Community radio’s latest retirements remind us of succession planning

The author is membership program director of the National Federation of Community Broadcasters. NFCB commentaries are featured regularly at www.radioworld.com.

So many dynamic authors, scholars and thinkers have spun yarns about the march of time. Yet, when time visits community radio, how poetic it becomes should not be left to chance.

2018 has seen the retirement of a surprising number of longtime community radio leaders. Every one of them deserves our respect and recognition for all they have contributed. From major innovators to steadfast stewards, each of them has made a deep impact on community media. Their exits leave a hole that will not be easy to fill.

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In Moab, KZUM’s General Manager Marty Durlin has retired, that after a decorated tenure at KGNU before that. In addition, at longtime Washington State community radio station KBCS, General Manager Steve Ramsey also retired in June, after nearly 20 years at his post. At WTIP in Minnesota, Deb Benedict led the station for almost two decades before her June 1 retirement. And Manager Rip Robbins has retired from KSVR in Washington State after almost a quarter century at the helm.

It is reasonable to think managers who have been at the helm for long stretches of time will transition, of course. Yet, this exodus of bright minds across community radio goes beyond the veteran shepherds and founders. In Crested Butte, Colo., award-winning News Director Chad Reich departed KBUT last month. At historic San Francisco station KALW, Matt Martin stepped down after just over a decade of service, and Tina Pamintuan became general manager in May. In Grand Rapids, Mich., WYCE Station Manager Quinn Matthews announced last week his move to lead a new Michigan live music venture.

What all these retirements say about the state of community media is up for debate. A cynic might say they are going given what seem like insurmountable odds. Another take might just suggest life is taking people elsewhere, either to pursue a dream or to enjoy well-earned hours with family. Or perhaps it is all happening as those of a particular age, who grew up in community media in many ways, all mature around the same period. Naturally, the passage of time elicits a retrenchment at many private businesses and nonprofits, so this phenomenon could be not at all unusual. Also, shifting media conditions, as KALW’s Martin alluded to, could generate a impulse to find new administrators. How you may translate all this decampment is up to you. However, all these developments are occurring just as community radio especially is facing many contenders to its throne.

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One thing is certain: there is opportunity in change. Already several of the aforementioned stations have appointed successors. In others, active searches are underway.

Retirements and flights are a reminder of the necessity of succession planning. For community radio stations with key staff members, expertise and experience will be quite troublesome to replace. A complete brain drain can be fatal.

It can be onerous to think about a strategy for times that staff leave or retire. However, preparation for such inevitabilities is not only smart thinking, but compassionate. What station wants to suffer through problems that could be avoided with minimal effort?

When I resigned my post at a community radio station for my current job, I was rather perplexed how my manager asked so few questions about my work; did not even seek out the most fundamental things, like passwords to mission critical accounts; or conduct an exit interview. As calls poured in weeks after my farewell, it was evident the organization had not made arrangements to retain any of the knowledge they needed, and leadership was not even aware of what I knew. It was a good example of what not to do for any community radio station wanting to conduct a smooth transition.

Cross-training staff members and documenting processes are paramount requirements, particularly if there are specialized skills your station needs to know. Making a clearly articulated procedure for succession will engender trust from your community, and also cut down on confusion. Simple questions like who is next in line, task assignments and where to go inspire confidence from donors and volunteers that the station has everything under control. And, needless to say, community radio stations should secure some understandings with those who say goodbye, so they can be called on when needed, rather than, as in my case, getting scattershot contact when proverbial fires broke out and amplified the lack of preparation.

Community radio is just a little less wonderful without some of the aforementioned managers and doers away from their stations. As they go on to their next great adventures, one can wish that their absence prompts community radio to think of its own future as well as honor its past.

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