This story is part of the SoJo Exchange of COVID-19 stories from the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous reporting about responses to social problems.
Mikhael Simmonds & Sara Lomax-Reese | Solutions Journalism
Sara Lomax-Reese, president and CEO of Philadelphia’s Black talk-radio station, on why to move forward we must first go back and repair
A global pandemic. A global uprising against racial injustice. Many journalists are examining both of these crises and, at the same time, confronting the racial biases that permeate our profession and our newsrooms.
It’s important to hear from people who are not new to these conversations because they were already reporting for and with the Black community.
WURD has been a staple in the Philadelphia media landscape since 2002. Today it remains one of the few remaining Black-owned talk radio stations in the United States. Mikhael Simmonds of the Solutions Journalism Network recently talked with Sara Lomax-Reese, WURD’s CEO and president, about what it’s like seeing the current anti-racism movement through the lens of a Black owned, led and serving outlet, and why she’s committed to solutions journalism.
You can read excerpts of our conversation below, edited for length and clarity. The full interview is available here:
Mikhael Simmonds: I wanted to talk with you a little bit about your work, how it has evolved over time, what it means at this moment.
Sara Lomax-Reese: Right this second, right this moment is the first time I have felt like, wow, there is wind at our back as opposed to a tornado in my face — a hurricane, in my face. I finally, in this moment, feel like there are forces propelling us forward as opposed to forces stymieing our growth. As a hundred percent Black oriented, focused, owned, managed media property, there are a lot of forces against you.
Mikhael: Let’s talk about that wind at your back versus the tornado at your front. How do you feel about that? Do you feel conflicted?
Sara: There is an element of feeling conflicted because out of this horror there are opportunities that are emerging. Out of this “new” awareness of police brutality and, just all of the ways that Black people have been disempowered systemically, there is a growing level of interest and hopefully commitment to really centering Black voices, Black concerns and Black media. How long that will last? I don’t know, but we’ve been at this for almost 20 years. The tornado in my face has been this persistent question about why do you need a Black talk radio station? Why don’t you (WURD) diversify? Why don’t you make it multicultural? When I say I run a Black talk-radio station, people [respond with] this whiff of it’s not really important or valid or real. The culture has been so invested and so committed to minimizing and denying the legitimate concerns and the beef that Black Americans have had with America.
And, this is in a city that is 44% Black. We have Black elected officials. We’ve got a Black police chief. We’ve got Black people in positions of authority, but not a full-throated embrace of our work until now. So it leaves me kind of pissed off, to be honest. I appreciate the acknowledgement and the recognition, but I’m like, yeah, we’ve been at this for a long time. And for you only now to be recognizing our value is annoying.
At the same time, I’m a business woman trying to plant the seeds and harvest all of the seeds that have been planted to benefit the station and, by extension, the people, because I’ve always said that the stronger WURD is, the stronger our community will be. The more independent, the louder, our voice is, the stronger our community will be.
I believe that wholeheartedly. My work is not just about puffing myself up. It’s really about creating a broader, deeper platform for our people.
Mikhael: What opportunities do you see that feel more tangible now?
Sara: First of all, let me say I’m jaded. I’m skeptical. I’m skeptical because I study Buddhism and they have this thing called the eight vicissitudes and I can only think of six. I can only remember six. I always forget the fourth one or the eighth one, but it’s like pleasure and pain, gain and loss, fame and disrepute.
There are always two sides to every coin. So in this moment when the wind is at our back, I’m trying to stay very centered because I know that things toggle dramatically.
I’m just really trying to go to the corporate community and all of these companies that are putting out these statements saying, “Black Lives Matter” and “We believe in dismantling systemic oppression.” Well, okay. Show me what that looks like. How are you going to actualize that and implement that? I’m trying to give them avenues through WURD and through Black media to put their money where their mouths are. I’ve been in conversation with some of the advertising agencies in Philadelphia who have never supported WURD to the extent that I feel like they should.
I’m in conversation with corporations in Philadelphia and beyond. And my position really — and we’ll see how this works out — my position is that this is not a starting point.
Just because you’re waking up and being like, “Oh right. You know, George Floyd was murdered in broad daylight in front of cameras with all these people watching and we now see how absolutely crazy and unjust police misconduct, police brutality, police lynching can be. We see that maybe you Black people aren’t just making stuff up. You aren’t just being over-sensitive. Now we get it.”
Well, this has been happening for 400 years. So you can’t start from this point and go forward. You have to look back and repair. Because I believe in reparations, I really do. You have to go back and repair the damage that has been done historically.
People who are coming to me and saying, “Oh yeah, you know, so-and-so’s going to start advertising with Black media.” Okay. Well, let’s factor in all the years that you didn’t invest in Black media.
So don’t tell me you’re going to do whatever-thousand-dollar-buy every month going forward. You disinvested in us for centuries. Let’s add that into the equation.
Mikhael: I love the fact that you said disinvested which is different from ‘not invested.’ I don’t think a lot of people understand that aspect in its fullest form. What are you hearing from your audience now about this moment?
Sara: The full range of emotions. Anger. Sadness. Invigoration. Strategizing. [For] Black people, this is not new. I think that there’s a lot of excitement for young people, their activism and, their uncompromising and relentless pursuit. There’s been so many narratives about millennials and younger generations being over-indulged.
And that’s not the case. I have millennial children, so I’m going to take credit for the work that they’re putting into this moment. And I’m really proud. The word that keeps coming to me is relentless. They are pushing with a sense of entitlement which used to be considered a negative. But I think that entitlement in their spirit, is a good thing right now because we are not settling for the same old, same old. I like that fire. I like that passion.
Mikhael: What do you think news outlets or reporters outside of Black community don’t understand?
Sara: Several things. The most critical one is that we’ve got to be in this for the long haul. This is not a moment. This is not something that anybody can wait out or wait for it to pass and get back to business as usual. This is something that you cannot ignore or underestimate. And I think that newsrooms, white-led or white-dominated newsrooms, have to do the work. They have to be prepared to be very self reflective, self critical. They have to be willing to blow the whole thing up and start over. I think that everything needs to be on the table.
And I think the leadership has to be willing to make a long-term commitment and a long-term investment to figure out how to move forward. Because in a really cynical way, for us as a Black outlet that has talked about these issues, American racism is like the gift that keeps on giving because it’s so deep.
It’s infected everything in this country. And so, as it begins to be dismantled… Well, one it’s not going away easily or quickly. It’s like you’re peeling the layers of an onion, but there’s so much there. It’s in every system — education, healthcare, politics, criminal justice. It’s in every system of American arts and culture.
If I have my druthers, this is going to be something that is talked about and top-of-mind for a very long time. And I think that white people tend to get fatigued. They get, “OK, enough already, stop complaining.” But (racism is ) so pervasive and it’s so widespread that this is something that’s going to need to be deconstructed and dissected for a very long time.
Mikhael: I’ve always been struck by solutions stories about the Black community, from the Black community. While many stories about the Black community are based on how racist systems or racist people have disrupted the community’s growth, many in the Black community have responded with resilience — some say resistance, they’re both true — over and over and over again.
When we met, you said you were interested in solutions journalism as it pertains to the work you do in Philly. Can you tell me more about your vision for solutions journalism?
Sara: If we just focused on the problem, it would be incredibly depressing because the problems are very complex and they are, like we keep saying, systemic. It would just leave us feeling defeated if we just focused on how just complex the problems are. The flip side is focusing on solutions. It’s focusing on what is the resilience. What is the power that we can claim in these very difficult, oppressive situations? And what are the things that are not being talked about?
Who are the people leading these conversations and coming up with strategies that can actually make a difference? What are the ways that we as individuals can be empowered to take control of what we can take control of? And really trying to be proactive and optimistic and uplifting.
It’s easy to devolve into a narrative of, “Oh, nothing’s changed. Everything’s the same. We’re still getting killed by the police. The public schools still stink.” It’s easy to kind of fall into because a lot of stuff, while it has advanced, it has not advanced nearly far enough. And in some situations it’s actually gone backwards. The number of Black-owned radio stations is going backwards.
That’s why it’s so important just from a spiritual standpoint [and] from a mental health standpoint to not just fixate on what’s wrong, but to be very intentional and very deliberate about celebrating successes, amplifying stories of things that actually are making a difference.