The PRNDI Board is excited to announce the 2019 recipient of the Leo C. Lee award. The organization will honor Martha Foley, News Director at North Country Public Radio in Canton, New York.
Foley’s thirty-plus year career at NCPR shaped its culture and influence to become a model for small public radio stations that serve rural communities across the country. She started at North Country Public Radio in the 1970’s as a part-time classical music announcer. After she briefly left to take a job as a reporter at the St. Lawrence Plaindealer newspaper, Foley returned to the station to help establish its news department.
“We were so early in the local news game. Everyone was inventing the wheel at the same time,” said Foley who noted that the technology of the day included cutting reel-to-reel tape and filing stories over a land line telephone.
Seeking guidance and support in her new role as news director, she attended her first PRNDI conference in the late 1980’s.
“I remember Terry Gross spoke at the conference and Car Talk was a new program,” she said. “PRNDI caught my attention. They challenged me to think seriously about ethics and really made being a news director a serious endeavor.”
Foley took that guidance back to her station and fostered a newsroom culture that has consistently produced award-winning journalism.
“You need good management to bring out the best in your staff,” she said. “I tried to hire the strongest journalists I could. Then I got out of their way and didn’t hold them up by artificial constraints.”
“Martha says yes before she says no,” said David Sommerstein, NCPR’s Director of Broadcast and Digital Content. “She is so good at not being a top down manager. She gives reporters the space to find the stories that inspire them and that strategy is going to lead to better reporting.”
“She’s also a terrific editor and very good at helping you eliminate unnecessary clutter in your stories. And she’s so fun to work with. We spend a lot of time laughing together. How can you not want to work hard for someone like that?” said Sommerstein.
"Martha created a newsroom culture that set absolutely no limits on what we could try to pull off. She wanted to hear big ideas and she pushed us to make them real,” said Brian Mann, NCPR’s Adirondack Bureau Chief. “She changed my thinking about what a rural, small-market news department could be."
Mann credits Foley for her support as he built up his profile as a national reporter, filing more and more stories for NPR.
“She wanted me to work with as many national editors as possible. She knew it would make my local work better and sharper,” said Mann. “That kept me always thinking about how our local stories might translate for an NPR show."
Foley spent six years on the PRNDI board in the 1990’s as a small and medium station representative. Throughout her time with the organization she has attracted the respect and admiration of her colleagues.
"I particularly like how open and honest Martha is. She's no bullshit, funny and also has a skeptical sensibility that makes for a great journalist,” said Erin Hennessey, News Director at KNKX in Seattle. “And she brings those qualities to her newsroom and the public radio community in many, many ways."
“I met Martha in PRNDI’s very early days and learned quickly she was a person I could count on for sage advice and guidance. She has led her staff to create some of the best journalism in a part of the country that is frequently underserved,” said Maryanne Zeleznik, News Director at Cincinnati Public Radio and PRNDI’s 2010 Leo C. Lee recipient. “She’s a pleasure to be around and everything she touches is better because of her insight. She fully represents the talent and skills the Leo C. Lee award was established to honor.”
Foley will be retiring in July after leading North Country Public Radio’s newsroom for more than three decades. Her departure is part of a larger shift in station leadership. NCPR’s program director, Jackie Sauter, retired at the end of last year and station manager Ellen Rocco is scheduled to step down in June. Foley is confident that the new leaders of North Country Public Radio will continue to grow the station’s dedication to local news.
“I’m just representing for all of the small, medium station based people, representing for all of the people who come in every day and work hard to deliver the news. I’m accepting this award for my station, my management team and all of the people across the system,” said Foley. "PRNDI gave me contact with the best people in my business. I made great friends, met so many people who led the way for me, and still do. When you’re isolated like I was, maybe you’re a tiny station, or a station that’s way out in the hinterlands (and we’re both) or your station colleagues might not really understand journalism, being part of a group like PRNDI is game-changing. And being on the board was that, times ten."
And her plans for retirement?
“It will be really nice to have an opinion. I may even volunteer for a political campaign.”
Martha Foley will receive PRNDI’s 2019 Leo C. Lee Award at the organization’s annual awards banquet: June 15 at the Grand Hyatt in Washington, D.C.