Erin Fairbanks never expected to have a career in food, but a series of well-chosen food gigs helped her land a role at the top of the nation’s only all-food radio station.
As the executive director of the Brooklyn-based Heritage Radio Network, the 36-year-old oversees all programing and fundraising for the grassroots food media hub, which produces 32 live weekly programs on topics ranging from food policy and farm reports to gay food culture and craft cocktails.
In 2001, Fairbanks had just graduated from the University of Michigan with a plan to go to law school. But her job managing Ann Arbor-based food emporium Zingerman’s Delicatessen lured her off that sensible career path. She devised her own “self-motivated post-doc” in food systems. “I would work on a farm for a year, work in a kitchen for a year and be a chef, then do advocacy or [work for a] nonprofit for a year,” she says.
Fairbanks snagged a job working for Heritage Foods USA, a sustainable meat company founded by Patrick Martins, then president of Slow Food USA. From there she moved on to Peter Hoffman’s Savoy (now the site of his Back Forty West) in Soho, where she worked her way up from “chief Saran wrapper” to grill cook and fill-in pastry chef followed by two intense years at Gramercy Tavern and a year helping raise heritage livestock at Flying Pigs Farm. Finally, she launched a pioneering Farm Camp program that brought city chefs on a tour of sustainable farms in the area. “The idea,” Fairbanks explains, was, “how do you influence people in positions of power to make purchasing decisions?”
After Fairbanks had earned her Master’s Degree in urban policy analysis and management at the New School, Martins took her out to dinner, told her that Heritage Radio Network, the little station he’d founded and ran out of two shipping container behind Roberta’s Pizza in Bushwick, had received non-profit status and had some exciting plans on the horizon. Did she want to run it?
Now, nearly four years later, Fairbanks uses her varied experience to oversee “a collection of really passionate, thought leaders with intellectual curiosity and a real desire to share,” at Heritage Radio Network. She heads a staff of three and a rotating group of interns and she has more than doubled the number of programs the station broadcasts.
On any given day, you might find Fairbanks workshopping a new show, reviewing finances with her board, or chatting with a farmer to stay up on this year's growing season.
In an overstuffed media landscape, she says her biggest challenges are: “How do we continue to stay ahead of the conversation, and how do we bring diversity into our organization?” One program that she hopes accomplishes the latter goal is the network’s relatively new Saxelby Scholar’s Program. It trains high school students, many of them from immigrant families, to tell stories about the lack of fresh food in their neighborhoods, and other issues that affect them.
Other topics Fairbanks would like to see the network continue to cover include student loan forgiveness and land access for young farmers, salaries in the food business, economic security for farmers, food security among the working poor, farmland conservation, rural job creation, biodiversity, climate change, and regionally specific seed stock. The station also often highlights the work of projects like the Snowday food truck, which teaches formerly incarcerated youth how to run a business.
In her dream world, she adds, as many people would wear hats representing their local farm as they do Mets and Yankee’s caps. “We have to be in the business of playing the long game,” she says.
On air (Fairbanks co-hosts a “Week in Review” show with executive producer Jack Inslee) and on social media, Fairbanks isn’t afraid be show her vulnerable, curious side. She finds that the best attitude is, “I’m here to learn.”
That attitude seems to have worked as she’s built her career, brick by brick. “She’s done a lot of groundwork,” says chef Hoffman of his former Savoy protégé. “She’s not someone who just breezed in from the top, and she’s not afraid of hard work. Where she sits now comes from deep knowledge and very formidable experience. She keeps thinking, reframing, and pushing forward."
F&W is thrilled to partner on a new series about the American Food System with the award-winning CivilEats.com, run by Naomi Starkman and Twilight Greenaway. Here, the site's expert contributors will share interviews and news about the entrepreneurs and activists making a difference right now.