, especially when working remote. Still, in many ways, we have a happy workplace, where people celebrate each other’s successes. Spontaneous dance parties occasionally break out—even on Zoom. Our newsroom has a barbeque that is well-used when we are on-site. 

Debbie Hiott: We made plans to come back in September, and then pushed that back. Then our [affiliate] university required that we come back by September 16, which we have been able to change to October 1. We’re part of a state agency and our [state] government doesn’t want things shut down. Legislation was passed in Texas that forbids us from asking about people’s vaccine status and we can’t require mask-wearing. Our university went to a flex work system, which is something I’d been wanting to do at KUT even before the pandemic, in part because our content floor is bursting at the seams. Both our music and news teams have experienced a lot of growth over the past five years. 

Flex work allows for people to coordinate working outside of the office on some days, so we’re setting up hoteling desks and the team is excited about having that flexibility. I think [whether or not we return fully in-person] is a business continuity issue. The Delta variant has shown us how precarious things can be. I’m [at the station] a few days a week and about 50% of students [at affiliate University of Texas at Austin] are wearing masks. The vaccination rate in our county is about 67%, but that doesn’t capture the rate among students who come from other areas in Texas whose rates can be lower than 50%. We try to stress to our university that we need to protect our on-air staff. Even though they’re vaccinated, illness could take them away from their jobs for days.

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How the Pandemic Prepared Public Media to Build an Audience-Centered Culture

leadership, Audience Engagement, COVID-19

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Over the past year, I’ve watched public media organizations meet the challenges of the pandemic by creating ways to serve audiences that would have been previously unimaginable. 

From COVID help desks to the most creative examples of virtual — and newly accessible — live events, the pandemic challenged many of our organizations to set aside some of the well-worn ways we do things in order to ask a single essential question: 

“What does our community need from us right now, and how can we best provide it for them?” 

The process of asking and answering that question is how we develop an audience. Continually repeating this process while embodying and rewarding the skills required to meet audience needs is how we build an audience-centered culture.

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Antidotes to White Supremacy Culture in Our Organizations

Membership, Corporate Support, Major Giving, leadership, diversity & inclusion

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We work in the culture business. Our individual and collective efforts have the ability to mold the world outside of our industry’s walls. The stories we report, music we air, programs we produce, and events, webinars and experiences we offer to our audiences all add to the narrative of our multifaceted, multi-lensed society. Our programming is like a tapestry; it offers perspectives carefully designed, woven and crafted with different materials, patterned and textured to make something uniquely appealing. Adding our own flair to the public media tapestry is a privilege we all share; we do not take this position lightly. Each of us brings ourselves, past and present, to our work in hopes of creating something meaningful that resonates throughout history.

It is critical we look at culture when thinking about who has access to public media. To do so, we must examine the definition of culture from an everyday perspective and within the workplace. Generally speaking, culture defines our way of life, such as our norms, values, attitudes, customs, vernacular, and the nuances in between, depending on the group in question. In a corporate setting, culture sets the tone for how business is conducted. It ripples across departments and hierarchy, denoting which behaviors are praised and which are deemed unacceptable. In both settings, culture maintains boundaries, whether physical or psychological, tangible or abstract.

Leadership controls the culture. We look to their vision as our main objective while measuring and observing their every move. This includes a litany of things: their public and private behavior; their decision-making processes; their character; what and who they value; where they divert time, attention and resources; the company they keep, and so much more. The list of attributes that encompass their leadership style is endless. The compilation of these traits creates a culture barometer, measuring the efficacy of the entity’s vision.

Much of my time as a consultant is spent untangling conversations, carefully pulling them apart and then piecing information together to get to the crux of an organization’s culture. In some instances, I have separate conversations with multiple people within an organization and find there is a disconnect between the information both parties share. When this happens, it becomes evident that the organization’s communication mechanisms are strained, signaling a potential culture problem. I ask questions about leadership and how supportive they are in creating a workplace environment where everyone receives what they need to be successful. Too often, I hear comments similar to these:

“When I have a question about a project, or have an idea that could help my department or organization, I’m told to stay in my lane.”

“My organization says it supports professional development, but all of my requests are denied. How do I grow if I’m not receiving the training I need?”

“I have glowing performance reviews and am told the department could not function without me, yet I always get passed up for the promotion and I’m always asked to train the new employee hired for the job.”

“My manager asked me for feedback about a project/situation. I came prepared and explained my concerns and solutions in detail. My feedback was never incorporated and my manager never gave me an explanation as to why.”

“My editor is afraid my story, that includes instances of racism, will upset our core audience and wants the story scrapped altogether.”

“Sometimes I feel like I’m not trusted to do the job I was hired to do.”

“The organization’s leadership continues to ignore recommendations from its Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Council, or makes plans without asking for our ideas, insight or opinions.”

“I always have to jump through hoops to get the things I need/my department needs, while other employees/departments get things handed to them without question.”

“How people are promoted is secretive and exclusive.”

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Failing Forward: Learning From Mistakes on the Journey to Anti-Racism

Membership, Corporate Support, Major Giving, leadership, diversity & inclusion

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So often we spend a lot of time thinking about the mistakes that we make, both those we realize on our own and those that others point out. We can spend days replaying a scenario particularly when it is related to race or gender identity. Some describe it as minefields that they are fearful of saying the wrong thing. I want to liberate you and tell you that you WILL make a mistake and you will offend someone. When working in equity and inclusion and striving to build knowledge while moving forward it is important to have a framework of what to do when you make a mistake. This strategy allows you to make amends, to learn and to feel more courage to take risks and make mistakes in the future. 

During a webinar I was once asked this question: “I have run into situations where a name is unfamiliar to me (e.g. I recently hosted a panel and one of the panelists had a Vietnamese name I hadn’t heard before). I struggle with having to ask someone multiple times to pronounce their name because it feels disrespectful but I am asking because I genuinely want to get it right. Any tips on how to handle this situation?”

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Public Media: Existing Within the Shadow of White Supremacy Culture

Membership, Corporate Support, Major Giving, marketing, leadership, diversity & inclusion

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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

Membership, Corporate Support, Major Giving, marketing, leadership, diversity & inclusion

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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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Three Ways to Stop Sabotaging Your Own Growth

Membership, Corporate Support, Major Giving, leadership

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Professional development is something we know is important, but very few managers and leaders give it the time, resources, and prioritization that it needs. Of course, you can also choose what value to place on your own career development. If you’re looking to regain your momentum and start growing faster, here are a few traps to avoid: 

1. Stop Thinking You Don’t Have Time to Learn.

You’re busy, I get it. But why is it that some busy people can make time to grow in their jobs and others can’t? Your manager’s attitude and company culture play a role, sure, but I think an even bigger contributor is the belief that professional development is somehow an “extra” that needs to happen when your other work is done

Take this very concrete example: A public radio membership director spends two hours per week doing a complicated multi-step process to prepare data from a payments system to import it into a CRM. She knows that if she were to design a template to do this, she could probably reduce that time to 15 minutes. She also knows that if she knew how to build this template, she could build others that would save her time on other tasks. And, she could teach this skill to other people in her department so they could be more efficient. “One day, when I have time,” she says. 

The bottom line is that you will never not be busy. The only way to “make time” to learn and grow is to stop thinking of it as something you do separately from your day-to-day work.

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Opportunities for Leadership: Three Ways Public Media Can Improve its Essential Service as a Result of COVID-19

General Management, leadership, philanthropy, COVID-19

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Across the United States, public media newsrooms are doubling down on their efforts to inform local communities about the dangerous unfolding of the COVID-19 pandemic. They’re setting up remote reporting and broadcasting capabilities, adding reporters to their teams, and ramping up the flow of information to ensure timeliness and accuracy. 

Will public media also use this opportunity to address known challenges and accelerate change? And, if these strategies are successful, will public media have positioned itself more favorably in the minds of journalism funders? Here are three opportunities—for public service certainly, and for revenue, potentially—that the pandemic opens to public media newsrooms.

Serve the Full Community

Public media has long touted its “grass tops” service to affluent, educated audiences. But in recent years, this audience focus has become a significant liability for public media among grantmakers considering local journalism support. Gaps in the reach of news and information are increasingly well documented, showing that communities of color, immigrants, and low-income people are not reflected by or reached through legacy news, including public media.

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Leading With Influence and Persuasion in Public Media

Membership, Corporate Support, Major Giving, General Management, leadership

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Leadership roles in public media are often very challenging and complex. Whether you’re a GM, a PD, marketing director, underwriting director, or membership director, we are all responsible for creating strategies and painting a vision. However, when leading a team, creating consensus and alignment is not an easy task.

My go-to source for enhancing my ability to persuade people without coercion, is a book titled “The Art of Woo.” The authors Mario Moussa and G. Richard Shell both teach at the Wharton School. “Woo” refers to the ability to “Win Others Over.” It’s this ability to persuade, according to the book, that allows us to achieve our business goals.

Develop Trusting Internal Business Relationships

Woo is basically relationship-based persuasion: a strategic process for getting people’s attention, presenting your ideas, and obtaining approval for your plans and projects. Face-to-face meetings are the best way to develop trusting relationships. Such settings enable people to catch nonverbal cues such as voice-tone, body language, and emotional emphasis.

Cultivate Self-Awareness 

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The Great Major Giving Pivot

Major Giving, General Management, leadership, philanthropy

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Whenever I talk to leaders in other nonprofit industries about fundraising for public media, they tell me how lucky we are. They understand that our supporters - the people who love and give to public media - are truly the stuff of envy. Our fans proclaim their adoration on tote bags, in dating apps, in conversations with friends and family, and by becoming members. More than half of public media donors are sustaining members; they give year after year. This percentage is head-and-shoulders above the share of sustainers that can be claimed by other nonprofits. Not surprisingly, overall retention among public media donors is also significantly higher than the national index.

Public media has nearly perfected the model of raising money from a large swath of people who love what we do. Our central strategy has historically relied on the fact that our supporters engage with us everyday, all day long on our airwaves. When we want them to give, we don’t have to go far to get their attention. We simply go on-air and ask. These donor interactions are straightforward and transactional. And they deliver.

Like I said, the stuff of envy! Of course, our greatest strengths can conceal our greatest weaknesses, or, as I see them, our greatest opportunities.

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