Chicago Public Media CEO Goli Sheikholeslami announced Wednesday she will leave her post to assume a similar position at New York City’s public radio station, ending a record-setting run as arguably the most influential woman in Chicago journalism.
During her five-year tenure atop Chicago’s National Public Radio affiliate, Sheikholeslami positioned WBEZ as a thriving journalism outlet, presiding over a steep growth in revenues, listenership and hiring.
In a move she characterized as “bittersweet,” Sheikholeslami will take the helm of New York Public Radio in early October, an outlet roughly three times the size of WBEZ.
But Sheikholeslami, a member of the National Public Radio board of directors, said she regards her time in Chicago, in transforming WBEZ into a financially secure media enterprise, as a professional pinnacle.
“For someone in the media business for 25 years, the past five have been the most fulfilling of my career,” Sheikholeslami said in an interview Tuesday night. “We’ve been building this vibrant, healthy, local newsroom at a time when all across the country newsrooms are shrinking and disappearing, and that’s what I’m most proud of.”
The one-time Washington Post digital executive took control of WBEZ in 2014 and immediately engineered a $2 million infusion of funds through a grant from the Pritzker Foundation. Since then, the nonprofit station grew from a $19 million-a-year budget to a roughly $31 million operation.
Establishing financial security at WBEZ enabled Sheikholeslami to burnish its focus on newsgathering. The organization has grown from roughly 100 employees when she arrived to about 150 now, and she cultivated partnerships with ProPublica Illinois; the city’s two daily newspapers, the Chicago Sun-Times and Chicago Tribune; and the Better Government Association, among others.
Those steps and others paid dividends with listeners, driving an increase in station membership from about 65,000 people to 85,000 during her tenure. Station ratings consistently have been in the top 10 for drive-time, reaching more than 550,000 listeners over the air and more than 150,000 on its digital platforms each week.
Last May, Chicago media blogger Robert Feder characterized Sheikholeslami as “the most powerful woman in Chicago journalism.” Feder described her as being “well on her way to transforming the nonprofit parent company of WBEZ 91.5-FM into the premier broadcast and digital news organization in town.”
Sheikholeslami oversaw the station’s emergence as a nationally acclaimed producer of podcasts, including “Making Oprah,” “Making Obama,” and “16 Shots.” Earlier this year, WBEZ debuted its latest podcast, “Public Official A,” which charted the political rise and fall of imprisoned ex-Gov. Rod Blagojevich and explored his courtship of President Trump and a presidential commutation.
Bryan Traubert, chairman of the board of Chicago Public Media, praised Sheikholeslami’s time heading WBEZ and outlined plans for new leadership at the station once she is gone, likely at some point next month.
“While we hate to see Goli leave, we are pleased that her talent and skills will remain in the public radio system,” he said in a statement. “The board has complete confidence in the foundation and leadership team Goli has built, and we anticipate a smooth period of transition.
“Whether they access us over the air, through podcasts or digitally, our audience members can rest assured that WBEZ will continue to play an important role in Chicago for bringing trusted, unbiased news and information to our community, and our CPM system will remain strong and vibrant,” he said.
Traubert said the board has created a committee to oversee the next steps in determining an interim and permanent CEO.
The position Sheikholeslami is moving into at New York Public Radio, parent of WNYC and other titles, has been vacant since March.
“What really makes it appealing is that I get to continue to do this thing I love. I love being part of the public radio system, and there is an opportunity to do it at a station that is the largest public radio station in the country and also in a city that I love,” she said. “I’ve lived in New York for years; and for all sorts of reasons, it’s the place that I feel most at home. And so, really, for me, it’s the next step in my career.”
She stressed that she is leaving WBEZ “in good hands.”
“The team we’ve built and the senior leadership team we’ve built is really fantastic. I am leaving knowing that we have a great team across the board now that can really carry the work forward,” she said.
Asked to rank her most memorable take-away as a resident of the Windy City, Sheikholeslami grew emotional.
“The No. 1 thing I will take with me -- and now you’re making me cry -- is the generosity of the people I’ve met in Chicago,” she said, her voice trembling. “I’ve made friends and connections here that I will carry with me for the rest of my life.”
Dave McKinney covers state politics and government for WBEZ. Follow him on Twitter at @davemckinney.