August 2010 Issue
Stationed in Yellow Springs
National Public Radio veteran and author Neenah Ellis has found her niche at WYSO in southwest Ohio.
If you want to understand WYSO-FM
, the semi-legendary public radio station in Yellow Springs, you need to understand the staff bike. It’s a blue three-speed, slightly battered but still quite serviceable, with a metal handlebar basket and a little sign on the front that says, helpfully, “Staff Bike.”
Neenah Ellis, general manager of the station, has been on the air lately making funding pitches, as public-radio general managers must and often do, and she’s been proudly running down a list of recent accomplishments by the station. “We brought StoryCorps to the Miami Valley,” she says, in her lightly raspy voice. “Our news department won a boatload of awards. We built an archive to house our historic tape collection. And we’re doing our part for the environment by riding our staff bike.”
Just as to understand WYSO you need to understand the staff bike, to understand Neenah Ellis and where she finds herself at this point in life, you need to understand WYSO.
Ellis, 56, is in her 15th month at the station, a transplanted Hoosier who landed in Ohio by way of Washington, D.C., with purpose and a mission — to take the reins at a small but mighty local station that needed a strong leader, and where she might at the same time come full circle and be reminded of her own beginnings in radio. WYSO has given her all that, and more, and Ellis has quickly become a figure of note in the busy Dayton-Springfield-Yellow Springs cultural scene, relishing the idea of finding new ways to expand the role and reach of this cherished local gem.
“People just love this radio station,” she says, sitting in her studio office, where a sign says, “It’s only a radio program.” WYSO is housed in the basement of an old building on the campus of Antioch College, a place that has gone through ups and downs in recent years — closing two years ago and now attempting to reopen.
“During my first year, people have been so welcoming to me. I just love the people who listen to the station. They walk in and say hi, they bring money, they bring thank-you notes; it’s just so amazing.
“But it’s really not about me,” she insists. “It’s that people are so happy to have somebody here who gets it.” Somebody, in other words, who understands why WYSO is special and wants to make it more so.
Like the college, the station has had ups and downs over its 53 years, a time in which it has grown from a small campus-only, student-run bastion of FM oddity into a strong-signal, public radio powerhouse that covers a listening area stretching nearly from the Indiana border to the western fringes of Columbus, and from northern Cincinnati to Celina — farther than could comfortably be ridden on the staff bike.
“The first thing you’d have to say about it is that it’s eclectic, and that doesn’t happen a lot anymore,” Ellis says, describing the station that generates a lot of local news, and which plays local music programs ranging from Celtic to bluegrass to jazz to New Age to cutting-edge alt rock. “And it’s very rooted in the community, so there is a lot of tradition on the air.”
Ellis came here from a long career doing that “NPR stuff,” working for National Public Radio in Washington, D.C., as a newscaster and reporter in the late 1970s and 1980s, a time she recalls as “incredible.”
It was a job she’d seemed destined to do. She was born in Valparaiso, Indiana, to parents who owned and ran WAKE-AM, a station where she got “to be on air even before I could drive,” and where her interests ran toward news gathering while the rest of the family was more into sales and operations.
Ellis went to Drake University in Des Moines to study journalism and broadcasting, thought about working for a congressman after graduating, and plunged into broadcasting instead. She got a news job at WAMU in Washington covering politics, then landed at NPR — walking in the door with skills dating back to high school, and ending up having an award-winning blast reporting and producing for “All Things Considered.” She met her husband, reporter/newscaster Noah Adams, there; they’ve been married 20 years. “They were very heady times,” she says. “It was very exciting.”
Ellis’ career went beyond NPR into writing and producing, and gave her and Adams the chance to work on numerous joint projects. In 1987, they left D.C. for Minnesota, where Garrison Keillor had taken a sudden break from the popular “A Prairie Home Companion,” and something new was needed for the time slot. Ellis and Adams were hired to produce “Good Evening,” a live program that featured guests such as Harry Connick Jr. and Lyle Lovett, and lasted two years.
They moved back to Washington so that Adams could host “All Things Considered,” and Ellis began a busy life of freelancing, based from there. Some of her work was for public radio, including documentaries from Sarajevo during the Balkan war, and a series in 2000 on centenarians that focused on the then-little-covered cohort of 100-year-olds who had never had serious illnesses and led active, relatively peppy lives. That series turned into a book, If I Live to be 100 — Lessons from the Centenarians
. It’s been in print since 2002, “and I still do public speaking about it; there are some people who know me as a longevity person.”
She did research for a book Adams wrote about the Wright brothers in 2003, The Flyers
, did a series of oral-history interviews with Holocaust survivors for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and wrote a series on jazz history for trumpeter Wynton Marsalis on a public radio show called “Making the Music,” which won a Peabody Award.
After all that and more, she started thinking it would be nice to slow down a little and return to a smaller, community-oriented station — to make a different kind of impact. “The mantra for surviving is local, local, local,” she says, and WYSO or someplace like it made sense. She and Adams were already familiar with it, having spent time in the Yellow Springs-Dayton area while they did the book on Orville and Wilbur.
The scrappy little station in Ohio was well-known in the NPR circles they ran in. “It has a reputation as a place that has always made do, always made its own way — with grit and hard work, and with a very open way of doing things,” she says. “It’s known as being very much in the mold of where public radio came from: community involvement, eclectic, independent thinking.”
It had also, in the few years before her application for the general manager’s job, been through an identity crisis as a previous GM stripped the station of its local content in favor of more nationally syndicated features, causing a community controversy that was even covered in The Wall Street Journal. Ellis, who’d looked for jobs all over the country, fell in love with the station when she met the staff of eight full-timers and about 20 volunteers.
“They just clinched it for me,” she says. “They were still excited about their jobs ... I loved being a freelancer — I did my book, I traveled, I was even on the ‘Today’ show — but I missed being on a team. I met them all and I thought, ‘This is what I’ve missed,’ and I wanted to get back to it on radio. So, here I am.”
After she and Adams moved to Yellow Springs (he’s still a national correspondent for NPR, based from Ohio now), Ellis stressed the station’s local programming lineup and beefed up the news report — thus leading to the aforementioned “boatload of awards.” In addition to building the station’s links into tiny Yellow Springs and beyond, she’s also been applying herself to the art of constant fund-raising.
“That’s a steep learning curve for me,” she says, but the station has a budget of about $1.4 million and has recently added some 1,500 members, for a total of about 4,000.
Ellis is most proud, recently, of reclaiming the WYSO archive — a mountain of reel-to-reels, cassettes, CDs, floppies, mini-discs and ephemera such as program guides, posters and photographs that trace the station’s history all the way back to its 1958 founding. “It was piled in a musty back room,” she says. “I couldn’t believe it — I’ve done a lot of archival research, and I had nightmares about not being able to save this stuff.”
The station got a $100,000 grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to organize and digitize the material, which now sits on shelves in a clean, dry room. Soon to be available to the public on the station’s wyso.org, it’s a trove that includes everything from artist interviews to original music to reports on the civil rights history of Yellow Springs and Antioch, where Coretta Scott King attended college, and where her husband spoke at commencement in 1965.
In the works: plans to figure out how to let community members upload audio to the station’s website, and a local oral-history project that would resemble the famous, traveling StoryCorps public-radio project that Ellis recently lured to the Dayton area, a big deal to NPR fans. Everything is aimed at broadening WYSO’s reach into the community it serves — a community Ellis is getting to know better, and of which she grows increasingly fond.
“Did you know I’ve gone an entire week at a time without ever having to drive?” she says happily of life in Yellow Springs. It’s the sort of place that would be most useful for, say, a Staff Bike.
“We use it all the time, just to go uptown, maybe, or for inspiration. The other day,” she says, one of her young reporters “was having trouble writing a script, and she said, ‘I’m going crazy!’ I said, ‘Get the bike and get out of here for a while.’ And it worked.”