When the public debate around immigration got heated in The Netherlands, right after the September 11 attacks in 2001 and the assassination of Dutch politician Pim Fortuyn (1948–2002) who caused controversy with his opinions about a multicultural society, a new media company was founded addressed to the youth in the ‘big’ cities of the country: FunX Radio.
Radio for urban youth
I clearly remember the moment when I was a student sitting behind my desk in my dorm room and reading about the launch of the station in one of the biggest newspapers. It directly caught my attention because it was so different from all the other media companies that existed at that time. A significant part of the target audience of FunX had a migrant background and didn’t really have a voice in society until then. Urban youth (15–35 years) couldn’t identify with the content of other media organizations and the white national public broadcasting wasn’t able to connect and mostly talked about these adolescents instead of with them.
Two years after its creation, I started working as a freelance desk editor at one of the public broadcasting organizations in ‘media city’ Hilversum, the principal centre for radio and television broadcasting. A dream job for a young student like me. But when I realized (because it was told to me directly) that if I wanted to be a reporter I needed to work at least another three years behind the desk, I decided to apply for a job at this new station based in Rotterdam, far away from where the broadcasting magic happened.
“Welcome to yourself”
When I got hired I was one of the few white people in the organization. Throughout the years I became more and more aware of my white privilege, everyone’s prejudices and racism in society in general.
The slogan of the station used to be ‘Welcome to yourself’. And yes, that sounds as peculiar in Dutch as in English and it was the first thing that got changed when the station was taken over by national public broadcasting years later, but because of the truth behind the meaning of the words the tag-line lasted a long time.
FunX became my life (which obviously also isn’t only a good thing). I started off as one of the five reporters and I left the company almost ten years later as one of the two executive editors.
20 (of many other) lessons I learned in these most valuable years of my career:
- Giving a voice to the voiceless should be the aim of every media company.
- Make sure your newsroom is a reflection of your target audience. I believe this was the key to FunX’ success. In the beginning years, a lot of the DJ’s and reporters came literally from the streets, they were scouted during interviews by FunX reporters.
- Reach out to your target audience continuously. At FunX, reporters went out to interview people every single day of the week. About topics like their political views and financial situation but also about their love lives and career dreams. This is how you build a relationship of trust with your audience. Through good times and bad.
- Focus on the similarities between people, instead of the differences. When your background is culturally diverse, journalists tend to always ask you about that specific element of your life. Never forget people are first and foremost human beings and everyone experiences the same daily struggles and in the end wants the same happy life.
- Music unites. The playlist of FunX existed of a mix of Dutch, English, French and Spanish popular music and hip hop, Arab — and Turkpop, reggae and reggaeton, slow jams, Desi music and I probably forget a genre here. The trick was to find the common beat to glue everything together. And it worked!
- Food unites too. Make sure there is always enough food for employees at the office. Our communal lunch was the best part of the day and very valuable in exchanging opinions and learning about life outside of work.
- Make the growth of your people a priority, above the growth of your company. When your people grow, your company will grow too. Even if it means that you need to let them go.
- Equally respect all levels of the work that’s been done in the office. From the cleaning team to the morning show host and from the account manager to the tech guys. Hierarchy kills the magic.
- Dare to base your headquarters in an area where your target audience is. For FunX, it would have been more logic to be situated in the ‘media-city’ of Hilversum, but I’m sure that the fact that it was located in the cities where the station broadcasted caused a much tighter engagement to the community.
- Stay true to your values. Because FunX was the only media company that succeeded in reaching a multicultural audience, at a certain moment there were a lot of invites for collaborations. But 9 out of 10 proposals weren’t interesting for us because it would harm the bond we had with our audience. I remember endless conversations with regional and national broadcasters who wanted to ‘lend’ our reporters to make it easier for them to enter a ‘difficult’ neighbourhood. I even recall an editor-in-chief of a big regional media company telling me how they didn’t have any contact with the local mosques because of the lack of Muslims in their newsroom.
- Dare to be an activist. When shit hit the fan and the grants for FunX were stopped, a colleague brought a group together in the basement of our office. It was time to take a clear stand and we developed the opinion section of our online platform.
- Invite your listeners to your newsroom regularly for a brainstorm and feedback session. Let them be starstruck for the first fifteen minutes and let them blow your mind for the rest of the afternoon. You’ll be very happy with a session like that on a quarterly basis.
- Be a people manager and coach for your employees. I certainly learned this the hard way. And I’m sure there are still some victims of my early inexperienced management, but I’m thankful for the opportunity I got to learn and grow in that position.
- Continuously question your own worldview. The editorial meetings at FunX were epic in that sense. Highly emotional at times, always relevant, never boring. Create a safe space for meetings like that, don’t let people intimidate each other, make sure everyone has their say.
- Focus during the recruitment process for new staff on what qualities are lacking in your organization, instead of running the same application process over and over again. Look for specific talent.
- If you want to make your newsroom more inclusive, start with tackling your own whiteness first. Whiteness meaning a white, Western view on the world. Otherwise, new talented employees with a different cultural background will never feel at ease in your company.
- Even though the best way to make a newsroom more inclusive is to hire more diverse talent, don’t use it as an excuse not to change anything before that happens. Be aware of your blind spots, work on them and you’ll see that more diverse talent will respond to your next job application as well.
- Humour is key. I just started working as a reporter when I asked my colleague with a Moroccan background what the meaning was of the Turkish song we listened to on the radio. Can you imagine how clueless I was about the fact that the Turkish language wasn’t the same as the Arabic spoken by Moroccans. Luckily my colleague found this situation funny due to my naivete. Whereas once I gained knowledge, I understood it’s racist.
- Trust is another key. Trusting your employees, trusting each other and most importantly start with trusting yourself. In my first managerial position, I was quite insecure and very critical about myself about a lot of things. If you’re not conscious of your own feelings, you won’t be able to give a secure feeling to others or setting reasonable standards instead of too high expectations.
- Spread success. I wish I’d done this more often, instead of being occupied in daily operations go to conferences and share the success of your company to inspire others. Hopefully, this article makes up for that.