Mostly in their own words: What’s the difference between running a marathon and a radio station?

Matt Bingay, WMRA’s general manager, takes a moment at the station.
(Photos by Randi B. Hagi)

Editor’s note: This is the second in an occasional series called “Mostly in their own words” from contributor Martha Woodroof, who worked at WMRA for 15 years in various capacities. The series will focus on the people across the community who help make Harrisonburg the place that it is. And this installment features Matt Bingay with whom Woodroof worked at WMRA.

By Martha Woodroof, contributor

Except for the one year he spent at New Hampshire Public radio, WMRA’s general manager, Matt Bingay has been at the station, in one capacity or another, for just shy of 28 years. He started at WMRA as a 10-hour-a-week student part-timer in the Fall of ‘92, went full-time in ’94, became program director in ’97, and since October 2017 has been running the joint.

During Matt Bingay’s almost three decades in public radio, NPR evolved from an obscure network to a major national news source. Sound technology evolved from analog to digital. And local NPR stations got serious about delivering meaningful local news. During those same three decades, Bingay was evolving from a curious college student, experimenting with fast-changing audio technology and off-the-wall programming ideas, to the steady, well-informed, marathon-running Leader of the WMRA Pack. 

His job: To guide the station through the bewildering, multi-platform challenges of today’s serious journalism. 

What we aspire to deliver to our audience is different than it was 10 or 20 years ago,” he says. “WMRA is multi-media now, just like all news sources have to be. And we must continue to contribute meaningfully to the growing reputation of NPR which has become both one of the most trusted also great pressure.”

As WMRA’s general manager, Matt Bingay occupies the station’s front corner office. The stuff surrounding him is the stuff of his personal life—family (wife, Karen Gerard and son, Alex), mementoes from five decades of friends, soccer doodads, marathon bling and certificates and beer memorabilia.

Bingay’s office presents as the workspace of someone who is comfortable with himself and wants station supporters and colleagues to speak their minds to him directly, person-to-person. 

“Everything I do,” he says, “I approach in a collegial fashion instead of top-down or my-way-or-the-highway kind of approach. I think that has served me well. I don’t walk in and say, ‘hey everyone, you’ve been doing it wrong, and here’s the right way.’ I walk in saying, ‘hey let’s make some great radio together, what ideas do you have?’ 

If you build it, will they listen? 

Bingay’s deep and wide-ranging involvement with all things public radio has given him an insider’s perspective about where the network came from and where it’s going. 

“Public radio in the ‘70s was really a wild west of audio experimentation. That was awesome, but it led to a lot of misses and only a few hits. The challenge back then was to recognize why hits were hits. The ‘80s marked the start of the coalescing of good stuff— ‘Morning Edition’ found its feet; ‘All Things Considered’ was figuring things out.  It was like wait a minute, we’ve got a growing concern here.”

This certainly applied to WMRA as well. At the time Matt Bingay started working there, WSVA, Harrisonburg’s AM 550, had up to five times as many listeners as WMRA. These days WMRA has at least twice as many as WSVA. So what happened? 

Bingay says a lot of it has had to do with NPR’s steadily growing reputation. As a reason for this, he cites the acceptance back in the 90s of public broadcasting guru David Giovannoni‘s well-researched theory that programming causes audience—a radio version of if you build it they will come. Provided, of course, that you build your programming right. 

Bingay says the most successful public radio shows adhere to a trio of core values that he describes as “discovery, delight, and not seeking the spotlight. The focus of a public radio show that works remains firmly on the subject matter rather than on the personalities of reporters or hosts.”

Bingay offers explanations about the eclectic memorabilia in his office.

Lord Cavity, Muhammad Ali and “The Reagan Years”

It only makes sense that such low-egocentric radio programming appeals to Matt Bingay, who’s done most of his work in public radio away from the mic. He came to Harrisonburg at 19 to be a viola-playing, music industry major at JMU; attracted both by the JMU music school’s excellent reputation and by Harrisonburg’s rural setting. 

“I grew up as the bi-coastal child of a Navy man. We moved every couple of years—always in or near big cities—so growing up I was in a new urban environment all the time. It made it fairly easy for me to talk to people, because if you’re going to have friends you gotta make them quick, but what I sought once I went out on my own was stability. I knew what it was like to know a lot of places superficially, so I wanted to see what life was like when you got to know one place deeply.”

Bingay became involved with JMU’s student-run station, WXJM, as its technical director, working with equipment and teaching other students how to use it 

“Then I had good friend who wanted to do a retrospective of the ‘80s. I’d always wondered what it would be like to do the kind of radio I grew up listening to—full of little vignettes and skits and excerpts from pop culture. So I said, ‘You do the show and I’ll be your producer. I won’t be on the air, but I’ll set you up with interstitial, funny comments, and produce the show’s skits. My friend named the show ‘The Reagan Years,’ and I helped him do it for three years. 

Bingay keeps reminders of his colorful interests.

“Another show I did was called ‘Notes of Laughter.’ It was all funny songs. I played Weird Al and the whole catalogue, and I’d drop ‘80s stuff in between songs. One of my favorites was ‘Ali and His Gang Vs. Mr. Tooth Decay’ which was a big promotional piece for brushing your teeth. Lord Cavity wants everyone to get more cavities and Muhammad Ali knocks him out. It was a riot. I had a blast.”

Blast or not, Bingay has sought to harness constantly developing sound technology to make creative radio. And he got even better during his initial stint at WMRA. But in 1996, Bingay decamped to Concord, New Hampshire, to work as production director for New Hampshire Public Radio. 

“I liked the idea of being in a bigger system, part of a station that takes on more. It was an election year, and a lot of the presidential candidates came to the station. Malcom Forbes was running with his plaid shirt, and Bob Dole who always held a pen in his hand. I knew why he did that because I met him and realized he couldn’t open his hand totally. And so he carried a pen around with him so you wouldn’t reach out to shake it. Everyone was super nice, and I got to realize that candidates are people, too. And that was cool.”

Growing with WMRA

His upcoming marriage to Harrisonburg’s Karen Gerard, however, forced Matt Bingay to rethink his career plans. Karen—born and raised in Chesapeake, Virginia—had never had to deal with cold and snow. “After her third visit to Concord, Karen asked if it was always frozen up here. And I made the mistake of saying, ‘Oh no, it gets worse. Next is mud season.’ Not, perhaps, the wisest thing to tell your bride.”

The result was that Bingay began looking for other opportunities in public radio. 

“And it just so happened that the program director position at WMRA opened up literally two months before Karen and I were to get married. Tom Duvall was the general manager at the time. I knew him, but only slightly, as he’d only been at the station a couple of months when I left for New Hampshire. It was a risk for him to take me as program director. I had the chops because I’d done all the component pieces, but I was young –only 27—and I was untested. So I realized immediately that this wasn’t phone it in time. I felt a real mantle of responsibility for the first time because WMRA was going to succeed or not succeed based on some of the decisions I made.” 

Matt Bingay was WMRA’s program director for the next 20 years. He lists his favorite accomplishments as:

  • 2001 – helping WMRA become the first station to host the Story Corps mobile booth on the road in Charlottesville. (NOTE: Ipersonally, produced a one hour special from the stories collected.
  • 2006 – launching and managing “Virginia Insight,” a WMRA-produced talk show which ran for nine years on multiple stations. 
  • 2008 to 2010 – successfully managing the migration of WEMC to WMRA’s studios and subsequently creating two distinct public radio services with WMRA as an NPR News/Talk service and WEMC as a fully classical music service.
  • 2012 – assisting with the creation of “The Spark” 
  • 2015 – creating and refining the More News/Less Noise fundraising format
  • 2017 – expanding “Books & Brews” to Crozet and refining the event format

Still, after 20 years as Program Director, Matt Bingay felt it was time for new challenges, so when the WMRA General Manager job came open, he applied for it and was hired.  


Solutions Journalism and other future strategies

Bingay brings up the challenge of delivering meaningful local news to WMRA’s listeners. 

“We’ve had newscasts for the last two years, and that’s huge. But newscasts are also ephemeral, and that does bug me. You’re only as good as your latest newscast. You don’t go around saying, ‘You know what I heard on the newscast?’ Newscasts don’t produce what we call ‘Driveway Moments,’ — those in depth. compelling stories that force you to sit in the driveway and listen to the end. Those are the stories we refer to during on-air fundraisers to encourage people to support the station. Plus, we put a lot of resources into them—hours every day—and those are hours we’re not doing other stories that might resonate more deeply with the stations financial supporters.”

Another challenge Bingay cites is the changing expectations of NPR’s younger listeners. “Research shows that younger listeners are tired of just tuning in and hearing a detailed litany of the world’s problems. They want to know what they can do about those problems. They want to act.” 

One approach being used by other newsrooms, Bingay says, is something called Solutions Journalism.

“They’re hiring people to look at specific regional problems in collaboration with other regional stations and newspapers. And what they’re doing is finding people who are pursuing solutions to these problems and reporting on what they’re doing. One such group taking a collaborative look at the challenges of food production in the Midwest is Harvest Public Media. I think that’s how public radio stations may well meet the challenge of local journalism. Still tell the stories. Still leave people with deep engagement, but acknowledge that young people want to do something.”  

So might Virginia stations collaborate in any such projects? 

Matt Bingay smiles and says, “We’re talking. I can’t say we’ve gone very far, but we are talking in a meaningful way. I think would be great if we had a Festivus meeting where we had the airing of the grievances, as a way of building trust among ourselves. Which exists in some forms and not in others.”

“Like running a marathon”

Strategizing to meet WMRA’s challenges is, in part, drawn from what Bingay has learned during his decade as a marathon runner. 

“Running marathons taught me that small changes, consistently applied have a really big impact. It’s weird to say out loud, but I don’t think I fully learned this until my fifth marathon. Before that, I did them, but I never did them well. And on the fifth one I said, ‘look you’re gonna do the training the way it should be. And you’re gonna do the eating the way it should be. And you are going to do everything that you have skimped on or shorted yourself or did a short cut on—this time, you’re gonna do it right.’”

Bingay grins. “I loved that marathon. It was in Harrisburg, PA, November 2017. My goal was to finish in under 4 hours, and I finished in 3 hours and 47 minutes. I walked across that finish line, I still felt great, and I realized this is what it feels like when you do it right.”

As to how that applies to leading WMRA’s charge into challenging—and perplexing—future

“It’s the small things. Pay attention to the details and be consistent. But go toward goals. All of that matters. One of our big nearterm goals is to have a full-time, dedicated reporter back on staff—it’s not just the desire to have a reporter, it’s the desire to have the output of that reporter.  I know in my mind what that output is and can clearly see what work needs to be done to make it happen, but I can’t spend money I don’t have to make it happen right now. 

“Of course, I feel frustrated because I can’t do it now, but that frustration is normal. It’s really very much like running a marathon, in that I recognize that if I do the small, incremental things right, a year from now we will have the resources to hire a full-time reporter.”

Already, in his short tenure as WMRA’s collegial and cautiously-collaborative General Manager, Matt Bingay has brought a new WMRA/WEMC App online with content from news partners The Hburg Citizen and Cville Tomorrow, and collaborated with Ragged Mountain Running Shop to launch the PR for Public Radio 5K run in Charlottesville. 

“We’ve got two years under our belt. I’m not going to waste time wishing we’d had thousands and thousands of people running from the get-go. Instead, I’m going to say, hey, we had more this year than last. And we got better at what we do.”

For Matt Bingay, WMRA’s future success will be built incrementally—by doing the small things right. Just like running a successful marathon.


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