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Interview with Radio Pioneer Donna Halper posted on January 14th, 2016

Ask any casual broadcast observer and they’ll tell you that Donna Halper is the lady with the hats, the music director who gave RUSH a start in America, the speaker featured so often at conventions. Ask a real radio fan, and you’ll meet a true female radio pioneer. Recently, we caught up with this rare broadcasting treasure to ask a few questions.

Name a person and share a story about someone who would be surprised to learn they made an impact on your career.

“Since my late parents always taught me to say, “Thank you,” I’ve tried throughout my life to thank the people who helped or encouraged me during my career. I’ve even thanked some of the people who tried to stop me or expressed negative attitudes about women in broadcasting, because they motivated me to try even harder to succeed.  But there is one person I never got a chance to thank. I know you asked about my career, but this person changed my entire life.  

He was the Cardinal in Boston when I was growing up in the 1950s– Richard Cushing was his name, and it is thanks to Cardinal Cushing that my childhood improved dramatically.  I was a Jewish kid, growing up in a majority-Catholic city in an era when, sad to say, anti-Semitism was still part of the culture.  Cardinal Cushing was years ahead of his time in taking on the anti-Jewish attitudes that were common in the Catholic Church back then, and actively speaking out against them. He even went to Rome to advocate for ecumenism, and he worked with Pope John XXIII during the 2nd Vatican Council to make interfaith cooperation a reality. 

As someone who was bullied by Catholic kids at school, I remain deeply grateful that thanks to Cardinal Cushing and others like him, the Catholic Church became a proponent of religious tolerance, making it possible for me to have many Catholic friends from then on.”

What’s the best advice you share with managers on the move?

Plan your work and work your plan. Yes, that sounds like an old and tired cliché, but there’s a lot of truth to it. In movies, promotions magically fall from the sky, but in real life, getting promoted takes planning and preparation. So, I generally advise that managers envision the position they’d like to ultimately achieve, and then make a plan for how to achieve it. If you are hoping to be promoted within your company, in what areas does that company have some weaknesses and how could your skill-set contribute to making them stronger?  If you have a record of achievement, are you letting the right people know?  

It’s not arrogant to keep your superiors informed when you accomplish something that benefits the company; in fact, it can be useful in making your case that you are ready to move up.  Offer to take on greater responsibility, and show your superiors that you are someone who is capable.  But also be prepared to assess the situation objectively– if after you’ve done all the right things, your company still does not seem eager to promote you, or if there are no openings even after you’ve demonstrated your skills, it may be time to explore your options and look elsewhere.

Tell us about a listener who changed your life.

How about listeners (plural)?  It’s well-known that I’m credited with discovering the rock group Rush (they dedicated two albums to me and I’m in a 2010 documentary about them, plus we’ve been friends for more than 40 years).  But when I received their record (at that time, a homegrown Canadian import on their own label) back in mid-1974, I was just a music director in Cleveland, trying to find good songs for the disc jockeys to play.  I had no idea at the time that Rush would go on to become famous, and when I dropped the needle (remember vinyl albums?) on “Working Man,” I believed the song would resonate with the audience, but I had no way of knowing– we’ve all had the experience of loving a song that went absolutely nowhere on the charts, or hating a song that went to number one. So, when I brought the Rush album down to the DJ on the air and told him to play, “Working Man,” I was hoping the audience would like it.  The phones lit up almost immediately.

Those first listeners who got behind this new and unknown Canadian band helped to start something– they proved that I wasn’t wrong about Rush, and their demand for more Rush music led to the guys coming to Cleveland to perform, getting a U. S. recording contract, and ultimately ending up in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  But I owe a lot of it to the listeners who called the station that first night to let us know they loved “Working Man” and thought Rush had potential.

As a female radio pioneer, what advice would you share with male managers looking to assist female employees achieve their professional goals?

I’m in the second wave of female pioneers, but long before me, there was my own cultural hero, Eunice Randall, the first woman announcer in Massachusetts, as well as an engineer and a news reporter, way back in the early 1920s.  In Eunice’s writings, her view seemed to be that if she had the skills needed for the job, she should be given the chance to do it.  She didn’t want special treatment: she just wanted a fair chance to compete, a fair chance to be hired.  

Decades later, I still find that to be sane advice. Don’t treat your female staff differently. They are not fragile flowers; they are broadcasters seeking to improve their skills. So treat them like skilled professionals.  Give them the same encouragement and mentoring you would give anyone who shows potential. Give them the same respect you would want to be given.  

But on the other hand, understand that some of them have received very conflicting and contradictory messages from the culture. Even in 2015, men who know how to express what they want and not back down are praised for being assertive and decisive; but women who manifest the same traits are often criticized for being abrasive or stubborn.  And while being ambitious is praised in men, it is still criticized in women. Be aware that for some women, navigating these cultural expectations is still difficult.  While today there are more women managers to serve as role models, many young women are still unsure about how to develop their own style.  So, help them to develop that style, whether on air, in sales, in management, even in engineering. There are many ways for a woman to be true to herself and still be effective in business. 

And by the way, I hope you are the kind of manager who does not think less of a woman who wants to spend some time with her kids– in fact, I hope you don’t think less of your male staff if they too want to be with the kids sometimes. Too often, I’ve seen male managers who expect everything to be subordinate to work and who are especially contemptuous of women if they need to be at some special event that matters to their child.  Now, I love work as much as anyone, but I think there needs to be a balance.  Expecting everyone to have no life other than your radio station isn’t healthy.  So, let your female employees know you have a family-friendly workplace and you will be doing them a kindness. (But as I said, let your male employees know that too!)

Share something you learned from your parents that has served you well professionally.

As I said earlier, one great lesson my parents taught me was about the importance of saying thank you and expressing appreciation.  I cannot overstate that. We live in a world where too often, the only time we hear from someone, especially a boss, is when something is wrong.  I understand that managers (and consultants!) get frustrated and angry when employees mess up, especially if they mess up repeatedly.  But what about the employees who constantly go above and beyond, and who often aren’t making the big bucks?  

I hope you are the kind of manager who doesn’t just focus on your staff’s mistakes.  I hope you also notice when they do something well, and make the time to praise them for it. And I hope you are the kind of manager who understands that a word of praise at the right time can go a long way.  (And by the way, back to those cultural expectations I spoke of earlier– while there’s a myth that only women need praise, that is utterly untrue.  Trust me–in my nearly 30 years of consulting, the most common complaint I heard from the guys was, “My boss never seems happy with anything I do; no matter how hard I work or how much I accomplish, I never get a kind word.”  So, don’t just assume that because you are paying them, that is thanks enough.  It’s not.  Everyone, both male and female, likes to receive some appreciation.

Give us a tip that will create stronger relationships between sales and programming immediately upon implementation.

I recommend going out for an ice cream. Or cookies.  Or coffee and doughnuts.  In other words, get out of the office at least once a week and grab a bite to eat together.  Far too often, sales folks hang out only with other sales folks, and programming folks only hang out with others in programming. Far too often, the only time the two sides see each other is in staff meetings, where sometimes each side seems to want entirely different things.  In order to learn each other’s language (and yes, there are very real differences in how sales and programming communicate) and understand each other’s perspectives, it can really help to spend some time with each other…even for a few minutes.  

Yes we are all pressed for time, but even if it’s a quick run for coffee & muffins, knowing each other as people is always useful.  And while you’re at it, invite your chief engineer–he (or she) may be busy, but it’s still nice to be invited.  I have found that radio stations where each department actually talks to each other as human beings are far more likely to create collaborative plans, rather than adversarial plans.

Name a song you were surprised wasn’t a big hit.

One of the things I miss about live and local radio is that sometimes a song became really popular in one city but did nothing much nationally.  “I Can’t Find the Time” by Orpheus was huge in Boston, back in 1969, and I was quite surprised to find it only reached #80 nationally.