In the late 1990s and early 2000s, I worked at National Public Radio (NPR). First as an intern and later as an assistant editor and producer. Back then, my commute was powered by a beloved, worn-out Sony Discman and my soundtrack of choice was Liz Phair’s song “Crater Lake”:
Once you’ve left a lonely rage on its own, it grows
And dynamite stuffed in a mailbox doesn’t smoke until it blows
I wasn’t thinking of a romantic relationship as I listened, but of my employer — a publicly funded nonprofit radio company founded on principles of equity and uplifting marginalized voices whose internal culture left a lot of people out.
We didn’t use the word “microaggressions” at that time, but of course they existed. And, looking back, they defined my first job. From assumptions that I might like to work only on stories with an Asian connection, to calling me an intern years past my time spent as one, to suggestions that dating a colleague 30 years older would be an appropriate boon to my career, to shaming me when I asked to work with an in-house team that offered more opportunity. All of these experiences contributed to the feeling that I wasn’t welcome in the industry.
Fast-forward 20 years and I am helming a small station in a large market — KALW in the San Francisco Bay Area — and serving on the NPR Board of Directors. My term on the board started last November, just a year after CEO John Lansing described NPR’s north star: to “diversify our audience to reflect, serve, and inspire America.”
Bringing in a more inclusive listenership and readership is a goal that BIPOC journalists in public media have long waited for NPR to embrace. It also comes at a time of newsroom reckonings on race and equity across the country following the murder of George Floyd, after decades of BIPOC journalists, like myself, having been made to feel othered and excluded. In discussions about how to both attain NPR’s north star and meaningfully address these so-called “newsroom reckonings,” the conversation about BIPOC leadership in public media hasn’t been given enough attention.
At our 253 local NPR stations, 14% of general managers, CEOs, and presidents identify as BIPOC, and just 26% are led by women. Five percent are led by our most marginalized group in public media — BIPOC women.
We need more diverse station leadership because our newsroom staff understand that the inequity in our industry threatens its viability in an America whose demographics are swiftly changing and whose younger generations expect diversity in their workplaces. And because our listeners and donors need to be challenged — and educated — on what their public media could sound and look like if it were more equitable and reflective of American society.
Since last summer, open letters published on Medium, posted on Twitter, or sometimes sent as all-staff emails have exploded like Phair’s “dynamite in a mailbox.” Except in this case there was smoke. A lot of it. And, as an industry, we failed to pay attention. Like the wider media landscape, public radio stations across the country have experienced calls for equity, from New York to St. Louis, from Minneapolis to Los Angeles. These letters, written by early- to mid-career journalists, are signed by both BIPOC and white staff.
As in our wider culture, equitable distribution of power is not something that public media, and media as a whole, has ever known. Transformation will take courage and hard work. It will take sitting with discomfort and an embrace of liminal spaces. People will feel ashamed and, at times, untethered. They will feel misunderstood and unappreciated for their successes, for the progress we have made over the years. They will be made to feel like their whiteness makes them unfit to speak or act, as so many BIPOC feel that their “otherness” disqualifies them from visibility and success within the industry.
This work begins, like so much work in racial equity, by acknowledging that everyone in our fragile public media system bears responsibility: especially our white station leaders decades into their tenures, and our mostly white listeners and donors.
In my work as the general manager at KALW, I have come to understand that in order to transform public media we must have brutally honest conversations within our leadership circles, boards, and directly with our audience and donors.
Here is my three-point prescription for leaders in our system to realize a more equitable distribution of power:
- Talk directly to your audience members and donors. Tell them the system is broken. Ask the audience to listen with open ears and hearts as we bring in new voices and uplift them. Call those in power out on their biases and microaggressions and back up our staff when they need it because they will need it. Listeners are loyal, but also easily angered when their favorite show has a new host or is replaced by new programming. Explain to them why change is necessary.
- Have the hard conversation about generational change. Our Baby Boomer CEOs, GMs, managers, donors, and listeners have long led, supported, and staffed this system. Ask them to demonstrate true leadership and graciously make room for those who are more agile with dialogues on race and inclusivity. Ask these leaders to make thoughtful succession plans and an invaluable contribution by volunteering to mentor that next generation. Ask them to “free up” space and budget in the system so that it can thrive past the time any of us are around.
- Make the leadership positions at stations and at NPR “safe” for our most marginalized and under-represented group: women of color. Understand that, because of their early and persistent experiences of discrimination, women of color are more likely to have imposter syndrome. Create well-compensated pathways for them to learn how to be executives. Prepare the board and (if applicable) the license holder for the difficult situation that leaders who are women of color inevitably step into. Understand — and fully appreciate — that ‘’the glass cliff” is real. Bring in women BIPOC leaders not just in times of crisis for scapegoating, but because we will benefit as a system when we make space for them to lead. Understand and train boards on microaggressions and the kinds of prejudices BIPOC leaders are likely to encounter from audience members and donors, and possibly from staff.
I’ve arrived at these three points after having few people to turn to who understand what can sometimes feel like the wall-to-wall microaggressions that define and differentiate BIPOC leaders’ work. I’d like to see more support for women of color who want to be, and show aptitude and ambition for, leading in this system — whether on the business or editorial side. Right now, the numbers aren’t promising, and I don’t hear robust discussion of how to change this within our leadership ranks.
As for that first job in journalism … there was a straw and, yes, a camel’s back was temporarily broken. Towards the end of my time at NPR, a producer from another team stopped by my cubicle asking after my colleagues. I told her I wasn’t sure where they were. She proceeded to congratulate me with a big smile, but my confused face told her all she needed to know. She became flustered and told me the series we’d just spent a year on, and for which I’d contributed my first scripts, had won a Dupont-Columbia award. She guessed that my colleagues were absent because they’d gone to New York to receive it. Not only had I not been told about the award, I had not been invited to celebrate with them, another example of exclusion. Not long afterward, I began applying to graduate school.
I was able to find my own “side entrance” into the industry because I connected to mentors, mostly people of color, who kept me focused, who listened and advised, who brought me along and gave me straight answers. I understand now that what they were performing at the time was the emotional labor left in the wake of public media’s pervasive culture of white privilege. I was lucky to benefit from their generosity, but this doesn’t happen for everyone.
In Carla Murphy’s survey, The ‘Leavers,’ she cautions readers not to draw “overly large conclusions,” but offers a snapshot of how her respondents — 101 journalists of color (JOCs) who left the journalism industry between 2016 and 2020 — identify themselves. Eighty-one percent were women and over half described themselves as African-American and/or Black. Murphy found dominant themes in their reasons for leaving, including “burnout and exhaustion,” “racism, misogynoir, sexism, tokenism, and white male favoritism,” and “highly exploitative and abusive work environments.”
If we speak authentically at the leadership level about what it means to create public media for everyone, including our staff, and how BIPOC managers are an essential part of that, I believe we can repair what went off-course since Bill Siemering penned NPR’s original mission statement in 1970.
If we continue course without changing, we’ll lose people of color who could be dynamic CEOs, GMs, and newsroom leaders. We will miss out on their talents, their solutions born of their rich experiences, and their critical lens on what an equitable public media looks like.
Losing this opportunity is not acceptable. Let’s agree on a more inclusive and brighter future for public media, one in which we are not just guided by NPR’s north star but have it firmly within our reach.
Tina Pamintuan, a 2014 Nieman Visiting Fellow, is the general manager of KALW in San Francisco. She founded the audio journalism program at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York.