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A Few Questions For NY Public Radio’s New CEO, Goli Sheikholeslami

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Goli Sheikholeslami (Chicago Public Media)

Five months after New York Public Radio’s president and CEO stepped down, the company’s board has announced a new leader: Goli Sheikholeslami.

Sheikholeslami is currently the CEO of Chicago Public Media and its radio station, WBEZ, where the annual budget has grown from $19 million to $31 million during her five-year tenure. (New York Public Radio, which includes WNYC, WQXR, WNYC Studios, Gothamist, and The Jerome L. Greene Performance Space, has a budget of around $97 million.)

Sheikholeslami, who has worked as a manager in media for 25 years and oversaw the integration of The Washington Post’s digital and print teams, was named the most powerful woman in Chicago journalism earlier this year by a respected local media reporter. The reporter cited the station’s “record-setting audience and membership growth” and “dedication to robust investigative and enterprise reporting” under her leadership.

New York Public Radio’s previous president and CEO, Laura Walker, oversaw an explosion of growth in her 24 years at the helm, though her last two were especially tumultuous. In the midst of the #MeToo movement in 2017, a writer for The Cut described how she was sexually harassed by retired Takeaway host John Hockenberry. NYPR executives reportedly knew about the harassment allegations, and other employees described a overall hostile work environment.

A subsequent company investigation led to the suspension and firing of two longtime hosts, Leonard Lopate and Jonathan Schwartz, for “violat[ing] our standards for providing an inclusive, appropriate, and respectful work environment.” Another investigation, led by an outside law firm Proskauer Rose, into NYPR’s culture found that while harassment existed at the company, it was not systemic.

Gothamist was acquired by New York Public Radio in February 2018 after being shut down three months earlier.

We called Sheikholeslami a few minutes after the press release landed in our inbox. She’ll start her new job in October.

2017 and 2018 were tough years for NYPR as an institution. Employees were sexually harassed and bullied by their powerful superiors. Freelance workers were exploited. Management seemingly tolerated this behavior for years, and people’s careers were derailed as a result. How can NYPR regain trust from its employees and ensure that managers do things differently, beyond the sort of performative listening and box-checking that any large company does after something like this happens?

I would say that it does have a lot to do with leadership. As a leader of an organization, a primary responsibility, if not the primary responsibility, is to create an environment where people can do their best work, and that means an environment where people feel safe to bring ideas forward, safe to bring concerns forward, and an environment that is transparent and fair and equitable.

I really do believe in leading by example and making sure that I am personally accessible and I am personally connected to the broader organization, so that I know when and what is going right and I know when and what is not going right. I do believe that it very much is about being present and connected and fostering a culture that is transparent and a culture that does not tolerate behavior like that.

Is there a point in time during your career when you had to deal with a situation similar to what has happened at NYPR?

There’s been a point in my career when I’ve actually been on the other side of that equation. I was a manager, but there was a situation where there was inappropriate behavior by someone who was my superior, I made the decision to take it to my superior’s superior, and the thing that I was so impressed about and built so much trust for me with that organization is that they responded immediately, they looked into it, and within a very short period of time took action.

And that to me was the model of how you build trust is that you are responsive, and when an employee brings forward an issue as important as harassment, it is dealt with immediately.

I’ve been told that podcasting is a big deal. Revenues from podcasts are supposed to top $1 billion by 2021. NYPR has been a podcasting pioneer, but the company recently lost the Freakonomics podcast to a private media group. How can NYPR stay competitive with podcast shops that are flush with investment cash?

Competition is good, and competition makes us all better. I think that podcasting is just on-demand audio programming. For me, it is the quality of programming that is always going to be the definer of whether there is success or not. There are times where there are these private companies that are throwing money at creators and perhaps we can’t compete there on a pure money basis, but when you think about a supportive environment for creators to do their best work, I can’t imagine a better place than public radio. The thing that differentiates us is that we are not commercial entities. At the end of the day our funding and support comes from people who love what we do and value what we do. That is such a unique and powerful model and when you are driven by commercial concerns sometimes you are making a tradeoff between the quality of the programming, and that is a trade-off we don’t have to make.

Local news coverage is still shrinking, but we have it better in New York City than many other areas of the country. What do you see as NYPR’s role in the local news ecosystem? How do you strike the right balance of allocating resources to cover hyperlocal news, like community board meetings, versus broader citywide news topics, and national news that obviously affects New Yorkers?

The best way for me to answer that question is to talk about what I’ve done here in Chicago, because I haven’t started yet and I don’t presume to know enough about NY Public Radio to give you a complete answer.

This is the thing that makes me the most excited about being a part of the public radio system. I’ve been in the media business for 25 years, and the last five years have been the most fulfilling of my career. Part of that is I think public radio has the best model to support healthy, vibrant, dynamic local newsrooms. In the last five years here in Chicago we have doubled the size of our newsroom. Chicago is a big city with lots of issues to cover and what we have done here is to focus on a handful of areas where we thought we could add value, where we thought our community is not getting the information they needed and organized ourselves around five topic desks and decided to go really in-depth.

Today we have the largest education desk in the city of Chicago, we have the only dedicated reporter that covers Cook County. The way that we have been focused on it is to really look at where there are the biggest gaps and where can we fill in those gaps.

I do believe that it is better to grow by increments rather than saying, okay, we’re going to take a city like New York and try to cover every possible angle. You would need a newsroom of several hundred people to do that. And listening to our listeners and readers: where are they seeing a need? What topics are they not seeing covered?

New Jersey Public Radio is also part of NYPR. Do you have any plans for expanding coverage in the Garden State?

In Chicago we talk about the city of Chicago, but we serve seven counties at WBEZ. I see it the same way at NY Public Radio. The focus may be on New York but you’re also serving this much broader community. Our approach to New Jersey should not be any different than New York: how do we best serve this community and how do we better understand what the needs of the people that we are trying to reach are, so that we can do a better job fulfilling them?

How can a public radio station broaden its impact on the internet, and how can digital reporters like myself be more involved with radio stories? How do we integrate these two formats better?

I actually have thought about this a lot. At the Washington Post when we were integrating the two newsrooms, the digital newsroom and the newspaper newsroom, there were two different distribution platforms but text was the common form of journalism. And it’s not the same for us in the public radio world. Audio is a very different format than text. In Chicago we have hired several print reporters and we have trained them to become radio reporters, and we have radio reporters that have training to be better text and digital reporters.

Eighty percent of it is the same, it’s about the reporting and are we pursuing the right stories, are we really covering the things we want to cover. The last 20 percent is: are we giving our reporters the training and skills that they need in this multiplatform world, because I don’t think there’s any media company anymore that can really live in a single-platform world. Organizations have to be more committed to providing the training and education that is needed to be truly multi-platform reporters.

Have you lived in New York City before? Do you know where you’re gonna live?

I have, I’ve lived in New York for 12 years. I was living in New York when I got the job in Chicago, and I actually kept my place in New York because I have a deep affinity for New York. So I already know where I’m going to live.

How do you get to work now? Do you take mass transit? Drive? Ride a bike?

I walk! I lived 11 miles from the Washington Post, and it took me 50 minutes on a good day to get to work. After that experience I vowed I would never, ever, ever, sit in a car for that long. When I moved to Chicago I got a place that was in walking distance from the offices.

Chicago pizza or New York pizza?

New York City pizza.

Well, you kind of have to say that now.

No, but that is genuine! To me, Chicago pizza is a full meal in one slice. I am a New York pizza person.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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