Leone replaces longtime KCUR GM Patty Cahill
Nico Leone is in a tough position, and he knows it.
As the new general manager for KCUR Public Media, Leone is taking over a station that, by most respects, is doing tremendously well. Licensed by the University of Missouri-Kansas City, KCUR 89.3 FM has devoted listeners, solid financial footing, and the kind of reputation that is only earned by years of sustained, high-quality journalism. Just last month, the Kansas City Press Club presented KCUR with 15 awards.
None of this is lost on Leone, who spent the last eight years at KDHX in St. Louis. Although the independent, volunteer-driven music station is stylistically different than KCUR, radio is a small world. So when Leone took his new position on Aug. 1, he knew that he was walking into a successful station. He also knew that he had big shoes to fill.
“KCUR has a sizeable audience, strong financials, and it’s well respected throughout the public radio system. I’m not coming in to clean up a mess here. Because of that, I have the luxury of getting to know the staff, getting to know the station, and getting to know the community before needing to do anything else,” Leone said.
That desire to get to know KCUR and its constituents is natural for any new hire, but it’s especially important to Leone. That’s because his management style depends on it. When he started at KDHX, he was the station’s music director. After three years, he moved into a co-executive director position, where he oversaw marketing, fundraising and community development.
The position was a unique one. It allowed Leone and his co-executive director a chance to lead the station effectively, while playing to their strengths. For Leone, those strengths are community development, and a collaborative management style.
His skill set is fairly unique to KCUR, where journalism backgrounds are common, but an in-depth knowledge of community development is not. That fared well in the national search.
Sarah Morris, assistant vice chancellor of university communications, was responsible for selecting Leone, and was advised by a search committee.
“Ultimately, we felt that Nico could accomplish what few others could – take a great station and make it even better,” Morris said.
Leone’s background played a big role in his selection.
“We knew we needed someone who could maintain KCUR’s solid national reputation, but strengthen us in areas like community outreach and fundraising. We wanted someone with a lot of energy and talent who could make meaningful connections, and we found that in Nico,” Morris said.
They also found a person who seemed willing to listen. He answered questions thoughtfully, and talked about seeking input from his staff. That’s the way he did things at KDHX, and that’s the way Leone is leading at KCUR.
“I’m not walking in with an agenda. This will be a collaborative process,” Leone said.
That may be a relief to KCUR’s staff. After all, leadership changes are, to say the least, infrequent at KCUR. Prior to Leone’s arrival, the now-retired Patty Cahill served as the station’s general manager for 25 years. She was the first active public radio manager to be voted onto the Board of Directors of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and was recently named the Board’s vice chair. The CPB is a non-profit corporation created by Congress to promote public broadcasting.
Over time, Cahill helped shape KCUR into what it is today – a voice for Kansas City. When she started in 1987, the station had just 50,000 listeners a week, and they were operating on a deficit.
Within one year, Cahill landed a $100,000 grant that brought the station out of debt. She also moved the station away from niche programs – like a half hour program in French, one that played only Indian movie music, and a program for preschool educators – toward local news.
The transformation was effective. Today, KCUR has about 150,000 listeners per week.
“The future in radio is in providing important local information. People can get music anywhere, but where can they get important local information?” Cahill said.
That sentiment is shared by Leone. Much of his confidence in KCUR stems from the fact that it has established itself as a growing news outlet when most others in the journalism industry are, unfortunately, shrinking.
“There are so few places where you can go to get good, fact-based journalism and it’s such a vital thing for good governance, for participation in democracy, and for the community. The unfortunate thing is, the trends in media are all in the other direction. KCUR and NPR and public radio are among of the few places increasing their commitment to solid, balanced, fact-based journalism,” Leone said.
Leone called KCUR’s journalistic integrity “foundational and fundamental.” Under his watch, that won’t change. But in other respects, the station is positioned for substantial change.
Just two months ago, UMKC unveiled the results of a feasibility study for a possible Downtown Arts Campus. The study named three potential sites that would put UMKC’s arts programs in the heart of the city. KCUR is among the programs slated for a possible move.
It won’t be an easy task, but it’s one Leone knows well. It’s also a concept he respects. When he was at KDHX, the station went through a similar process when they decided to relocate downtown.
“We had a pretty pressing facility need, and we wanted to be in the arts and culture district. We needed a building that would give us a higher level of visibility,” Leone said.
Leone left KDHX before the move was completed, but the experience taught him a few things. Specifically, Leone learned how to fundraise effectively, and how to boost a station’s prominence within the community.
In a way, it’s about changing perceptions. It’s about taking a station that already has the respect of its audience, and turning the volume up. It’s going from “I listen to KCUR every day” to “KCUR is an integral part of Kansas City.”
Although Leone’s plans are yet to be shaped, his biggest challenge is clear.
“The challenge is: How do we engage the community even more than we already do,” Leone said.