Long time Chicago Public Media CEO Torey Malatia has resigned from his post. He submitted his letter of resignation to the CPM board Friday morning without explanation.
Chief Operating Officer Alison Scholly will take the interim position while a committee searches for a permanent replacement over the next six to 12 months.
Malatia joined the station in 1993 as the Vice President of programming. He’s known in the public radio world for his innovative projects at WBEZ. He helped launch national shows like Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me and This American Life.
This American Life host Ira Glass said his show wouldn’t exist without Malatia. But he says the beginning of Malatia’s tenure was shaky. Glass described Malatia, then, as a numbers man.
“We had these low performing music shows and these weird idiosyncratic shows and I’m going to take those off the air. I’m going to replace those with more news and information. And he fired a lot of people who were beloved by the audience and took a lot of music off the air. And people hated his guts,” he said.
Glass says that led to some soul searching, away from just looking at listenership numbers.
“As a result, WBEZ bounced back and I think became a much more idiosyncratic, innovative place. And he really came to value a much more mission-driven approach while still keeping his eye on the numbers,” he said.
His innovative ideas were widely recognized and praised, but some initiatives in recent years were controversial, including Vocalo, a sister station to WBEZ initially programmed by user generated content designed to appeal to a younger audience. Vocalo has not yet materialized the ratings or following Malatia had hoped. Many listeners were unhappy about simultaneously cutting music programming and hosts.
Glass said Malatia’s relationship with the CPM board started to get tense with the economic downturn in 2008.
“Even though the radio station is doing great now and our finances have bounced back and our numbers are solid compared to stations around the country, I know that the atmosphere hasn’t been the greatest,” Glass said. “I think we have a very good board, and Torey’s the greatest, I love Torey. But my understanding is that it’s been a hard working relationship for both sides.”
Steve Baird, CPM Board Chairman, praises Malatia’s work with the station, noting a rise in WBEZ listeners during Malatia’s tenure as well as an increase in revenue.
“Torey is a real entrepreneur and it’s about risk taking. And that’s one of the things that attracted me to the station was this was a station that pushes the edge,” he said.
Baird recognizes there was some tension, but says in a place of creativity and innovation, that’s a good thing.
But Baird couldn’t fully answer when asked if the board asked for Malatia's resignation.
“I’m not allowed to say more than what I’ve said. And I know what happened, that process. So I’m limited in my ability to answer that question for obvious reasons. And that’s to protect the sanctity of the board and also Torey,” Baird said.
Baird said Chief Operating Officer Alison Scholly will serve as interim CEO while the board launches a national search for a replacement, and that might mean changing the position. The committee will be widening the search beyond the public radio realm.
“We’re not just public radio. We need to look more broadly at our mission. it’s about delivering interesting content in different ways. How do we do that? This is an opportunity to find someone who can help us with that process,” he said.
Jake Shapiro is CEO of PRX, the Public Radio Exchange.
He said Malatia’s replacement will have big shoes to fill, as well as challenges that come with the changing media landscape.
“There’s a lot of competitive pressures. There’s a lot of expectation. There’s a shifting of terrain and models underway and audience habits. And it’s a lot to be able to manage,” Shapiro said. “So, it’s hard to conceive that anyone person can get that all right. And so you end up needing to find someone who is completely passionate about the mission and the purpose.”
Shapiro said Malatia’s risks may have been uncomfortable for some in an institutional setting.
“I’m sure he will never stop. In some fashion he’ll be continuing to be an independent thinker and really pushing the limits in a variety of ways,” he said.
His full statement is shown below:
“It has been my honor to lead the transformation of what was a fine radio station (WBEZ 91.5-FM) into an internationally revered institution on the cutting edge of trans-platform in-depth journalism.
"For 20 years I've kept Chicago Public Media planning and acting ever forward. We've led artistic and digital change nationally and internationally with the nation's most loved podcasts and broadcasts. Our audiences locally, nationally, and internationally number in the millions weekly.
"In my years as Chicago Public Media’s CEO, we have shown how digital media married to broadcast technologies can provide a nexus for polycultural discussion and insight, that entertaining experiences crafted with underlying substance can enthrall multi-platform audiences, bringing Chicago Public Media both respect and solid fiscal health.
"Most importantly, in these years, we--all of the trustees and I with my staff--have built one of Chicago's most needed journalistic resources at a critical time. A time when a new generation of Chicagoans are grappling with the challenge of making a better city for all of us.
"For me, having been given the unforgettable privilege of working with this brilliant staff and supportive board, marshaling the next wave of public service journalism is more than a choice; it is a calling.
"Although realizing the next innovation project must come for me now by leading another institution, I have eternal thanks and deep admiration for those many wonderful trustees and staff who have passionately supported our stunning successes.”