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Five Personal Leadership Lessons That Radio Taught Me

(Left to right) Eddie Francis posing with hip hop group Digable Planets (Mariana "Ladybug Mecca" Vieira, Craig "Doodlebug" Irving and Ishmael "Butterfly" Butler) in the old Q93 radio studio
Cheesing with Digable Planets in the Q93 studio in 1994

Personal leadership has become a passion of mine. It's based on the belief that one can effectively lead people through self-awareness, particularly as it relates to skills and behavioral development. It's become such a passion, that I wrote a speaking presentation called "Lead by Leading You." Thinking through this, it hit me that my time in radio actually provided some pretty good personal leadership lessons.

Let's take it back--back to 1993. I started radio as an intern in the WQUE AM/FM promotions department. A year later, I found myself in the Clear Channel Radio New Orleans promotions director seat as an interim--no, seriously. My on-air resume got pretty cool: produced a morning and two talk shows, hosted Q93’s “Sunday Morning Slow Jamz,” hosted 98.5 WYLD’s “Studio 98,” jammed with D.J. Ro a bit on “Club 93,” and even sat in for Papa Smurf a couple of times on 98.5's “Mellow Moods." These shows are New Orleans institutions. I’ve interviewed such cool notables as Maurice White, Kem, Jeffrey Osborne, Stan Verrett, Corey Holcomb, Danny Glover, Immaculée Ilibagiza, Louis Gossett Jr., David West, and two U.S. secretaries of education. Nineteen years and a New Orleans Press Club award later, I said “so long” to the New Orleans airwaves.

Leadership is about people. Without the people you lead, your vision goes unfulfilled. You have to know folks.

I learned a lot from folks in every area–on-air, sales, production, business ops, and engineering (which is actually my way of asking folks who aren't named to not be in their feelings).

Lesson 1: Know your audience.

Leadership is about people. Without the people you lead, your vision goes unfulfilled. You have to know folks. When I started on-air, I made the mistake of making it about me instead of the people responsible for our top ratings.

My performance changed when I took the time to learn my audience. When I was on Q93, I served an audience who wanted high energy and entertainment. Then I went to 98.5 WYLD where I had an audience that wanted refined energy and information. Every listener, however, wants to feel as if you're talking to them. The more I knew, the better I communicated with them. More on that later.

“Have you ever done a perfect show?...Hopefully, you never will. Always find a way to get better.”

Lesson 2: Balance matters.

A responsible leader not only welcomes other voices in the room, they call for them. The people you lead are diverse in their thinking, if nothing else. So, you need diverse brains at the leadership table to make sensible and ethical decisions.

It's like when I produced the wildly popular “C.J. & Company” Q93 morning show. The late C.J. Morgan was a fool! But, his wild humor and delivery were balanced by the polished and thoughtful Monica Pierre whose wit is razor sharp. It wasn’t just him. It wasn’t just her. It was them, and the audience both loved and appreciated that balance.

Working a remote broadcast for Bayou Classic festivities in the French Quarter in 2003

Lesson 3: Trust your instincts.

Two folks come to mind. Lebron Joseph, who was one of my 98.5 program directors, introduced the New Orleans market to neo soul. We were loving our “gangsta rap” at the time; but Lebron, who is a true music-loving New Orleanian, knew that neo soul was what we needed. Hal Clark, who I had the pleasure of working with on 98.5’s “Sunday Journal” talk show, knew a great story when he heard it, no matter how little-known the guest was. These two trusted their instincts to give listeners some beautiful radio.

In studying leaders, I’ve learned that trusting instincts is essential, but it’s hard. There are advisors and followers who either operate from a space of fear or a space of excess. While leaders may listen, they'll also go on a gut feeling that they feel is best for their people.

Lesson 4: Always learn.

Great leaders challenge themselves to learn. They read, they study, they research, and they listen to people with expertise authority. Whatever they do, they find ways to improve their leadership practice.

I was once listening to excerpts from one of my shows with the late A.J. Appleberry who was my 98.5 program director at the time. He asked me, “Have you ever done a perfect show?” A bit confused, I told him that I hadn’t. He said, “Hopefully, you never will. Always find a way to get better.”

I had to learn the importance of being better in order to do better.

Lesson 5: Everyone matters.

This is an expansion of lesson 2. Bear with me; it’s long. When I worked the Q93 overnight shift, I would do my best shock jock impression. Once a listener called to request a song, and I played the call on air. “Could you please play some Luther?” she asked in a soft, vulnerable voice. I shot back, “NO,” and played another artist.

A few minutes later, one of the veterans, A.D. Berry, called and told me that he heard what I did. Bringing forth years of wisdom and experience, A.D. said, “For some of these folks, you’re the only company they have at this time of night. That lady could have been a shut-in or just going through something. Be a friendly voice.” Damn. I felt like pure dung. That changed how I saw audiences for the rest of my career, especially into my higher ed marketing and communications years.

As I write this during a U.S. presidential election year, we’re seeing unspeakable levels of bigotry and narcissism from people who were voted into office on the promise that they would serve all people in their communities. The most influential leaders may not be able to reach every single person in their care, but they do understand that pushing communities forward means making every single person feel as if their voice counts. Sure, these clowns are making their bases happy. But the people who feel left out are going to find a way to overcome, because they know that they matter.

Just like podcasting seems like a good idea at the time for folks who don't realize the amount of work that goes into it, radio sounded like so much fun to me until I realized the level of responsibility that came with a hot microphone. I'm relieved that I was able to walk away on a positive note, but I had to learn the importance of being better in order to do better.


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