Cirivello Uses Many Tools

June 26, 2006
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GRAND RAPIDS — Laurie Cirivello isn't one to shy away from a challenge, especially when it comes to making media resources available to the public.

As the new executive director of the Grand Rapids Community Media Center, Cirivello has plenty of challenges ahead with the 25-year-old organization that includes television station GRTV, radio station WYCE, nonprofit IT provider GrandNet, the Grand Rapids Institute for Information Democracy and the newest acquisition, Wealthy Theatre.

"My career has been a series of adding tools to the toolbox," Cirivello said. "(Being executive director) is going to require all the tools I've collected."

While Cirivello has had previous experience as the executive director of a community media center, she is used to being in the role of the founder, not the successor. Before coming to Grand Rapids, Cirivello served as the founding executive director of the Community Media Center of Santa Rosa in California.

"It's a huge challenge, but it's also a very freeing challenge," Cirivello said of starting a media center. "You're not encumbered with everything that was."

The Grand Rapids Community Media Center has a different challenge with a unique organic growth that no one else has been able to achieve, Cirivello said.

"The challenge of organic growth is very different than a startup," she said.

Cirivello is no stranger to the Grand Rapids Community Media Center, its history and its mission, including the legacy of founding executive director Dirk Koning.

"One of the people that I learned from was Dirk Koning, and one of the models I learned from was the Grand Rapids Community Media Center," she said.

While Cirivello said she has respect for the past and the history of the media center, her future with the organization will continue in a different way.

"Dirk was an amazing visionary, there's no question about that," she said. "My task is clearly different than Dirk's was."

Tim Goodwin, interim WYCE director and community media center board member, said that Cirivello has confirmed his hopes and expectations of her.

"Laurie brings a lot of fresh ideas to the table," he said. "We are going to be going through a reorganization; this is something that was on the table while Dirk was still alive, and Laurie is carrying that forward. I think we're pretty excited to have someone of her caliber in here to do that."

Goodwin said Cirivello is well-respected nationally by the community media world.

"I feel very fortunate as a board member and as founding president of the organization to have someone of her distinction and abilities to guide the organization as we start the next quarter century," he said.

As for that next quarter century, Cirivello said she is going to take a look at the resources and services the center provides and see if they are being used to the best advantage. At this point, Cirivello said, nothing is out of the question and everything is on the table.

"You have to prune if you're going to continue to have blooms," she said.

There may be a realignment of people and services.

"I think the challenge is to bring it all together in a way that will provide more options," she said.

With the many changes that are taking place at the media center, Cirivello said people at the media center have been very open.

Cirivello said she is excited about the potential of the center's newest acquisition, Wealthy Theatre, which can take the communication media to a more physical level by serving as a gathering place for the community.

"The Wealthy Theatre is just a really exciting challenge," she said.

"There is a spirit of wanting to move forward into the next version of this place," she said.

With a $2.5 million capital campaign under way and many changes on the horizon, Cirivello said she is taking the time to learn about the community and the media center itself.

"My biggest job right off the bat is to understand what we have here," Cirivello said.

Cirivello did not intend to have a career in community media. After spending her childhood in Traverse City, she moved to Ohio with her family when she was 16 years old. She attended Ohio University in Athens on an acting scholarship until she changed her major to social work.

"My intent was to be working in a social service field," she said.

After working briefly in social work, she decided it was not where she wanted to be.

"Social work was not the field for me," she said. "The pace of change was too slow, and I made a move into public broadcasting."

Cirivello worked as the membership development manager for a public broadcasting station that won a Public Broadcasting System development award for membership under her leadership. Following that, Cirivello became the executive director for the public access station in Colombus, Ohio.

"I got the job — and then the education began," she said.

The importance of having access to media and knowing how to use it struck her while in that position, Cirivello said.

"What I also saw was what can happen when individual people are given the tools that are usually reserved for the rich and powerful commercial media," she said.

Cirivello is a strong advocate of media literacy to help people become more savvy media consumers.

"So much information is consumed through electronic media," she said. "The vast majority of information that people — especially youth — see is electronic in format."

Cirivello said she sees the media center as a partner in the work of the community and individuals in the community rather than a vehicle for its own expression. She said it is important for communities to get their stories out in public and preserve them for the future.

"They will have a greater understanding of who we are," she said of those who will view the stories in years to come.

If the individual stories are lost, Cirivello said, cities and towns may only be remembered for their franchises and other mass-cultural entities.

"That's not what real people are," she said. "Real people live in definable communities."

To help ensure that the past and present are preserved for the future, the Community Media Center of Santa Rosa, under Cirivello's leadership, implemented a program called Snapshots.

The three- to five-minute video clips told a short story about a person or organization and were given to the organizations free of charge to help with their preservation and marketing.

"They're not news pieces," she said. "It's an opportunity for people in that community to speak for themselves, to have their stories preserved."

The pieces helped local organizations get the word out, as well as helping them to understand how they could utilize the media center in the future.

"They started to understand firsthand the power of this media," she said. "The individual voice has incredible value. We're made up of individuals in the United States. If we allow ourselves to be distilled into a common mass, we lose what makes us individuals."

Cirivello and her husband, Michael, have two grown children who still live in California. She has two cats at home, Checkers and Pip. In her free time, she and her husband enjoy going to flea markets, and she is also a pianist, painter and mosaic artist.

"My work is very public and social; my hobbies tend to be more solo and artistic," she said.

They also enjoy local sports and have already been to Griffins and Whitecaps games.

"We love small-town baseball," she said. "There's something just so down-home charming about the Whitecaps."

While she is adjusting to life in Grand Rapids, Cirivello said the Community Media Center of Santa Rosa has continued to do well following her resignation, with the assistant director filling in as interim until a director is chosen.

"I always feel it's important to groom leadership," she said.

Dan Villalva, interim executive director of the Community Media Center of Santa Rosa, said Cirivello had clear vision as a leader, challenging those around her as she built the media center from the ground up — literally — hiring the contractor and choosing the colors of the paint on the walls and the carpet on the floor.

"I think that every single person on our staff here all has a tremendous amount of respect and love for her," Villalva said. "It was hard for us to watch her go; it was very hard for all of us. We miss her."

Despite missing Cirivello, Villalva said he believes the move to Grand Rapids was good for her and one that will continue to challenge her.

"I think the town can certainly benefit from all the things she can bring to the city in terms of her leadership and vision." 

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