In a recent webinar presented by Greater Public’s Young and Young-at-Heart Professionals (YAYAHPS), three career-long public media professionals shared their insights into moving around the industry. Their experiences point to the possibilities for career development within public media, as well as individual strategies that can be applied to industry challenges. The panel was hosted by J.R. Rudolph, Engagement Marketing Specialist at WFYI; and moderated by Stephanie Rio, Corporate Support Associate at Vermont Public and Matt Blanchard, Account Executive at Radio Milwaukee. These excerpts have been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

How to Communicate the Desire for a Career Move

Stephanie Rio: Once you knew you wanted to make a job change within the public media sector, how did you go about navigating that conversation with your manager and what suggestions do you have to those who may be looking to start that process?
Sachi Christine Kobayashi: Fortunately, I’ve had people along the way that have asked me what my career goals are. So in the job interview process I will talk about where I’m headed, why I see that job as being an essential part of my career journey, and how I think my growth is in alignment with the growth that [the organization] wants to see for the work they’re doing. If you bring that up in a job interview and it makes it so that they don’t want to hire you, then that’s probably not someone you wanted to work for anyway. It’s a way to test early-on if they’re comfortable with you having conversations about career growth.
Jenn Jarecki: Yeah, I recommend being honest because it will come out in one way or another, whether that’s you leaving because you’re no longer happy… I think the better thing is to be transparent as you learn about where you may want to move and start to have conversations with people in the building who might be able to support you in that.
Gavin Dahl: It’s good to hear that that honesty is the best policy because I’m definitely an overshare heart-on-the-sleeve kind of person, and I’ve made a lot of lateral moves in my life. I think one of the big ways that you can communicate with someone you’re working for, especially at a station where there’s not a lot of opportunity to move up, is to say, “I’m trying to push myself; can I have an opportunity to do that?”

Career Moves That Led to Success

Matt Blanchard: Can you identify one specific change you’ve made in your career that has brought you a lot of success?

Gavin Dahl: The big change that helped my career was going more rural. I landed my first job as a news director at KYRS in Spokane, Washington, and my first time as a GM was for KDNK in Carbondale, Colorado. Those are not tiny markets, but they’re certainly not top 50 or even top 100, I don’t believe.

If you love music and public radio and you’re like, “My dream is to work for KEXP,” the chances you’re going to start at KEXP are very small. I know people who volunteered there for 10 years before they got a tiny part-time job. So, taking the opportunity to go where the need is and maybe bring a more progressive or urban perspective to a smaller community can really help you. Then, it’s exciting to bring what you’ve learned in smaller shops and apply it to a bigger budget situation.

Sachi Christine Kobayashi: The biggest switch I made in my career was to public media. I had over a decade of experience doing digital marketing, mostly in the music industry and at startups, and I took a 40% pay cut when I switched to public media, and that was terrifying. I’m not sure that’s the right fit for everyone, and I probably have a lot of privilege that I was able to do that. It was a four- to five-year setback in my personal wealth and savings. But it was worth it to do work that I cared about.
I think some people want to know what move got you more power or money, but there are other ways to gauge success. The biggest move I made was to be more in alignment with my values.
Jenn Jarecki: The biggest move I’ve made in public media has been from development over to audience and community and now into content. This is almost unheard of considering the firewall, but not [totally] unheard of because here I am.
When I was in corporate support, I heard our membership drives as a listener, and I was like, “How can I get involved in that?” At the time it wasn’t because I hoped to host All Things Considered someday, it just felt like this was an opportunity for me to share another skill [because] I’m mission-driven. That started leading to other things. 

Imposter Syndrome

Stephanie Rio: How do you navigate imposter syndrome as you are switching roles and careers, whether up, down, or laterally?
Jenn Jarecki: As someone who doesn’t have a degree in journalism and hadn’t spent a ton of time on air, imposter syndrome is real for me. But I also think it’s a much larger cultural problem that we feel the need to be perfect and compete with people that really we should be collaborative with. 
If there’s something you want to improve on, you can do that in a gentle way that leaves you space to fail. Failure and mistakes is where the learning happens. [I’m] live on the air and I’ve had people say, “Give yourself a point every time you mess something up on the air,” because that’s what happens. That’s all part of it. I think we can encourage one another to see the light within others shining brightly through their skillsets by being collaborative and not competitive.
Gavin Dahl: While I obviously have had a lot of privilege, just by looking at me… I’m also tall and loud and other things that take up a lot of oxygen in meetings. But I did have to claw my way to any sort of living wage in this process.
I’m very high-energy. I call it attention surplus, not attention deficit. Early in my career, I would consistently hear, “Oh, we like your energy.” I still hear that, but at one point, a bunch of general managers at a conference were commenting about me saying, “Don’t you just wish we could hook a battery up to him?” It bugged me. I learned to accept that that’s how people deal with how intensive a person I am. I realized that I had to just keep doing good work to make my way.
Sachi Christine Kobayashi: I don’t like to use the phrase imposter syndrome. That’s not to say it doesn’t exist, but I think it’s victim-blaming and it perpetuates a false narrative about who’s responsible in that dynamic. You’re only responsible for 50% of it and the rest of it is outside of your control, generally speaking.
I also don’t like it because a lot of self-help stuff around imposter syndrome recommends emulating traditional power structures. Doing that both perpetuates the problem, and it’s also not as accessible to some people as it is to others.
When I was younger – especially when I worked in the music industry, though this unfortunately carried over to public media – I thought that if I just acted like an extremely confident white male, people would give me recognition and power. I found that it was not only ineffective for me, but I got in trouble a lot. I was almost punished for it. I also was perpetrating things against my fellow coworkers that I deeply regret. A breaking point for me was when a white woman who I had said something vaguely sexist to pulled me aside after the meeting and told me she didn’t appreciate it. That was hard to hear. It made me confront that not only was it not working, but I was hurting people the same way that I’d been hurt by playing at power.
I took a step back and looked at the ways that my own unique strengths could be sources of advancing myself. The more authentic I was to myself, the more I found the right people to resonate with.

I think imposter syndrome is everywhere, but it’s also more prevalent at certain companies and in certain industries, [including] public media. I think we need to ask ourselves why that is. I think that has a lot to do with the way that we perceive our work, the way we perceive accreditation. I just want to call that out.

Where You Imagined You'd Be

Matt Blanchard: Is your current position where you imagine you’d be? If so, can you explain how you’ve accomplished this?
Jenn Jarecki: [I am] not at all where I envisioned myself, and I’m pumped. I love what I’m doing, but it took me 40 years to get here. I got to a point where I was like, I can’t work for an organization where I don’t believe in their values. That’s how I found myself dog-walking and selling vintage clothing. Then I saw that there was an opening at Vermont Public, and it was one of two things I would’ve done. I knew it wasn’t quite the right “seat on the bus,” but I wanted to be in the building. It took me four years of being here before I could figure that out, thanks to a lot of conversations with people.
I also had to say ‘no’ to some things. I was asked to apply for what would’ve been a promotion in development, but I knew it wasn’t what I wanted to do, even though I didn’t know what it was I did want to do. It was scary to say “no, thank you” to that, and hope to get asked for other opportunities. Thankfully, I did.
Sachi Christine Kobayashi: I definitely didn’t think I’d end up in this role. Pretty sure I’ve told people along the way that I would never work for NPR because I’m such a hardcore local station person, but I’m also open to the fact that people can change.
I do believe your career is a jungle gym, not a ladder. I’ve also made a couple sideways moves now, and I do feel like I’m getting towards the end of my ability to make sideways moves. I need to make a move up if I want to get where I’m going, because I want to run a station one day. But I have been offered several stations at this point, and have turned them down. The right station at the right time – one that needs my skillset to get them to the next step – has not come my way yet.
Gavin Dahl: I’ve primarily been a writer, interviewer, producer and DJ. The idea of having a bunch of Fidelity IRA forms on my desk and making calls to lapsed donors was not what motivated me to get involved in public broadcasting. What happened to get me into management was that I was the news director at a station, my boss was fired, and it dawned on me that if I didn’t apply for the job, it was possible that someone less qualified than me would be my boss. I really believed in the organization and the newsroom, so I decided to apply, hoping that I would not even get an interview because there’d be such qualified candidates. And that didn’t really work out.
I ended up really liking being a GM, but also finding that there were a lot of problems and institutional issues. Depending on the type of organization, the makeup of your board of directors can deeply impact your ability to succeed and your quality of life. [I had] a young child and we couldn’t buy a house in an expensive housing market. So [despite having] success as a GM, I moved back into a newsroom, took a dramatic pay cut, and yet was able to buy a home with a smaller income in a better housing market.
You have to make different decisions as you go. If you would’ve asked me at any point in my life, “Would you ever live in Utah?” I would’ve laughed and said no. But upon arriving in Salt Lake City I realized my biases about Utah were only partially accurate, if at all. Salt Lake City’s amazing. Utah’s a very challenging place to be. I’m not sure that we’ll stay here forever with our daughter, but there’s also a ton of opportunity. Any challenging environment will put you and your station in a position to grow your own experience and grow your service to the community. 

Obstacles to Success

Stephanie Rio: What are some of the obstacles you’ve identified that can impede somebody’s success, specifically within the public media sector?
Gavin Dahl: I once worked [in a job] where I had all these ideas and digital strategy, [but my] operational [ideas] weren’t getting heard. What I realized later was that the effort that I put into attempting to define what I thought the organization could do was really a good process for me. I realized in hindsight as I matured that it did ultimately contribute to the evolution of the organization, even if I experienced it as an obstacle in that moment.

If you don’t have a lot of support from your supervisor for the changes you want to make, put them on paper. Get them in front of the people that need to hear them. Even if you’re a barnacle on the hull, barnacles do make it, they do stick around, and eventually these changes will come. When you think about Public Media for All, for example, the long game has a deep amount of value. Reform has value, not only revolt. So, I just want to encourage you to not give up or bottle up what you have to offer just because it doesn’t feel like there’s an avenue for you.

Sachi Christine Kobayashi: In addition to working at NPR, I’m a founder of Public Media for All. We are a coalition of people of color working in public media and trying to offer frameworks and support for changing public media. That came about after I took a barnacle approach for a long time. I think what got me through my first many years in public media was, like, “Well, one day it’ll be my turn. I’ll just wait here patiently and learn as much as possible until it’s my turn.” I also got a little tired of waiting, hence Public Media for All. But certainly, if you need to protect yourself, if you’re in a place where you need to protect yourself, barnacle approach all the way. Team barnacle.
If you have the bandwidth, I would encourage people to try to push things. You should gravitate towards people who care about your professional development. Also, no one is responsible for your professional development except yourself. If you don’t have it from your supervisor, go get it on your own and go get a new supervisor. If you’ve done everything in your power to improve the culture of where you’re working and you’re still stuck, go work somewhere else. It is not worth [sacrificing] your mental sanity. Also, keep in mind that if you’re constantly speaking up about [the problems], staying there is on some level an endorsement of the situation. So, remove yourself. They don’t deserve you.
Jenn Jarecki: Plus one to all of that. I think one of the biggest obstacles is fear. Whether that is a fear of saying no, fear of being rejected, fear of losing your job because you’re actually asking for something, fear of making waves in an organization that’s just set in its ways.
I’ve also noticed in public media, where a lot of people are overworked and underpaid, a sense of responsibility. Like, “I can’t make this change because then so-and-so will need to move that around…” That is not your problem.
It took me a while to be able to recognize, as Sachi said, that only you can advocate for where you’re going. It is up to you to grow your life and your career in ways that you want to. Recognize that the organization can handle those moving parts. 

Feeling Siloed, and When Is it Time to Go?

J.R. Rudolph: Someone in attendance is feeling siloed at their station; their supervisor is not helping them move up in any way. How would you advise them?
Sachi Christine Kobayashi: Back-channel it. Ask anyone for coffee and say you just want to be friends with them. Invite everyone to a happy hour and maybe it just so happens you end up talking to somebody in another department about what they’re doing. If you get in trouble for that, that’s the time it’s time to move on. Then you know you have a boss with serious control issues.
Public media is a hard industry because it’s so small. There’s probably only 10,000-20,000 people that work in this industry across TV, radio, and community. In most markets, there’s only one game in town. You need to be prepared to move across the country, or you need to be prepared to leave public media for a while with a plan to come back. If you’re not comfortable with either of those, you’re probably going to feel stuck in this industry.
J.R. Rudolph: When is it time to abandon ship?
Jenn Jarecki: When your driveway moment is crying, or when you found the “cry room” at your organization, it’s probably time to go. I say this in jest, but I think a lot of people might know what I’m talking about. If you can’t be yourself there, it’s probably time to go.
Gavin Dahl: I hope this is not because of being a white guy, but if I’m not going to be respected or given an opportunity, I’m just going to go find something else. I’ve moved a lot of times. I’ve also had great experiences and that’s the biggest reason you should all get into management, is so you can treat other people better than you were treated.
Sachi Christine Kobayashi: 100%. Give yourself the permission to want power just so that you can do better.