Under new management, WBEZ ‘needs to do better’

Goli Sheikholeslami

Goli Sheikholeslami

“Chicago” may be the company’s first name, but when it came to choosing a new chief executive officer, Chicago Public Media had no qualms about going out of town.

In naming Goli Sheikholeslami to oversee public radio WBEZ FM 91.5 and its related enterprises Tuesday, the board of Chicago Public Media chose a veteran of New York and Washington media suites with no prior connection to Chicago — and no experience in radio for that matter.

Then again, only one of the five finalists for the job hailed from Chicago, according to Steve Baird, board chairman of Chicago Public Media. The lone insider on the board’s short list was chief operating officer Alison Scholly, who’d been serving as interim CEO since Torey Malatia resigned under pressure last July.

Steve Baird

Steve Baird

“The problem with Chicago is that if you’re looking for media skills, digital skills and so forth in Chicago, that’s a very limited subset,” Baird said in an interview. “Actually, of all the criteria, [being from] Chicago was the least important to the board. We have people here who know Chicago. That’s a learnable skill. Being digital savvy or having media experience is not necessarily a learnable skill.”

As only the third CEO in the company’s history (following Malatia and the late Carole Nolan, who founded the institution), Sheikholeslami inherits the management of a $25 million budget and 140 employees across all platforms.

“We’re getting to be a big enterprise in a complex, challenging business environment as media changes,” Baird said. “We need a real leader and manager of people. We were delighted to find somebody as skilled as Goli in the digital area.”

Now the mandate for Sheikholeslami is to make everything bigger, better and more forward-looking. “We’re very excited about getting to this point and really thinking about building a greater organization,” Baird said. “The board generally thinks that we can be more. We’re really good at what we do, but we can be bigger.

“If we look at other major markets — L.A., San Francisco, New York, Washington, Boston — we’re just a little bit below them in terms of membership, listenership, etc. We have 65,000 members, which is great. But 65,000 out of — what — seven million people? That’s not enough. We have a great product, and we need to do better.”

Although some broadcasting experience would have been nice, Baird acknowledged, it was “not a particularly high skill on our list” for a new CEO.

WBEZ logo“One of the things we’re thinking about is becoming a media organization and moving away from some of our legacy platforms,” he said. “We’re always going to be on radio, but radio is a limited medium. It’s a limited distribution source. So we need to think about other things as we grow.”

Baird said he was taken aback at first when Sheikholeslami told him that she doesn’t listen to radio. “She said: ‘But I listen to NPR products and all sorts of public radio products, and I stream them. I stream WNYC because I’m in New York.’ That’s the thought process that we’re after. Not terrestrial radio. We really are down to listening to the radio in your car. For people in the city who don’t drive, it’s hard to get us unless you’re streaming or pulling us off a mobile app.”

In taking on her new role, Sheikholeslami said in a statement: “I am excited to lead an organization that is recognized both in Chicago and across the nation for its journalistic excellence and deep commitment to listeners and the community. It will be a great privilege to have the opportunity to work alongside so many talented people, building on their accomplishments.”

Since Scholly was passed over for the top job, it’s unclear whether she’ll continue as chief operating officer — the job she’s held since 2010. Baird said he hopes she does, but ultimately it’ll be up to the new CEO to decide. “It’s a matter of what Goli wants to do and whether there’s a fit there. Alison has been great. Everybody loves her. We love her. So I’m hopeful she will stay.”

Under terms of her agreement, which starts May 5, Sheikholeslami will be permitted to remain on the board of directors of Dice Holdings, a New York-based provider of specialized websites and career resources for professional communities. Baird said he believes the outside role “increases her stature” and can enhance her understanding of digital media.

Baird, who’s also president and chief executive officer of real estate giant Baird & Warner, no doubt can assist Sheikholeslami with her plans to move to Chicago and live here fulltime. “She wants to live close enough to the station to be able to walk,” he said. “That’s another indication that she’s serious and wants to get at it. She’s looking for an opportunity where she can really have an impact — and that’s a perfect fit for us.”