Radio producer provides venue for community issues

Melanie Zermer at KMUZ studios last Friday morning. Zermer, 61, is one of the station’s founding board members and is working to make the station a hub for local news and music. (Troy Brynelson/Salem Reporter)

Melanie Zermer’s peers call her “tireless.”

“Oh I’m feeling kind of tired this morning,” she said while fighting through a migraine last week outside one of the station’s studios. “It may look that way on the outside.”

Zermer, 61, is one of KMUZ’s hosts and a founding member of its board. Lately she is executive producer of Willamette Wakeup, a daily public affairs show that she believes can become a venue for local issues.

“I think it’s important that the community is able to report on itself, talk about itself,” she said. “I think it’s more genuine and gets more people engaged.”

She’s familiar with taking action, her friends and colleagues say.

A massage therapist by trade, Zermer cut her hours back to part-time so she can spend the rest working unpaid at the station. Colleagues say she spends much of her time doing community outreach to stay plugged into the community.

Ask Zermer what organizations she either volunteers with or donates money to and she rattles off names like the liner notes on the back of a record: Marion-Polk Food Share, Salem-Keizer Coalition for Equality, Mano a Mano, the Latino workers union Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste, Salem City Club — to name a few.

Fellow board members Bill Smaldone and Ken Adams say her involvement helps cast a net for volunteers to come and help and generates much of the news content they broadcast.

“She makes people quite often available for me to interview,” said Adams, who also hosts the daily public affairs segment Willamette Wakeup. “She just knows all of these people who come up and talk to her about things people need to be aware of so we can cover that (on the show).”

Zermer first found a passion for community activism when she arrived in Oregon in the 1980s. Three months after visiting her sister in Portland, she moved her work from the Illinois Legislature to a similar job in Salem. Then, a few years later, she found herself in a group mobilized to open the first Planned Parenthood in Marion County.

“I played a pretty minor role, I can hardly even remember it now,” she said. “I just remember it was my role to find people who would give $500 to the effort.”

She stayed active, finding roles within her neighborhood association. But eventually she discovered KBOO, the volunteer-run radio station in Portland.

“I thought it was so cool that they had a community radio station — and we didn’t here,” she said.

Fast-forward to 2008 when Zermer first heard rumblings of a station springing up in Salem. She joined the effort soon after, helping organize the station as a nonprofit and joining its board of directors. KMUZ hit the airwaves in 2011.

Although the station plays a lot of music, Zermer said she envisioned it mainly to broadcast public affairs. She helmed a talk show called “Melanie in the Morning” where she interviewed community members, but she dialed that back to focus on administrative duties. Today she remains involved in Willamette Wakeup, which airs Monday through Friday to talk about the latest goings-on.

“I was much more interested in public affairs for the purpose of informing people so they would take action,” Zermer said.

Seven years after launch, Zermer and other directors aren’t done working. The station is vying for grants to help boost its signal in the valley and then launch a marketing campaign to boost its audience.

Zermer said she does hope to hand off some of the responsibility eventually.

“In my mind I envision more people coming on board to take leadership roles and that my leadership role diminishes, but my heart will always be at KMUZ,” she said.

Have a tip? Contact reporter Troy Brynelson at 503-575-9930, [email protected] or @TroyWB.