Profile: Tina Pamintuan, KALW

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Tina Pamintuan has been the general manager of KALW in San Francisco since 2018. Prior to that, she founded and directed the audio journalism program at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY, where she taught for 12 years. Pamintuan was recently appointed as CEO for St. Louis Public Radio, and will begin in that position on Dec. 1, 2021.

You have an extensive career in media. What brought you to this point?

I didn’t grow up listening to public radio, but we had community stations in Delaware and of course Top 40. My sixth-grade teacher had a show at the local college. I remember feeling so special when she dedicated “So What” from Kind of Blue to me and my best friend. There was a thrill hearing our names on air. I had never heard of Miles Davis.

In college, I had a morning music show on the campus station. I studied philosophy and physics. My classes were later so I could do a 6 A.M.-show, which I was often late for. I’m now officially a morning person. I had a housemate who was working at NPR. I went to visit her and as we were touring the building, we found out there was a production team looking for an intern. I had a job offer already at a biophysics lab off the coast of Maine. I still wonder where I would be now if I had taken the job and not the internship.

I always loved writing and reading. I had a stipend to work in a writing center on campus and was assigned to work with freshman English classes. I also did photography for a campus newspaper. My byline and another Asian American woman’s byline sometimes got confused. It was worse for her because she was the better photographer! In the end, radio was for me. I loved the intimacy. The purity of the human voice alone is beautiful. I still feel that way. I was recently listening to a recording of June Jordan reading her poems. Lo-fi, zero production, scratches and pops. So relevant.

After my internship, I got a temp job at NPR. Alex Chadwick was one of my early mentors. He’d had this storied career — as a host, as a correspondent across the world. He’s often cited as one of the best radio writers and I feel fortunate to have worked with him as I was starting out. He was genuine, open, and kind. I wrote my first scripts for him. He gave me a chance at NPR that felt hard to come by at the time. It’s something I find myself reflecting on now, because of all of the overdue discussions that we are having  about creating a workplace of belonging and what it is like for BIPOC journalists in public media.

I did a year of graduate school in Chicago then moved to New York and within a few years, I was hired by Linda Prout who is still one of my mentors and is now on my board at KALW. She enlisted me to help start the broadcast program at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism.

I had always kept a hand in teaching. While at NPR, I developed a youth radio program for Asian-American high school students, especially Vietnamese and Burmese refugees and immigrants, in DC. I taught at CUNY for 12 years and started the audio journalism program. At the time, it was one of the few audio programs in the country founded on a public media style and one which centers public media mission and values.

A few years ago, I moved to California. Being a GM is something I had thought of for a number of years and it was Neenah Ellis, Doug Mitchell, and Tom Livingston who encouraged me to take the leap. I’ve been immersed in creating a foundational and business structure for KALW, relaunching its branding, and strategizing new programming that will make it sustainable for the future. I’ve also recently joined the board of NPR.

Is there any particular talent or experience that you picked up during your years at CUNY that you use as a manager?

Yes, the understanding that there are so many different ways to learn. When I would put out a call for new instructors, it was always important that the candidates we considered were just as interested in learning as teaching. I think that approach cracks the door open for a free exchange of ideas and creativity that is essential to any workplace. When people take the approach that they can learn at any stage of their career, they open themselves to possibilities. It takes humility to be a student and when people in leadership positions don’t cultivate that, it shows. We can all have the Buddhist “beginner’s mind” — and less ego if we choose to.

Another talent that I picked up at CUNY was understanding what teams need to be their most successful. Context matters of course, but there are certain indispensable pieces that every team needs: trust, clarity  of purpose and mission, great communication, an understanding of shared values, and how to voice and take responsibility when there’s conflict — because there will be conflict. That’s the nature of creative spaces. Being prepared with a process is key. 

I also learned a lot from my students at CUNY, especially their willingness to question and even reject the status quo and newsroom norms, as we had lived and breathed them as Gen-Xers and Baby Boomers. I think their calls for a re-creation of what equity looks like in our workplaces is needed. Are the demands always the most elegant or completely thought out? Not always, but so what?

The energy and the desire to reframe the conversation speaks to something real that they are seeing and that’s worth addressing. Having worked with a lot of younger journalists, and having an understanding where some of the so-called “immovable furniture” is, I can offer a way to help think through solutions and bring people together for conversation — but also for action because, ultimately, that’s what’s needed.

What have you been most proud of in your time as a general manager?

I am proud of the public service operating agreement (PSOA) that we have accomplished for the station. It was a dream held by more than a few GMs and staff of this station and we accomplished it within two years. I am proud of creating pathways for real employment at the station through our nonprofit KALW Public Media.

I’m also proud of pushing the envelope with our listeners and donors, of asking them to share the public air waves.

KALW already has an incredible track record of uplifting marginalized voices, of telling untold stories, of having a “yes” culture when it comes to creating new and innovative programming, and celebrating the indie producer and their ideas. That’s a beautiful history that should be celebrated and continued.

However, for years, KALW — like much of public media — was programmed for a slender group of people. Often when I hear from a listener who doesn’t like one of our newer voices, there’s a layer of microaggression behind their concern. They complain about upspeak or “urban accents,” or they say they can’t relate. We removed the program Thistle and Shamrock from our air after 30+ years and I received messages saying that Celtic music is underrepresented and that we were displaying a bias against northern European music.

When I started at KALW, I walked into a situation that was really difficult in terms of workplace equity and labor practices. There was definitely a moment in which I could have walked away from the whole thing and said, ‘I’m sorry, this is not what I signed up for.’ But I also fell in love with the people and the beautiful work they were doing under difficult circumstances. I saw that this station has the DNA to be a beacon in our system of a deeply connected community organization that takes its equity failings, digs deep and does the hard work, and transforms itself into a model for how to do things better. It will take time, but we will get there.

I also saw that there had been an inability to hold staff and volunteers accountable for biases and prejudices, or microaggressions in the workplace and on air. I came to realize that when there are not clear expectations for staff or volunteers, there’s a lot of room for misinterpretation. We’re still working on that.

Someone might say “oh those were isolated incidents,” but is anything really isolated if it’s allowed to continue? And what kind of culture is it where those things are allowed to go on without someone addressing it? Right now, that’s my responsibility, but ultimately with the right culture in place, it’s all of our responsibility. Ideally, we agree on standards, norms and we hold each other accountable in the moment or when appropriate. I want us to be a functioning community founded on love and service. And I believe the majority of the community agrees on that.

What kinds of guidance could you give a manager that is looking at these historical problems in an organization and how we might be able to fix them?

You need to do an audit of your entire organization, and you have to be part of that audit yourself. You have to get real about your own privileges, your own biases. I have many privileges as a light-skinned Asian-American woman with multiple degrees and fellowships. I also have people deciding who I am before they meet me — or deciding what I’m capable of based on what they believe about Filipinx-Americans, or women, or both.

It’s hard to get to a point where you can speak fluently about race, ethnicity, or any of the countless ways that we’ve developed to oppress and marginalize each other, and starting with yourself is a good place. This is ongoing work. This is not one audit and done, this is constant checking in. A lot of people have really excellent intentions. I believe that, but they still have to do the work. There are no free passes. We share in the tragedy of racism, so we are responsible, each of us, for dismantling it.

Take a hard look at the leadership level. Who’s making decisions about your organization? That’s really important. Examine your workplace culture and your HR. We’re building our first internal HR right now. As stressful as it is to be a new organization, we have an opportunity to get it more right.

An audit of equity includes your listeners and donors too, by the way. Many of our listeners have been sheltered. We need to address it directly with them in a kind and open way so that they can do that work too. We have to invite them to do this work of dismantling the racism and xenophobia they don’t realize that they have. Many, I’ve found, are willing to do it, while others dig  in their heels and use all manner of attacks to block the road. They will have to make the decision if this station is still for them — or do they prefer to support and listen to a station of the past, one that worked for them, but does not work for so many other people in our Bay Area community, especially our BIPOC communities? The reality is much of our listenership is white, 65+,  with a middle to high income. Where is the rest of the public in that public media?

How much do you feel listeners are accepting of those conversations?

For a long time, public media and community radio listeners considered themselves on the progressive or the liberal side. There’s truth in that, but there’s also the truth that change is hard for people and self-examination is also hard. And as progressive as these listeners are, change inconveniences them and makes them feel marginalized. They write in and they say “I’ve been giving for years, how dare you take X program off the air and replace it with banal chatter about podcasts and pop culture.”

I heard this recently in a workshop and it really resonated for me: “When you have enjoyed privilege for most of your life, the conversation about equity feels oppressive.”

Prime broadcast time is limited. We are making changes that move some shows that have been on for decades off the air, and we are trying to do so kindly and with the belief that those who have served the station should be celebrated, but also not indulged or led to believe that they “own” their spot. None of us own these spots. I don’t own this position as general manager. I am stewarding it for the next GM. We are all stewards of this public and community resource, listeners included.

In the first 14 months of my tenure, I took three shows off the air. One had not been producing new shows in two years so we were airing re-edited repeats. And another host regularly made misogynistic and racially offensive comments. The third would air his weekly program with music themes like “minstrel music,” a topic that could be very interesting and enlightening, but, in this case, the music was aired with little context and no Black voices to offer commentary. The white host took it upon himself to play that role. He aired “Dixie’s Land” in its entirety without considering how offensive that could be. I do believe that if you’re not up to the challenge of placing things in context so that you are adding to the conversation and challenging your listeners, that’s not a good use of public airtime.

Every single one of these hosts were white men. Every single one of them got angry and / or hung up on me, made psychological and emotional threats, and each of them used their audience to threaten to pull their memberships and donations if the program wasn’t reinstated.

Their programs were not reinstated.

Hosts weaponizing their mostly white audiences in an effort to hold on to their space in community and public media is nothing new, we just don’t talk about it. I would like to start that conversation.

I wish more GMs and PDs would make these kinds of decisions, and review their programming because there’s material out there that isn’t being questioned for who it speaks to and what it says, explicitly or implicitly. Every station has its unique situation, but I’d guess that some don’t change because they worry about their audiences, they worry about their donors. That’s a valid concern, but our first priority as a non-commercial educational licensee is to serve the public, and challenge their ideas and preconceptions – that’s what the best educational programming does. If you primarily have shows catering to a white audience, you must have that conversation with your staff and your listeners — what are we saying to our Black listeners, our communities of color?

I would like to address it in a more system-wide way. It’s also important because we need more leaders of color in this industry — especially women. And the kinds of personal attacks I’ve experienced for changing programming says to me that these leadership positions are, in many ways, not safe for BIPOC women. That’s not what I want for women and other underrepresented persons entering this space — because we need them. We need their lens of experience on what an equitable public and community media looks like.

I also see acceptance in our listeners who are excited because they are hearing new voices. They want to learn. My favorite message from one of our listeners was received in response to a message I wrote to our community after the murder of George Floyd:

I’m a half blind, semi-deaf member of what you might call the walker-brigade. Not dead yet but working on it. Thank you for all the new voices. Where can I send a check?

It made me laugh and cry at the same time. It’s on a sticky note on my computer. I need to know this person  is out there listening and that he is ready to travel this path with us. Bridges, not siloes.

Does white silence play a role in this?

Yes, what I’ve seen in the KALW community, and I suspect it is similar elsewhere, is a  trend of white leaders in my station community shying away from the hard conversations, of agreeing privately, but incapable of finding their voice publicly.

This summer we made big music programming changes — we didn’t cancel any shows, but some that had been on the air for 20+ or 30+ years were reduced by a half hour or more. We had public forums in which a mostly white listening audience expressed their anger, their frustration, and their entitlement to the public airwaves.

What I found most concerning was the texts and phone calls I received after these forums from people in our community, people who disagreed with the actions and sentiments of the forum participants. They had witnessed the attacks aimed at me and my staff and had stayed silent.

Just the other day, I received a call from a woman who has been in the Bay Area public and community radio world for a long time. She said “I can’t believe the kinds of things my counterparts are saying.” She then went on to list all the reasons she couldn’t or wouldn’t say anything.

My response to this is simple: we don’t need you to call and text us later with excuses and apologies. We need you to stand up in the moment — especially when your voice has currency in the situation.

White silence from supposed allies is real and for the BIPOC leader, this kind of silence becomes deafening. I have seen this from my direct management at the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD), in my own board members, in the people who surround the station as former or current leaders in the public radio community.

A very good friend of mine — an older white man who has been in this media space for a long time — said to me recently that the problem is often white allies and their inability to not center themselves and their own feelings in equity conversations. It was helpful to hear that.

Can you share a little bit of the story behind the new PSOA for KALW?

The station had long needed a nonprofit since it stopped being funded by SFUSD in the 1990s. The first major piece of communication I sent out to our listeners was about finding a pro bono lawyer to help us incorporate as a nonprofit. It took a while, but within a year we were on the road to negotiating the station’s first PSOA. The pandemic could have slowed us down, but that wasn’t an acceptable outcome in my mind. It was a reason to keep pushing. Most of our staff didn’t have health care — and most of them still don’t, at least not through KALW. This at least gives us a means to provide it, which we are working on through a five-year strategic business plan.

I’m very happy that it happened before the end of last calendar year (December 2020) because frankly, with all the fundraising issues that we’ve had since March 2020, it was really a huge need for us to have alternatives. There has been pushback, but I feel that effort is short-sighted and another expression of white entitlement and privilege that, if not properly addressed, will keep the station from evolving and serving more communities.

Let’s end with the need for inclusion. What advice would you give a producer of color or aspiring manager of color to achieve what they’re seeking?

Trust yourself and surround yourself with people who will speak plainly to you and say even the hard things, who will be frank with you and challenge your ideas. Identify mentors. Make sure at least one of them or more is a person of color, but don’t discount someone just because they are not BIPOC. You’re going to need help, and you’ll be expected to give help when it’s your turn. Learn to love the process and when times are tough, figure out how to connect to the thing you love about radio, podcasting, media, or journalism. Even if it’s something seemingly small like “Being in journalism gives me a license to ask questions, and to expect truthful answers.”

Public media in this country is quite young. It is only now coming to terms with equity issues. I think you need to learn about that, about our shared media history in order to figure out a vision for the future. My father always emphasized to me the need to know your history, even and especially when, that history is painful.

In the end, you’re creating the station for your future listeners, as much as you’re creating it for your present listeners. That’s something that we often forget. We need to build around younger listeners and more diverse listeners. I’m hopeful that as an industry, we’re finally taking that seriously because people are tired of waiting and our terrestrial listening audience is aging out, and with that, our donors.

I’d like to see public media as an industry make some strong muscular moves in the next few years to double down on its commitment to equity, to have the hard conversations, to sit with discomfort, to heal and move forward.

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