From: Sue Schardt
To: AIR board of directors (listed below)
Date: August 10, 2018
I submit this overview regarding events precipitating my August 2018 resignation from AIR, requesting that it be attached to the staff memo of July 2, 2018. Since the board and I chose to pursue a path of amicable separation, I have not had an opportunity to communicate a response. I feel it’s important that the record include my perspective on what’s transpired.
The first week of July 2018 was to be the culmination of months of planning work I began in February in consultation with members of the board, staff, and an outside consultant, Beth Curley (former CEO of Nashville Public Television). It is my belief that the timing of the July 2, 2018 memo to the board was not coincidental, but in reaction to larger movement underway under my direction as CEO.
My intended goal over these 5 months was to take specific steps and action to reorganize staff, focus the COO role to play to his strengths, and to prepare the board and the organization for transition into new phase of development to include CEO succession.
I assumed leadership of AIR in 2007 after having served 9 years on the board of directors. My commitment to AIR spans not 11, but 20 years. The board recruited me to the position, recognizing the opportunities in the digital disruption underway at the time. My mandate was to elevate the role of independent producers and “get AIR a seat at the decision-making tables.” I assumed leadership with a budget of $177,000, and the recent loss of AIR’s only significant grant (from MacArthur). I subsidized a salary that averaged $33K per year for the first three years. I was energized and motivated by a vision and belief that, if I could raise some money, convince the system and CPB in particular to “give us a shot,” we would demonstrate that gifted, diverse, and independent talent is central to the future of public broadcasting. I called this “advocacy through demonstration.” My driving passion for this has never waned, and has remained at the center of all my work. This passion, and our producers’ collective ability to prevail as a “proof of concept” as one funder describes it, is also a significant reason I’ve successfully raised more than $9 million, including $4.4 million from CPB, since 2011.
The majority of this funding has been directed to hundreds of independent producers in the form of Localore and mentoring stipends and other fees for service, and represents one of the most profound, yet not entirely evident, changes I put into motion. In 2007, AIR was, itself, a rather insular, homogeneous group of producers. I’d earlier undertaken a CPB funded study — Mapping Public Radio’s Independent Landscape (2004-2006) — and came into my job at AIR with a keen and well researched understanding not only of the dominant stereotypes and limitations of independent audio producers relative to public broadcasting, but also knowing that any significant change would have to include how the money flowed. At the time, there were a select handful of independent producers receiving most of the grants from a small pool of discretionary funds from CPB. As deserving as each of them were, the limitations to this model were evident. Diversifying and expanding the funding mechanism — democratizing the economy — was essential if AIR was to lead a wider system diversification and change and, in this way, the culture of AIR became (and remains) a test bed in itself.
I am proud of the legacy I leave. AIR’s network of producers has grown from several hundred to more than 1300, predominantly women, and we’ve tripled the ratio of producers of color joining AIR. My work has helped elevate a new and diverse cohort of producers now recognized as vital to the future of the public broadcasting industry. Through Localore, I’ve had the privilege to work with hundreds of independent, station-based, and community producers to experiment with new models for making stories “with and for the people” and who, by their passion and commitment, inspire others working across public media to be bold and take risks. Members of the current board of directors can attest to this through direct experience as station managers and producers. These new cohorts are predominantly female and ethnically/racially diverse. The most recent data available to me for New Voices cohort (2009-2016) indicates an average age of 28.5 years with 76% non-Caucasian. Localore FInding America lead producers are 73% women and 43% people of color. The full Finding America team, 150+ strong, is comprised of 57% women and 48% people of color.
My life is enriched by this talent, the work they make, and the new trails they blaze. I am a mentor and advisor to many of the women and men who’ve been involved in our programs. As I start a new chapter, I’m confident the work I set into motion will continue on through them in many ways, shapes, and forms.
Leading a small non-profit through such rapid change amid a national culture shift was exhilarating and exhausting. Anyone who has worked in this capacity understands the challenges and pratfalls well. Staff was strained at times, and I made mistakes – some, no doubt, avoidable. I hope for understanding. I’ve reflected on what I might have done differently, and on my own grievances, as well. I look ahead, now, with lessons I take from the experience.*
Finally, I’ve brought my full creativity and love to this work. It has been immensely satisfying, and I am eager now to rest and reflect. Witnessing and experiencing first-hand the power we have to truly move people and transform their lives is one of the greatest gifts I carry with me. I’ve seen this impact on both the people in the communities where we’ve worked, as well as on the independent and station talent involved in the stories we’ve made and supported. It has truly been remarkable to lead an organization that provides an antidote to the aggressive, blaming world we’re confronted with each day, with a mission “to create work that brings hope and enlightenment, with the power to embolden and unify.”**
*added November 15, 2019
** from AIR’s “Vision”