Feature article from the May 2011 AIRblast

Sex! Fame! Fortune! Someday …

By Ellen Rocco

In last month's Spotlight, producer Stephanie Foo argued for greater inclusion of younger, more diverse new voices in public media. In this issue, veteran Ellen Rocco responds with ideas about how to achieve this. Ellen started her own career back in the '70s, as a volunteer at North Country Public Radio. She's been station manager at NCPR since 1985 and has also served two terms on the NPR Board of Directors. Born and raised in Manhattan, she's spent 40 years tending to a farm as well as the radio station. She says her strong suit is that she's not afraid of saying what needs to be said.

I've been on a tear for the past few years. Everyone's talking about "succession planning" as the current generation of public radio managers approaches retirement. It's making me CRAZY. All that talk allows us to put off what has to be done right now — opening doors for the next generation of public media makers.

Worrying about something that's five or 10 years away takes our attention away from the here and now. If money is the problem, see below. If fear of being displaced is the problem, make sure you're still creative and useful and there's nothing to fear — see below. When I move on, the station will search and find someone with the vision, enthusiasm, and chops to lead the station into the middle of the 21st century.
Right NOW is what matters NOW. I don't want to lose another generation of talent because we're telling newcomers to public media that they can "intern" (translation: be our unpaid slaves) and that someday they'll inherit the power and glory. Pay your dues, live in your uncle's basement, and your time will come.
Give me a break. Or rather, give them a break. Now.

Here's my personal manifesto (it does not contain the word "sex," I was cheating to get your attention — ditto for "fame" and "fortune," with a tip of the hat to Lorenzo W. Milam; Google Milam if you don't know this name):


If you're making your living in public media, odds are you started at a small or medium station, covering graveyard air-shifts or editing some incredibly boring interview down to three minutes from its original hour and a half. That's how I started. Stations outside the major markets were the training ground for the first generation(s) of public radio professionals. The model worked. And it still works. Two, three, four decades ago, we worked for almost nothing, long wild hours. That was then. That's the part we have to leave behind. It's a different economy and our public media world has matured in the intervening decades. We have role models and a deep track record. We have made progress. We have millions of listeners, we raise millions of dollars, and we no longer have to explain at the local Elks Club luncheon that public radio is like public TV, only on the radio.

DO IT #1:
Open your door. Every station commits to bringing on board at least one paid twentysomething for every 10 full-time employees. (I made up this number off the top of my head, but it gives you an idea of the impact we could have immediately.) We need new people, young lively fresh brains in every aspect of our work: on the air, on digital platforms, in news, fundraising, outreach.



Money. There is money in your community for bringing young people into public media. Just ask the people on your board, or community advisory group. Banks, affluent donors. This is money that will not come your way for just doing what you always do. But add in new voices and new talent, and a new pool of money opens up. Did I mention CPB? What if 200 stations banded together and advised CPB to direct serious money toward the "next generation" project … today?

DO IT #2: Raise money. Write a mission statement about your open-door policy. One page. Show it to everyone you know, including CPB, local and state foundations, everyone. Raise money to pay young staff and cover some of your related organization expenses.
Time to hold hands with everyone who shares your interest in the next generation or who can advance that interest. We pay lip service to finding the next generation and we pay lip service to collaborating with other organizations. If we did a fraction of what we talk about, we'd revolutionize the public media world. In the last few years, here at NCPR we've collaborated with independent producers, local high schools, colleges, and the regional Youth Board to bring young people into our shop.

DO IT #3: Collaborate. Become a collaborator. It's not a dirty word. Contact area educators and other entities working with young people and make a proposition. Start small, try it out. One thing leads to another.

Time for us to share across our system. Yes, open doors to young people, but let's open doors to each other, as well. We share talent, time, ideas, and expertise. Think of it as a kind of open-source talent pool. We've just offered to bring a young journalist here to NCPR to work for a few weeks with our news team — she's from a smaller station that's getting a news department up and running and a little bit of mentoring can go a long way. We'll find the money and resources to bring her here.

DO IT #4: Share. Let's make the pot boil again, the way it did in the olden days when you and I were young. Let's get excited about ideas, challenges, solutions.

We are not doing young people a favor. We need them as much or more than they need us. Respect the talent, the ideas, and the energy in those with less experience.

DO IT #5: Serve the public. We are not a charity. The decision to open our doors and our minds is not altruistic. It is grounded in providing the best possible public media to those who really matter: the public we serve.

This is not Das Kapital or "the little red book." All the parts are moveable and adjustable based on your station and your community's situation. Take baby steps, and gradually stretch. Work new people into your shop a little bit at a time. There's only one immutable takeaway: Do it.

Further reading:

Transom Review: Ellen Rocco
June 1, 2002

Seven Good Things about Working at a Small Local Radio Station
by Neenah Ellis (for Transom)
April 27, 2011

Ellen Rocco is the station manager at North Country Public Radio in Canton, New York. Ellen and NCPR have been members of AIR for 10 years.

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