She gives radio listerners 'a piece of the power'
Ellen Sulzberger Straus, president and general manager of radio station WMCA in New York, says he doesn't mind being called tough, single-minded, strong, and ambitious as long as people also call her loving, fun, straightforward, and fair. And remember, as well, that she has a wry sense of humor that often savers the day.
Mrs. Straus took over managerial responsibilities at the radio station when her husband, Peter, took the post of director of the Voice of America three and a half years ago and began to commute to Washington. Since theirs is one of the few family-owned radio stations left in the United States, the couple agreed that it worked best when a member of the family is at the helm.
"That point," Mrs. Straus says in an interview in the sleek, modern offices of the station, "I became a buck-stops- here person, the one who handles the red tape, the endless rhetoric, wrestles with the profit and loss statement, hires, fires, negotiates labor contracts, decides what advertising meets our standard, and whether we've broadcast both sides of every issue.
"the final decisions are all mine, and the challenges are enormous and the stakes sometimes awesome."
Station WMCA is the seventh largest of New York's 70 radio stations, and in the last few years its audience within a 150-mile radius, has doubled to 1.3 million listeners each week. The station is unique for several reasons. It introduced the concept of two-way talk programs to New York, and although other stations have such programs, it still utilizes the format to the widest extent.
"Two-way shows are the most expensive and most difficult kind of broadcastint , but we believe in it," Mrs. Straus says. "All day long our hosts have importnt guests, and our listeners can not only talk directly to these powerful people, but state their own points of view. Since we feel the broadcasting business must serve the public interest, we think these lively exchanges of views benefit everyone.
"Our listeners don't just get talked at in the usual one-way radio manner," explains Mrs. Straus. "they can talk back, ask questions, and disagree. We have always wanted people of all political persuasions to feel conformtable at our station and free to express their innermost views, whether they were doing the talking here, or doing the talking back from the field."
A few years ago one popular interview program host, Barry Farber, got so fascinated with city politics that he even ran for mayor on the Conservative ticket.He lost the election but won a sympathetic new radio audience.
"Radio is a powerful communicator, and we never forget that," says Mrs. Straus. "And we never forget our responsibility for the influence we wield. Radio stations have an audience 24 hours a day, and they reach millions."
Although Mrs. Straus admits wryly that she didn't exactly have to thresh her way to the top, since she married the boss. But she has always been creatively involved in the broadcast field. In 1963 she started the radio program "Call for Action," which she says was the first telephone help line in the country. "Everyone told me it wouldn't work, that no one would give their complaints over the phone and that I was no social worker anyway.
"But I was convinced that weary citizens who were caught up in computer and bureaucratic tangles needed someone to help extricate thehm. I decided to give them a place where they could phone in, state their problem -- whether it was related to housing, drugs, unfair business practives, or whatever -- and have someone step in and resolve it for them."
Her idea was an immediate success and continues to be popular. "If our current group of 45 volunteers who work on the 'Call for Action' program, can't resolve the problems through all the city sources and resources," she says, "then we do editorials on the air and bring the power of the media to bear on the problem, a device that gets things in a hurry. We call this giving listeners a piece of the power."
Since 1969, when Mrs. Straus incorporated her idea, Call for Action Inc. has become a national network of 43 radio and television stations which employ a total of 2.500 of problem- solving volunteers to assist callers.
Mrs. Straus launched another national project a few years ago called Volunteer Professionals Inc., which is an organization that aims to upgrade the status of volunteer workers and win tax credits and expense reimbursements for their volunteer work.
She says that half of her own career, since she graduated in 1945 from Smith College, has been spent as a volunteer professional and half as a paid professional and that each experience has complemented the other. "Many of my volunteer years were spend while my four children were young and my husband and I felt it was importnt to spend as much time with them as we could."
the field of communications has always been her love, however, whether running aradio station or managing campaigns for politicians or writing for newspapers and magazines or running public information programs of one kind or another.
At station WMCA, Ellen straus was director of special projects for several years before she took over the top position. Now every station department reports directly to her, and she directs a staff of 65 and often works 12-hour days to stay on top. although she says the broadcasting field is wide open to women, she states that most women job seekers have come looking for glamorous broadcast positions and not the difficult managerial jobs which require knowing about engineering, machines, and equipment as well as human relations.
As for career-building, she believes in what she calls the zigzag approach, in which one moves from one position to another opportunities open up in different areas. "I think life moves through states, a stage for having children, stages for raising a family and for pursuing various volunteer and professional interests."
I couldn't be doing what I am doing now," she insists, "if I had not done each different job along the way, and had my home and family, as well. Each thing prepared me for the next. So I always tell people to listen to their own inner drums and to heed their own most passionate interests. Then they'll know what stage they are in and how to move."