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Nicole Sawaya's Career in Radio

[Editor's Note: These remarks were given by former General Manager Matt Martin (2006-2018) at a public memorial for Nicole Sawaya on Tuesday, December 4, 2018. Ms. Sawaya served as KALW's General Manager from 2001 to 2006. She passed away from complications due to cancer on October 11, 2018.] 

My name is Matt Martin.  I had the privilege to work with and laugh with and learn from Nicole, first when she was General Manager at KPFA, then when she was General Manager at KALW.  And I’ve been asked to speak about Nicole’s remarkable career in public radio.

Nicole first got involved in radio as a student at San Francisco State, where she quickly established herself as a serious student and made an impression as someone who was passionate about social justice and equality. She was determined to be on the side of the less fortunate and to ensure that their stories be heard with the dignity and respect they deserved.

After graduating from SF State in 1992 with a Liberal and Creative Arts degree with emphasis on Radio and Television, Nicole was an on-call reporter for KQED in what was then a small newsroom, where she would be remembered for making strong pitches to then-News Director Raul Ramirez and occasionally filling in as a producer on Forum.

In the early 90s, Nicole went to KZYX in Philo, in Mendocino County.  She came to the station to serve as its Program Director, but soon became one of a triumvirate of managers leading KZYX.  One of the other members of that triumvirate was the station’s Finance Director Jill Hannum, who shared these memories:

“KZYX was a fledgling station when she came on board (it went on the air in October 89) and Nico saw a bigger picture, had more vision than the station had had previously. She found new, interesting and exciting resources to tap into and had the energy to do the tapping---truly amazing energy that always reminded me of a humming bird . . . .

She left the station on Dec. 30, 1995 to go to NPR as a station liaison for the West Coast. I still have her farewell letter to staff--it started out "Dearest Staff" and counseled us to "trust each other and circle the wagons...focus on your work and do not spread yourself too thin." She signed off "know that I love you all...thank you mucho for being such fun comrades in radio." And that, I think, was why Nico was great at her job: she saw the "fun" in it, and we were her comrades . . . .

She was utterly fearless . . . and a huge asset to the world of community radio.”

In her two years working for NPR in Washington, Nicole continued to serve and support local stations. 

Michael Abrahams, who knew Nicole during her time at NPR, told me that she was someone people gravitated toward, who had total credibility in talking about the challenges faced by smaller stations.

He told me about going with Nicole to visit KZYX – and Project Artaud – and how she “got community” – and how an institution like a radio station, or an artists’ collective, could be its lynchpin.  He also recalled that she was “a hell of a lot of fun.”

As an aside, when I think of Nicole in Washington, I think of her telling me about bonding with Bob Edwards, as cigarette-smoking outcasts in the NPR parking ramp.

At the end of 1997, Nicole returned to the Bay Area to begin the job where she would become part of public broadcasting history – as General Manager of KPFA in Berkeley.

At KPFA, Nicole entered into a challenging situation.

There were factions within the station, tensions between paid and unpaid staff, resentments about shows that had been taken off the air, and concern about the direction that the national board wanted to take the network in.

Under these circumstances, Nicole did something remarkable – and perhaps unprecedented at KPFA:  She won over staff and volunteers from different corners of the station by being willing to listen to their concerns and ideas.  She was open with listeners, conducting regular Manager’s Reports where she told them what was going on, and answered their questions.  She made plans to celebrate the station’s 50th anniversary, while communicating an infectious enthusiasm for orienting the station toward the future.

Her relationship with Pacifica management was less positive.  Nicole asked inconvenient questions – specifically about how Pacifica’s national office was spending its budget – and demanded answers.  She resisted pressure to fire staff that Pacifica management wanted out.

On March 31st, 1999, Pacifica’s Executive Director told Nicole that her contract as GM was not being renewed.  After refusing to sign an agreement not to sue Pacifica over her dismissal, she was told to clean out her office and leave within an hour.

Nicole’s firing was the spark that led to a rebellion against Pacifica management within the KPFA building, on its airwaves, and in the streets.  There are many people in this room who lived through that struggle, and who can tell the stories from that time.  It was global news, and served as a startling demonstration of what a radio station can mean to a community – and how people will rise up to defend its independence.

Among the many demands of those who organized and agitated to save KPFA, “Rehire Nicole Sawaya” was always at the top of the list.

That was not to be. 

While the protests and controversies around Pacifica continued to swirl, Nicole kept a low profile, eventually returning to journalism at New America Media, working with her friend Sandy Close until early 2001, when Nicole took over as GM of KALW.

KALW had its own problems – when Nicole came on board, the station was a public radio backwater that very few people paid attention to or expected much from. 

Nicole was determined that KALW would matter, and she welcomed new talents and original programming.

She partnered with New America Media to create Up Front, a show that would bring Holly Kernan and Sandip Roy to KALW.  She worked with the progressive phone company Working Assets to create Working Assets Radio with Laura Flanders – which lives on as Your Call with Rose Aguilar.  She took a chance on two Stanford profs who wanted to do a philosophy show modeled on Car Talk – and Philosophy Talk is now heard on more than 150 public radio stations. 

In 2005, The Society of Professional Journalists of Northern California honored Nicole as its Journalist of the Year for her role in reestablishing local journalism at KALW.

In the words of Roman Mars, one of the other great talents Nicole brought into KALW:

“I’ve never met anyone so driven by the mission and spirit of public broadcasting. She was never the boring and staid caricature of public radio. She thought the nonprofit, commercial free, public service mission mandated that we be bold and daring.”

In addition to putting KALW on the path to being one of the most innovative and productive stations in public radio, Nicole also led the effort to defend the station’s FCC license from a challenge that had its roots in staff-management conflicts from the late 90s.  The license challenge occupied Nicole throughout her tenure at KALW, and I know it was maddening for her to have to put her energy toward cleaning up a mess she’d had nothing to do with creating.  But she saw it through, and in April 2006, an Administrative Law Judge granted KALW’s license renewal, with a small fine.

In that same month, Nicole ended her five-year run as KALW’s GM.

That’s nearly the end of the story of Nicole’s career in public radio, but not quite.  In October 2007, the Pacifica Foundation announced that it had hired Nicole as its Executive Director.   It was a decision many people welcomed, but it wasn’t the right one for her, and she left the job before the end of the year.

Matt Martin was KALW’s general manager from 2006 through 2018. Under his leadership, KALW grew into one of the most productive and innovative stations in public radio. Programs launched at KALW during Matt’s tenure as GM include the award-winning local newsmagazine Crosscurrents, the design podcast 99% Invisible, and the Spanish-language narrative journalism program Radio Ambulante. He helped create the station’s Audio Academy, a year-long program aimed at developing new talents in public radio, and led the first broad-based strategic planning process in the station’s history.