New Lakeshore leader is a lifelong consumer of public media.
by Jerry Davich
James Muhammad fondly remembers as a young boy falling asleep in front of a glowing television set after watching a plethora of public media programming. Educational programs, children’s shows, award-winning documentaries, scientific shows, cultural music events and so on–his family’s TV guide was earmarked early in his childhood.
“My parents taught me at a young age that public media has the power to change the trajectory of a young person’s life… anyone’s life really,” Muhammad says from behind his desk at Lakeshore Public Media, where he’s the new CEO and president. “I guess you can say I’ve been drinking the Kool-Aid of public media my entire life.”
Once he first had a taste of its life-changing benefits, Muhammad has enjoyed gulping down the core values of pubic media, such as trust, context and credibility. “Public media’s overall goal is to create and foster a better informed citizenry,” says Muhammad, 43, who earlier this year moved to Crown Point with his wife, Shelia Culpepper-Muhammad, and 15-year-old son, Salih. He previously served as director of radio services for WVPB, a National Public Radio station in West Virginia. There, he oversaw many major productions, such as NPR’s “Mountain Stage,” the national jazz holiday special “Joy to the World,” and the Peabody Award-winning documentary “The Great Textbook War.”
Under Muhammad’s leadership, West Virginia Public Broadcasting won its first Gabriel Award, Peabody Award, Alfred I. duPont Silver Baton and National Edward R. Murrow Award. He also spearheaded major outreach projects for the West Virginia Senate Select Committee on Child Poverty with PBS Frontline’s Jezza Neumann, PBS and PRI’s Tavis Smiley and PRI’s Dr. Cornel West. “We did a lot of good work there that I’m proud of,” said Muhammad, who started at Lakeshore on May 20. After a lengthy national search for its new CEO, Lakeshore’s board of directors knew they had their leader after meeting with Muhammad.
His immediate reaction to the news? “Very surprised,” he replies with a smile. Still, the board chose him unanimously above all other job candidates, some with very strong credentials. Plus, all but one staff member ranked him as their first choice, too. “James is a real leader with a mission, a vision and a well-rounded background,” says Bonita Neff, Lakeshore’s board chairwoman who also served as interim director for several months. “He has a lot of energy and he understands our mission. We’ve already received a lot of positive feedback about his work.”
Muhammad says the same about his new bosses: “I was very impressed with the board of directors and what they want to accomplish here.”
Neff says Lakeshore has a “complex situation” at hand with its newly enhanced multimedia approach, including radio, television and Internet broadcasts. It needs a leader who is experienced, enthusiastic and with a certain veteran savvy. “He not only understands public media’s core values, he lives them,” Neff notes. “He’s authentic.”
Authentic indeed. Just as Muhammad’s parents were “big believers” in public media, so is he, believing it fosters local conversations about national issues that other media outlets don’t explore enough. In many ways, Muhammad is both a product and a reflection of public media, mirroring its rise in our society.
At age 22, as a college senior, Muhammad started as an intern at Alabama Public Radio at the University of Alabama, following a suggestion from a journalism professor. Initially, Muhammad thought to himself, “That’s got to be the corniest place on earth to work.” But he soon got intoxicated from the aforementioned Kool-Aid and he ended up working at that station for four years, serving as a reporter, producer, classical host and operations manager. He also worked as a production assistant and narrator for “The Center for Public Television” on campus.
After receiving his bachelor of arts degree in mass communications from Stillman College in Tuscaloosa, he kept drinking in public media’s rewards.
“If I were to ever leave public media on a professional level, I would still enjoy its life-enriching benefits on a personal level,” he says during a break in his busy day. At Lakeshore, he typically gets to work around 7 a.m. to handle things before his staff of 50 or so arrives. Sometimes he doesn’t get back home until later that evening, depending on various meetings, public appearances or CEO-related duties. “It’s important for people in this region to know who I am and what we do,” he says. “I really enjoy it and I feel comfortable here.”
Under his new leadership, Lakeshore is working on increasing revenue, new fundraising opportunities and building name recognition as a trusted source in Northwest Indiana. “I want people to think of us as a community resource,” he says. “Public media is all about localism and involving community residents on issues that matter.” Not all public media viewers and listeners are Prius-driving, latte-sipping culture-vultures, despite popular stereotypes to the contrary. Instead, they share a familiar thread that needles through their busy lives.
“They are all curious people,” says Muhammad, echoing his own second nature.
“James has brought a strong sense of direction to our organization in the short time he has been here,” says Roger Wexelberg, Lakeshore’s vice president of development and public relations.
“He also has done a great job in engaging the Northwest Indiana business community with the Lakeshore mission. In our work environment, he has been a breath of fresh air with new ideas and setting a sense of direction and purpose,” Wexelberg says. “Because of his strong public media background, our stations have been focused more on the public aspect of the broadcast world under his leadership. I’m excited to be part of Lakeshore’s future role in the region.”
Since May, Muhammad has studied the region from a crash course of public events, guest speaker engagements and in-house meetings to expand Lakeshore’s reach. “We’re capable of doing so many larger things here,” he says. Muhammad has been working on larger projects in public broadcasting for many years as a regular consultant for “The Tavis Smiley Show,” “The Motley Fool Radio Show,” and “Ask Me Another,” among others.
“Our goal is to never talk down to people, but to educate and inform them while adding context to their world,” Muhammad says. The context to his world begins with his wife, Shelia, his college sweetheart before the couple married in 1996. For enjoyment, he also plays golf, more as a stress reliever than as a stressful sport, and listening to jazz, rock, soul and classical music.
One question he’s often asked by new friends or associates is if he’s an Alabama or Auburn fan.
“I’m from Tuscaloosa,” he replies with a loud laugh, tipping his hand toward the Crimson Tide. “It’s a serious issue in that state.” When not at work, he enjoys hanging with his son, Salih, who likes to skateboard and–what else–gulp down public media broadcasting like his father. “He really enjoys shows about science, technology and international politics,” Muhammad says proudly, happy to pass down the life- changing family tradition.