Charese Fruge Talks To Thea Mitchem

This article was originally posted to AllAccess’ “Women To Watch” series, written by Charese Fruge on September 22, 2020

Regarded as one of the “most influential women in the radio industry,” Thea Mitchem has broken the glass ceiling on so many levels in the business. An inspiration to many women and men in radio, she has over 20 plus years of experience as an award-winning programmer, talent coach, and manager, and is currently iHeartMedia’s EVP of Programming, overseeing over 35 stations in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, Washington D.C. and Baltimore. She is also the Program Director of WWPR, Power 105, New York’s Hip Hop and R&B, home of the nationally syndicated morning show “The Breakfast Club,” with DJ Envy, Angela Yee and Charlamagne Tha God.

That’s an enormous amount of responsibility that continues to be driven by Thea’s passion, and the reason she decided to get into the radio business. “Radio was always my connection to music and information,” she says. “I woke up listening to Donnie Simpson in the Morning in Washington D.C. and went to sleep listening to the Quiet Storm at night on WHUR. I grew up in a very musical household. Music was everything. I would make Mixtapes on my double tape deck boom box for my friends and that continued into college when I started working at the campus radio station, WHOV-FM at Hampton University. Imagine my surprise when I discovered you could have a career curating ‘Playlists’ and ‘Programming’ news, information and entertaining and inspiring audiences. Radio was the right match for me.”

To Thea, her career highlights are personal, “Over 20+ years, I’ve worked with some of the best talent in the business and have had the honor to build and grow some of the biggest brands within multiple formats,” she says. Power 105.1 continues to be the dominate #1 Hip Hop & R&B station in country and The Breakfast Club under Mitchem’s leadership has become the #1 most listened to Syndicated Hip Hop Morning show on over 80+ radio stations and is the #1 destination for Artists, Celebrities and Politicians in Hip Hop culture. Mitchem is also a programming professional who has had #1 ratings success in New York, Washington D.C. and Philadelphia over the course of her career. She has risen to the highest ranks in programming and operations as the first, Black Woman Executive Vice President of Programming for iHeartMedia and has broken down numerous barriers in a male dominated industry.

It’s easy to understand why Thea has been recognized on a national level as being an extraordinary mentor. She has the best approach to the task and understands the need for it in the radio business. “Having a mentor is important, and there will be different mentors and sponsors who will present themselves throughout your career. Be open to that. It’s hard to expect one person to have all the knowledge you will need,” she says. “As you move in your career there will be different people willing to open the door for you, willing to take the time to help direct you, even make moves on your behalf, for no other reason than they believe in your potential. Respect that.” she added. “Sometimes it comes as a story, a reflection of an experience they had, other times it comes as a directive ‘you should do this.’ My advice to all is to be open, the mentor/sponsor can come in a package you didn’t expect, but that person is giving you what you need in that moment and that is as valuable as your first mentor you had when you started in this business.”

Thea has paid her dues over the last 20+ years in radio, climbing and winning in the ranks and facing her share of challenges. “I’ve faced them all, from competitive challenges, internal business challenges, gender and racial bias challenges, the challenges that come from the changing landscape of our business and market dynamic evolutions,” she says. “The lens you choose to look at those challenges through is crucial. I look at challenges as opportunities and focus on what I can control and influence. By nature, I’m a self-assured problem solver. Therefore, before I act, I always self-reflect and make sure I’m leading with purpose and resolve for the right reasons and not ego. I believe it’s important to not just assess the challenge but educate and strategize before you act. Sometimes you can do that in an instant and other times you need to give yourself a moment to put together a plan of action to get you and your team to the desired result,” says Mitchem. “Most importantly you can’t stop when it gets challenging, that is when you double down. We all have moments of self-doubt but if your reason for action is intact then you see it through to the finish line.”

The landscape of the business changed drastically in March when COVID-19 hit. Thea’s first concern was keeping her family and staff safe. “In New York we quickly moved to have most of our staff work remotely including all our on-air personalities. Our Engineering staff were phenomenal in getting our teams up and running and troubleshooting any technical challenges along the way,” she says. “What we all thought would be weeks has turned into months, so transitioning to working from home and video calls all day has definitely been different, but more collaboration across departments and divisions is happening as a result of it,” added Mitchem. “I believe that COVID-19 and the industry’s quick response to it will shape how we do business moving forward. The real estate footprint will most likely change. There will be some job categories that have proven working from home is just as effective.”

“I also learned in the pandemic that I’m still a music person, not a television person. I’m not really interested in binging Netflix, I’m more interested in listening to new music and going back and listening to albums that meant something to me,” says Mitchem. “Rediscovering my passions has been a byproduct of Covid. Music brings me joy. Specifically, when I’m alone and have it turned up really loud and I’m singing at the top of my lungs, what’s better than that?“ she asks. “I occasionally like mindless reality shows for an escape, but when I’m more deliberate I choose documentaries. The irony is I have hundreds of ideas for scripts for Movies, Television and Books in my head. I write killer dialogue!”

As Podcasting becomes a priority for the industry, especially with the onset of the pandemic, I asked Thea about traditional radio and how they co-exist without either suffering? “Podcasting is exciting, and radio is in a perfect position to expand its reach in that space. Podcasting is driven by personality and storytelling, it is the best of radio,” she says. “Not only can Podcasting and Radio co-exist but they can thrive together and complement each other’s offerings in the audio space. For talent who are true content creators in radio it is a natural extension to amplify and expand brand,” says Mitchem. “iHeartRadio will be launching ‘The Black Effect Podcast Network’ a joint venture with Charlamagne Tha God. Charlamagne is the perfect example of someone who is uniquely qualified at doing both Radio and Podcasting. He creates and drives content for his co-hosted radio show, ‘The Breakfast Club,’ every morning and develops and produces shows for the new network, ‘The Black Effect Podcast Network.’”

Obviously, a woman of many talents and interests, Thea is extremely excited about the future of the business. “I believe audio is more important than ever and is having a renaissance. The connection that radio has to its listeners via on air, on demand and Podcasting will continue to expand,” she says. “I’m encouraged by the conversations on the importance of more diversity in leadership in the audio, music and entertainment businesses. I want to contribute to moving diversity past the conversation phase and to meaningful action. It’s important to me to continue to be a resource and provide mentorship for the younger generation, women and people of color as so many did for me along the way.”