Alumna of the Year: Lasting connection with Uppsala student days
4 February 2019
Sofia Wadensjö Karén, Alumna of the Year in 2018, is managing director of the Swedish Educational Broadcasting Company (Utbildningsradion, UR) and former editor-in-chief of the magazine Vi. She is passionate about the mission of spreading knowledge through good journalism. Her journey began with humanities studies and student life in Uppsala.
Sofia Wadensjö Karén is happy and proud to have been named Alumna of the Year, and surprised that “of all the people who pass through Uppsala”, she was the one.
“I think it’s lovely to still be linked to Uppsala and the Värmland nation student organisation, and now I’m getting another connection with my student years.”
On 19 March, she will receive the Alumnus of the Year Award 2018 and will give a lecture in the Humanities Theatre.
We meet at the Swedish Educational Broadcasting Company (UR), in a newish building between Swedish Radio (SR) and Swedish Television (SVT). Here, around 230 people work on producing radio and television programmes. They sit in groups in an open-plan office, surrounded by large whiteboards, which are used for planning the work.
This creative workplace underwent a major reorganisation when Wadensjö Karén took up her position in May 2018. Previously, she had spent seven years as editor-in-chief of the magazine Vi and managing director of Vi Media AB.
What drives you in your work?
“UR’s actual mission is to make a difference to people’s learning by marrying journalism and teaching. It’s a unique mission these days, when it’s increasingly important, for example, to be able to distinguish between facts and propaganda,” Wadensjö Karén says.
“Being in a place that can contribute knowledge and learning to all our society’s various target groups is wonderful. And since many teachers show our programmes in their classrooms, we also break through the filter bubbles in a way that other journalism can’t. It’s a unique opportunity.”
When we meet, she has just completed a major project: developing a strategy for UR from 2020. Overall, it defines UR’s tasks as helping to solve social challenges, basing its work on digital media consumption and reinforcing its distinctive character. This makes identifying social challenges the first priority, followed by decisions on which target groups need to be reached and what impact is desired.
“Actually, we’ve worked that way before too, but never formalised it. For instance, one social challenge may be that boys read less. Another may be that many older people are poor at source criticism. But UR’s mission is to reach the whole of Sweden – not just schoolchildren.
“Everyone should be able to find programmes to their taste in our offering. This is a big task, but an extremely important one at a time when polarisation is increasing.”
Reaching out to the public is a challenge, since UR has no channel of its own and, instead, broadcasts through SVT and SR.
“In a world where everything is digitised and people make their own programme selections, we need to work to be perceived as a digital channel, so that they go to UR Play when they want to learn something just as they’ve started going in and searching on Kunskapskanalen, the knowledge channel. We’re not there yet.”
Was it a big change coming here from the magazine Vi?
“Yes, in some ways. This is a larger workplace and also a public service company, which makes a big difference. At the same time, popular adult education is central in both places, and journalism too. In those ways, the two workplaces remind me a lot of each other.”
Wadensjö Karén has made a brilliant career in journalism, but this was not what she planned when she arrived in Uppsala from Karlstad as a student in 1988.
“I’ve always wanted to write, and decided at a very young age not to become a journalist, because I thought it would kill the urge to write,” she says with a laugh.
“I wanted to be a writer, and studied Swedish, literature, rhetoric and Italian. I just read for pleasure.”
Only later did she ponder how to use her education. After adding a one-year journalist course, Wadensjö Karén became a journalist after all.
Her student years in Uppsala have given her joyful memories of all the friends she made and the parties at the Värmland student nation.
“My time at Uppsala was really great and I’ve had a hard time letting go of Uppsala and the Värmland nation. I´m still on the editorial board of nation’s monograph series, as I’ve been since 1992, although it’s difficult to find the time to attend meetings.”
Among all the good memories, she also recalls some difficult moments as a young student.
“I remember talking to my brother about how tough it felt sometimes, but that everyone else seemed so happy. Then he said it’s like that for everyone. It’s a time in life when it’s important to belong, be involved and achieve things, and that means some pressure. But Uppsala student life in the nations and everything associated with it make your time as a student something unique.”
To this day, she is in close touch with friends from her Uppsala days. In fact, Uppsala – in the Värmland nation – was where she got to know most of her close friends. In this way, the years in Uppsala can affect you forever, Wadensjö Karén thinks.
“The academic approach also moulds you; even if you depart from it in professional life, it remains your foundation. Absorbing lots of information and structuring one’s work are habitual, but so too is a sense of security and belonging.”
Now that her daughter is choosing a university, Uppsala has come up as an obvious choice, although she herself has not spent much time in the city.
“Without me having to say so, she’s probably noticed it was an important time in my life.”
Facts—Sofia Wadensjö Karén
Career in brief: Bachelor of Arts in literature and Swedish in 1994, degree in journalism at Stockholm University. Has worked at two local newspapers (Laholms Tidning and Tidningen Södermalm) and a national evening paper (Aftonbladet); was editor-in-chief of the magazine Vi and managing director of Vi Media AB from 2011 to 2018; has been managing director of UR since 2018; and chairs the publishers’ interest organisation Utgivarna.
In my spare time: I ride, sing and spend time with my family and friends. And I work in the garden.
Hidden talent: I’m skilful at getting amaryllis to bloom – over and over again.
Latest book read: De dubbelt så bra (‘The Twice as Good’) by Bengt Ohlsson.
Favourite student nation: the Värmland nation.
Makes me angry: People who lie and lack moral standards.
Makes me happy: In private life it’s genuine concern, and in working life results.