In February 2021, Ernesto Aguilar was named NFCB’s Executive Director after serving as Program Director since 2016. A former member of NFCB’s board, Aguilar served more than a decade as Program Director of member station KPFT. His distinctions include a Maynard Institute for Journalism Education fellowship, serving as board president for the Foundation of the Alliance for Community Media, and co-organizing Public Media for All. This interview was conducted by NFCB CEO Sally Kane.
We all have a community radio story, some sort of magic or haphazard or fun or silly way we’ve gotten into community radio. I’ve heard many of those stories over the years. I love your community radio story, and I would love for you to share how you discovered that window to another world.
I told a longer version of this story in Current in 2017, but in short, for me, community radio was a happy accident. I wasn’t raised around public radio, or community radio. It just wasn’t a part of where I came from, which is East Houston. When I was 16, we had to be in bed by nine o’clock. But I wasn’t tired, like most of us at that age, so I would scan the radio and listen to sports talk programs, advice shows or just music. One evening, I happened on KPFT, the community radio station in Houston, and heard music that I’d never heard before. In my community, most people listen to Norteño or Tejano music. This avant-garde, weird rock music completely fascinated me, and I would come back every so often for a unique speech, or somebody talking about current events, or local politics.
As a kid in high school, I just didn’t know a lot about the world. Community radio was a window into a much larger space than the confines of my neighborhood. I learned that the media could do other things besides play music or commercials. It sounds simple, but again, before then I didn’t know these concepts. Community radio inspired me to want to be a journalist and to want to help others. It transformed me and made me want to do something my life than what it probably would have been, coming up as I did.
What was it that pulled you into a staff position at KPFT and kept you there wanting to work as program director in an organization that was often fraught with human relationship issues and organizational governance issues?
I decided to take the job because I thought that my skills could make a big difference. I’m somebody who is very task oriented. If you tell me you need something done, and when you want it done, it will get done. In this instance, I was told ‘we have this weekly show and we’d like to have a 30-minute daily newscast.’ Okay, that’s tangible. I joined the station then to help direct the news department. Soon enough, there were other tasks that needed to happen – developing processes, creating training materials, writing a curriculum. Shortly thereafter, the program director moved on, and I was asked to be the program director, partially because of those skills, and partially because there was another long list of things that needed to get done.
I stayed there as long as I did because I felt I could help change other people’s lives the way that my life was shaped by that station. And although there were, as you pointed out, any number of human issues, I always tried to keep in mind that the people we do this for are the people who listen when they need us most. We don’t always interact with them, get their calls, or talk to them every pledge drive. Yet, they’re the people whose lives we get to influence.
I’m wondering, from the 30,000-foot high elevation look, what has stepping from the station environment to the national scene really illuminated for you?
It’s so funny. There’s this nomenclature within community radio – from public radio to LPFM, big stations to small stations and this alphabet soup of statuses we hear of in community media. We all think we’re very disparate, like we have our own rules and personalities and set of conditions unlike anyone else. Not being in the station environment and seeing the bigger picture, it’s clear we’re not so different. At the end of the day, we’re all involved with communities. And whether you are a large station with a staff of 10 – and that’s a dream scenario because most community radio stations aren’t that big – or you’re an all-volunteer station that broadcasts only three blocks, you’re still in the fine art of volunteers, the challenges of governance, and pushing out your programming during a pandemic.
Another issue I’ve noticed is we sometimes talk about community radio in a very transactional way, all of us. ‘We give you great music,’ or ‘you tune in for news’ and so on. We need to remember that our first conversation is about our values and what we bring to people’s lives. There are hundreds of nonprofits, including other radio stations, asking for money. Many more are asking us to volunteer our time. Community radio, however, can speak to people on this very emotional, heartfelt level. Values of inclusion, of belonging, of justice, of community cohesion, of subjects that we need to talk a lot more about.
I have to say, the greatest pleasure of my working career with this organization thus far has really been observing you unfold as a leader in your own power, especially over the last year under such tremendous pressure on the people we serve at the stations and just in all of our own lives. Watching you take on the Maynard Institute’s leadership program, watching you write the DEI guide, and more. It’ll soon become clear to folks that you’re moving on to yet another level of leadership here as executive director. What’s your aim in this other level of developing your own leadership and your vision for this organization?
First and foremost, it’s delivering on what I call the core issues for stations. Ensuring that there is a constant level of training and support is a priority. A lot of folks come in with a great deal of passion, but crave learning and sometimes don’t know where to go for it. And so, from legal guidance to regulatory rules to helping people understand best practices, we are going to be on those core issues. We will continue to deliver on these topics as we have since 1975.
Also, it’s helping to give courage to that coalition of the willing within these organizations to ensure that they are able to move on from the best practices into the next practices. There are so many community radio leaders with ambitions. I want to give them the tools and courage to say ‘we can re-envision ourselves as multi-platform community media organizations,’ and take a leap forward into new generations, new audiences, new communities, new conversations that we haven’t really had before. I want to help them realize their dreams around goals like diversity, equity and inclusion; to help them understand how they can do smarter programming, deliver more effective news, to be stronger voices within their communities, and to support stations in being more valued community partners, even beyond what they do now.
Lastly, I want to ensure our organizations understand that they are not alone. NFCB is their advocate. And that so many stations are doing something powerful, and should be proud. This is our year to focus on what we have, and what we can do. 2021 is when we talk about how we can leverage our relationships and our own commitments to our values to do better than we’ve done before. We can’t any longer make excuses about pay and diversity. We can’t make excuses about what other people are doing. This is our chance to step up and do a lot more. And so, I’m going to do my best this year to help organizations realize that potential.
And my question to you to wrap up our interview is, if you could sprinkle magic dust over the community of community radio, what would you change?
There is a little bit of imposter syndrome dwelling within all of us. And that is no less the case in community radio, possibly even more so. We have conditioned ourselves to lower our expectations. So, I would give every single community radio station a sense of self to understand the differences they make in people’s lives, like my life was changed; the ways that stations can choose to transform those lives; and to remember that, while our obstacles can feel immense, our determination to overcome means we can do more for our communities. We are not lesser and we are not smaller. We are actually pioneering a lot. We have what the larger public media system now wants to do more of, and we must go forth with our heads held high. We are going to do something powerful this year, and every year, if we center that intention through all of our work. Let’s bring out gratitude and promise every day.