Apr 12, 2022 - Economy & Business

NPR touts diversity milestones following high-profile departures

Reproduced from NPR; Chart: Axios Visuals
Reproduced from NPR; Chart: Axios Visuals

More than half of NPR's leadership team (53%) is comprised of non-white executives, up from 9% in 2019, NPR CEO John Lansing tells Axios.

Why it matters: A slew of high-profile departures over the past year has shed light on ways talent — particularly women and people of color — are elevated and incentivized to stay with the public radio broadcaster.

Details: In an interview, Lansing and NPR's newly-appointed chief operating officer Will Lee noted that the efforts aren't just a moral imperative, but a business priority.

  • "The issue is the median age for an NPR listener is 58 -years-old and 80-plus percent white," Lansing said. "If that's the next fifty years for NPR, then we will only get smaller and smaller."
  • To become more relevant, "you sort of reverse engineer backwards," he added.
  • NPR's podcast audience, by comparison, is much younger and more diverse.

By the numbers: More than half of the company's 14 top leaders, which includes chief executives and senior vice presidents, are now people of color.

  • Its wider leadership team, which includes roughly two dozen executives at the vice president level and higher, also includes more than 50% people of color.
  • Overall, 78% of new hires for the 2021 fiscal year (ending in September) were people of color, up from 51% in 2020 and 47.6% in 2019.
  • Last year, internal data showed that people of color chose to leave NPR at a slightly lower rate (8.8%) than the overall voluntary attrition for the company (9.3%), per an NPR spokesperson.

Yes, but: Progress at the top has not flowed as quickly down to managers, NPR's union has argued.

  • A union analysis in February found that around 75% of editors identified as white as of January.
  • The union also found that 75% of employees in all roles within NPR’s three highest salary bands identified as white, while only 62% of NPR's total staff identifies as white.
  • NPR executives acknowledged the pay gap issue internally by introducing a grid system to be more transparent about money, but the system was eventually ended after hosts concluded it capped their salaries regardless from offers from competing networks, according to NPR's David Folkenflik.

Catch up quick: Lansing joined NPR as the broadcaster's 11th CEO in 2019. Improving NPR's diversity numbers was a top priority, he said.

  • In the two years since joining NPR, Lansing has established new requirements to ensure diversity is top of mind in hiring, retention and reporting.
  • NPR has created internal panels with diverse staffers to review candidates and has pushed harder to promote people of color from within the nonprofit.
  • NPR began requiring in December that all journalists use a source-tracking program called "Dex" to ensure the newsroom wasn't overly-relying on white sources.
  • Lansing named NPR's vice president of newsroom training and diversity Keith Woods as chief diversity officer in 2020 to oversee the implementation of Dex, among other efforts.

Yes, but: Sources say the real problem doesn't lie in the number of departures, but rather the forces prompting them to leave — like salary inequities.

  • It's a "red flag," tweeted former NPR host Audie Cornish, after she announced that she was leaving NPR for CNN's new streaming service in January.
  • "Look at all the incredibly talented hosts from marginalized backgrounds who've left @NPR," tweeted former NPR host Sam Sanders last year. "I believe in the mission of public radio; this trend is antithetical to that mission."

Between the lines: Cornish and Sanders were part of a slew of major hosts at the nonprofit to depart in the past year.

  • Sanders, formerly the host of NPR's “It's Been a Minute” show, left NPR in March for Vox Media, hosting a new culture podcast for Vulture.
  • Noel King, formerly the co-host of NPR's flagship show "Morning Edition," left the company in November to become editorial director and co-host of "Today Explained," the flagship podcast of Vox.
  • Lulu Garcia-Navarro, formerly the host of NPR’s "Weekend Edition" Sunday show and a former co-host of NPR's morning news podcast "Up First," said she was leaving the public broadcaster in September for The New York Times.
  • Shereen Marisol Meraji, host of NPR's "Code Switch," left the company in August to pursue a career in academia.

Flashback: NPR alums trace the trend of people of color leaving the network for better commercial opportunities back to 2019, when Joshua Johnson, formerly the host of WAMU and NPR’s national weekday show "1A," left for NBC.

  • NPR has since invested more in podcasting to stay competitive with major networks and news companies, but executives acknowledge the uphill battle in competing against private companies.
  • "We're competing in a commercial marketplace," Lee noted. "NPR was one of the originators of podcasting before it even had a name so long ago .. And that's why there is so much interest in our hosts, who have really been pioneers."

The big picture Former and current employees say that while the nonprofit has pushed to hire and elevate people of color in recent years, structural and cultural issues at NPR prevent the nonprofit from being able to hold on to top talent.

  • One frequent example cited is the lack of career development opportunities for employees within a nonprofit organization.
  • "People leave jobs for other opportunities if they are unhappy with the opportunities they have and the way they have been treated. I'm sad to see this happening but it is not unexpected," Garcia-Navarro tweeted the day Cornish announced her departure.
  • Tensions between NPR's union and management often spill over publicly on Twitter, causing distrust between some employees and management.

What to watch: Lee pointed to a slew of new voices filling top hosting and editorial roles in recent months, as evidence that the network continues to prioritize diversity amongst its ranks.

  • Ayesha Rascoe was named host of "Weekend Edition" and "Up First" last month. Leila Fadel was named host of "Morning Edition" and "Up First" in December. A Martínez was named host of "Morning Edition" and "Up First" last May.
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