by Elyse Wild • Photography by Two Eagles Marcus
Linda Gellasch recalls the moment she felt inclined to get involved with the Grand Rapids Community Media Center (GRCMC) 17 years ago.
“I was driving to work listening to WYCE, and I heard them say, “If you want to become a programmer, take our classes,” Gellasch divulged. “I said, ‘Aboslutely.’”
She made the move to Grand Rapids from Austin, Texas in 1997 after feeling stalled in her career as a newspaper reporter.
“I felt I had gone as far as I could go,” she expressed. “I knew people in Grand Rapids, and I just had a burst of boldness and decided to try something new.”
Until discovering the dynamic programming of WYCE (on-air programmers must fit rock, folk and world music into each hour), Gellasch felt at a loss for a rich music culture similar to what she grew up with in her native city. She leaped at the opportunity to volunteer as an on-air DJ and quickly became a fixture at the burgeoning media center.
“WYCE became my new community— my new family,” she expressed. “I became much more connected to Grand Rapids from there. This (GRCMC) was such an exciting place to be.”
Gellasch goes on to describe the empowering, creative pulse created by media center Founding Director Dirk Koning, driven by an unwavering belief in ideas, experimentation and trial and error.
“You had an idea, and you could make it happen,”she said.
Gellasch grew to love her weekly on-air shift. Through the media center’s ever-churning flow of music that arrives each week for programmers to sift through in search of gems to play on-air, she found the perfect vehicle to explore music she adored while unearthing new bands.
It wasn’t long before her dedication and enthusiasm caught the attention of GRCMC’s administration, and Koning asked her if she would be interested in joining the staff. She worked as the finance coordinator, then the director of finance and operations before stepping into her current role of executive director.
In 2005, founding director and global community media center pioneer Dirk Koning passed away suddenly, rendering the organization dismayed and at a loss for the charismatic leadership that drove it. Gellasch describes scrambling to find an executive director who could lead the organization. Chuck Peterson, who had been with GRCMC since 1987, stepped into the role of interim executive director until Lori Cirivello was hired in 2006, followed by Tom Clinton in 2014.
“GRCMC itself is an amazing organization. It’s roots are based in free speech and giving everyone an opportunity to express their voice.”
During transitions between leadership, Gellasch assisted in keeping the media center running as smoothly as possible.
She never considered throwing her hat in the ring for the executive director position until her fellow staff members encouraged her to apply. She did, and in 2015 was hired. For her and the rest of the staff, it was a natural transition.
“I thought, ‘I don’t know what another executive director change will do to the organization.’,” she said. “I wanted stability for the organization, and I thought I could offer that.”
A journalist by trade, Gellasch witnessed first-hand the decimation of traditional media outlets as hard news fell out of public favor in exchange for blog-style reporting and journalists quickly lost their jobs as the industry tried to anticipate what the growing popularity of the Internet would bring. What was left was a chasm waiting to be filled by those willing and able — and on the ground in their communities. This, she says, is the power of community media.
“There was a gap in real news coverage,” Gellasch explained. “Each citizen has the same right as a journalist to go to a meeting and cover it. And, each citizen knows that is going on in their neighborhood.”
And that is the gospel of the media center, one that Gellasch is happy to spread: Everyone has a voice.
At GRCMC, community members have the ability to express themselves through platforms that include television (GRTV), radio (WYCE), performance (Wealthy Theatre) and online newspaper (The Rapidian).
“GRCMC itself is an amazing organization,” she expressed. “It’s roots are based in free speech and giving everyone an opportunity to express their voice. Even though media looks much different now, that mission has been a constant.”
Of course, media is ever-evolving, and Gellasch and her staff have the task of staying abreast of those evolutions to continue to give the community access to all the avenues through which they can project their message. She also emphasizes GRCMC’s focus on educating people on how to be responsible media consumers.
“We have always had the goal of helping people be fully aware participants in media,” she said. “Whether you are taking in what is in the pipeline or putting something into that pipeline.”
Gellasch’s day-to-day includes overseeing 30 staff members, managing administrative paperwork, countless meetings and, most importantly, attending events in the community.
“Taking part in essential dialogue in the community is so important for me to do,” she said. “It’s gathering, learning, sharing and engaging.”
Even with a jam-packed schedule steering the organization ahead in ever-changing waters, Gellasch still makes room for her first love at the media center: Every Tuesday from 6 — 9 p.m., she returns to the controls at WYCE 88.1 to broadcast her favorite music from the week.
“I love making the segways between songs and weaving it all together,” she smiled. “And discovering new music—I just love it.”