Laura Walker is President and CEO of New York Public Radio (NYPR), the largest public radio station in America. In the 20 years since joining, monthly listeners have grown from under a million to over 16 million people and she has established NYPR as a place recognized for award-winning enterprise journalism. Through nurturing today’s most creative talent she has produced some of public radio’s most popular programming including Radiolab, Freakonomics Radio and Death, Sex & Money. With a determined heart and passion for innovation, Laura has continually pushed the radio medium in new engaging directions.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
It changed over the years. I remember wanting to be an artist, then a musician, then a doctor, and then a journalist.
Who would you most like to be stuck on a desert island with? Why?
Definitely my family. Firstly, my husband, who is smart and kind. He’s a mathematician/scientist turned lawyer. He has a lot of skills that would help us get off the desert island. Then my son, who is fearless and interesting to talk to. He’s at a post-college life stage dealing with lots of life’s very critical questions and doing so with great positivity and optimism. And finally my daughter, who loves to lounge around and would be a really fun companion to contemplate the world with.
What single book has had the greatest impact on you? Why?
That’s really hard but if I must, I’d pick Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. I’ve read it several times and often go back to it because I see different layers every time. I see a strong woman, someone who is locked in a world she can’t control. I was a history major so I love the history and sense of society and family portrayed in the book.
Another book that has been very important to me is The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir. What made such a deep impression on me was how she describes “the other” and what it’s like to be a member of an oppressed group. Clearly she was writing it from a feminist perspective but that concept is true for any group.
When do you go to bed and when do you get up?
Too late and too early! I probably go to bed around midnight and get up between 6 and 7am.
Can you briefly explain your career path to date?
I was privileged enough to know early on where my passion was. I decided when I was in college I’d do my best to get as much experience as possible in journalism and radio production. I wrote for one of the college newspapers and did an internship at public radio station WGBH. It was right around the time that NPR had just started, and I knew I wanted to work there someday.
When I graduated, I had a friend offering free rent at a relative’s house in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I went and lived with her in this incredible house and worked in Boston. I freelanced in print journalism for about 6-8 months, and every week I would apply for a job at NPR in Washington.
NPR eventually did offer me a job so I moved to Washington, DC. and became a Production Assistant there and then spent three years moving up the chain from Production Assistant to Assistant Producer to Associate Producer, and finally to Producer. I did reporting and production and it was fabulous. Then NPR had a financial crisis and crashed. I didn’t get laid off like almost all my friends but I was a little disillusioned. I went to work in New York City for Carnegie Hall, which was starting a radio series, and I produced that for a couple of years.
At that point I decided I’d done what I could at Carnegie Hall and wanted to explore other things. I wanted to look at commercial media and television but more importantly, I thought management was something that could interest me. I had, until then, thought it was boring. I soon came to the realization that many critical decisions happen at the higher levels and if I wanted to do something with a vision, I needed to get some of those skills.
I went to the Yale School of Business Management. I applied only to Yale because it was a really interesting program. It was new and had very strong financial and marketing programs among other things, and was very welcoming to people from the non-profit or public sectors. They also encouraged, and still do, their graduates to cross sectors and do different things. I had a great time and a great group of friends. I spent the summer at Boston Consulting Group and seriously considered going into consulting for a time because it was intellectually challenging.
In the end, my heart pulled me back to media and from there I spent seven or eight years at Sesame Workshop. I managed the R&D of Ghost Writer, a mystery adventure show, and then they asked me to go and raise the money for it. So I ended up staying and running the business department. I then moved on to do the business plan and negotiation for a new cable channel (which became Noggin) and had a lot of fun there too. It was strategic and it was project management, and I loved starting the new things.
But I never lost my love for public radio and I started to feel like I wanted to get back to adult content. I loved the education and impact that Sesame had and I loved the sense of mission-oriented content, but I was missing working in more journalistic circles. Then, I got a call. WNYC was being sold by the City of New York. There was a group of people who had served as an adjunct board to the station and stood up to the mayor to pressure him not to sell the radio stations to the highest bidder, and instead keep public radio alive by selling the stations to them. That deal came to pass, and I came on to finish that negotiation and to take on the job of running the stations. That was 1996 and I’ve been here ever since.
This job has definitely kept me inspired throughout the years. Somebody told me early on that one of the secrets to a successful career is to either redefine the job every 4-5 years or you have to leave. I really didn’t think I was going to stay here for more than 10 years. I thought I’d turn it around and make it self-sustaining; turn it from a city-owned vehicle that had a lot of city funding and a fledgling membership. When I came on I think we had something like $50,000 of underwriting and the budget was $8 million. We now have a budget of some odd $72 million. Back then we had under a million listeners a month and we now have 16.5 million listeners a month. So we’ve come a long way.
I’ve learned to be disciplined, and I’ve worked hard to redefine our business. Someone told me recently on their 20th work anniversary here that there have been four versions of WNYC in her time. That was so interesting to me because that’s exactly what I’ve tried to do. We started as a city -owned institution, then we were in transition, then after 9/11 we took up mantle of being New York’s news station with in-depth news and created a community of listeners. The next iteration was about moving into a new, more modern facility and launching more national programs. This last iteration has been all about the digital age and advancing podcasting, of which we were a pioneer.
Most recently we’ve been championing the push to get more women’s voices into the podcasting arena. We are leaders in the podcasting arena, having been an early adopter over 10 years ago. But as recently as two years ago, I read a study that looked at the top 100 podcasts and only 11% of them were hosted solely by women. I decided we needed to do something about it. I talked with Pat Harrison, who’s the head of CPB, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, who gave us a grant and we went about launching new podcasts such as Note to Self (formerly New Tech City) which is number 4 on the iTunes charts today. We also launched Anna Sale’s Death Sex and Money, which was developed through an internal competition.
There’s more to do. One of those things is share what we’ve learned and create a community of women who are dedicated to podcasting and who can learn from one another. To that end, we convened the first Women’s Podcasting Festival in June. We had about 250 people here from both commercial and non-commercial players. It fostered a lot of great ideas and women who were really excited about having their voice heard in that community.
It’s a tremendously exciting time for both radio and audio in general. It’s a golden age and people are thirsty for content that is not just superficial but has a depth to it and touches you as a human being.
What is the biggest obstacle you’ve overcome, as it relates to your career or industry?
The biggest obstacle has always been that my vision and desires are bigger than any pocket book. I’ve had to learn how to raise the money and find people who really get what we’re trying to do and take joy in supporting it. It’s an obstacle and a huge opportunity but it works well when I find those special people who have been incredible visionaries in terms of their own philanthropy.
What motivates you?
Our mission statement is to make the mind more curious, the heart more open and the soul more joyful though excellent audio programming. I believe in that and I believe a story that somebody hears can change their life. I feel so privileged to be able to think up how we can have an impact and then be able to execute it, or start an idea and give it to a team of people who are going to make it so much better.
I love the intersection of profit and not-for-profit. I love having the mission, but also having to compete in a commercial world. It keeps me on my toes and means we have to be our best.
What do you wish you’d known at the start of your career?
I wish I’d known that failing and failing early is a good thing. For a while, at the beginning, I was terrified.
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Without a doubt my kids. From a career perspective, these stations could have died easily. They could have become mediocre. I think what we have created here is something that is the center of innovation, and that’s what I’m most proud of.
What do you believe has been the key to your success?
I realized when I was in college that I was lucky because I knew what I wanted to do, but was also so passionate about it. I didn’t know how I was going to do it, and I didn’t know what it was going to take, but I followed my passion and my intuition, and that has led me to where I am today.
What is your life motto?
I’m not a motto person.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?
Some of the best advice comes from one of the Chairs of our Board, who keeps asking, before everything we talk about: What’s the objective here? That’s a really powerful piece of advice because if you know what you’re trying to do — even if your objective is just to define a plan or make somebody feel valued — you go about things with focus. So really looking at what the objective is. That can be applied to almost anything in life.
Who do you most admire in business? Why?
I admire a lot of people working in media. In particular I admire another one of our Board Chairs who’s a good friend and an incredible leader, Herb Scannell. He was the Head of Nickelodeon, Viacom, and is currently the President of BBC America. I also admire Shelly Lazarus from Ogilvy and Mather. She was the CEO there for many years. She’s an unbelievable woman and in many ways, a mentor to me. I also think Arianna Huffington is doing an incredible job by calling attention to the personal side of business.
What are your favorite traits about women in the workplace?
Many men do this too, but I admire women who are successful at getting something accomplished, have a trust and confidence in their own intuition, the courage to take risks, and the humility to not feel like they have to be the center of attention.
As told to Caroline Hugall over the phone on Wednesday 24th June 2015