This interview appeared in a recent NFCB monthly newsletter. You can subscribe for free here.
In May, 2016, Kerry Semrad became KZUM’s general manager, succeeding former GM Cathy Berhns, who departed in 2015. As a financial professional and musician, Semrad has brought to the role a unique history and experience.
Now celebrating 40 years on the air, Lincoln, Neb.’s KZUM faces the challenge of many community stations: staying relevant and engaged with the constituencies it serves. Semrad reflects the tasks before her station and what is asked of leaders in community media.
What got you into community radio?
I had been working in the financial sector for 11 years when the general manager position at KZUM was vacated. At the time I’d been a listener for almost 20 years. As a musician, I had participated in several fundraising events and had even been trying to arrange my schedule so that I could have my own jazz program. KZUM was an organization that I very much wanted to be a part of.
When the previous GM stepped down, I had a serious discussion with myself. On one hand, I was comfortable in my job and all of the benefits that came with it. But I wasn’t a fulfilled person. I was attracted to the non-profit environment and loved the idea of working in independent, community-focused media. Along with a lot of support from my husband and some close friends, I found the courage to take a chance on myself. I am so thankful that I did because I have never been happier.
What has been your greatest challenge as a manager of a 40-year-old station?
My biggest challenge as a manager is slowing down! I am lucky to work with a very energetic and motivated team. We never think of the obstacles in our way, which can be great but sometimes, the obstacle becomes our own well-being. You know, like sleep and a day off!
When you love what you’re doing as much as we do, it’s easy to overlook your own self, throw on the horse blinders and just go for it. A big part of my job is supporting our staff in reaching our goals but ensuring that we are all in one piece when that happens. That means saying “no” to some things. We also ask for a lot of help. Our Board of Directors and volunteers are a big reason why we have been able to increase our presence at events by 70 percent, over the last two years. We have seen a dramatic gain in dollars raised during fundraisers since event presence has increased, but it takes all hands on deck to accomplish.
How has your station responded to changes in your community?
During our last board and staff retreat, we focused specifically on what our station means to the rapidly evolving city that we serve. Lincoln’s economy is booming. Our city has been dubbed “The Silicon Prairie” because of the growing tech and start-up industries. Along with that, the face of Lincoln is evolving. Our city’s population is growing more diverse and changing what our local culture looks like. It’s a very exciting time to be in Lincoln. KZUM has been working with organizations that provide support to our diverse populations for years while broadcasting in different languages and producing programs that represent different communities within our city.
How can we grow our reach and better yet, how can we better support a conversation that the entire community can be a part of? This is a time in which people all over the country are looking to be active within their communities and community radio can help nurture that desire for service.
After attending the NFCB conference last year, it became clear to me that we have the capability of producing podcast programming that can feature communities that have no representation on any station, in our area. To jump start this program, KZUM is hosting a Arts and & Culture Festival in June. During the festival, KZUM will be hosting a “Story Booth,” through which we hope to gain perspectives on our city from festival attendees and use this material for podcast programming. Our goal is to introduce our city to its citizens and, through common themes, foster an environment of support.
How do you keep yourself organized and on top of your station’s needs?
Anyone who runs a radio station or even a business knows how overwhelming day-to-day operations can be. Beyond regulations, reporting and business operations, a station has to keep reinventing itself and focusing on growth. Holding true to the mission of a station while working toward a vision is essential. Whether I’m being presented with new ideas or analyzing past events, I ask myself “is this going to further our mission?” and “is this going to getting us closer to realizing our vision?” If the answer is “no,” we don’t do it. This helps me to prioritize the big and little tasks. I also lean on my awesome team for guidance. We meet weekly to organize the coming week and communicate about what is working and what is not.
Personally, I start the week out with a list of goals that include anything from sending out “thank you” notes to completing end of the month financials. As I cross out tasks, the less overwhelmed I feel and it’s easy to see just how much you actually do accomplish!
What have been your most interesting experiences as a manager?
A big part of the station’s recent growth has to be due to the fact that we have been making an effort to attend and sponsor a lot of new events. Recently, KZUM attended the Folk Alliance International conference in Kansas City. We had a promotional booth on the trade floor, during the day and supported Nebraska musicians through a showcase every night. Through this event, KZUM was able to connect with lots of musicians, record labels and foundations that produce music globally. We were able to talk up our station to traveling musicians and agents in an effort to gain more music for airplay and in studio performances. The interesting thing to me about the conference is that we were one of two radio stations in attendance. Hearing the reactions from our Nebraska artists and conference attendees, thanking us for playing independent music, supporting small labels and promoting performances locally was moving.
Not only were we promoting KZUM, but additionally our station is playing a huge role in the success of these artists by giving them a voice on the air. If anything, our presence at the conference was a sign that you do not always have to be backed by a large corporation to be successful. In independent media, we all know the struggle but see the benefits of this.
When you get tired, what motivates you about community radio?
When I was in college I met a KZUM programmer named Dave Hoffman. He was an older gentleman with a speech impediment who had a great jazz program. Not only did he introduce me to KZUM, but he opened up my love for jazz. He’d lend me CDs to listen to, tell me stories about the artists and share new music that he found. He loved KZUM so very much. I feel like the station was a place for him to really express himself and communicate his vast knowledge of music. It was also an instant family for him, as it is for many. Through the years, we kept in touch until he passed away.
When he did pass, he left his music collection to the station. He didn’t get to see me become GM of KZUM or listen to my jazz program but I do get to play his music, every Monday night. It’s a wonderful and lasting legacy that I have a chance to be a part of.
This is just my story. I’m not the only person with a very real and special connection to the station. All of the programmers are committed to dedicating hours, weekly to a program for reasons of their own. It could be their connection to music or their love for community but it is an intense commitment that I find very moving. I can honestly say that I keep that 40 years of commitment from hundreds of volunteers and thousands of donors in the back of my mind, every day.
It’s not stressful but uplifting and it keeps me aware of how lucky I am to be at the helm of this wonderful organization. It’s incredibly motivating.
If you could go back in time, what advice would you give to yourself as a new leader, knowing all you know now?
I would tell myself to trust my ability. Non-profit radio is a beast and requires constant attention of ever changing regulations. If I’m being honest, coming into my position without any radio experience gave me major Imposter Syndrome. I got so down on myself for not retaining all of the information right away. But, then I realized that, no matter how long a person is in this industry, the education never stops. Of course it doesn’t! I have learned that keeping myself open to knowledge and criticism is essential for my growth as a leader. Through this, I have remained humble enough to know that I don’t always have the best ideas but I know the best idea when I see it. I’m thankful for those lessons.