Grand Jury Confidential: Helen Shaw

New York Festivals Grand Jury Confidential profiles New York Festivals International Radio Program Awards award-winning Grand Jury members and offers insights into the brilliant careers of prominent radio executives from around the globe. NYF’s Grand Jury is recruited from all facets of the radio industry to select the World’s Best Radio Programs℠, their dedication and expertise provide each entry with the utmost of attention.

Helen Shaw, Founder and CEO, Athena Media Ireland

This week, NYF spends a few minutes with 2016 Grand Jury member, Helen Shaw, founder and CEO of Athena Media, an award-winning transmedia company based in Dublin and Manchester. Ms Shaw, a multi-award winning broadcaster,  earned the 2016 Grand Award in the History category for the documentary “The Kinder Letters” that captures a rare glimpse of post-war Europe through the microcosm of a children’s book. She is a former editor with the BBC and was previously MD Radio, RTÉ, Ireland’s public broadcaster.

Keep reading to learn more about  Ms. Shaw’s  insights, observations and advice on all things radio.

NYF: Who or what were your early influences in your career?

Helen Shaw: I was influenced by journalists like Martha Gellhorn or in Ireland Olivia O’Leary who seems both courageous and strong as well as being determined to follow a

Martha Gellhorn

story and use their voice.

NYF: What’s the most important thing you learned from your first job?

Helen Shaw: The first thing I learnt was never to abuse an interviewee’s trust. I started in print journalism and was working in Northern Ireland during the civil troubles and realised early on that you needed to be able to face interviewees after your report so you needed to reflect them accurately, honestly and with balance.

NYF: What were some early leadership lessons for you?

Helen Shaw: In our business leadership is about seeing talent and developing it and about having the courage to take difficult decisions. Leadership is not about being popular or always being liked but its about seeing a vision and being prepared to take the steps to realise it. The best leaders I’ve worked with have inspired me by believing in me and I hope that I have done that as a leader – inspired people to be as good as they can be.

NYF: What qualities are the most important to have?

Helen Shaw: Honesty, courage, kindness and decisiveness.

NYF: Tell us a bit about your evolution in the radio industry?

Helen Shaw: I started in print journalism and moved into radio as a radio producer with RTE – Irish national broadcasting and later shifted to the BBC as a news editor in radio. I later returned to RTE as the Managing Director of RTE radio services and in that role managed a portfolio of  radio stations and launched Ireland’s national music and arts channel RTE lyric fm. I was head of RTE Radio for five years before taking up a fellowship at Harvard and when I came back, I set up my own media content company Athena Media. We make radio, television and digital content and we’ve been fortunate enough to win many radio awards including the 2016 NYF Radio Awards Grand Trophy, 4 New York radio golds and 2 silvers. We also won a Gold in the Celtic Media Awards for radio and the national radio awards in Ireland.

Ms. Shaw with Ton O'Herlihy, presenter and source of the "The Kinder Letters"

NYF: What was a defining moment in your career?

Helen Shaw: The BBC gave me what I would say was my biggest break when they appointed me as the editor  of radio news programmes in BBC Northern Ireland when I was in my early 30s. They trusted me with a major role – a big responsibility – at a time of major transition not just in politics but in digital within the BBC and they allowed me to become a manager. They also invested in me in training and gave me the confidence to go to the next job and become by 35 the first woman to head RTE Radio and sit on the executive board of national broadcasting in Ireland.

NYF: Will you share how the culture of your company encourages creativity?

Helen Shaw: I try to recruit people who are willing to take risks, who embrace learning and who complement my skills and background by  being able to do things I cant do well !  I try to encourage people to see opportunities in challenges and positives in negatives.  I also try to let them lead and once they are running a production to give them authority and credit for it.

NYF: What’s your favorite radio programme that you created?

Iarla Ó Lionáird

In 2015 we made a series called Vocal Chords – a five part series around the global experience of the human voice and singing with a well know traditional Irish singer Iarla Ó Lionáird (he is the singer in the movie Brooklyn!) and it has been one of the most engaging and inspiring programmes recently. We’ve worked with singers like Peter Gabriel and Sinead O Connor and the episode with Gabriel won Silver in New York Radio Festival last year.

NYF: What are the hallmarks of award-winning radio programs?

Helen Shaw: For me the key hallmarks is attention to narrative – to storytelling and then to imaginative sound production and editing. I want to be immersed in a story. I want a rich sound experience. I only want voice over if it adds quality and I want a production which allows me as a listener to enter into a world and become lost in it. I think there is a real art about the use of the human voice as presenter/narrator and too often it’s just added it without a sense of production or voice development. I think you really need to work on it whether its news, entertainment or education. The voice carries us and I want a voice I can be transported by into the story world of the production.

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