Rhode Island Public Radio finds its home within a manila-folder, commonplace office that does not at all reflect the personality of the station’s newest CEO. In a studio off the hall to the left, a couple of guys — whose voices were familiar, though not their faces — stood over the controls, preparing to interrupt the scheduled program with the announcement of former Mayor Buddy Cianci’s death.
Not more than 10 footsteps away from this broadcasting booth sat Torey Malatia, who became CEO of RIPR in September. Malatia left his position as CEO of WBEZ Chicago in 2013 for reasons he previously could not explain due to a non-disclosure agreement.
Typically with a face-wide smile and a handshake that could break bones, “for somebody who is described as a rock star in the public media industry, he’s just a nice guy,” said Ted Long, board chair of RIPR.
That’s not to say he hasn’t had his fair share of controversy; his close friend and co-founder of This American Life, Ira Glass, once said that “people hated his guts” in a WBEZ interview.
That was when Malatia first joined WBEZ — now Chicago Public Media — and started making changes. Many audience members considered him a corporate butcher, and he admits that what he did was “stupid” and a “classic mistake.”
As he told the story — and it really was a story — his face shifted from the intense happiness it had shown before.
While Malatia was running the station, Ira Glass ’82 and Gary Covino were working on a passion project: a once-a-week program called the Wild Room.
“There are principles of how commercial stations felt things should be done … the kind of pace and energy that should be in a broadcast,” he began. “I didn’t mess with (the Wild Room),” he added, citing that it was not a “big deal.” He tried making changes to other parts of the radio station, but they weren’t working.
“Everything sounded pretty dull, pretty sterile — except for the Wild Room, which I hadn’t touched,” he said. “It was the only thing I liked!”
Glass had just finished a broadcast when he came downstairs to Malatia’s office, and found him looking despondent.
Glass offered Malatia advice from his years in public radio — “it was his whole life,” Malatia said. “He really was my source of understanding.”
Their friendship benefited the station, Malatia said. “It began to change things, and then we became much more successful.”
In 1994, Malatia spoke with Glass about quitting National Public Radio to join WBEZ Chicago to produce a new show: This American Life. The program has since gone on to produce over 550 episodes and reach an audience of 2.1 million listeners each week.
Malatia spoke (and gestured) enthusiastically about the narrative style that became famous when This American Life went national.
“Storytelling opens doors; it opens the mind,” he said as he touched his fists to his forehead and violently mimed, wrenching it open.
He said that many people seem to go through life thinking that others are two-dimensional, but “a story makes people three-dimensional.” Bringing together a community, he said, is one of the most important services public radio can provide.
Malatia was particularly passionate about making media accessible to everyone. “In Chicago, there’s a one-third African-American, one-third Latino and one-third white population,” Malatia said, pointing out demographics that are not reflected by WBEZ’s audience. In 2006, the station explored new techniques in digital media that could be used to attract a more diverse audience — “young people of color, especially,” Malatia said.
“While nobody expects everybody on earth to be in a public radio audience, … you can’t only be serving a portion of that and really call yourself ‘public.’”
With the backing of the original board of Chicago Public Media, Malatia created Vocalo — a social site in which audience members could upload their own stories, videos and text. A radio station, created in conjunction, handpicks the best of the submitted material to air.
But the board members’ terms expired, and the new members had “more of a financial background,” Malatia said. They ran the nonprofit in a way “parallel to what they were doing in their business.”
“And so they kept raising a question: … Why were we trying to bring an audience of people into our universe (when) there’s no proof that those people would even be willing to support us financially, to be members?” Malatia recalls.
“What’s the whole point of what we’re doing?” Malatia demanded. Because the main service of public radio should be inclusivity, it doesn’t matter if they made a profit or not — it just mattered if it worked, Malatia said.
“All the different staff members (at RIPR) have said in one way or another, ‘We need to be out in the community more,’” said Susan Greenhalgh, chief operating officer of RIPR.
Greenhalgh and Long explained that the same goals that rubbed Chicago Public Media the wrong way made RIPR an excellent fit.
There was no misunderstanding between him and Chicago Public Media, Malatia said, contrary to other portrayals of his resignation. Their disagreement was philosophical. “Do we want to reach more of a community, or do we want to ‘superserve’ the people we have?” Because Vocalo wasn’t performing financially, but Malatia advocated for its usefulness nonetheless, it became a sticking point between him and the board.
“At the end of the day, we just didn’t agree, and the new chair and I especially didn’t see eye-to-eye on this direction,” Malatia said. “This was just a very firm difference in what the forward movement of the institution should be.”
Malatia resigned July 26, 2013, with the agreement that he would not disclose the reason behind the decision for two years. As a matter of fact, this was the first opportunity he had to explain his resignation to a reporter.
Chicago Public Media could not be reached for comment by press time.
In September, Malatia was hired by RIPR.
Rhode Island’s small size offers a particular advantage for Malatia’s work. The state “is a community that is close, that understands and cares about what happens.”
Yet the radio station has a long way to go if it hopes to accomplish Malatia’s ultimate aspirations. “We still don’t enfranchise all parts of the community in that discussion,” he said.
“The guy had the perfect pitch,” summarized Greenhalgh. “It matched up with what we wanted.”
Long echoed Greenhalgh’s sentiment. Malatia “was quite clear that he was interested in trying to figure out how a nonprofit media model would engage its community in a meaningful and dynamic way.”
“The community has to have a real sense of place and purpose, and Rhode Island does,” Long added.
Because RIPR only began functioning without the support of Boston University in 2007, Greenhalgh explained that the organization feels like a start-up. “We grew out of them, really, and so as a start-up organization, there’s a lot of foundational things that need to be done,” she said.
Yet the station strives to cover a diverse range of topics with a staff of only 18 people and a budget of $2.7 million per year.
“Whatever plans we have to extend these services in the way that I’ve discussed, we’re going to need to be thoughtful and incremental about it, one initiative at a time,” Malatia said.
“Let’s see if we give them information and provide settings for discussion,” he said, “if we can make journalism work the way it should work.”