With more than 45 years of experience in non-commercial radio, Richard Towne has brought to community radio a heart and a head for all aspects of station and local life. His experience is diverse, and includes time with California’s KUOR and Public Radio International. Since 1994, Richard Towne has been manager of the University of New Mexico’s KUNM. The hybrid of local talk, news and music has won many awards over the years. He is today in the process of building for KUNM’s future.
You’re one of community radio’s veteran station managers. What has been the secret to your longevity?
Well, I started from a point of privilege and I’ve had a lot of good fortune over the years working with some truly great people. I still think radio is magical. And, as live broadcasters, we are never doing the same job twice. That part is really important.
I think the secret to my longevity is that I have never broadcast a commercial. If I see a commercial on TV, I immediately go and wash my hands. I’ve learned a lot over time; from mentors, colleagues, volunteers and students. I am happy every day I come to work. Mostly though, I have learned a lot from listeners in the communities I have served.
What did you learn after taking over as manager that you didn’t expect at KUNM?
I was pleasantly surprised by a couple of aspects. KUNM had a formidable reputation and I soon learned why. Our volunteer music programmers have a really deep working knowledge of all types of music. They are really delightful at presenting Freeform and our specialty music programs. I was surprised to find that the third turntable was for 78’s. Another great thing I learned as I settled into life in New Mexico was how deeply KUNM was woven into the fabric of our communities. KUNM started in 1966, about 30 years before I got here. Nearly everybody I was meeting for the first time had a KUNM story — maybe they used to volunteer or had been a guest on a show — maybe they loved our Singing Wire or Train to Glory programs. KUNM was known and cherished by so many. I had a great starting point for my work here.
What KUNM initiatives keep you energized?
KUNM is an intense hybrid radio station. Started by students and still at the institution (University of New Mexico) but licensed to the Regents of UNM who are appointed by the Governor. Financially self-supporting with many UNM services but no cash. More than 100 community volunteer broadcasters. A full-time staff of five in our Newsroom. Five full-time fundraisers. Twenty paid staff total. With ten paid student interns. A mix of news from NPR, Democracy Now, Native America Calling (launched in 1996 at KUNM). Our YouTube music video channel for local bands recording in our deluxe 96-channel recording studio. Our partnership with Generation Justice – our Youth Media leadership co-conspirators.
I am excited to be building an endowment for KUNM’s sustainable future – about $1 million in commitments to date. I am also working with younger leaders on our professional staff so they can fly the plane when I retire and step out someday.
Are there skills or tools you can’t do without as a manager?
I love sound, and working with sound. I love to listen, so that’s important. I like the tool called Appreciative Inquiry to help me understand issues or topics coming into my office. Sometimes, people with ideas understand the “what” and the “when” but have not crystalised the “why” and the “how”. That leads to collaborative discussion and development. Oh, if you can’t plan, you can’t manage people respectfully.
KUNM has been associated with NFCB for many years. Do you have any favorite NFCB memories to share?
I sure do. NARC 2, 1976 in Telluride, CO. The National Alternative Radio Conference was the early working wave of folks giving birth to NFCB. We were camping out with all-day work and late-night conversations around campfires. Lorenzo Milan was there. Visionaries like Tom Thomas and Terry Clifford, the awesome Nan Rubin, The McLears, and Bruce Theriault – so many people, so much curiosity, so much love of community. I was starting my third year as a noncommercial broadcast professional and the NARC 2 conference was hugely formative to my view of how noncommercial radio could serve the community. I never looked back. Now, look at NFCB as it exists today. Truly amazing.
Are there community radio issues you’d hoped we together would have solved by now?
There are a couple of challenges that need solutions. How do we collectively provide equity and sustainability for small and rural stations serving poorer communities whose people may not have enough discretionary income to support their vital community radio station? Can NFCB become a national beacon for philanthropists who are willing to help keep smaller stations in the business of providing a critical community voice? I wonder how KUNM will maintain its relevance in the community when there is not a strong allegiance to call letters for young people? We believe that community radio is well-positioned to continue serving into the medium-term future because of our legacy of community engagement as a hub of community information. How do we leverage that heritage strength to be the community hub of tomorrow, including in public places and all digital platforms?
Stations are going through lots of changes these days. If you would advise boards on what to look for in managers, what would you tell them?
I would advise board leaders to give me a call (no charge) and discuss any aspect of their search. I’ve helped plenty of stations and have the capacity to help plenty more. I approach hiring with a “heart and head” style. Recruit like crazy with both your head and your heart but let your heart lead. Once you have a bunch of applications in your applicant pool, use your heart and your head but let your head take the lead. If you don’t have consensus on a finalist, lead with your head, not your heart.
I think board members should be networking in their region to make friends with non-profit leaders who might be interested in leading the station. Build a recruitment source list now so you have the foundation for launching a search when you need it. Join the Think.Public.Media website. They have done a beautiful job in bringing job seekers and public media employers together.
Is there one thing you are most proud of at KUNM?
KUNM is about people serving people. Any community radio station is exactly that. I am proud of the shared mutuality we have created between the volunteers, staff and students at KUNM. We have good people on our community advisory board. And I am proud of our donors for believing in our work and supporting us with their contributions. KUNM now reaches just over half of New Mexico’s people so we serve all kinds of communities in our enchanting state. I am proud of our work to serve people from all walks of life. And I am proud of our mountains for holding up our antenna a mile above average terrain. That’s pretty high!
What’s the best advice you ever got?
I am pretty fond of the carpenters’ saying, “Measure once, cut twice. Measure twice, cut once.” For me, this means a whole lot more than a saw and a board of wood. I still work with the advice “Think globally, act locally.” Every community is going to be impacted by the global climate devastation. What does this mean for your community? Lastly, I had great advice about radio announcing, “When you become predictable, you become ignorable.” Always bring value to your listeners.