Ellis among Women of Influence
- Published: December 27, 2018
In October, WYSO Public Radio broadcast five locally produced series that tell stories from the Miami Valley community, with an emphasis on stories not often heard. The series included “Veterans Voices,” from Miami Valley veterans; “County Lines,” featuring farmers and other rural Ohioans; “Senior Voices,” spotlighting Miami Valley seniors; “Recovery Stories,” focusing on local stories about opioid addiction or recovery; and “Dayton Youth Radio,” with stories by and about Dayton-area high school students.
All of these series came about through the WYSO project “Community Voices,” which offers training in radio production techniques to the community, with the aim of giving all interested Miami Valley residents the skills to produce radio shows. Other WYSO series include “Just Ask: Talking about Disability,” with stories from Miami Valley residents living with disability, and “Women’s Voices from Dayton Correctional Institution.”
The brainchild of WYSO General Manager Neenah Ellis, “Community Voices” sought to both broaden and deepen the reach of WYSO by bringing in more local stories. As the station’s October schedule indicates, the project is working.
“The intention was to get more voices, more community voices, on the radio,” Ellis said in an interview last week. “I’m proud of that. It feels great.”
Ellis is currently being recognized for her efforts to shine a light on local stories, along with her long and successful career in radio. Recently she was named one of six 2019 Dayton YWCA Women of Influence, and she will receive the award at the annual Women of Influence luncheon on March 21, 2019, at the Dayton Convention Center. Attended by about 800 people on average, the event is the largest daytime nonprofit Dayton event each year, according to the YWCA website, ywcadayton.org.
The Women of Influence awards are presented each year to honor Miami Valley women who further the YWCA goals of empowering women and girls, eliminating racism and promoting peace, justice and human dignity, according to YWCA Director of Communications Audrey Starr in an interview last week.
“When Neenah began her journalism career in the 1970s, it was an incredibly male-dominated field. While the numbers have improved, even today only about 33 percent of radio news directors are women,” Starr wrote in an email. “Neenah has spent four decades ensuring all voices and stories are heard, particularly those of women, people of color and other marginalized communities. She has mentored, championed and advocated for female journalists with excellence and grace. In short, she has used her influence to empower women, eliminate racism and promote peace, justice, freedom and dignity for all, and that makes our Miami Valley stronger and safer.”
Ellis also deserves recognition for leading WYSO, the longtime Yellow Springs-based radio station, from a period of decline to one of robust success, according to local attorney and WYSO activist Ellis Jacobs, who was on the hiring committee that selected Ellis for the station’s general manager job in 2009.
“I think she’s been a great station manager,” Jacobs said this week. “She has worked hard and successfully at reconnecting WYSO with the community. She’s been very successful at that.”
Having attended the YWCA Women of Influence luncheon in Dayton for several years to honor other women, Ellis said she is both surprised and pleased by the recognition, as she admires the work of the YWCA.
“Those women have been doing amazing stuff for many years,” she said. “To me, it’s an honor to be associated with their mission.”
Nowhere but up
When Ellis was hired as WYSO general manager in early 2009, the station had suffered years of disarray and financial decline.
“When I came, WYSO was such a mess,” Ellis said last week. “They had nowhere to go but up.”
Begun in 1958 as part of Antioch College, WYSO is one of the oldest public radio stations in the country. While never financially robust, it had sustained itself as both a training ground for college students and the venue for many popular local volunteer-hosted music and cultural programs. But in the early 2000s, the station hit rocky times. Then new General Manager Steve Spencer slashed most local programming, replacing it with nationally syndicated shows. Over the next few years, the community rose up in protest as one after another popular station employee lost his or her job and local shows disappeared, according to News articles. When Spencer moved on after a few years, his replacement, Paul Maassen, couldn’t set things right, and left the job in less than a year.
In 2008, the station was without a manager, had operated in the red for several years, and was stuck in the middle of the conflict between Antioch College, which had started the station, and Antioch University, which now controlled it. While the college wanted the station back, rumors swirled that the university was aiming to sell the WYSO license, which could bring in $5 million to $10 million, according to an April 24, 2008, News story.
Ellis at this time already had a celebrated 30-year radio career, having started as an “All Things Considered” producer and writer, then spun off as an independent producer. She had won three Peabody awards, the industry’s highest honor, for her shows, and written a popular book, “If I Live to Be 100: Lessons from the Centenarians,” based on her NPR series of interviews with those over 100. She had traveled to Sarajevo to produce war documentaries and interviewed Holocaust survivors for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s oral history series.
But years of working on her own had left Ellis longing to work with others.
“I was lonely. I wanted to be part of a team,” she said of her interest in the WYSO job.
Long associated with NPR — her husband, Noah Adams, was a longtime co-host of “All Things Considered” — Ellis was well aware of the historical significance of WYSO, where some of her NPR friends had first learned their radio chops. She was also aware of the station’s substantial local support.
“So many people cared so much about WYSO, had such a deep connection to it,” she said. “That sort of support is foundational. It’s bedrock.”
Ellis declines to lay the blame for the station’s decline on any one factor, such as Spencer’s leadership, but rather sees the problem as one of years of underfunding and under-resourcing, brought to a fever pitch by the Spencer controversy.
“It was a fragile organization with a strong history,” she said. “But around that issue, things crumbled.”
It never occurred to her, Ellis said, that it might not be worth taking the WYSO manager job, or that the station might fail, since it enjoyed so much local support. But turning things around took longer than she expected. Initially, she said, after she started as manager, people streamed into her office and offered conflicting stories about who was to blame for the station’s difficulties.
“It took me a long time to figure out how WYSO ended up in that position,” she said.
Ultimately, Ellis said, she focused on basics, introducing public radio best practices in areas like fundraising, major gifts and membership maintenance. WYSO employees hadn’t been trained in how to work together, she said, nor did they have clear job descriptions. New at the business side of things, Ellis was also learning.
“It was chaotic,” she said. “We didn’t have basic organizational functions, like how to work as a group, or who was responsible for what. We had to invent all of that.”
But Ellis definitely wasn’t new at making quality radio, and so she began training her staff. Training topics included selecting good stories and writing for radio. She also brought in friends from NPR to share their expertise with the WYSO staff.
“I played that card a lot,” Ellis said, about asking NPR friends for help.
Gradually, Ellis said, listeners began noticing a difference.
“Little by little, they heard more local voices, more local content, and better local content,” she said.
It took about five years, but in 2014, she began feeling that WYSO was out of the woods.
Her greatest challenge during her 10 years at WYSO has been balancing her personal and professional lives, Ellis said. There was so much to do at WYSO and initially, so few people to do it. After Ellis had been on the job several years, in 2012 the station took on major changes, including building a new studio and expanding its reach to 50,000 watts, all of which proved overwhelming.
“In 2012 I was really tired,” she said. “I was on the road to burnout.”
But Ellis was able to step back a bit, especially after the 2012 hiring of Development Director Luke Dennis, who began serving as the public face of the station, relieving Ellis of that responsibility.
Ellis also appreciates the station’s relationship with the leadership of Antioch College, which regained control of the station in 2012.
“The college has been a good steward of WYSO,” she said.
Asked of what she’s most proud in her 10-year tenure, Ellis didn’t hesitate.
“I’m proud of the way our staff works together,” she said, stating that staff members have respect for each other and appreciate each others’ expertise. She tries to model that behavior, Ellis said, by making sure her staff members are aware of each other’s successes.
The current WYSO staff is excellent, she said, stating her employees are talented, hard-working and team-focused. Overall, according to Ellis, “Everyone puts the station first. That’s a hard place to get to.”
Over the past several years, the WYSO project “Community Voices”, begun by Ellis, has trained about 150 community members to write and produce radio shows. Doing so has enhanced the ability of WYSO, a tiny radio station, to offer new local content to its listeners, both by empowering new and independent radio producers to make shows for the station, and providing more skilled help to the small WYSO staff, Ellis said. For instance, the series “County Lines” and “Senior Voices” are produced by “Community Voices” graduates Renee Wilde and Jocelyn Robinson, respectively, and “Recovery Stories” is produced by WYSO employee Jess Mador, with support from “Community Voices” graduates. In general, Ellis said, a series begins when someone comes to her with a new idea for stories to tell and the desire to make it happen.
While the benefits of such a project seem obvious to Ellis, few stations offer similar programs.
“Very few stations are training community people to tell stories,” she said. “To me, it adds a richness to our programming.”
The idea for “Community Voices” was sparked by one of Ellis’ colleagues at the Chicago station WBEZ, who saw the need to train a new generation of radio producers, so he began offering Saturday workshops.
After attending one of the workshops, Ellis was inspired to reshape the concept for WYSO, offering a series of more in-depth classes to teach amateurs how to make radio.
“The basic idea was inspiring,” she said.
The training of “Community Voices” participants starts with listening. For the first several sessions, participants listen closely to radio programs, then talk about what they’re hearing, Ellis said. Doing so, they become more aware of ways to use both sound and silence in radio production.
“We always try to teach people that radio is not just speaking the written words of the script,” she said. “There’s so much more content than the script.”
For instance, she said, there’s the sound of someone’s voice, the pauses between words, and all that the person doesn’t say, as well as what’s said.
“All these are available as tools,” she said. “It’s complicated and nuanced.”
Not surprisingly, Ellis loves radio, and is intensely aware of the power of sound. Her father had a country-western music show when she was a child, and she grew up hearing his voice on the radio. Later, when she was a teenager, her parents bought a radio station in her hometown of Valparaiso, Ind., and she sometimes read the news on air. As an adult, her friends are on the radio, and her husband is a well-known radio figure.
“To me, it’s the place I dwell as a journalist, as a creative person,” she said.
After 10 years as the leader of WYSO, Ellis is proud and grateful for the success of “Community Voices” and the turnaround of the station. She’s also glad the job brought her and her husband to Yellow Springs, where she feels that she thrives.
At 64, she has no plans to move on from WYSO, but she knows there will be a time when she does so.
But when Ellis leaves WYSO, it won’t be to retire. Rather, she said, she’d like to get back to what she doesn’t do quite enough right now, which is writing and producing her own radio programs. She loves the intense, personal experience of interviewing people, and misses having the opportunity to do so.
“I would love to do more of that. I don’t think I’m done with it yet,” she said. “What a gift it is, going to someone’s house, hearing their story.”