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How José Fajardo is facing the greatest challenge of his 40-year career with optimism and courage

HPR President and General Manager José Fajardo speaks to The Conversation 040822
Hawaiʻi Public Radio
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HPR President and General Manager José Fajardo speaks to The Conversation's Catherine Cruz on Friday, April 8, 2022.

Originally published in Current, July 15, 2022
By Liz Reid

José A. Fajardo was just 29 when he landed his first general manager job in public broadcasting.

It was at KNCT in Killeen, Texas, a joint licensee where he’d started his radio career as a Central Texas College student years earlier. The untimely death of one prior manager followed by the career pivot of another left a space open for Fajardo to take the reins.

Fajardo points to other moments like these, when being in the right place at the right time propelled his career forward. There was the time he walked into a commercial radio station in Temple, Texas, in search of a job and found the general manager in the lobby.

“For some reason, he was very interested in me and took me to lunch to talk about what my interests were,” Fajardo said. “When we got back to the station, he went to the general sales manager and told her, ‘Give this guy a job,’ ... and they created a job for me as a copywriter.”

Nearly four decades later, Fajardo is GM of Hawai‘i Public Radio, a post he’s held since 2016. Despite a diagnosis last year of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, Fajardo remains as engaged with his station and the public broadcasting community as ever.

In April, he received the Public Radio Regional Organizations’ PRRO Award at the Public Media Super-Regional Meeting in recognition of his work not only at HPR, but also during his 16 years at WMFE in Orlando, Fla., where a series of leadership departures allowed him to steadily climb the ranks.

Reflecting on his career in broadcasting, Fajardo said, “The harder you work, the luckier you get.” That Fajardo should feel lucky at all is one of the reasons so many of his colleagues find him inspiring.

Longtime friend and Sara Brady, a crisis communications expert based in Orlando, said she is “in awe” of how Fajardo has approached his ALS diagnosis. “This path that he is on, the way that he is navigating, is the way he’s handled his whole life ... with dignity, integrity and courage — that’s José,” she said.

Finding ‘a positive experience’

Fajardo’s diagnosis at age 56 came after more than a year of searching for answers to explain his puzzling symptoms, including muscle spasms, changes to his gait and difficulty with balance.

“Right away, I decided I’m not going to let ALS define me,” Fajardo said. “I’m going to take this diagnosis and turn it into a positive experience for me and for people around me.”

Not only did Fajardo tell his colleagues and board about his diagnosis early on, but he also told the entire HPR audience as a guest on the station’s daily talk show, The Conversation. He and his wife, Jennifer Barrett Fajardo — married just three months at the time of his diagnosis — started a blog called Team José as a way to keep friends and family up to date on their lives.

“A lot of folks with ALS become invisible to the community because they’re not mobile, they become isolated from family and friends,” he said. “It’s a very silent disease that people deal with, and I’ve opted not to do that.”

Jose and PRROs.jpg
Eastern Region Public Media
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HPR President and GM José A. Fajardo accepts the Public Radio Regional Organizations Award in Denver, CO.

An athlete with a passion for trail running, soccer and yoga, Fajardo has lost much of the function of his arms and legs. But the changes to his body haven’t robbed him of his optimism or his commitment to his work. “I’m lucky because ALS has not impacted my voice or my ability to breathe, or my ability to swallow,” he said. Four days a week, he takes his electric wheelchair two blocks from his home to the HPR offices to work in person. HPR has accommodated his disability by providing voice-to-text software and making changes to the building.

“It’s really kind of business as usual,” said Cat Gelman, HPR’s VP of corporate support. “He’s such a big presence, you forget he has ALS.”

Fajardo even flew to Denver in April to accept the PRRO Award at the Super-Regional in person.

“To have the courage to get on a plane with his disability, in a wheelchair, and to show up and be a part of the conference was another inspiring moment,” said Tim Eby, former GM of St. Louis Public Radio. “He was there throughout the entire conference, talking with folks and learning and continuing to add his voice to the conversation.”

‘I want your job’

Growing up in Puerto Rico, Fajardo knew from a young age that he wanted to be a part of the conversation. By eight, he was obsessed with listening to the radio at his great-aunt’s house. By 12, he was pretending to be a DJ in his bedroom, back- announcing songs from the only two albums he owned at the time: José Feliciano’s Feliciano! and The Carpenters’ self-titled album. As a teenager, he earned $20 a night spinning records at the teen club on base at Fort Buchanan, where his father was stationed. When his first attempt at college went awry — “I got bored, and I started to party too much” — he had to make a decision.

“Either join the military or find another school to go to,” Fajardo said. “A friend of mine told me about a college ... that had a professionally run public radio and TV station. And so, sight unseen, I got on a Greyhound bus from Fort Lee, Virginia, where my parents were living, and did the three-day journey to downtown Killeen, Texas.”

That station was KNCT, where Fajardo would eventually take over as general manager. In his nine years at the organization, he helped plan for the transition to digital television, built out a new master control for the FM station, and hosted Pet Clinic, a weekly call-in show.

In 1996, Fajardo learned of an opening for a director of radio programming at WMFE in Orlando. During his interview with the organization’s founder and then-CEO Stephen McKenney Steck, Fajardo made his ambitions clear: “When he asked me where I saw myself in the next five or 10 years, I said, ‘Well, when you retire, I want your job.’”

Fajardo snagged the programming role and did eventually succeed Steck when he retired in 2008. It was in this post that Fajardo would face some of the toughest decisions — and harshest criticisms — of his career.

Not a joke

Some readers thought it was an April Fool’s Day joke when the Orlando Sentinel reported on April 1, 2011, that WMFE TV would be sold to an undisclosed buyer for $3 million. Public outcry came swiftly: Viewers raised questions about how to protest the sale, if they could get their pledge money back and whether Fajardo would keep his job. Even Steck, who had hired Fajardo and groomed him to take over, was critical of the deal. It turned out that the FCC also had questions, including whether the buyer, Christian broadcaster Daystar Communications, was even eligible to hold a noncommercial TV license.

Meanwhile, WMFE hemorrhaged money, unable to cover annual PBS licensing fees without dipping into reserves. Fajardo said he and the board had explored a variety of options but found selling the TV station was the only way to protect the radio station.

“When you’re a community-operated, community-licensed public station, losing $200,000 or $300,000 a year will bankrupt you in a couple of years,” he said. “The radio station was growing by leaps and bounds. We had changed the format to an all-news format. The numbers were really going dramatically high — membership, revenue, underwriting revenue.”

WMFE eventually got out of its deal with Daystar and instead sold the TV station to the University of Central Florida for $3.3 million in 2012. Those funds went into an endowment, helping to double the size of the WMFE newsroom and fund the acquisition of a second signal, WMFV in Ocala.

Judith Smelser is now GM of both stations. She was WMFE’s news director under Fajardo and said that like many GMs and news directors, they didn’t always see eye to eye.

“He respected my point of view, and I think the fact that ... I spoke up when I disagreed with him increased his respect for me and made our relationship stronger,” Smelser said. “That’s not the case with all people in that position. To me, that says a lot.”

“You have to think strategically and act tactically,” said Christian Fenger, who served on the WMFE board at the time. “He did a good job of seeing out over the horizon, seeing the current trends ... and translating those to action steps and options.”

One of the action steps for the sale of the TV station was a revamp of the organizational chart; it quickly became clear that once the deal was complete, Fajardo’s job would be eliminated.

“You do not need ... a CEO, highly compensated CEO, as I was at the time,” Fajardo told the board. “You need to hire a radio station manager.”

He was burnt out, too; as confident as he was that he was doing the right thing for WMFE and public broadcasting in Orlando, the criticism took its toll. “It was a tough situation,” he said. “I was accused of killing culture in Orlando.”

Fajardo took a three-year hiatus from public broadcasting to run the Chamber of Commerce in Orlando. Then, opportunity came knocking.

A warm, competent leader

Hawaii was not on Fajardo’s radar before he got a call saying Hawai‘i Public Radio was looking for a new president and GM.

“I did some research on HPR, saw that it was a very good radio station, but had an opportunity to go from good to great,” he said.

During Fajardo’s tenure, HPR has more than doubled the size of its endowment, increased sustaining membership and underwriting revenue, added more than a dozen transmitters to cover almost all of the state’s population, hired more reporters and editors, and raised salaries for all of the staff.

“We did a study of what is a livable wage in Hawaii, and we increased everybody’s salary that was below that amount to that amount,” Fajardo said. “We had a couple of folks [for whom] that meant an increase of like $12,000 a year. ... This was a game changer for a lot of staff.”

Staffers describe Fajardo as optimistic, warm, accessible, curious and professional. They say he trusts people to do their best work and is willing to take risks. HPR board chair Francis Oda said Fajardo is unique among the leaders he’s worked with in that he is both visionary and objective-oriented.

“[Fajardo] tenaciously implements the plan on programmatic levels as well as financial levels, and then is very accountable for the results,” he said. “We’re very fortunate to have him here in Hawaii.”

Colleagues who have known Fajardo through the years said he has always shown genuine interest in their careers. Smelser said it was Fajardo who first recognized her potential to lead WMFE, years before she took over as GM. When another colleague called her in 2021 saying she should apply for the opening, she called Fajardo.

“He helped me understand what it felt like to be in this seat, why he thought I would be a good fit for the position,” Smelser said. “I saw him at the Super-Regional this spring when he got the award, and even with all the challenges that he’s facing, he took the time to sit down with me and have a good, meaty conversation where he gave me all kinds of great advice.”

Transcending diagnosis

Fajardo’s approach to his illness is consistent with his approach to his work. He aims to keep a positive attitude and spends his free time researching ALS, educating others and working to maintain the mobility he has left. He participated in a medical trial (the drug was ultimately unsuccessful) and still hopes that an innovative treatment or even a cure could be discovered during his lifetime.

“There are days that are really difficult. There are days that I’m sad, that I grieve, because I know that my sunset is a lot closer than I thought it was,” Fajardo said. “But it’s given me the opportunity to plan and to know my time is limited. It gives me the opportunity to enjoy my life.”

Longtime friend and public radio colleague Roger Duvall was the driving force behind honoring Fajardo with the PRRO award this year. He remembered learning about Fajardo’s illness last year, while he was still reeling from his own recent diagnosis of prostate cancer.

“José’s Facebook post was maybe a week or two weeks after that,” Duvall said. “[It] really had an impact on me. [My cancer] was treatable through surgery, and here’s José ... here’s someone who is stepping up. I found it difficult to step up like that. I saw someone who really transcended his diagnosis.”

Fajardo has no plans to leave his post at HPR. He pointed out that people can live with ALS for decades after a diagnosis; Stephen Hawking lived with the disease for 55 years.

“If I do lose my voice, I already have my voice banked, so I could use a machine using my eyes to still communicate,” he said. “If I’m still able to do that and contribute as president and GM at HPR, I’ll still continue to work.”

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