Lauren Onkey Named Senior Director of NPR Music: Exclusive

Hugo Rojo/NPR
Lauren Onkey

NPR Music announced today that it has hired Lauren Onkey as its new senior director, ahead of its 10th anniversary this December.

As senior director, Onkey will be working with NPR Music’s team of journalists, critics, videographers and podcasters, as well as collaborating with sponsorship and events teams and with local Member Stations. Current key music projects at NPR Music including the Tiny Desk video concert series, the emerging artist project Slingshot, and the Turning the Tables editorial series highlighting essential albums created by women.

Onkey currently serves as chair and dean of the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Humanities Center at Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland, Ohio, which she joined upon the Center’s dedication in September 2015. Her prolific background in academia spans over two decades: she previously served as Associate Professor of English at Ball State University from 1994 to 2008, specializing in popular music studies and postcolonial literature, and later taught courses at Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland State University and Marshall University.

Beyond academia, Onkey also served as vp of education and public programs at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum from 2008 to 2015, during which she executive-produced the museum’s Annual Music Masters series and oversaw the Rock Hall’s Library and Archives.

In her new role at NPR, Onkey will succeed Anya Grundmann, who currently serves as NPR’s vp of programming and audience development. During her eight-year tenure as senior director, Grundmann spearheaded new programming such as Jazz Night in America and the hip-hop interview show Microphone Check, and was featured on Billboard’s Women in Music list for three consecutive years.

Onkey will begin working remotely for NPR Music on Nov. 8, before relocating to the broadcaster’s Washington, D.C. headquarters in January 2018. In an exclusive interview, Onkey chatted with Billboard about NPR’s role in the music industry, her plans as senior director and the relevance of radio in today’s media landscape. An edited version of the conversation follows.

Billboard: You have an extensive background in education and academia. How did you decide to transition to public broadcasting with NPR? How do you think the two fields are related?

Lauren Onkey: My whole career has really been about trying to create public spaces for learning and sharing the importance of the arts, especially in music. I’ve done that in a lot of settings: in the classroom, with community organizations, in museums and on paper. So to me, there’s a really clear through line from that experience to NPR Music, in that there’s still a lot of really important work to be done, and NPR has an incredible platform for leading the national conversation around music and culture.

What role do you think NPR plays in the music business? Why has it become such a powerful sales driver?

One of the most impressive parts of NPR Music in particular is how it’s become a vehicle for music discovery and for artists to open up to an entirely new audience. As a music listener myself, I’ve come to rely on NPR Music’s platform to keep me informed across all genres. Millions of other people are going to NPR Music every week to get up-to-date news, watch live performances and hear great stories. It’s also been a great innovation hub, especially around the possibilities with video -- Tiny Desk is a prime example.

Do you have an overarching plan laid out for your first few months as senior director?

Right now, my focus is really on understanding what the possibilities are in this tremendous period of success and growth for NPR Music, and in turn how we can continue to expand our audience even further amidst this success. A lot of that will involve working across new platforms. It’s more about how to take the great work that’s already happening into the future, rather than bringing in my individual agenda at this particular time.

Part of your work as the new senior director involves collaborating with Member Stations. How do you understand the connections between local and national music culture today, and how might that relationship evolve with your new role?

The local level is really where it all starts, and people still feel really attached to local scenes. I think Tiny Desk is a perfect example of how we’re now giving local scenes a national platform. The Tiny Desk Contest alone has brought in more than 18,000 submissions from all 50 U.S. states over the last three years.

I’m also looking at projects like Turning the Tables, and thinking about how that could inspire more conversation locally around important female performers who perhaps have only regional audiences. We need to keep providing ways for those scenes to be heard, and that’s what the member stations are doing so successfully. I look forward to supporting those stations even more, and amplifying the work that they do.

What music are you listening to right now? Anything that you discovered through NPR?

One record I’m obsessed with is Lizz Wright’s album Grace, which I discovered on NPR Music around a month ago. Joe Henry produced the record, and Lizz has a spectacular voice. The way she moves among jazz, gospel and soul is so captivating. Several months back, I discovered The Como Mamas -- they’re a gospel group that has been around for a while, but they recently released an album with Daptone Records that got a lot of attention from NPR. Another song in heavy rotation is Jamila Woods’ “Holy,” which I discovered through NPR’s Slingshot. I don’t think I would have come across any of these records if I hadn’t been an NPR Music reader.

There are a lot of conflicting reports circulating around the future of radio. Some say its future is bleak; others say the format is more popular than ever before. What is your take on radio’s relevance today?

People still respond really powerfully to an authentic story and voice. Sure, those types of stories will come to us on different platforms than they did in the past -- some that we already know, others that we can’t even quite imagine yet. But whether it’s a DJ over the airwaves or a podcast, people still crave the potency of high-quality curation and intimate storytelling. If we keep chasing that potency and core belief in stories, I think we’ll be more than OK.