Idea

Kevin Martin Takes the Helm at ideastream

The veteran broadcasting executive brings experience, energy and excitement to his new role in public broadcasting.

Kevin Martin wasn’t looking to make a career move. He’d spent the last two years happily ensconced as senior vice president and chief operating officer at KQED, a public television station serving the massive nine-county San Francisco Bay area that was known as one of the most innovative organizations of its kind. So, when a headhunter asked if he’d consider interviewing for the job of president and CEO at ideastream, he said no. Moving to the top of an organizational chart had never been his main objective.

“My top goal [had] been to be at a station that’s doing really great things in a place that I’d like to live,” the 54-year-old married father of two says.

But at the headhunter’s life-coach-like behest, Martin made a list of public media organizations he’d like to lead. Ideastream was among the handful he compiled. The onetime Corporation for Public Broadcasting executive considered ideastream’s 2001 consolidation of eight independent educational and public-service programs — including high-definition television channel WVIZ and its standard-definition sisters WVIZ Create and WVIZ World, National Public Radio news station 90.3 WCPN, classical-music radio station WCLV 104.9, Ohio Public Radio, the Statehouse News Bureau and The Ohio Channel — a model of operational efficiency and mission fulfillment.

“It wasn’t just to save money to the bottom line,” he says of the move. “It was really to create an integrated service to serve the communities better.” And, after years of working in the nation’s biggest cities, returning to his native Midwest was appealing. “I started to really get excited about the idea of leading ideastream.”

As he takes the appointment, Martin still radiates that enthusiasm. He now sees the post from which his predecessor, Jerry Wareham, retired last month after 16 years of service as a chance to continue championing a medium he consumes avidly and loves passionately. It’s almost become a calling for him.

“I do care,” he declares. “And if I care, then I need to think about how to really give back and to go where I’m needed.”  

Martin’s quarter-century-plus career in public media is something of a fluke. He started his working life in accounting, a subject in which he excelled growing up with his registered-nurse mother and physician stepfather in Fort Wayne, Indiana.

“I understood how money cycles through the economy,” he says. “I just thought that was always very interesting.”

Martin graduated from Purdue University with a bachelor’s degree in general management and accounting in 1984, landed a job as an auditor in the Minneapolis offices of KPMG, now known as Peat Marwick, and transferred into the tax department as a senior tax accountant after a year with the accounting firm. His life changed when he came home from work late one night in 1990 and channel-surfed to a public television station airing a documentary on the integration of the University of Mississippi. Martin found himself riveted to the screen by the archival footage and deft storytelling.

“I said, ‘My goodness! How come I hadn’t really heard of this before?’  I mean, my last real relationship with public broadcasting was during the ‘Sesame Street’ days,” Martin remembers.

A month later, he received a call from a headhunter asking if he was interested in a position as director of finance and administration for the Independent Television Service, a new St. Paul, Minnesota-based organization created to distribute federal funds to and promote independent filmmakers producing public-television programming.

“He caught me at the right time, where I was thinking, ‘yeah, this could be very interesting!’” Martin says.

Martin’s duties ranged from creating financial and administrative systems for the entity to traveling the country to introduce the independent film community to it. Five years into the job, an ITVS board member — the president and CEO of Twin Cities Public Television — poached Martin to fill his CFO post. “This was an opportunity to really get into the mainstream of public media,” Martin says of the job at television station KTCA’s owner. There, he started Twin Cities’ first for-profit subsidiary, a pre-Skype venture that used the station’s studios and satellite capabilities to generate income for the nonprofit by connecting executives looking to communicate via video with far-flung corporate locations.

In 1998, Martin moved to Dallas to become COO at North Texas Public Broadcasting, which operated both television station KERA and a radio counterpart in a much-bigger market. Three years into the job, Martin found himself working for a new CEO who was using the stations’ million-dollar surpluses to start for-profit ventures — a datacasting business intended to capitalize on unused digital broadcast capacities by using it to deliver movies to theaters, for example — that never succeeded as well as Martin’s Twin Cities subsidiary.

“What began to cross the line was when we needed to keep feeding the beast, and it began to affect our ability to serve the North Texas community in accordance to our mission,” Martin says — not being able to afford emerging computer and e-commerce technologies, for example.

A new board made Martin interim CEO and charged him with spearheading a turnaround. He came up with a two-year plan that eliminated the debt, primarily by dissolving the for-profit enterprises.

“That next year, we had an $800,000 surplus,” he says.

Martin moved his family to Washington, D.C., in 2007, lured by an offer to work for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the organization charged with securing and distributing federal funds to public television and radio stations. As vice president of station grants and television station initiatives, his primary responsibility was overseeing the management of nearly $300 million in grants to the 172 qualifying television stations and 406 radio stations in operation at the time. He also was instrumental in developing a process to quickly assess which stations needed additional assistance to weather the ensuing economic downturn. He notes that many stations were already in debt they’d taken on to complete the conversion from analog to digital broadcasting.

“A lot of those early stations were tripping their debt covenants with the banks, which…meant that their transmitter[s], all those assets they needed to broadcast, were suddenly at risk,” he says.

Martin arrived at KQED as COO seven years later. Unlike North Texas Public Television, the station was in a larger market that provided the discretionary capital needed to risk partnering in innovative startups such as a “media incubator” that helps emerging tech companies better understand their customers and more effectively market their products and services. But it was operating with outdated systems, policies and procedures. He came up with five operating commitments to improve efficiency and in turn facilitate innovation: focus on speed and understand others’ urgent needs; use less paper to better leverage technology; identify processes only one employee is authorized to do and empower more people to do them; continually assess how one does tasks; and ensure everything done furthers station goals.

“We wanted everyone to feel the connection to where we’re headed,” Martin explains. “Cultural change will take several years. But I’ve been surprised at how quickly it has caught on with [the] staff.”

One area in which KQED excels is focusing on its audience — a strength Martin says his new employer shares. He singles out ideastream’s Listening Project, an ongoing initiative that uses online surveys and in-person focus groups, forums and interviews to learn what audience members see as the 18-county service area’s assets and challenges. According to COO Kit Jensen, results were used to develop a plank of the nonprofit’s strategic plan that calls for doubling the investment in local/regional programming. The investment is funded by the $20.3 million Campaign for Community, an effort launched in October 2014 that has raised $15.1 million in individual, corporate and foundation support.

“It seems like such a simple thing to do, but there are no stations that I know of that are doing it,” Martin says of the Listening Project. “In fact, I don’t know of any station that has this consistent relationship with the community.”

Martin believes the next step in building that relationship is learning how to meet each audience member’s needs and wants through email newsletters and surveys, monitoring web-page navigation and tracking what content is accessed and how — on tablets and smartphones or through Facebook posts, for example — as well as adapting activities such as fundraising to people’s digital habits. But he hesitates to detail any plans before acclimating himself to the community and talking to ideastream board members and employees. When it comes to subjects such as the Campaign for Community, he feels like they’re one step ahead of him.

“The one thing I’ve always learned through my transitions is I’m a lot smarter on Day 366 than I am on Day 1 of the job,” he says.

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