LaFontaine Oliver’s life trajectory took him from a child actor to the University of Miami and a successful career in public radio. He is in his second term as Chairman of the Board of National Public Radio and works tirelessly to amplify diverse voices and elevate community storytelling.
As a child, LaFontaine Oliver wanted to be an actor. Instead, a scholarship offer from the University of Miami helped launch him into a career in radio.
Currently president and CEO of WYPR, Baltimore’s leading national public radio (NPR) station, Oliver was recently named president and CEO of New York Public Radio. He will take up his new role in January 2023 and is looking forward to getting started.
“I’ve had the privilege of working with special organizations throughout my career,” Oliver said. “Yet I can’t think of a more exciting opportunity than to join the talented team at New York Public Radio and be aligned with an organization that is not just a leader in public media, but also forging its own path in the larger media ecosystem nationwide.”
Oliver’s new role is the latest in a career that has its roots in a childhood love for the stage. His father – “a bit of a Renaissance man” – wrote and directed productions for churches around Washington, DC, where the family lived and where Oliver had his first stage experience.
“I took acting lessons and eventually started landing roles in professional productions. For much of my childhood I was a working actor,” he noted. Oliver s is produced in theaters throughout its hometown, including renowned venues such as the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and the Folger Shakespeare Theater.
The highlight of Oliver’s career as a child actor was performing with the original Broadway cast of ‘Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,’ one of August Wilson’s series of plays that chronicles the experience black in 20e-century America. “I had the opportunity when they made their first stop [after] Broadway at the Arena Stage in Washington,” he said. “So, I thought I’d go away and be an actor.”
In high school, Oliver decided that pursuing a full-time acting career was financially risky. He resolved to graduate from college, the first in his immediate family to do so. “That’s 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 my father, nor my grandparents had this opportunity.
The University of Miami was among the colleges on Oliver’s list of candidates. He was accepted but decided to go to Rutgers University in New Jersey, which he said would be his most affordable option. “I went to choose my dorm room and take my placement exams; and when I came back, there was scholarship and financial aid 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 dad was like, ‘Guess where you’re going.’ ”
One of Oliver’s first moves was to volunteer at WVUM, the University’s student radio station. “My dad worked in radio, so I got the radio bug. Maybe not as early as the performance bug, but it was there,” he said. He pursued studies in commerce in college, but he knew he wanted to work in broadcasting, and WVUM soon became his main extracurricular occupation.
He started with a standard night shift on the air. Eventually, Oliver landed a specialty show in the “Retro Lunch” series, where he showcased retro R&B, funk, and soul. He also landed the coveted job as host of “The Hip-Hop Shop,” Miami’s longest-running local hip-hop radio show.
At the end of his second year, Oliver ran for the position of general manager of the station. For the next two years, he oversaw all station operations and completed a full course load.
“I ran a radio station where we were responsible for everything any other FCC-licensed broadcaster has to worry about,” Oliver said. “We had serious compliance [requirements], we reported our music tours to the most credible publications in the music business, we did Hurricane sports, we did everything broadcasters do professionally. It was the real deal.
Life was a real balancing act for Oliver with his duties at WVUM, another part-time off-campus job, an internship his senior year at a commercial station, and his classes. The latter included core courses and electives in communication, lessons he put into practice every day at WVUM.
“I remember it was tough but just a ton of fun. I learned so much,” Oliver said. “WVUM had wonderful new offices and studios in the [Whitten University Center]. I had an office there and kept a certain number of office hours there every day. If I wasn’t in class, you’d find me in the WVUM offices.
After graduating, Oliver worked in commercial and satellite radio for several years before starting an MBA. At the same time, he made the professional transition to public radio, running a small licensed station at Morgan State University while completing his master’s program. He then took over as general manager of WMFE, NPR’s main Orlando affiliate.
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. He joined the board of NPR in 2016 and WYPR in 2019. In 2020, he began his tenure as Chairman of the Board of NPR.
Oliver is passionate about the importance of public radio in telling the stories of diverse communities in a way that, as he said, respects the intelligence of listeners. As he explained, public radio strives to “provide facts, but also provide relevant context and perspective. [that enable] our audience to understand what this means to 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 the stations are locally run and integrated into the communities they serve. “People can reach out and touch us. They can call us, they can reach us,” he said. “There is a trust that many of our organizations and stations have built in communities across the country,” he added.
“There are some 250 member organizations across the country who contribute content and [weave] together our story of a family of communities. We operate in a space where there is both news and journalism and storytelling. It’s about finding creative ways to serve local audiences,” he continued.
“I feel very lucky to wake up every day and do something that I love,” Oliver said. “It’s hard work at times, 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 love this opportunity to connect with the community in an authentic way, and it reaffirms when you hear from people from all kinds of backgrounds and perspectives that what you do is important and valuable.