By Jay Hodgkins
Newswise — When University of Virginia Darden School of Business alumna Goli Sheikholeslami (MBA ’94) ended a successful tenure as president and CEO of Chicago Public Media to become president and CEO of New York Public Radio, she was ready to embrace the challenge of leading a major media organization in the largest media market in the United States.
However, she — nor anyone else, for that matter — was expecting New York City to become the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic mere months into her new role, turning New York Public Media into an even more essential source of information for the public than ever before.
In the following Q&A, Sheikholeslami discusses what it’s been like leading her new organization through an unprecedented crisis, how her Darden experience prepared her for uncertainty and the critical role of public radio in society.
What tipped the scales to make the move from Chicago Public Media to New York Public Radio?
The opportunity to lead a large, vibrant and essential media organization in the city that I love more than any other (which also happens to be the No. 1 media market in the United States).
Not long after you started the new position, New York became the epicenter of the global coronavirus pandemic. What is it like living and leading through the crisis in a new city and new role?
I had been in my job for less than six months when the pandemic hit New York. In certain respects, the pandemic has provided the opportunity to get to know all parts of the organization on an accelerated timeline. We run a 24/7 news operation, a classical music service, plus a large podcast studio and a live event space. New Yorkers rely on us for trusted information, and our hosts and programs are part of their daily routines. We had to bring together a cross-functional team to figure out how to take all of these operations, move them off-site, and keep them on air and online for our community at a time when they need us most.
The team is working incredibly hard, covering a crisis they are living through themselves. Part of my job is making sure that they are taking care of themselves, and each other, so that we can sustain our service for what will likely be a very long stretch.
New York Public Radio is playing an essential role keeping New Yorkers informed of critical information during the ongoing crisis. What has made you most proud of the organization’s efforts?
The fact that we moved 400 people out of our offices and began broadcasting and publishing remotely from our homes in just a matter of days, and that we made this transition without any disruption in our programming or reporting. New York Public Radio covered 9/11, the New York City blackout and Hurricane Sandy, and even so, this was the greatest logistical challenge the organization has ever faced. I am in awe of our team for how they rose to the occasion, and for their fierce determination to provide this essential service under such trying circumstances.
Darden prides itself on preparing leaders for uncertainty, though perhaps nothing could fully prepare leaders for the disruption created by the coronavirus. Are there memories or lessons from Darden that have helped you since the outbreak began?
I entered Darden after an early career in documentary filmmaking. My background and experience — professional and personal — was very different from those of my classmates. I was a bit of a “fish out of water.” But Darden taught me how to push through when things were difficult, knowing that hard work and dedication would get you to the other side.
Chicago and New York are both iconic media markets with incredible journalistic legacies. What role does public radio have to uphold and advance those legacies?
Public radio has always played an essential role in providing access to fact-based, accurate news and information to the American people. Now, with the disappearance of local newspapers all across the country, public radio stations have become in many cases a city or town’s sole local news outlet.
And a pandemic like COVID-19, where state and local governments are taking the lead in creating policies that make sense for their communities, demonstrates how crucial and even potentially lifesaving local news truly is.
Public radio has the best, and possibly only, business model that can support healthy, vibrant and sustainable local news operations. So it is our mandate and our responsibility to invest in and expand our news gathering capacity, and to continue to bring our communities free access to trusted news and information. A well-informed and engaged citizenry is, after all, the bedrock of our democracy.
This interview was conducted before the passing of WNYC’s beloved Morning Edition host, Richard Hake. Coverage and tributes by Hake’s news colleagues, and Goli Sheikoleslami’s statement on his passing, may be found at: www.wnyc.org/series/richard-hake-in-memoriam
About the University of Virginia Darden School of Business
The University of Virginia Darden School of Business delivers the world’s best business education experience to prepare entrepreneurial, global and responsible leaders through its MBA, Ph.D., MSBA and Executive Education programs. Darden’s top-ranked faculty is renowned for teaching excellence and advances practical business knowledge through research. Darden was established in 1955 at the University of Virginia, a top public university founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1819 in Charlottesville, Virginia.