For the managers of small radio stations, the work is varied and so are the challenges

For managers of public and community radio stations, which are the smallest in the system, their jobs are anything but.

To run these stations, managers must possess a wide range of skills and knowledge in areas such as financial management, live hosting, and engineering. Most importantly, they must be a people person – the public face of the organization, whose willingness to engage with the community includes talking with listeners at the grocery store or restaurant.

The challenges they face include a constant need for funding, maintaining the ability to do it all, and the isolation that can develop.

In the most successfully run small stations, “there are all kinds of interesting strategies and tactics, and there’s definitely a resource,” said Sally Kane, CEO of the National Federation of Community Radio Broadcasters. “But every one of them that would shine bright had a great leader. Nobody really likes to say that because, especially in community radio, it’s all supposed to be about volunteers and it’s all about people power and so on. But someone has to run the show and inspire people to care about the organization.

Face of the station

Amanda Eichstaedt doesn’t go grocery shopping when she’s in a bad mood.

Shortly after becoming general manager of community radio station KWMR in Point Reyes Station, Calif., Eichstaedt broke that rule and scowled into the grocery store. A donor wanted to know why she was angry with them, Eichstaedt recalls.


“I’m like, ‘No, I was just having a really bad day,'” she said. “’It has nothing to do with you at all. I haven’t even seen you.

As the chief of a small station, “you’re not an elected official, you’re not a movie star or anything like that, but you’re basically a public figure,” she said. It is important to understand that you are “just another steward” of this community resource. But as chief executive, your role is to be the “chief steward and accountable to the board, to the community,” Eichstaedt said. “And that’s how I really see the job.”

According to Nathan Moore, general manager of WTJU in Charlottesville, Va., people and communication skills are two of the key skills needed for a station manager, but for managers whose stations serve small rural communities, it’s especially important, he said. Relations with listeners and supporters “are really personal and we are super accessible”.

A few weeks ago, Moore was visiting the local farmer’s market, and someone he didn’t know greeted him with “Hey, Nathan, how are you?” He turned out to be a listener.

“I don’t know who I was talking to, but he asked me about WTJU and I was happy to…find out why he loves jazz shows so much,” Moore said.

“My kids actually think I know everyone,” he said.

Being the director of a public radio station in a small community also means responding to comments from people who are not so grateful. KACU, an NPR station in Abilene, Texas, is in a political “red zone,” said former general manager Nathan Gibbs. He said he had to “advocate the concept of ‘public radio’ more often than probably elsewhere”.

Stations in larger communities have more leeway to respond to email complaints with a generic auto-response like, “Thank you for your input. We appreciate your concern,” Gibbs said. see these people when you go out to eat. So you have to talk to people.

“If you’re not friendly, it doesn’t work very well,” he said. “…You have to be able to shake hands, remember a name, ask someone how their children are.”

Skills for the job

Basic management and leadership skills are also essential, Gibbs said. This includes the ability to listen to your staff, empower them to do a good job, and act as a mentor.

It’s important that staff feel respected and that “their ideas can be retained, that the manager… can actually say, ‘You know what, that’s a really good idea, let’s do this,'” he said. .

Gibbs, who previously worked at KPBS in San Diego in a variety of roles including interactive product specialist, said it was important for general managers at smaller stations to be willing to learn new skills.

Moore of WTJU agrees. When he became manager of the University of Virginia community radio station, he didn’t know much about maintaining transmitters, he said. He quickly realized that he needed to learn. WTJU’s contract engineer is good but not always available, he said.

He now knows enough to participate in engineering work. With the help of a volunteer, Moore installed a new backup studio transmitter link at the station. “I saw there was a need…and I thought if we could fix some of our own stuff, great,” he said.

Moore thinks being a “generalist” is a useful quality for general managers of small stations, as their duties are so varied. “If I had the same tasks all day, I wouldn’t thrive,” he said. “In a place like this, I really enjoy soldering, then doing spreadsheets, then producing audio, then teaching a class. And that’s all before lunch.

It is especially important to have a range of skills because smaller stations have fewer employees. A lot of work can fall on station leaders.

At the start of the pandemic, KWMR’s Eichstaedt was the only person to enter the station for 15 weeks. At one point, the station was in an area affected by mandatory blackouts, which meant she had to arrive at the studio at 7 a.m. to turn on the generator. She stayed on engineering shows and played music for hosts who couldn’t come to the station. She also hosted her own shows. At night, she came back to turn off the generator and shut down the station.

General managers at big stations aren’t necessarily expected to “host your own show, then work hand-in-hand with the accountant for all the financials, then go to an event and produce a gig,” a she declared. “It’s a really wide variety of things you can do.”

Additionally, she said it’s important for small station managers to have “budget sense, financial sense.”

And they also need to know their communities. “You have to respect the community, even if you don’t necessarily agree with them all the time,” she said.

The “big stressor”

Fundraising and development is one of the biggest ongoing challenges facing GMs of small stations.

NFCB’s Kane said it’s especially difficult in rural stations, which make up 65% of NFCB’s membership.

CPB-qualified stations serving rural areas receive additional support under the Community Service Grant Program, and the funds provide at least 25% of income to more than half of rural beneficiaries, according to CPB.


“The model in public media has always been if you need more money, get more members, find more subscribers,” Kane said. “How are you going to do that when you have more cows than people in a county? How are you going to do this on a reservation? »

Gibbs agreed. “The local community can’t give you as much money as in other communities.” he said. “So budgeting is still one of the biggest stressors.”

“You can’t start a new investigative podcast,” he said. “There’s just no time for all of this, there’s no money for all of this. So you really tend to just strap in and focus on the core of running the station, making sure everything is running smoothly, that you have some local reporting going on.

At some large stations, CEOs and general managers focus on the culture of major donors, Kane said. “But if you run a small station, you talk to everyone on the way to the post office… and you can’t really get out of it. You must have good relationship building skills in the small station as a senior manager.

Eichstaedt also sees fundraising as a constant challenge. KWMR’s recent efforts around crowdfunding during pledge campaigns have “made a huge difference”, she said.

KWMR is located in an exurban community outside of San Francisco, where the high cost of living adds to financial pressure.

Her family would not be able to move to the area and find housing on the wages of their current jobs, she said. “We’re just lucky to have been here long enough to be here,” she said. “And that’s the case for a lot of people.”

KWMR has been working on succession planning for staff members about to retire, but recruitment is tricky for a station with an annual budget of around $400,000 located in an area where the cost of life is high. Eichstaedt and his colleagues must ask themselves: “How can we be sustainable in a region where it is so impossible to find housing because it is so expensive? she says.

“It can be really lonely”

Beyond the financial challenges of running small stations, it can be difficult to do everything that needs to be done, Moore said. His to-do list includes updating the WTJU Volunteer Handbook – a task he wanted to complete three years ago. “It’s just hard to take it all in,” he said.

And with a limited staff, there are only so many jobs you can delegate. This feeling of so much to do and few people to turn to can lead to feelings of isolation.

“It can be very lonely being the manager of one of these little stations, because you have to make some decisions that are really yours,” Moore said. “You are still the boss, even if you work with your co-workers as co-workers.”


Looking back on his early days at KACU, Gibbs said having “some form of mentorship from another general manager at another station would have been really helpful. At the time, I didn’t really have that many.”

Building relationships with general managers at other small stations can be tricky because it’s expensive to attend conferences, he said. There are not enough scholarships for everyone.

“What it ends up perpetuating is that isolation,” Gibbs said. He remembers attending a conference and having a conversation with an NPR board member who told him, “What a pleasure to talk to a little station manager who isn’t crazy.

But he feels empathy for managers who “end up looking crazy” at industry gatherings. “When you’re kind of isolated from the world around you, you’re in a small rural community, you can’t go out and network all the time…you have a lot of pent up frustration when you end up going to the meeting.

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