Ju-Don Marshall, chief content officer and executive vice president at WFAE in Charlotte, North Carolina, shares her thoughts on local radio and its connection to communities, how innovation and investigative journalism can thrive on the radio, her challenges in rising through the ranks as an African-American woman and her vision for local broadcasting and what it needs to do in order to continue thriving and serving listeners and viewers.
Edited and Paraphrased for Print
What inspired you to get into journalism?
I was born in Brooklyn, New York, and but my grandmother is from Charleston, South Carolina. And when I was about seven years old, my grandparents retired to Charleston, and maybe a year-and-a-half later, my mother and I followed suit. And all I heard was ‘We’re moving to Hollywood.’ So as a seven-year-old, you hear ‘we're moving to Hollywood,’ right? And that sounds like California: lights, camera, action.
We roll into Hollywood on a Greyhound bus. And there's one small building in this very sleepy town. And I'm like, ‘where are we?’ And Hollywood in the Charleston area is beautiful. It's rich and steeped in history. There were so many things to love about it. But coming from New York, which is a very developed place with a lot of access, and landing in Hollywood, for the first time in my life, I saw how people lived in ways that I never experienced before. And again, Charleston is a place of a lot of wealth, and also a lot of poverty.
Unfortunately, for the community that I grew up in, which is among the barrier islands, or South Carolina, there is a lot of poverty, I think the median income there today is $17,000 a year. So that was reflected in what I saw. I saw houses with no running water, and they had outhouses, where people would use the restroom, or pumps in the yards, where people would go and get water to cook and clean with. And I just couldn't understand it. My seven-year-old brain couldn't absorb it.
But my grandparents always got the newspaper. And the newspaper had all of these great stories in it. But I never saw any stories reflected from my community. And so, it really made me feel like somebody needed to tell these stories. I needed to know them, and that need wasn't being satisfied. For me, it became my mission to tell those stories, and to give voice to communities that don't otherwise have their voices heard. So really, I began at the age of seven.
I started putting together little newsletters and making my little cousin write stories about family members and neighbors. And what was happening in the community. I was also torn by my love of technology. For a while I went to engineering camps. But at the end of the day, I had an opportunity to go to Howard, on a journalism scholarship to go to Clemson on an engineering scholarship. And I chose Howard.
You've been a journalist and a storyteller across so many different mediums: print, online, and now broadcasting at WFAE for several years now. What similarities or differences have you observed with how you connect with your local community in audiences, from the newspapers’ perspective versus a local broadcasting station?
One of the things that I tell journalists who want to come into the field for the first time and they ask about the difference between radio and in digital and print, and the thing that I stress is that the journalism is universal. Your ability to report to write to find the truth in a story and to find the voices that need to be amplified in some context. That part of it is universal. What I really appreciated about being in the broadcast part of this which is different from print, is the intimacy that radio allows with the listener. I mean, we are in their home with them, telling them the story like we're conversing with a friend. They hear our voices, they hear the nuances of our speech, they hear the voices of their neighbors in the community in a way that makes a story come to life. Maybe you get that experience with video, but video is still a somewhat detached experience. When you are listening and processing all of that, with just the sense of hearing it – that’s a completely different experience.
As the chief content officer of WFAE, what is a day in the life of Ju-Don Marshall look like?
As chief content officer here at WFAE, I'm in charge of the programming, so everything you hear on the station. I'm also in charge of setting the strategy for a news organization. A lot of our focus is on how can we listen better to our communities? How can we bring them into the storytelling process with us? How do we make sure that we're aligned with our community's needs and information needs. We're looking at doing that through partnerships, through deep listening exercises with the community, we've participated in forums, where we have gone out into the community with other groups and listen to things that they felt about media in general. We surveyed our listeners in the audience to understand what they think of WFAE in particular.
We tried to bring in different people across our community, who have a different relationship with the community. For example, we brought in a public defender. We've brought in somebody who was working on broadband access for the Latino community here, all in an effort to see Charlotte through these different lenses to bring that kind of nuance, and context to the reporting that we provide. A lot of my work is just looking at how we are serving our audience across all of these mediums. What more can we be doing? And how are we preparing for the future of our community and of our station and its role in it?
Your connection to the community is constantly evolving – from daily news and stories to larger pieces. How you pivot from your daily community service efforts to covering some of those stories that are impacting people's lives on a grand scale?
I think COVID-19 is a perfect example of this. Prior to COVID, reporters were very focused on their beat reporting, with a mix of breaking news in there. And COVID has just shifted the entire focus. That one story runs through every beat that we have. The goal is to get up front and close with our community members to understand what they needed. And what we found time after time is that this story of COVID is running through every question, every concern that the community has. Whether it's schools, in education, whether it's job benefits, whether it's ‘my health,’ whether that health question is COVID-related, or COVID adjacent, because of the way COVID is changing how people receive their medicine or immigration in the wake of COVID restrictions and changes to policy. That really required us to pivot and a big way over the last year. And then you add on top of that the protests in response to the lack of social justice for black people in this country. Stories about George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery. How are we telling each of these stories? These are all equally important stories and issues that we can't turn away from. And our other mission as a public radio station and a public media in general is that we need to be able to bring our communities together to have important conversations around issues like these. So it's not just that we're reporting out to the community, but we're inviting the community and to sit with us, to sit with other experts and to really have a conversation about these issues and how as a community, we can come together to start to address those.
So we have been constantly juggling all of those topics, but also recognizing when it's time to take a step back. A few months ago, we started our rebuilding Charlotte series, which is going to be a year-long look at how do we piece all of this stuff together? How do families stabilize their lives? How do the schools change the way we think about education, both in the short term? And then in the long term? What's the future of medicine now that we have COVID? What's the future of work? And a sub-series of that is on resilience. Through this all, the strength of the human spirit continues to rise up. And those stories are inspiring and they're heartbreaking. And how do we just show each other? What that looks like? We have a reporter who is capturing those stories and allowing people to share them with the community. So we're constantly challenged in the news cycle to figure out whether we're long-term, whether we're short-term, and sometimes we have to be all of those things at the same time.
What are some of the more recent projects that you personally been involved in that you're really proud of? And what do you find most rewarding about your job at WFAE?
First and foremost, I work with an amazing group of people. Our journalists are committed, they're mission focused, they care about this community as if it were their own. Some of them come from other places, and they really want to see Charlotte thrive, and they really feel the responsibility to do the work to help this community have the progress that it needs to have.
Whether they're my colleagues in the newsroom, or my colleagues on the business side of the organization that allow us to do the work that we do as journalists, it's a privilege to work alongside people who are as committed as the folks at WFAE.
Secondly, the work that we've been able to do. We just ended a series through the COVID-19 coverage, which looked at the affordable housing crisis in Charlotte. We started out thinking we were going to do a one year commitment to it, because we had covered affordable housing prior to that. But we thought the issue was so enormous that we need to put a stake in the ground and really commit on a weekly basis. We were going to have at least one story focused on this. And we were going to surround that with conversations and provide resources to the community to find the resources that they needed. We did that as one year as a one-year project. And then it turned into a year two, because we realized the work wasn't done. So I'm extremely proud of that story and the impact has had on the community. We did a story called “She Said.” It was a series in a podcast, and we looked at what happens to a sexual assault survivor. What we found was that sometimes there was a lack of sensitivity and how victims were treated. We also found that police officers are just overworked. Some things we might take for granted. But when you dig into the data, and you see the numbers of cases that each officer is carrying, you start to understand why they have some difficulty in getting back to people in a timely manner. We also found cracks in the system where there were communications processes that didn't quite work between the state DNA lab and the local police department. Our reporting expose all of that. It also we found that how hospitals that did rape kit test weren't being reimbursed, which is required by federal law.
Again, this series raised those questions, and prompted the Justice Department to put in a call to find out what was going on. And then those reimbursements started coming. I'm incredibly proud of all of that work. We are now sharing a reporter with La Noticia, which is a Spanish language newspaper here in Charlotte. And for the first time, we have really been covering immigration issues, and issues of importance to the Latino community in a really focused, sustained way. So I'm incredibly proud of that work. We also have a report focused on the financial toll of COVID-19 on black and Latino communities. Very early on in the pandemic, when the first PPP loans were coming out. We found out that, in a survey of us and our partners, we couldn't identify one minority business in that first wave that said that they received that loan. That was anecdotal, but it was an anecdote that kept growing. The more people we asked, the more we found a failure for small businesses owned by blacks and Latinos to really break through. So we knew that they were going to be disproportionately affected before the numbers started telling that story. And we were able to get a grant to dedicate two reporters – one focused on the black small business community and black families, and the other focus on Latino communities – to really look at that story through a financial lens.
We've talked about the burden of student loans faced by some folks, the burden of small businesses or people losing jobs, or parents and single parents having to manage childcare and still take care of their families. We looked at evictions, both before this, and then in light of COVID. So I’m really incredibly proud of that work.
I'm also really proud of the work we do to engage with the community. We do a number of things to bring them into conversation, as I mentioned earlier, but we're also out there training the community to tell their own stories. Coming from my background and my experience, with news as a child, I realized the importance of the community being able to own their own narratives, and share those stories, whether newspapers step up to share those stories or not.
As we go out and we train people, we always tell them, that as many stories as we want to tell, we still have resource constraints. So this is a way to allow them to tell those stories alongside us. We've been doing podcast training for two-and-a-half years, three years now, in some big ways, and in some little ways, we've done workshops. We've done academies, and we just did a podcast festival, as again, because we know we want to invest in the community as the community invests in us.
When people think about investigative journalism, radio isn't the first thing that pops into people's mind. But it's fascinating that you're doing that in Charlotte on many different stories. Are there challenges you faced when you first introduced concept of long-form investigative journalism on the radio? How did that evolve?
I think, at first when I started, we really committed to our first big investigation. The team had definitely done investigations prior to that, but not in the way that we're used to seeing those happening. With newspapers, there is a big splash, a sustained focus and storytelling that really brings you into many facets of the story, always one at time. For us, podcasting really opened that up, because you can hear a five-minute segment on the radio, and then you have to come back the next day, and remember to come back the next day. But with the podcast, we were able to take some of these stories and really sink into them. For example, there are 30-minute episodes that really take you into all of the nuances of these investigations and bring in the experts. And that allows us to tell the full story, and the fullness that it deserves that maybe we can't always do on radio, because of the length of the segments that we're trying to hit there.
As an African-American woman in broadcasting, what are some challenges you have faced in your career, and how did you overcome them?
For most people who are people of color, there are challenges. For me, in my one of my very first professional experiences, I was actually an intern, I showed up at a job very eager to get my first professional experience. And there was a big welcoming lunch for all of the interns. And at the end of the lunch, I remember my supervisor meeting me for the first time and pulling me to the side and letting me know that if she had any problems with me, she was going to let me know. And it really took me aback. You know, I went home that day thinking, ‘what have I gotten myself into?’ I should also mention that she asked me to take an editing test, which I thought was really odd, because as you know, most places when you're an editor, in journalism, they give you a test before they make the job offer. Once you're there, you're there. So she asked me to take an editing test. And I talked to the other interns and realize I was the only one being asked to take an editing test. I was also the only black intern in that class. I went home at the end of the day, and thought really long and hard about what I was going to go back the next day. And in fact, I called in the next day and said, ‘You know what, I'm not going to come in today. I'll call you tomorrow.’ And on the third day, I decided to go back. And I think me not going back the second day made her reconsider her approach. And she apologized. And we went on to have a really great relationship. There were no problems that we had to address. But I would say that might be an extreme example.
But there are lots of microaggressions. When you're a person of color, there are people who question how you got your job, as if your training and your experience isn't equal to other people's training and experience. And I've certainly had that. When I was a Nieman fellow, I was promoted to be managing editor of Washington Post Digital, and several of my Nieman colleagues who I had spent an amazing year getting to know, asked, ‘Are you going be managing editor? The whole thing? Like of all of it?’ I'm like, ‘Yeah, they don't make you managing editor of a section.’
There were always those moments that disbelief of having a boss say, ‘Well, you've done amazingly well, here, I didn't expect you to do as well as you're done.’ And, my attitude – I’m kind of cynical on these things – is, ‘why would you hire somebody that you expected not to perform?’
In my own organization, we talk about the need to create safe spaces, where people are allowed to bring their full selves to the job into the work, where their voices are respected, are heard, where they feel empowered, where they feel valued, where they don't feel like they have to diminish pieces of themselves in order to exist or to grow or to have opportunity. Those things are really important to me. So I take all of my experiences and try to pour that into making sure the workplaces that I'm now involved in as a leader reflect the values that we really should reflect to make sure that we're inclusive, and that we're fair and that people feel like it's a good environment. We don't get it 100% perfect. But that's the goal. And that's the aspiration is to create that culture that feels really inclusive.
Do you feel like from when you began your career to today, there have been changes with regards to the role of in the newsroom? Or are the challenges still prevalent?
I think there are a lot of challenges that are prevalent. If we just look at the reckoning that happened over the last year, both in public media and in commercial media, it is very obvious that those challenges are still prevalent. I would say that I now know more women in leadership, more people of color in leadership than I knew for the bulk of my career. And that could be just mainly a reflection of where I sat and who I knew, but, but it definitely feels as if more people have opportunities, but it's still not enough. I get calls from recruiters several times a month, looking for a person of color to lead an organization. And the fact that I get that many calls tells you there isn't enough of a pipeline that people are aware of, because they're very talented people of color at all levels of this industry. But that pipeline isn't abundantly known to people. So I think there are a couple of issues there. One, there aren’t enough people of color making it to the very top of these organizations so that they're the obvious person for the CEO job or for the GM job. You know, the people who are really making the decisions for editor in chief jobs.
And what can we as an industry do to not just look to promote from within, but to create structures, and that we can train people into management? Because the challenge for many people of color is that if you spent your entire career getting all of this experience, that you're not getting the management experience within your organization, then how do you move to the next role? Even if you move out of that organization? How do you have the experience, so people are taking a risk on you as they do with people all the time. But I think there's more that we can do to provide training and to provide support. And I will say, you know, not even talking about diversity, but there are too many leaders who have ascended into leadership who don't have the right skills to be in those places. And that's part of the reason we've had a reckoning over the last year.
Do you feel like that does the industry as a whole a disservice, when you have people that aren't quite trained to be in those positions that are elevated to those positions, and then they're floundering, which actually hurts them?
There are always exceptions to the rule. I think there are some people who have leadership ability and move quite easily into those roles. And so, I don't want to blanket, it should all be this way or should be that way. I just want us to recognize our responsibility to give people the support that they need, at every level, so that they're successful in their jobs. And I think if we think about it that way, then there's a lot more room for a lot more people to grow into leadership.
Where do you see broadcasting and local broadcasting in the next five to 10 years?
I am excited about what on-demand audio is doing for broadcast. And what we found anecdotally, is that we still don't have all the tools in place as an industry to measure all of this. But what we found anecdotally is that as people become more familiar with podcasts, more comfortable with streaming, it brings a different kind of resurgence to radio and to the broadcast medium. And I'm really excited about the people's awareness and fascination with audio, and what that's going to do for the industry. Like, like we learned in print, you know, what, 30 years ago now, what we're going to start to see with broadcasting is just a greater awareness that, you know, what we do isn't confined to that kind of in-car radio experience. And that that broadcast experience really transcends into different mediums. And I just think we're going to get smarter about leveraging this opportunity to connect with new audiences.
What do you think the challenge is for broadcasters to understand that radio can be ubiquitous, and it doesn't have to be you in your car? What is that big hurdle that you think that people need to be aware of?
I'm just going to talk about public radio for now. And the way that people engage with it, and the notions around it. There are a lot of expectations of what a public radio station sounds like, and what a broadcaster sounds like. And so, for us, we have to be comfortable disrupting our own medium. We have to get outside of the boxes that we've put ourselves in, to understand that if we want to attract a diverse audience, we have to sound diverse, right? There is no cookie cutter method. ‘Go to the school of broadcasting, learn to strip away all of your accents because everybody needs to sound exactly the same.’ That's no longer the reality of what people feel is authentic. And so we have to overcome that. I think we also have to recognize that what we do is not tied just to our call letters. So digital engagement can't be afterthoughts. They have to be the center of your strategy in terms of reaching and serving audiences. And for those of us in public radio, who are serving local communities, there's an increasing burden and responsibility for us to step into the local news gaps that exists. There's a responsibility for us to look at news deserts across our listening area and figure out how can we better serve communities that have no local newspaper, you know, or doesn't have an independent digital outlet there. So, so I think it causes us to completely rethink everything we've known about ourselves as broadcasters. Not to throw it away, but just to think about it in a fresh way to make sure that we're future proofing what we do. And so that we will remain relevant for years to come. And sustainable, because that's a big piece of it.
What advice would you give somebody who is interested in broadcast journalism, who maybe wants to follow the same path you did? What is that one sort of thing that they need to know?
The way we hire is we're not necessarily looking for the person who has the perfect broadcast resume. We're looking for good journalists who are committed to their communities, who have an endless amount of curiosity, who want to meet and engage with our neighbors. I would just encourage people to really care about the places where you live. Really care about how things work on the local level. Experiment with your writing. You can try to create a podcast for free. Experiment with audio, experiment with social media in terms of telling stories and engaging with people, because those are the those are the things that I look at when I'm looking to hire.
When I talk to young people, curiosity is number one, and then practice. I tell people all the time that I got good at being an editor because I practice. I picked up books I read, I looked at what worked and what didn't work in storytelling, and that honed my skills. So I always encourage people to never stop learning, and to never stop investing in themselves. It’s not somebody else's responsibility to train you. It's first and foremost, your responsibility to train yourself.
Ju-Don Marshall is a journalist, entrepreneur and digital media strategist. She is currently chief content officer and executive vice president of WFAE, the NPR station in Charlotte. Previously, she was the chief operating officer of LifePosts, a collaborative storytelling platform that she helped launch; director for the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University; and general manager and senior vice president for Everyday Health. Prior to joining Everyday Health, Marshall was executive editor and senior vice president at News Corporation, overseeing Beliefnet.com, at the time the leading site for faith and inspiration. Marshall also spent 17 years at The Washington Post, most recently at the helm of its award-winning web site.
Marshall is an industry leader, who has held leadership roles in the Online News Association, the Online Publisher's Association, the RFK Memorial Awards, J-Lab's New Voices Web awards and McCormick New Media Women Entrepreneurs, the National Association of Black Journalists.
In 2003, Marshall was awarded the coveted Nieman Fellowship, allowing her to spend a year studying at Harvard University. She graduated magna cum laude with a degree in journalism from Howard University.
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