Attendees reflect on Cahill’s legacy, look toward future
Photo credit: Janet Rogers, Division of Strategic Marketing and Communications
Patty Cahill takes the stage of the historic Folly Theater. Her audience has just watched a tribute video, celebrating Cahill’s 25-year legacy as KCUR-FM’s general manager.
The video highlighted some well-known accomplishments, like turning KCUR from a struggling station into a thriving one, and most recently, being named chair of the Board of Directors for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the board overseeing public radio and television stations nationwide.
It also highlighted her silly side. In most KCUR staff photos, she’s usually the one putting bunny ears on her nearest co-worker.
Round after round of applause interrupted the tribute, as audience members – many of whom donned temporary “Patty Forever” tattoos – showed their appreciation for KCUR’s visionary, tattoo-covered leader.
Cahill evidently thought it was time for some self-deprecating humor. So when the public broadcasting legend lowered the mic, she told them the first words she’d ever said on the air:
“What’s this red light doing on?”
Cahill nodded as the crowd laughed. In the years since her first on-air gaffe, Cahill has made significant contributions to public broadcasting. Cahill transformed KCUR from a station with a deficit and a tiny audience, to one with a nearly $3 million budget, an award-winning staff, and a loyal audience of 150,000 listeners per week.
During the celebration of KCUR’s past and future, a mix of listeners, former and current staff members praised Cahill for giving air time to underrepresented communities, and bringing civil discourse to political discussions.
It seems almost laughable now to know that if she’d listened to her naysayers, Cahill’s career would have taken a very different turn – one that wouldn’t have put her, or KCUR for that matter, center stage.
Cahill told the crowd that when she was a student, a University of Kansas professor told her to give up radio so that she could become a nurse or a teacher. Years later, in 1976, a coworker said that Wichita State University’s public radio station, KMUW “was not yet ready to have a female general manager.”
The crowd booed at the sexism, but Cahill gave a knowing smile.
“I’d like to thank them and others like them for encouraging me more than they’ll ever know,” Cahill told the cheering crowd.
Those experiences gave Cahill the fortitude to forge her own path, and stand by her decisions. When she later joined KCUR, Cahill decided to change the station’s direction. At the time, KCUR played half hour segments of niche programming. Cahill shifted the focus toward journalism. She soon began building a talented news team. That legacy won’t end in Cahill’s retirement.
Danny Baker, KCUR’s director of development, announced that KCUR’s Community Advisory Board has launched the Patty Cahill Endowment for Local News.
“This is a way of perpetually honoring Patty for her imagination, and for her dedication not only to KCUR but to UMKC, and to all of us as the audience of KCUR,” Baker said.
While the evening offered plenty of opportunities to look back, it was also a chance to look forward. Nico Leone, who took over Cahill’s position in August, acknowledged the ongoing threats to public broadcasting. Competition is rising. Federal funding allotments are being threatened. People are changing the way they use media.
Despite those challenges, Leone told the crowd that he sees a silver lining. He sees the new face of public radio.
“We have the ability to reach people in new ways – to connect with them through different platforms, and to bring in new and more diverse audiences, in a way that public media has never been able to do,” Leone said.
Leone is the former co-executive director of KDHX in St. Louis, where he spearheaded several community development initiatives. As he settles in to KCUR, Leone is looking for ways to make KCUR even more connected with the Kansas City community. It’s a goal that started with Cahill and will continue through Leone.
Michael Byars, KCUR’s announcer, opened the evening by highlighting what Cahill and Leone both have in common: Boldness, and originality.
“Both bring a bold interpretation of what is necessary – what is mandatory, really – for public broadcasting to exist. It’s true. Public radio is not for the meek,” Byars said.