Media Scene

New WFAE leader looks to the future

For about six months, WFAE-FM (NPR, 90.7) has been looking for a new president to succeed the retiring Roger Sarow. Every candidate has been asked the same question:

What can be done, in an era of booming technology and rising competition, to protect WFAE’s franchise?

Joe O’Connor, named to the post this week, has his answer.

“What we’re doing right now – providing terrific local journalism that meets the high standards of NPR,” he says. “Without that, we won’t have a reason to exist. It’s a hybrid mix of great local journalism and NPR programming.”

Providing programming with a local accent that can’t be found anywhere else is the station’s niche and its strength, O’Connor says. And despite the onslaught of new media channels, digital competitors and other things seeking listeners’ attention, radio remains a robust medium in America, he says.

“Where we continue to be superlative is in oral storytelling that you can listen to and continue to be taken in along with breaking news, political news or inspiring stories that make you laugh out loud or touch your heart,” says O’Connor. “Radio is everywhere – on the smartphone, FM, laptop, Internet radio. It’s still going to be your local NPR source on what’s going on in your community.”

O’Connor, a Philadelphia native who grew up in Bethesda, Md., has a deep background in news. He went to Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and got a master’s degree in broadcast journalism from Boston University.

After college he worked for a time at CNN in its fledgling days, then spent 22 years at ABC News, working for “Good Morning America,” “Nightline” and “PrimeTime Live.” He rose to be the senior producer in Washington for “World News Tonight with Peter Jennings,” directing capital coverage.

He earned five Emmys, two Columbia DuPont Awards and a Peabody Award. One of his Emmys came for his acclaimed “Nightline” series “America in Black and White.” In 2004, he created the moving “In Memoriam” segment for “This Week” noting key deaths.

Ted Koppel at “Nightline” was a major influence. O’Connor remembers his instructions at the beginning of the series on race in America.

“Ted’s charge to use was, ‘Don’t do the usual. We want to do stories that really reflect the complexity of race relations in America,’ ” O’Connor says.

Public radio stations are places where that kind of philosophy can thrive, he says, and that’s what drew him to public radio after his career at ABC.

O’Connor was senior producer for NPR’s “On Point,” produced at WBUR-FM in Boston, then led the effort to take Rhode Island’s small Public Radio network independent eight years ago and became its general manager.

It launched in tandem with the recession, a horrible time to be looking for money in a state not exactly known for philanthropic generosity. But fund-raising was strong and the network was able to build a news staff to focus on Rhode Island and set it apart from public radio and commercial competitors in Boston and elsewhere in New England.

At WFAE-FM, O’Connor says, he plans to emphasize fund-raising that will support continued growth of the station’s local news staff, which in turn should enrich broadcasts.

“He understands that reporting is the oxygen of democracy and that fund-raising is the oxygen of public radio,” said Jon Buchan, chair of WFAE’s board of directors and a member of the search committee. “He’s an out-in-the-community kind of guy. He’s going to be great.”

O’Connor, who is 57 and is usually the tallest man in the room at 6-foot-6, has two grown children, a daughter teaching English in Spain and a son studying comedy (don’t laugh – you can actually minor in it) at Emerson College in Boston.

Media Movers

“Drex and Maney,” the morning show on WNKS-FM (“Kiss” 95.1) broke up this week, with two-thirds of the crew – P.J. “Drex” Rener and Cassiday Proctor – leaving for a job in Atlanta. Rener and Proctor had a rapid up-and-out career in Charlotte. Rener arrived in March 2012 to join with Maney on the morning show. They had been partners before on a station in Memphis. Proctor joined the cast from Austin, Texas, and her profile grew as she co-hosted “The Edge” weeknights on WCCB (Channel 18). Steve Maney will remain at the morning show and will be holding live auditions every weekday for the rest of the month, calling the search “Radio Apprentice: Search for the Next Radio Star.” Among those filling in this week was Jacinda Garabito, part-time forecaster at WCCB. …

Retiring after 35 years at the Observer is weather columnist Steve Lyttle. His ability to work on multiple stories at once earned him the nickname “Ricochet.” …

WCNC (Channel 36) names Eugene Robinson, radio analyst for the Carolina Panthers and a former player, as co-host with Colleen Odegaard on “Charlotte Today.” He replaces Ramona Holloway, who says she was getting worn out with two jobs and will stick with her afternoon radio gig on WLNK-FM (“Link” 107.9) with Matt Harris. In addition to media gigs, Robinson coaches football, track and wrestling at Charlotte Christian High School. …

Joining WJZY (Channel 46) as a reporter is Zach Groth, who comes from a cable system news operation in Naperville, Ill., where he did sports shows featuring North Central College. … Departing from WJZY after a year is junior digital journalist Alexandra Miller. …

“WCCB News Rising” producer Katie Searles leaves the station after two years. … Longtime Charlotte newsie Phillis Shoemaker retires as assignment editor at Time Warner Cable News channel, where she was one of the staffers when the station launched 13 years ago. Before that she worked in radio and for Channels 3 and 9. … Jay Werth, who joined WTVI (Channel 42) as development director last spring, is leaving to become a fund-raising consultant once again after getting an offer too good to turn down. “I loved working for WTVI and it’s poised for a great future,” Werth says. …

Michelle Harper is named general sales manager of WSOC (Channel 9), replacing Paul Briggs, who left for Memphis, Tenn., to run the Cox Media Group station there. Harper has been sales manager at sister station WAXN (Channel 64) since 2011. … Mathilde ‘Til’ Levesque is named market manager for Radio One’s Charlotte stations, WOSF-FM (“Old School” 105.1) and WPZS-FM (“Praise” 100.9). Previously, Levesque managed seven Detroit stations owned by Clear Channel Radio. She succeeds Gary Weiss, who remains with Radio One as regional vice president in Raleigh.

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