- MBA ’13, The University of Baltimore
- President and general manager at WYPR
- General Manager at the Morgan State University station, WEAA
- General Manager and DJ at the college radio station at the University of Miami
LaFontaine Oliver, MBA ’13, has a voice for radio. Maybe he picked it up from his father, who worked at the heritage African-American station WOOK in Washington, D.C. Oliver cut his own teeth working in college radio at the University of Miami, which helped pay his way through undergraduate school, before starting his career in commercial radio. Oliver has done it all, from producing to hosting. In July 2019, he became president and general manager at WYPR, Baltimore’s local NPR affiliate.
“I’m a big believer in the power of voice,” he explains, “and you see that now not just in radio but in the Renaissance of audio—the theater of the mind. You can connect in a visceral way that’s different from when you give people visuals. There’s a closeness, an intimacy, a connection that can be experienced as an individual or a group, like a couple or a family driving in the car.”
Oliver has a vocal presence, but he always leaned toward behind-the-scenes jobs in management. Knowing an MBA would help on that path, he took a job at the Morgan State University station, WEAA, while pursuing his graduate degree at UBalt. He finished his coursework online when an opportunity arose to work at WMFE in Orlando, Florida. There, he oversaw initiatives to expand the station’s newsroom and community engagement, efforts that pushed the station’s listenership to all-time highs. A death in the family reset Oliver’s priorities and, after six years in Florida, he moved his family back to Baltimore to be nearer to relatives.
When he began at WYPR, his primary goal was to be a good listener. “I set out on my ‘listening tour’ with the staff, the board of directors, community stakeholders,” he says. “I wanted to hear where we excelled, where we needed growth, how we could improve. I knew it would be important to have that insight inform our long-term strategic planning. To build for success you need to develop a plan that’s yours—not your predecessor’s, not shooting from the hip—and that belongs to everyone.”
With a wry laugh, Oliver notes that while he got to the listening part, the planning stage was cut off by the pandemic. Suddenly he was in a city he hadn’t lived in for six years, developing an emergency preparedness plan during a global health crisis, in a contentious time of local and national elections and social unrest. His plans included how to maintain breaking news coverage and high-quality content with all his staff working from home.
Despite the challenges, public radio thrived during the pandemic. While corporate sponsorship took a nosedive, leaving a $500,000 hole in the budget, individual donors stepped up. In its last fiscal year, WYPR brought in $3.5 million from individual gifts. Listenership rose as well.
“In times of crisis, people flock to public media,” says Oliver. “The pandemic drove people to us who wanted reliable, well-sourced information without hype or hysteria.”
Oliver notes that in an era of flagging print news media, public radio fills a local information void. During the pandemic, WYPR embraced its role as first informer, upping local coverage and launching the popular Daily Dose podcast, a roundup of the news and original reporting related to the state’s COVID-19 response. This summer the station received eight Chesapeake Associated Press Broadcasters Association awards and two regional Edward R. Murrow awards.
“I champion our role supporting local news journalism and local news journalists,” he says. “I want to look at how I can double my newsroom and then double it again. That is what the community requires of us.”
WYPR can now look to its future. Oliver is orchestrating the station’s acquisition of Towson University’s WTMD and looking at ways to strengthen WYPR’s philanthropy and community engagement. He is interested in digital conversion and emerging platforms, untethering WYPR’s content from the exclusive medium of radio. Yet he believes radio itself is a mainstay of the media landscape.
“Free, over-the-air options are important purely from an access point of view,” he says. “There’s a lasting utility to radio broadcasting that’s been counted out so many times, but radio is resilient.”
Christianna McCausland, a longtime contributor to the magazine, writes