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KERA Names A New CEO: Nico Leone, Who’s Pushed For Collaborative Journalism

Nico Leone is KERA's new president and CEO.

A veteran public media executive with a track record of expanding newsroom resources and promoting collaborative journalism will be the next president and CEO of KERA, the station announced Friday.

Nico Leone has led NPR member station KCUR in Kansas City, Missouri, since 2012.

Leone, 43, says he took the job in part because of the station’s diverse portfolio. KERA, the NPR and PBS station in Dallas-Fort Worth, operates television and radio services, as well as digital platforms, music station KXT 91.7 FM and Art&Seek, an arts and culture unit. The station also focuses on educational outreach and community engagement.

“KERA is a great station with a long history of service to the community,” Leone said in an interview. “It's in good shape financially. It's got a huge audience and a strong staff and board. ... I'm very excited by your momentum.”

Leone starts Feb. 3. He replaces president and CEO Mary Anne Alhadeff, who’s retiring after leading KERA for 14 years.

KERA’s board of directors, which made the hire, says Leone will arrive at a critical moment in the station’s history. KERA’s audiences are bigger than ever — each week, more than 2.6 million people connect with KERA across its broadcast and digital platforms. Officials say the station, with about 85 employees and a $30 million budget, is fiscally strong.

Leone will oversee the station’s plans to continue the expansion of its conversation program, “Think,” to radio stations across the country. He’ll also help develop The Texas Newsroom, a new effort with NPR designed to boost collaboration among public radio stations across the state.

KERA officials note the station has an opportunity to expand its news and public affairs services as other news organizations reduce newsroom staff and cut back on coverage.

“Our hope is that we can grow our news coverage in ways that are meaningful to the community and provide some of what is lacking,” said Jennifer Altabef, chair of KERA’s board of directors. She co-led the effort to find the station’s new leader with incoming KERA board chair Bill Addy and board member Donna Wilhelm.  

“We know we need more resources,” Altabef said. “We need to keep renewing our resources so that we can responsibly spend the money that we need to achieve our goals.”

Leone helped secure a $1.9 million grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to support local coverage of the 2020 election across the country. He’s credited with strengthening public media collaborative efforts, including Harvest Public Media and the Kansas News Service.

Leone also helped KCUR’s newsroom more than double in size. Officials say during Leone’s tenure, the station’s digital audience tripled, community financial support doubled, and on-air listenership grew 35 percent.

Altabef noted Leone’s tenure at KCUR resulted in “impressive growth” and she expects him to be able to do the same at KERA. The station has not disclosed his salary.

“He’s an incredible strategic thinker and can analyze data and understand trends really well,” she said. “He’s also a person who likes to lift other people and I think that that is such a great quality in a leader.”

Leone wants to see KERA grow in the ways it serves North Texas — by reaching younger and more diverse audiences. He also sees opportunities to expand the station’s journalism.

“I think we have to do everything we can to really understand what the need is in the community that's not being met as the news landscape changes,” he said. “And find ways where appropriate for us to fill that. It really raises the bar in terms of our obligations to grow – and to serve our community.”

Leone says he’ll need time to learn about the station and the market. He acknowledges there will be a learning curve, especially in terms of television production. He also says he’ll have to adjust to working at a larger organization in a bigger market. Kansas City is the country’s 32nd biggest media market; Dallas-Fort Worth is ranked No. 5.

“I’m not walking in the door with an agenda,” he said. “My approach will be listening first and making sure I don’t break what works.”

Interview Highlights: Nico Leone 

Why he’s coming to KERA:

I really love the mix of services. Your newsroom, your music service, your TV and video services, kids’ programming, the work you do in arts. It's a really well-diversified organization within public media. I'm very excited by your momentum, by the progress you've been making over the past few years, your engagement with the community on a number of different levels.

The challenges that KERA faces:

Particularly as local news continues to shrink in market after market, I think there's a huge opportunity for KERA to grow the way they serve North Texas. I think there are both opportunities and challenges to reach younger and more diverse audiences and to reach and hear from people who haven't traditionally been public media audiences.

On public media meeting the growing demand for news:

This is the single thing I am most excited about in market after market local journalism. There is no other way to describe it other than [it’s] in crisis. One of the few areas that's really growing is public media. I don't think it's possible for us to grow fast enough. I think we have to do everything we can to really understand what the need is in the community that's not being met as the news landscape changes and find ways where appropriate for us to fill that. It really raises the bar in terms of our obligations to grow and to serve our community. How you get to that in terms of scale? I think there's lots of different strategies. I think that's part of what drives our strategy for collaboration. It's how we can be more than we are by ourselves. When you look at it from an audience and a community standpoint, the opportunities that emerge for partnership can be pretty profound. Communities need to be covered.

On being a white man and the need for diversity:

Diversity is going to be top of mind for me as I walk in the door. Media in general has a problem with diversity. Public media is not immune from that and it's something that only gets better with intentional focus from the highest levels of the organization and throughout the organization. You've got to think about it pretty holistically. You've got to think about the audiences that you're trying to reach. You have to think about who you're talking to, who your sources are, how they reflect the community. You've got to think about how your staff and board reflect the community.

It's long been a personal priority of my own. My wife's mother is from Central America. My mother was born in Brazil. It's a space that I'm comfortable in personally and something that will be a huge area of professional focus for me as I settle in at KERA.  

On his Texas connections:

I came down to Texas for college. I did both my undergrad and my master's degree at Baylor. I met my wife there. We got married shortly after college. We moved down the road to Austin for a few years. I've never lived in North Texas, but while we were in school, we were up in the area pretty constantly. You know, we'd come up for Mavericks games, we'd come up for shows at Trees in Deep Ellum. We're looking forward to being back in the area and getting to know North Texas a little bit better.

Career highlights

  • Served as general manager of NPR member station KCUR in Kansas City, Missouri, since 2012.
  • Serves on the board of NPR.
  • Served as co-executive director of KDHX Radio in St. Louis starting in 2004.
  • Led strategic planning and outcomes-based evaluation for St. Louis Children's Agenda, a network of non-profits, government agencies and businesses focused on child, family and maternal health in St. Louis. 
  • Worked in a research group at Human Code, a digital media company based in Austin.

Source: KERA research; Nico Leone

Eric Aasen is KERA’s managing editor. He helps lead the station's news department, including radio and digital reporters, producers and newscasters. He also oversees, the station’s news website, and manages the station's digital news projects. He reports and writes stories for the website and contributes pieces to KERA radio. He's discussed breaking news live on various public radio programs, including The Takeaway, Here & Now and Texas Standard, as well as radio and TV programs in New Zealand and the United Kingdom.