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From child actor to public radio champion

By Pamela Edward

From child actor to public radio champion

By Pamela Edward
Growing up in Washington, D.C., LaFontaine Oliver’s first love was the stage. A scholarship offer from the University of Miami helped to change his career trajectory, and now he works tirelessly to amplify diverse perspectives and elevate community-based storytelling as board chair of National Public Radio.

As a kid, LaFontaine Oliver, B.B.A. ’99, thought he would grow up to be an actor. His father—"a bit of a Renaissance man,” in Oliver’s words—wrote and staged productions for churches in and around Washington, D.C., where the family lived, and where Oliver had his first taste of performing.

“I took acting lessons and eventually started landing roles in professional productions. For a good part of my childhood, I was a card-carrying SAG and AFTRA member, a working actor,” he recalled, referring to the Screen Actors Guild and American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. Oliver performed in theatres all over his home city, including such renowned venues as the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and the Folger Shakespeare Theatre.

Oliver’s career highlight as a child actor was performing with the original Broadway cast of Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, one of a series of plays by acclaimed playwright August Wilson that chronicles the Black experience in 20th-century America. “I got the opportunity when [the production] made their first stop [after] Broadway at the Arena Stage in Washington,” he said. “So, that’s what I thought I would do—I’d go off and be an actor.”

In high school, Oliver decided that pursuing a full-time acting career was financially risky, and he resolved to get a university degree, the first in his immediate family to do so. “That was one of the things that motivated me,” he said. “I really wanted to go to college and complete an undergraduate [degree]. Neither my mother nor father, nor grandparents had had that opportunity.”

The University of Miami was among the colleges on Oliver’s application list. He was accepted, but decided to go to Rutgers in New Jersey, which he thought would be his most affordable option. “I went to pick out my dorm room and take my placement exams, and when I got back from my road trip there was a scholarship and financial aid package in the mail from the University of Miami,” Oliver said. “All of a sudden, it was the most affordable school on my list, and my father said, ‘Guess where you are going.’”

One of Oliver’s first moves when he arrived was to volunteer at WVUM, the University’s acclaimed student-run radio station. “My dad worked in radio, so I kind of had the radio bug, maybe not quite as early as the performance bug, but it was there,” he recalled. He pursued a business degree at the University, but he knew he wanted to work in broadcasting, and WVUM quickly became his primary extracurricular occupation.

Oliver had a standard late-night shift on the air, but eventually landed his own specialty show in the series “Retro Lunch,” where he showcased retro funk, soul, and R&B. Oliver also gained the highly coveted job hosting “The Hip-Hop Shop,” the longest-running local hip-hop radio show in Miami.

At the end of his sophomore year, Oliver ran for general manager of the station. For the next two years, he oversaw all station operations, in addition to carrying a full course load.

“I was running a business. I was running a radio station where we were responsible for all the things that any other FCC-licensed broadcaster must worry about,” Oliver said. “There are serious compliance [requirements], we were reporting our music spins to the most credible music trade publications, we were doing Hurricane sports, we were doing everything that broadcasters do professionally. It was the real deal.”

Oliver balanced his duties at WVUM, another part-time job off-campus, an internship his senior year at a commercial station, and his coursework. The latter included core business classes as well as electives in communications, the lessons from which he put into practice every day at WVUM.

“I remember it being difficult, but I remember it being just a ton of fun, and learning so much,” he said. “[WVUM] had wonderful new offices and studios in the [Whitten University Center]. I had an office there and I kept a certain number of office hours each day. If I was not in class, you would find me in the offices of WVUM.”

After graduating, Oliver worked in commercial and satellite radio for several years before embarking on an M.B.A. At the same time, he made the professional transition to public radio, running a small station licensed to Morgan State University while he completed his master’s program. He then took over the post of general manager of the main National Public Radio affiliate in Orlando.

During what he calls “six wonderful years” in Central Florida, Oliver expanded local news coverage, worked to connect the station to underserved communities, and championed civil discourse. In 2019 he was recruited to the NPR news station in Baltimore and moved closer to home, where in addition to being station president and general manager, he serves as chairman of the board of NPR.

Oliver is passionate about the importance of public radio in telling the stories of diverse communities in ways that, as he put it, respects listeners’ intelligence. As he explained, public radio endeavors to “give facts, but also provide a context and lens of relevance [that enable] our audience to figure out what it means for them, and not add to the noise and distortion” of the contemporary media landscape. 

According to Oliver, the value of public radio lies in the fact that stations are locally governed, embedded in the communities they serve. “People can reach out and touch us. They can call us up—they can get to us,” he said. “And there’s a trust that many of our organizations and stations have built up in local communities across the country.”

“There are 250-something member organizations across the country that contribute content and [weave] together our story of a family of communities…We operate in a space where it’s part news and journalism, and part storytelling. It’s figuring out creative ways to come up with new opportunities to serve local audiences.”

“I feel very fortunate to wake up every day and do something I love,” Oliver shared. “It’s tough work sometimes, [but] I think the best part is seeing and hearing directly from the community how important our work is to them in their daily lives. I just love that opportunity to connect with the community in an authentic way, [and] it is reaffirming when you hear from people of all sorts of backgrounds and perspectives that what you do is important and valuable.”