Natasha Thompson loves her home in Newfield and loved her work as president of the Food Bank of the Southern Tier in Elmira.
One unlovable thing, maybe, was the commute, over 30 miles each way on humble, hilly little Route 13.
But the trip was eased for Thompson by WSKG, the National Public Radio station that serves the region from Binghamton. She enjoyed listening to “Morning Edition” in the mornings and “All Things Considered” in the afternoons.
Thompson describes herself as a lifelong “total nerd” for public broadcasting.
“I grew up on public TV,” she says. “Sesame Street, the Electric Company, Mr. Rogers, all of it.”
WSKG is an even bigger part of Thompson’s commute now: it’s her destination. In March she left the Food Bank to become Chief Executive Officer of WSKG.
It wasn’t an easy decision for Thompson. She joined the Food Bank in 2001 and became president in 2008. The program is a paragon of success, almost quadrupling its staff size and volume of food distributed in Thompson’s years.
But the success helped make the decision less difficult. Thompson cites the numbers, but more importantly, the dedication and strength of the staff and organization.
For Thompson personally, it was time for new challenges. In applying for the job at WSKG she was only slightly daunted by her lack of media experience. Passion for her work, and for learning about it, has proved central to her before.
Thompson says she can remember when she “didn’t even know what a food bank was,” but that in time a food bank “was the first organization I ever gave money to” before eventually giving over two decades to the work.
The training and skills Thompson brought to the Food Bank should serve WSKG well. Her Master of Sciences degree in Business Administration included study in accounting, publicity and organizational management. She is expert in non-profit management, which she outlines as “creating a vision, communicating it and executing it; creating a budget; fund-raising; strategic planning; working with a board of directors; acting as a public spokesperson; managing a team.”
Thompson’s experience in the Southern Tier is a plus. The Food Bank serves six counties with significant demographic differences. Thompson says her staff created “county-based fact sheets” that delineated both unique characteristics and common needs.
There is a balancing act to managing WSKG’s future, Thompson says, in recognizing the station’s home (and largest constituency) in Binghamton, while trying to strengthen its “regional identity.” Recently, before Thompson’s hiring, the station opened an office and studio in Ithaca.
The biggest challenge, perhaps, is one facing most traditional media outlets: the rise of the internet. Thompson has pertinent experience here too, in winning support for a public non-profit that serves not just individual but community needs.
The growth of the Food Bank, Thompson says, depended on “articulating a narrative” that created involvement.
“People want to be part of something,” Thompson says. “They feel good contributing to something that makes a difference in their community.
“Public media is crucial to community. A healthy, functioning democracy depends on trusted news sources.”
Thompson expresses her strategies plainly. Directness is important, she says.
“People are busy,” she says. “They don’t care about nuances.” They care, she says, about “positivity.”
Thompson rejects the “risk aversion” and “scarcity mentality” of simply trying to exist, “focusing on how do we save money, break even” rather than greater ambitions and goals. She believes in the potential of public media for “creativity,” and even “disruption” of new media platforms, which despite their breadth can be isolating.
The message to the public, Thompson says, is “this is part of who you are. There’s power in people contributing what they can. You’re making a difference.”
Also crucial, Thompson says, is reaching people of color, youth, and other “communities we don’t hear about, or from.” Staff diversity will be a priority at WSKG, she says. She points to an encouraging example of women of color now hosting NPR’s four flagship news programs.
In a relaxed moment, Thompson likened absorbing the volume of the organization’s agenda to “drinking from a firehose.” But it is “very engaging,” she said.
“I like learning,” she said. “I love learning.” She smiled and shrugged. “I’m a PBS nerd.”
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