What I learned about love and management from a public radio station in southwest Ohio
WYSO has built its business on a culture of respect and partnership, and their compassionate strategy is paying off
Love may seem an unlikely management strategy. But at WYSO 91.3 FM in Yellow Springs, Ohio, General Manager Neenah Ellis has deployed love to build a regional radio powerhouse, by loving, respecting and partnering with her employees and the members of her diverse community. In her ten years at the station, Ellis has transformed WYSO and shepherded the station’s efforts to:
- Raise $3.5 million to buy WYSO’s license from Antioch College, creating Miami Valley Public Media, Inc., an independent nonprofit.
- Attract increasing underwriting and grant funding to support a wide variety of talented producers and projects.
- Train hundreds of local students and community members to be radio reporters and producers.
- Work with veterans, Antioch students and alumni, and other groups to create peer-to-peer storytelling projects based on a model learned from StoryCorps.
- Take part in powerful multimedia storytelling in association with Localore, the initiative from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the independent producers’ group AIR that nurtures relationships between indie storytellers and local communities.
- Mentor a staff of specialists in fundraising, business operations and community building, who will guide the station when and if Ellis changes roles.
It hasn’t been easy. When Ellis arrived in Yellow Springs, the station was situated in a dank basement, and many in the community had lost interest in its programming and mission. Today, the station’s quarters are more than adequate, with up to date equipment, state of the art software and a signal that reaches hundreds of thousands more listeners than before.
In July, I had the opportunity to visit WYSO, which cleverly — if somewhat ambiguously — calls itself “why-so!” The Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University in New Jersey sent me there as part of a program that encourages “journalists, media makers and communicators” to visit colleagues anywhere in the country to learn their tricks and steal their secret sauce. There’s still plenty of money in the Peer Learning and Collaboration Fund for other makers to take part in the program.
I had known Neenah for decades in Washington, D.C., where she had worked at NPR and lived with her husband, NPR’s Noah Adams. I knew that she had a family connection to radio, and that the opportunity to be a GM at a small midwestern station fit with her goals. But I had frankly wondered whether the smaller canvas of a local NPR affiliate would suit her after working so many years for the network.
I kept up with Neenah during her ten years in Ohio and had a sense of the challenges and joys of her new role. When I broached the idea of a visit, her answer was one word: “Sure.” And that also seemed enough for the funders in New Jersey.
Neenah’s generosity started with her instructions to her staff, which I never saw, but which must have been straightforward: “This guy is coming to visit,” I assume she said. “Make time to talk with him.” And everyone did.
I arrive in Yellow Springs, 20 miles east of Dayton, as WYSO’s Dayton Youth Radio Camp is in full swing. About a dozen teenagers are in the final stages of creating stories from interviews with local officials, business folk, artists, lawyers and others. Teaching the workshop is Basim Blunt, an engaging and informal mentor, whose role at this stage of the camp is to talk students through their “selects” –interview segments that have made the first cut — to create a listenable story.
Blunt has an infallible sense of when students need a change of scenery, and as I arrive, he’s about to march the kids out to one of Yellow Springs’ glorious parks. I ask to come along, and he briefly considers my request. “No,” he finally says. “I need to keep a good eye on the kids.”
A few days later, we talk at a local brewery once his responsibilities for the kids are done. Basim means “smile” in Arabic, and the name fits. He’s one of those people who kids immediately know is hearing them; he’s someone they can trust. Although the radio camp is only in its second year, Blunt has been teaching in local schools since he took WYSO’s Community Voices (ComVox) audio storytelling workshop in 2012. In schools, the class he teaches spans about two months, meeting one day a week for about two to three hours a class.
He loves to tell stories of how he’s moved kids from silence or confrontation to expressing themselves via sound. One kid boldly told him that his dad “didn’t like black people.” Yet Blunt encouraged the student to interview his father and grapple with that uncomfortable reality.
To better understand what his kids may be going through at school or home, Blunt studied psychology and earned an adolescent mental health certification. He wants to make sure that when the audio storytelling stirs up raw or uncomfortable emotions, he knows how to handle them.
He’s especially proud that thousands of people hear these stories every week, on the air and the web.
Unprompted, he speaks about Ellis. “She’s a visionary,” he says. He can see that her consistent goal of “inviting the listener in” has been a winning strategy for WYSO. The station insists that people need to talk with each other about drugs, growing old, life as a veteran. All these things taken together, he says, make WYSO sound like its community.
While I’m in Yellow Springs, I sit down with Jocelyn Robinson, who describes herself, with a smile, as WYSO’s “secret weapon.” She trained with the station through ComVox in 2013 and has continued her own education in making media and storytelling while setting up shop at the station. Her specialty is digital preservation and her current passion is making sure that the rich history of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) isn’t lost.
Robinson tells me she doesn’t see herself as a journalist, even as she expands her role as a storyteller. She considers herself a disciple of Lewis Wallace, a former Managing Editor at WYSO. Wallace’s Twitter feed describes him as an “Evidence-based transgender writer.” He famously was let go from his job at the public radio show Marketplace after he publicly questioned the program’s bedrock beliefs about journalistic objectivity. If Wallace has disciples, they don’t believe that journalism should be a view from “nowhere” — in fact, Wallace’s upcoming podcast about the changing landscape of journalism will be called “The View From Somewhere.”
As Robinson engages in audio preservation, storytelling, narrative journalism and teaching online, she’s added a critically important new role. She’s now an advisor to the premier audio conference in the country, Third Coast International Audio Festival. She’ll be helping to make sure that the annual meeting remains relevant to the increasingly diverse community of makers who may not have taken a traditional road to audio production.
Blunt and Robinson aren’t full time staff at the station. They do their work supported by grants and other pots of money. I also spent time with a couple of staff members who are thriving in the atmosphere of love and change that is WYSO 2019.
Juliet Fromholt has been at WYSO about a decade, just like Ellis. Her many roles would hardly fit on a business card: Webmaster/Programming Coordinator/Deputy Operations Director/Host, Kaleidoscope & Alpha Rhythms.
She says WYSO’s small size has consistently been an advantage for her and others. “When you’re small,” she says, “you’re not in your silo, you learn about every aspect of the station,” as her multiple roles attest.
A force behind some of the station’s music programming, she’s proud to feature local bands on the air. “[These are] bands my listeners can afford to go hear,” she says.
WYSO’s mixed format of NPR and local news and talk, plus a strong music focus, is becoming more popular around the public radio system. For the first time, stations with this format are talking and strategizing with each other about how to be more effective.
As Fromholt describes it, WYSO behaves like a tech start-up in some ways. Producers who are trained will be encouraged to take their talents as far as they can, even starting a new podcast, for example. But the plan is often to go all out for, say, six episodes, and then take a break. “No project has to last forever,” she says, so anything can be tried. Failure is not only an option, but a potential learning experience.
As WYSO changes, Fromholt says she’ll be concentrating on the music end of things. “I’ve done so much with storytelling,” she tells me, “I’d love to use that same energy with the music [here].”
It’s from Fromholt I get the sense that WYSO’s change of ownership is only the beginning, and that bigger changes may be on the horizon. The station’s success with its model of community training and empowerment through audio are ripe for export, and nobody is better positioned to make that happen than they are.
“How do we teach other stations to do this?” Fromholt asks. It requires what she calls a mind shift and a culture shift. As Fromholt became involved with training at WYSO, she remembers thinking “What does this mean for my job?”
“I recognize the anxieties,” she goes on. “[You] work internally with staff, and make sure they know you’re not replacing traditional reporting.” In fact, when disaster strikes, as it did at the end of May when tornados tore through Dayton and surrounding communities, or in August, when a gunman killed nine community members, “you have people in the community you can call.” These are people who are trained; people who know how to handle both the editorial and technical aspects of interviewing if necessary. And even more important, you have trained people with local roots and contacts. That stood the station in good stead when 500 homes were damaged and 59 were destroyed in nearby Trotwood during the deadly May tornado outbreak.
Before I leave Ohio, I checked in with WYSO Development Director Luke Dennis, who writes on the station’s website that he “landed at WYSO [in 2012] and plans never to leave.” He started his association with the station, you guessed it, as a trainee in the first session of Community Voices in 2011.
I had a hunch I wanted to ask him about: I believed there must be a connection between the station’s relationship with the community through Community Voices and the peer-to-peer projects and the student training that has led directly to the station’s ability to raise the $3.5 million to become independent.
As we talk, he emphasizes that all the training programs have a common theme: to “open the front door” of the station, alerting the community that they can make programming “with us.” Having taken the community voices training, former students are treated like professionals, paid a competitive rate for delivering freelance stories. And some, like Dennis himself, never leave.
He talks about how the training programs had helped to build trust with the community, after the station had made some missteps in the years before Ellis took over as GM. With an eye on the bottom line, he assures me that the training, some of which is supported by student fees, some of which attracts grant funding, is “net positive” for revenue.
Yes, Dennis is excited about all the station does. And he entertains my theory about the connections between community empowerment and the station’s recent successes. But I get the impression that my theory is a bit too pat. In fact, it’s the story of how he and Ellis raised the money to buy the station license from Antioch College that clearly is something he’ll be telling his grandkids.
It started with a vision. As he and Ellis prepared to talk with potential funders, he knew they had to “paint a picture of this amazing future that you [the funders] can help create.”
They didn’t engage a high-priced consultant. They decided not to make a fancy four-color brochure. When they needed help, like a more detailed picture of the wealth of certain funders, they found it through NPR or elsewhere. In the end, their list included 21 local prospects.
As the fundraising visits began, they realized that a donor who they had hoped would give the lead gift of $1 million might be asked for twice that much. Once that ask was successful, they knew they’d get to where they had to be.
“In the end,” Neenah Ellis confirms, “all 21 donors either gave or lead us to more money. We made the goal without ever going to the listeners and we did it in five months.”
And when the money was mostly in the bank for the license, they teamed up with local comedian, superstar Dave Chappelle, who put on a benefit for WYSO that raised a hefty six-figure sum.
What does the future hold for WYSO? Nobody knows exactly. But they’d be quick to tell you that the future lies in the work of people like Mary Evans, who is finding her way toward audio storytelling after serving seven years in a local prison for dealing drugs. Her project, Reentry Stories, aims to train former prisoners to listen to their peers, while sharing the dialogue with WYSO’s listeners.
“I’ve worked three, four, five jobs at a time,” she says. What does it take to stay out after getting out, she wonders? That’s where the center of her project will be.
She’s partnering with a local community college, working with those who have helped her find her own way. And now, with the help of WYSO, she aims to put that teaching and storytelling at the center of her own life.
The love that Neenah and the others show to Mary is palpable. What she accomplishes at WYSO will be up to her. The station’s door is open. And somehow, as I talk with Mary, “why? so!” seems like the answer to a question that more people will soon be asking.
Steve Mencher is News Director for Northern California Public Media, NPR and PBS for the Bay Area. Host of the station’s Connect the Bay live TV news show and Living Downstream podcast, he fell under the spell of radio while listening to distant ball games from his Bronx bedroom. He has worked at Carnegie Hall, NPR, and AARP. His company, Mensch Media, helped the U.S. Department of Defense find students to learn Arabic after 9/11, and produced a film about Bill Gates and Leonardo da Vinci for Ovation TV. He is among the first class of “Listening Fellows” at the American Press Institute, and led the Beyond Belief project at Kansas City Public TV as part of Localore: Finding America from AIR and CPB.
About the Center for Cooperative Media: The Center is a grant-funded program of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. The Center is supported with funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, Democracy Fund, the New Jersey Local News Lab Fund of the Community Foundation of New Jersey and the Abrams Foundation. Its mission is to grow and strengthen local journalism, and in doing so serve New Jersey residents. For more information, visit CenterforCooperativeMedia.org.
About the Peer Learning + Collaboration Fund: The Peer Fund is an initiative to facilitate and accelerate peer learning, relationship building and collaboration among journalists, media makers and communicators in the United States. The Center for Cooperative Media is facilitating the fund, which is generously supported by Democracy Fund. Click here to learn more and apply.