GRAND RAPIDS — After a tumultuous year of internal dissension, as well as internal and external reviews based on allegations of executive wrongdoing, the Grand Rapids Community Media Center has regained its footing under a new leader.
Since Sept. 1, Executive Director Starla McDermott has led the GRCMC, which oversees the operations of WYCE-FM, the Wealthy Theatre, public access television station GRTV and community news outlet The Rapidian.
In that time, the organization has undertaken “aggressive” strategic planning for new initiatives, including allocating additional funding to “relaunch” citizen journalism platform The Rapidian, and opening lines of communication between staff, executives and the board, nonprofit officials say.
“There’s a significant difference, and I say that with the utmost respect to the board and staff prior to me,” GRCMC Board Chairperson Jason Wheeler told MiBiz. “But there’s noticeable change.”
McDermott, who brings extensive experience in the nonprofit sector, replaced former Executive Director Linda Gellasch, who worked at the organization for 20 years and led it since 2016 before announcing her retirement last year.
McDermott entered an organization rife with internal dissension involving allegations about Gellasch’s leadership practices. In late 2021, multiple former staffers and board members came forward with claims that spanned roughly six years, as MiBiz previously reported. Specifically, the claims involved Gellasch’s direct oversight of budgets and donor relationships that former employees say had been handled by GRCMC program directors in the past.
The allegations led to both internal and external investigations into the organization, both of which found no wrongdoing on the part of leadership. A third-party investigation launched last year by the GRCMC board and completed in early 2022 found no evidence of “board negligence or of financial improprieties” following claims by former staff and board members. Attorneys at Warner Norcross + Judd LLP verbally presented the investigation’s findings to the GRCMC board, but a written report or summary was never completed in part because of concerns over potential future litigation.
McDermott appears to have brought a different leadership style to the organization.
“I really did not know Linda, I don’t know much about her. I just know that my type of leadership skills are working together and collaboratively,” McDermott said. “I meet with the team and leaders once a week, and we work really well together collaborating on how to do things together versus (each entity) doing its own thing.”
Last month, McDermott led the creation of a “social contract” that staffers signed with guiding principles of working together.
“It’s about respect, respecting each other’s time, being completely present when we’re together, celebrating milestones and planning things,” she said. “I believe in doing everything with excellence, which means taking our time and not doing something last minute. I think collaboration … has made all the difference.”
McDermott added: “My goal for morale was to actually listen and learn, and that’s what I did the first couple of months.”
Wheeler said that the scrutiny and public attention drawn to the organization over the past year was “all for the greater good.”
“Obviously, there’s a big difference between the current and former director’s leadership style, and I think this leadership style really resonates with staff. It certainly resonates with the board,” he said. “So many of us are so passionate about the organization. … On many levels, we’re enjoying this experience.”
Established in 1980, the GRCMC has provided community media across various platforms, and also offers an I.T. and Media Services Center to other local nonprofits and community members.
After getting to know the staff and the organization’s inner workings, leaders’ attention last month turned to strategic planning for the next few years. That included appointing two permanent staffers at WYCE and upgrading studio equipment, as well as creating a new strategy for GRTV that enhances services and informs the public about its offerings.
“We definitely want to be telling the stories of our clients better,” McDermott said. “We have a lot of other organizations and individuals who take classes, who use equipment to make movies, and a lot of partnerships at the Wealthy Theatre. We need to start telling those stories better about what people can do with the services that the Community Media Center offers.”
As well, investing in The Rapidian is among the highest priorities for the administration and the board.
Launched in 2009, the community-funded Rapidian is a community journalism service for hyper-local news contributed by citizen reporters. In recent years, content at the Rapidian has scaled back, and it is currently staffed by two part-time employees mostly covering city commission meetings, McDermott said.
“We want to get that, in essence, relaunched,” she said. “We believe civic journalism is really important for hyper-local news in Grand Rapids.”
Plans include hiring a full-time employee with journalism experience who could then train five or six paid community journalists seeking to learn the trade.
“We’re looking at this being kind of workforce development for journalists,” McDermott said, noting the organization hopes to launch the initiative this spring. “That’s a discussion and a priority for the board.”
Wheeler called investing in The Rapidian “a really really big win for the board and staff together, and I think the community will see some real connectivity to each other and the organization itself through The Rapidian work that starts to unfold this year.”
McDermott has been a Grand Rapids resident since 2006, and previously served in development and outreach roles for the West Michigan Environmental Action Council, Junior Achievement of Michigan Great Lakes and Guiding Light Mission Inc.
She “fell in love” with the GRCMC upon first learning about it, even volunteering a few times.
“The past 10 years or so, it felt like it fell off the radar a bit,” she said. “I want the community to see the services we offer. … My main goal is to get those stories out there.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been updated from its original form.
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