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WKAR leader taking her passion for community building to MSUFCU

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Susi Elkins

Susi Elkins is the general manager of WKAR Public Media and director of Broadcasting at MSU. She's leaving the station to become chief community development officer for the Michigan State University Federal Credit Union.

“I've been doing a lot of reflecting lately as you can probably imagine because I truly have grown up here. I started at WKAR as a student in their student employment program and never looked back. I love WKAR and MSU. This whole community has just been a wonderful place to be. I learned everything I know through the staff at WKAR.”

What are some key accomplishments you're proud of the station has made under your leadership?

“It's probably our education services. We often say we're so much more than a TV and radio station even though that's so cool that we are those things. But there's so much work that goes on behind the scenes in support of the community. I think the education piece is key.

“My first full-time job here was working with faculty on distance education courses and helping them make sure they could reach students wherever they were in the country or in the world. It was so cool, and the faculty were so innovative. It inspired me to get a master’s in educational technology because I could see what technology can do as a tool for education.

“During that time, I moved over to the public broadcasting side and really wanted to use my degree and expertise to help kids and families and teachers. I started producing QuizBusters working with high school kids and their families. Curious Crew is another accomplishment that I'm proud of. A theme for me has been to use my abilities to build capacity around others who really can change the world. Rob Stephenson is a person who approaches science education for kids in a cool way. Rob wants the kids to be the focus in their own understanding of science. There are nine kids that host the show with him, and they have become family for us. These kids are such incredible students. We've touched so many lives. It's broadcast in markets around the country, and that's something I'm proud of.

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“Our innovation work with the Next Gen Media Innovation Lab is another piece that I've been proud of. Our whole team just said ‘We don't really know what the future holds, but we want to have a part in creating something exciting for our community, and our industry, and for the university. So, let's create this lab and study what broadcasting will be in the near future.’ That's exciting.

“And I’ve had the opportunity to work at the national level and be elected to America's Public Television Stations and PBS boards. The work that they're doing on the national level for the citizens of this country is just amazing. To have been a part of that is something I'll never forget.”

How have broadcasting and WKAR's missions evolved over the years? Where do you see them going?

“The amazing part is that we're coming up on 100 years of broadcasting at WKAR, and I don't think our mission has changed. It's always been to take the power of our learnings from the university and the power of education and bring it to the people, all the people. That's what public media is about. It needs to be free and over-the-air and educate and inspire literally everyone.

“There's no other organization that has a mission like that. I've been thinking about this, I've had people say to me, ‘Is public media even needed anymore?’ There's so much content out there. We can learn about anything. It's at our fingertips. It’s wonderful that there's so much content out there. I am a creator. It just reinforces the whole reason that public broadcasting was created in the first place. There is still no one who is going to create this for free without influence and provide it to every citizen in this country. In rural areas where there aren't large populations, it just doesn't make sense. You're not going to make a lot of revenue. There's no reason to do it if revenue is your core base mission. It isn't for us.

“We push through all the noise of all the content and make sure that the local person at the local level has the information they need to, for instance, vote for the person that they want to be in leadership. We really cut through all the noise to reach those individuals who need us to be there for them. It's exciting that our mission really hasn't changed. We've just had to evolve. Certainly, society has changed. Technology has changed. We've changed to make sure we can accomplish that mission, but it really hasn't changed much.”

What are some challenges and opportunities you see ahead for your successor?

“There's no shortage of challenges, that's for sure, but there's also no shortage of opportunity. I think we're in a moment where we're constantly having to re-evaluate what's the best way to meet the moment. I can certainly talk about all the challenges there are and will continue to be around funding and resources, but I think those are challenges that anyone is facing in any industry anywhere. Those are always going to be challenges.

“What I'm more interested in are the challenges and opportunities around the work that we do. We're in the business of bringing people together when there are so many forces pulling people apart. We have to really think about what this means for us now. If we are here to bring people together around conversation, how can we best do that given what's happening nationally and globally? We have to work differently in order to accomplish those goals.

“We're in the business of supporting teachers and families, and the role of education and educators is in flex at this point. It used to be that was a no brainer. Now, they're really challenged. We have to be there for them even more than ever. I think we are as public broadcasters, but our role in education becomes increasingly important and that's a challenge. But it's also an opportunity.

“Also, the role of journalism has changed significantly. We want to hold leaders accountable. We want to provide context. That becomes a challenge when facts aren't agreed upon as they may have been in the past. Really adding that context and going deeper is so much more important now than it's ever been because of all these other forces at work. To me, those are the real challenges. How do you make good on this mission? How do you make good on the whole reason for being for this organization when so many things are in flux and the societal norms are shifting so rapidly? You need to still make sure you're there for folks. It just looks different and feels different, and that's certainly a challenge.”

What attracted you to this new position you're taking as chief community development officer at the Michigan State University Federal Credit Union?

“So many things attracted me to this position, and it would have to be that attractive to pull me from WKAR. As you can hear, I'm very passionate about the work of the station and the work of the university. There are only two organizations in this community that I've been a member of for 30 years, and that would be WKAR and MSUFCU. We're both very oriented toward community and want to make sure that our members are supported and have the most innovate products and services.

“I see that at MSUFCU. I've seen it for decades and have been inspired by it. I want to be a part of what they're doing, and it allows me to stretch myself creatively and professionally. I'm able to do that at WKAR and have for years, which is why I've always stayed. I see the ability to continue to do that, but there are just some challenges that I want to approach for myself personally that this role will allow me to do. I will be thinking through philanthropically what the community needs and how I can support that work. We have been a beneficiary at the station of the power that MSUFCU has to really help people achieve their dreams within the community. That's extremely exciting to me.

“The innovative work that they're doing around their products and services and the role that work can play for smaller credit unions in communities is very similar to how I think about public broadcasters and how the system is only secure when the smallest station has access to resources within their community. I think the credit union plays that role in supporting smaller credit unions who need to stay strong for their community members. They play an active role here in this community but also nationally to make sure that all citizens have access to the funds that they need to make their lives better. It's just inspiring and exciting to me.”

Say some more about what your role will be at MSUFCU.

“I will have a significant portfolio that I'm excited about. It will include marketing, which means I will support a lot happening in a lot of different areas across the credit union. We have an excellent marketing team there. I'll learn a lot from them, but I think I'll be able to help provide an umbrella for all the various subsidiaries and for the foundation and make sure that we're all leveraging resources across the entire credit union.

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“That also means that I'll have connection to the university, to MSU, which is exciting to me. Campus to Career will also be part of my portfolio. That is connecting students to internships, and we would really like to build an infrastructure where students are increasingly able to have more responsibilities as they move through their internships and into job placement. I'm obviously a product of the work that WKAR does to support students. So, being able to do that work for the credit union is exciting to me. I see constantly through social media and everywhere how much every single person, no matter what job they have at the credit union, loves their job and they talk about that a lot. I think that speaks a lot to the leadership team and to April Clobes’ leadership. The growth that's happened since she's taken over is just phenomenal, and it makes me want to be a part of it to see what I can do.

“There are so many people that I want to thank as I leave WKAR, and it's impossible to name all the names. Because of their hard work and because the station is in such a fantastic space right now and we have such a phenomenal leadership team, I feel in good conscience I can go and explore opportunities that are exciting to me and know that the station is in such solid hands.

“I want to thank everybody not only for helping me to learn and grow but for nurturing my own professional career and for seeing in themselves what I see in them and rising to the occasion and supporting our members and our community. It's just been such a phenomenal ride, and I just want to thank all our staff past and present, all our members, all our partners, our national partners, and my peers.”

MSU Today airs Saturdays at 5 p.m. and Sundays at 5 a.m. on WKAR News/Talk and Sundays at 8 p.m. on 760 WJR. Find “MSU Today with Russ White” on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and wherever you get your shows.