Advice from a new public-media CEO: Listen and Serve

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When Jayme Swain walked in the door of Richmond’s Community Idea Stations on January 2nd, it was her first day on the job, a job which is arguably one of the most interesting in public media.

The Community Idea Stations is a public media organization with a growth opportunity like few others. Two boards, The Virginia Foundation for Public Media and the Commonwealth Public Broadcasting Corporation, oversee an organization that includes TV and radio stations serving much of Virginia. The fortunes of the organization radically changed in 2017 when the FCC broadcast spectrum auction produced an unexpected $182 million windfall. In the words of board chairman Mike Bisceglia, “We now had a big opportunity in front of us.”

Few first-time CEOs are as well prepared and well suited for the role. Jayme grew up professionally in commercial media, producing television and digital for big television brands. For the last 11 years, Jayme has been at PBS, first as a leader in digital and then as SVP, Strategy and Operations. Few know the ins and outs of the public media system, from station- to board-level, as well as she.

Now the question is what this first-time CEO will do with one of public media’s most interesting opportunities?

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Keith McAllister (K):
What’s hard about public media these days?

Jayme Swain (J):  I think that the media business in general is going through such rapid transformation that everyone is trying to figure out how to rise above the noise, how can you be discovered among so many choices, and then how do you gain support.  And what is the business model?  For public media, we’ve always been the original subscription model, and now we’re trying to keep that support but also compete with so many other options, whether that’s Netflix or Amazon, Disney’s new service, or all the over-the-top streaming options.

K: So how do you compete with those very well-funded, high brand competitors, because you’re fighting for share of attention, right?

J:  Yes. I get this question often and, and my response is I don’t think you do compete head-to-head.  We in public media don’t have $20 billion to spend on original content. I think where we’re distinctive is in local, whether that’s local content or local engagement. Not only are we some of the only media producing truly local content and local stories, but we also take that to the community and connect the content to the community for more impact.  That could be local news, local documentaries, or just stories that really resonate with the community.  If you look at news across the country from a newspaper standpoint, that’s a business model that’s extremely challenged. I think public media has the opportunity to step in and serve with local news, information, and in‑depth context.

K: And how do you do news at a time of such extreme “tribalism?”

J:  I think one of the great attributes of public media is trust: public media for its 50-year history has been a trusted source of in‑depth content that represents all sides.  I think that we try to tell the full story.  And I actually think more people are coming back to public media for just that type of information without the editorialization or the shouting from different viewpoints.  Public media can provide the information that matters, the factual information that people can then use to make their own choices.  And we are well suited to do that, and across platforms.  Luckily, at our station we have radio, digital, and television so we can look at news on a multiplatform basis.  And we can also give room to those stories.  I worked in commercial media and sometimes you can only give a story 90 seconds or two minutes.  At public media, if you look at Frontline, for example, they can give two hours to a story or All Things Considered can give a lot of time to a story to give people the full viewpoints.

K: Virginia public media has some unique aspects to it.  Explain to us how the opportunity with your organization differs from the nation as a whole.

J:  We are lucky here in Virginia in that we went through a lot of changes over the last couple of years.  We benefited from selling some spectrum in the FCC spectrum auction which has left us with a very robust endowment and what we’ve been able to do with that is expand our footprint.  From the PBS standpoint, we are based here in Richmond, but we have a station in Charlottesville and in Harrisonburg as well.  And, in Richmond, we now have an all-news station and an all-music station, which is nice because it gives people the option for either news or music.

And with the spectrum auction proceeds we’ve been able to use the income to invest in new programming, so we’re experimenting with different types of programming.  We’re producing a podcast, we’ve invested in more local radio journalists, we’re leaning into additional community engagement efforts, and we are piloting a couple new series.  One is a local show on the art scene. The other is a local food show.  And, we’re piloting some programming that is local, but also has national relevance.  ”Legacy List” is a new twist on “Antiques Road Show.” And, “The Future of America’s Past” is a program with noted historian Ed Ayers which explores how a community was shaped today by an incident that happened in our past.  I think these are good examples of new programs that are multiplatform and very relevant to Virginia. We’re excited that APT has picked up both for national distribution this fall.

K: What’s the role of public media in the nonprofit ecosystem of the state of Virginia?

J:  That’s a good question.  At our heart, we’re nonprofit.  Most media is commercial while public media is nonprofit and mission-driven.  That makes us accountable to the community.  Rather than advertising, what we rely on and what’s most important to us is community support.  While we have an endowment, that endowment is here to make sure that we are strong for generations to come.  But the reason we exist, and the reason that we are sustainable and that we thrive, is because our community believes in what we do and supports us.  We do compete with nonprofits for dollars, but we also partner with many of our fellow nonprofits.  One great example is in the ready-to-learn space: we do a lot to help children and parents of children zero to eight.  There are a lot of great nonprofits in the region that are also executing on that same mission. We can do certain things as a media partner, but we’re not teachers and we’re not in the schools. We can, however, provide resources for the nonprofits that are educating teachers or arming teachers in the schools with resources.  It’s a great partnership when you can work together with other mission-driven nonprofits to solve community issues.

K: What role does technology play in your opportunities as well as in your challenges?

J:  I think technology presents both opportunity and challenge.  As media we need to be where people are, and that has evolved so quickly over even the last four or five years.  The consumer is in control of their content experience, so you need to invest in the technology and platforms and distribution in order to meet that, which is expensive.  We’re lucky in that PBS and NPR handle a lot of the backend technology. I think our opportunity is to invest in content.

We can no longer just be siloed in radio, TV and digital.  I think about it as content and content creation and then what are the distribution platforms to best reach your audience segments. Technology can enable you to better reach audiences and, hopefully, expand audiences by making us relevant to people who haven’t discovered public media before.

K: Let’s shift to talking about you and a new kind of job for you in your career now that you’re a CEO for the first time.  How did your PBS experience prepare you?

J: I had the great benefit of being at PBS for 10 years and I think it was the best possible grad school I could’ve ever gone to.  I actually started at PBS in digital, so I learned a lot about the rapidly evolving digital landscape.  When I started at PBS in 2008, for example, Netflix was just getting into streaming and there was no iPad.  We learned a lot in that time about how to manage through a digital transformation.  When I made the switch to management, I had the benefit of learning from the best CEO in the business, Paula Kerger. I learned a lot about board relations, culture, strategy, budgeting, how to set priorities, and the importance of relationships.  I’m a big fan of the phrase “culture eats strategy for breakfast”. I truly believe that. We worked really hard at PBS on culture.

I also learned a lot about the system. I had a good 50,000-foot view of the system and was able to understand how public media worked, how the system worked. I think what’s been different being here, and actually the thing I love most about it, is what it’s like being at a station and what it’s like being on the ground. I think this opportunity is so unique because we can rethink, “What is public media? What is a local station in 2019?”

We have a great legacy here, but we have gone through so much change and have so much opportunity that I like to think of our operation as a startup. Luckily, I’ve had some startup experience and I am always thinking about how we lead ourselves from where we’ve been and our great legacy, but building on that towards the future.

K: A subject often opined on is the first 90 days, right?

J:  Right.

K: How did you approach that?  How structured were you?  What were your priorities?  What did you focus on?  How’d you think about your first 3 months?

J:  I’m a pretty structured person so I came into it with a pretty structured point of view and end goals. I read the book, The First 90 Days, which several people shared with me.

I set a couple of goals.  The first one, which I learned from the book and everyone will tell you, is to take the first 90 days to listen.  I think that’s terrific advice.  As much as I knew about public media, I did not know a lot about this particular station and its history and what it’s like to be at a local station.  So I was very cautious of making too many decisions early and really wanted to listen and take it in.  I spent a lot of time with board members, with the staff, with our community advisory boards, and with donors just learning about expectations.

I actually came in with a list of five questions. I asked everyone the same five questions so I could identify themes and what was working and maybe what we could hone in on to fix or change or just stop doing.  I think the hard question that people often don’t ask is “What should we stop doing?”  During that time, I also identified a couple of key roles that I thought would help us get to that next level.  One was a chief financial officer and one was a chief content officer.

My first quarter was about listening and then identifying those two roles and for the second quarter, I hope we can get into strategy and thinking about mapping our three-year trajectory.

K: And how did your structured approach work out?  Were there surprises?

J:  Listen, there’s always surprises, there’s always things you don’t expect.  Having that structure and the discipline to just listen and not try to change anything right away or jump into a decision right away really helped. You can tie yourself in knots trying to identify A, B and C and move the needle in 3 months and you’re just not going to do it.  I actually think, and I’m a quick person, I want to see results, but I think the best advice is to not make any quick decisions, really take the time and listen.  And if you listen intently with purpose, you need that time.  In fact, I’ve joked with people that I need 90 more days to continue listening.  One of the things I love about the job is that I’m constantly learning and that’s been exciting.

K: Relationships are obviously important.  When you walked in, you probably had a notion of what the key relationships would be.  What did you discover would be your most important relationships?

J:  Obviously, the team here.  I can’t do any of this without a great team and we’ve got a really good team. I’ve been spending a lot of time talking with the team and learning from them.

Also, the board. I have two boards, and I’ve spending a lot of time with them to understand their history and the expectations. And the board’s been tremendously helpful.  We’re a bit of an evolving organization and we’re going through some growing pains, so having the board help make sure we get our bylaws in place and get structures and processes in place has been great.

It’s also been important to meet with our community advisory boards to understand the issues of the community so that when we create local content we are reflecting the community.  As I go forward, I want to spend more time in the community and with local leaders.

Also with our donors and supporters. Why do they support us?  What do they like?  What would they like to see?  Because that community support is so important to our sustainability and our ability to be successful.

K: What’s been your insight about the community, your donors, and how you’re approaching development?

J:  I’m still learning a lot about development and in Virginia our market is very interesting because Richmond, Charlottesville and Harrisonburg are all very different.  When I meet donors, I’ve learned that people donate for different reasons.  Some people here in Richmond like our local radio news, but we don’t have a radio footprint in Charlottesville and Harrisonburg so that doesn’t resonate in those communities.

So, it’s finding out what resonates, and I’ve found so far is that it’s local content.  In Harrisonburg, we just launched a new series called “Untamed”, which is about the Virginia Wildlife Center.  We had a very vibrant series launch and several people said they were excited about local content which encouraged me to keep thinking about local.  In Charlottesville, we’re working on two projects with the University of Virginia, which I think will resonate very well with that community and garner support.  And we’ve had tremendous support here in Richmond.  I think people have wanted to understand the changes and how that will impact the station. We just keep reminding people that no matter what changes we go through or what we end up calling ourselves, the mission is still the same. We’re here to educate, entertain, inspire, tell those local stories, and make a community impact.

K: How do you think about talent in your organization?  Have you changed your approach since you got there?

J:  I’m still meeting people and understanding our talent.  I think, as Jim Collins said, you need to make sure you have the right people in the right seats on the bus and, as a media organization, we’re rapidly changing.  Technology is changing, as we talked about.  Audience behaviors and expectations are changing.  We need to be thinking about membership online.  We’re moving from an on-air pledge model to more people donating online through a tool that we call Passport, which provides the ability to be able to stream PBS content and our local content whenever they want. We’re seeing an uptick in people using this tool.  So how do we develop the skill sets to make sure that we know how to maximize those donors online and give them the best possible experience. Those are digital skills.

And I think storytelling skills are evolving.  It’s not just two‑hour broadcast windows anymore.  You might tell a story in 4 minutes or 8 minutes, through a podcast or through digital platforms.  So how do we hone our storytelling skills and make sure that we seize the opportunity to tell stories across all of our platforms?

And then in distribution, what used to be an over-the-air satellite system to distribute content has now become a software IP-based system, so we need to make sure that our engineers have the right skill sets.  In some cases, it’s training, some of which has already happened, and it’s learning from others.  In some cases, it may be bringing in new talent.

As I mentioned I brought in a chief content officer and that person’s role is not siloed in a distribution segment.  It’s not just TV, its TV, radio and digital. We need to look fully at content and think not just how we distribute that content but also how we market that content.  One of the things in public media that’s always challenging is marketing and telling our story, and we’re lucky that we have some resources to be able to do that and build audiences and more engagement.

K: A lot of leaders in situations like yours, for all the reasons you’ve just discussed in terms of an evolving organization, try to build a culture of continuous transformation or innovation.

J:  It is something I’m thinking about.  I think as an organization, as in any media organization, we need to be more agile, we need to be able to quickly adapt to change.  The great news with this station is we’ve been through a lot of change in the last couple of years, so I think people are used to change.

It’s funny when you think about innovation, the word innovation, because that word means different things to different people. So how do you apply that broadly through an organization?  What I would encourage people to do is always ask why. Always ask if there a better way and not get stuck in the, “well, we’ve always done it this way” mantra.  How do we learn from each other? How can we create a more matrixed organization so that you have more diversity in a room?  I think it’s always better when you have a mix of people from different parts of the organization and different moments in their career because that’s when you get the best and most innovative ideas.  I don’t think the best organizations right now are siloed.  I think people are finding new ways to work, breaking down those barriers, and mixing it up a bit to get the best ideas with respectful disagreement and dialogue. That is the best way to get fresh ideas, new ideas and maintain competitiveness in an industry that’s moving so quickly.

K: Last question… Somewhere around the country, somewhere at this moment, there is another person who’s preparing to take on their first CEO job. What advice would you give that person?

J:  I would say the hardest thing is going to be to come in for your initial 90 days and just be patient.  A lot of this is about patience.  I don’t actually have a lot of patience.  I’m a person who likes to move at warp speed.  But I think the best advice is to take a step back, take it all in, because it’s a marathon, not a sprint.  Change doesn’t happen overnight.  And these are all clichés, but it’s very, very true.  I think you need to figure out where the quick wins are going to be, but also be planning for the future.  And, in order to do that, you need to form the relationships, you need to listen, you need to understand, and you also need to know you don’t have all of the answers.  So where do you need to go for help?  Where are those partners?  Who is going to be able to help you achieve what you want to achieve?  And they may be partners on your board, they may be partners in the community.  And they are certainly your team, and creating a team that knows where they’re headed, knows the vision. And be patient with yourself.

Keith McAllister is an executive recruiter based in New York who runs the global digital media and technology practice at SRI. Keith placed Jayme and her new CFO, Gary Ometer.
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