Stephanie Foo’s recipe for a more diverse workplace

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This commentary first appeared on Transom and has been republished here with permission. Hear more from Stephanie Foo on our podcast and read responses to her commentary shared with Current by executives at the major public radio networks. 

Intro from Jay Allison: The Lead: Stephanie Foo of This American Life has written an important manifesto on diversity in public media. In this system, we think of ourselves as open-minded and progressive. We exist to serve the public, after all. Yet, in a country comprised of so much human variety, our sound can be homogenous. Let’s face it: We may WANT to do better, but we’re just not fully representing the amazing country we serve. We have good intentions, but when we don’t deliver, excuses abound. And, often, we leave it at that.

Stephanie’s manifesto addresses all the excuses and offers simple ways to override them. It should be required reading for everyone involved in building our workforce or programming. It’s a roadmap, it’s an action plan, it’s a manifesto.

What To Do If Your Workplace Is Too White

There’s a question I’ve heard a lot lately. Program directors and hosts approach me at radio events more and more often (it’s not hard to spot me — I’m often one of the only People of Color [POC] in the room) and ask, “How do I reach a more diverse audience? And how do I hire more people of color?”

I’m glad they’re asking the question. It’s about time that public media came to terms with the fact that it does not serve the public as a whole. More hosts and program directors realize that a market of POC exists — and if they don’t cater to it, they’ll fail to grow their audience. And I’m glad the people in charge are realizing that when it comes to attracting minorities, throwing some hip-hop beatz as a transition between stories is about as effective and transparent as Mitt Romney’s spray tan. Finally, finally, it’s becoming abundantly clear that the solution to our diversity problem is hiring producers of color, and that diversifying your business is smart from a content perspective.

Fans of my work have always skewed young and diverse. The music podcast I created in my early twenties, Stagedive, attracted mostly 14- to 24-year-old listeners — unheard-of demographics in public radio. People often ask me if I actively look for stories that will target this audience. Nope. Not at all. Being a young woman of color and following my interests naturally leads me to report on topics that people like me will be interested in. So often when I see a story on BuzzFeed that I read carefully, love and share, I notice it’s written by a person of color, or even more specifically, by an Asian woman. What a shame, then, that the numbers of working journalists of color are so disappointing. Just 4.78 percent of newsroom employees are black, and 13.34 percent are minorities.

A diverse staff will lead you to a broader range of ideas. And new ideas bring new listeners. If you’re in storytelling or media, new, competitive, different ideas are the pillars your entire business rests on. Again: I’m glad that slowly, institutionally, public radio is realizing this value. What I’m not so glad about is the follow-up question that people ask me. “I can’t find any producers of color,” they say. “POC don’t want to be in public radio. So aren’t we trapped in a Catch-22?”

The shocking thing about this question is that it’s often asked by mind-blowingly talented journalists — journalists who in their professional lives know that you cannot wait for your characters to come to you. You have to go out looking for them. You call one person, four people, ten. You scroll through the forum, read the book, take the subway ride, knock on that door to find the person who does and says exciting things and is just right for your story. Finding talent for your show is no different.

The question “If you won’t apply to our jobs, how can we hire you?” echoes the classic derailing question of “If you won’t teach me about race, how can I learn?” It places the burden of furthering diversity and building understanding on POC instead of the people in power.

In this manifesto I’ll outline just some of the ways you can acknowledge your own accountability and take diversifying your staff into your own hands. They’re not all easy. But be bold. Step up to the plate.

Hiring People of Color

Don’t just talk the talk. Walk the walk.

I recently attended the Asian American Journalists Association conference in San Francisco. I was moved by the number of enthusiastic young journalists there who were passionately looking for a way into the industry. There was a media fair with booths where forward-thinking organizations were reaching out to these journos — The Huffington Post, CNN, BuzzFeed, Fox News . . . and public radio . . . in the form of KPCC (more on KPCC later).

These organizations know that the only way to build diverse talent is to actively recruit it. That doesn’t necessarily mean buying a booth. When I was there, I organized a panel welcoming aspiring journos to the audio world, and I made a point of asking where the student newsroom was. I visited, announced myself, handed out business cards. Many students had never considered radio/audio as a means of getting their work out. Their eyes widened when they realized our industry was growing, making more hires all the time. You could see the gears turning in their heads. They were getting excited.

I recognized that look. I wanted to be a journalist ever since I published my first zine when I was 15 years old. But it wasn’t until after college that I realized public radio was an option. Growing up as an immigrant in an immigrant community, with parents and peers who never listened to public radio, I had never heard of All Things Considered or Car Talk. I discovered This American Life by accident, in a friend’s car, and I remember being stunned. I thought, “How did I miss this? How the hell did I not know this entire MEDIUM existed?!” So how do we make those moments happen for more young people?

The answer is outreach. Attending journalism conventions is just a start — super-talented journalist and educator Lam Thuy Vo has a fantastic resource on Medium on building a diverse newsroom, complete with a list of just some groups you can start with. But you should also be constantly reading and keeping your eyes open for accomplished journalists in other fields.

There are many talented reporters of color who have won prestigious awards. Scroll through their names. Do you really think a brilliant Pulitzer Prize–winning writer’s talents will be rendered useless under the crushing weight of having to learn Pro Tools? Folks, it’s time for a reckoning. Take a deep breath, gather your self-worth and hold it close to you. Here goes: Pro Tools is not that hard. Most millennials have taught themselves Photoshop. InDesign. Final Cut. It’s not about the mechanics. Again — it’s about ideas. Pay attention to journalists, documentarians, slam poets who are generating creative, attractive ideas, and initiate conversations with them.

Those Who Can, Do. Those Who Want A Team That Can, Teach.

The Transom Story Workshop has created a scholarship fund with the intent of being able to allow people of color with fewer resources to attend and learn how to create compelling audio stories. Some colleges, like CUNY, are trying to beef up their audio storytelling curricula. But on the whole, these programs don’t generate many producers of color. And it’s not enough to simply wait and hope that these programs will create perfectly-formed radio producers to snatch up. The skill set required to make many of our shows’ highly specified content really can only be gleaned by making that content.

My boss, Ira Glass, told me that it has not been easy for This American Life to find viable candidates from these sources. “There aren’t that many producers in the country who are qualified to work on our show to make documentaries and stories like we do. And within that pool the number of people who weren’t white, college-educated, typical public radio people was even smaller. I think we haven’t done a great job of this in the past, and I think public media hasn’t done a great job. And it reflects in the programming in a bad way.”

That said, as I’m writing this, we have two black producers, one Latino producer, a Japanese-American producer, and a Latina fellow, and I am Malaysian Chinese-American.

But we believe there is still room for us to improve and grow. That’s why This American Life will be creating a fellowship program next year specifically to cultivate people of color. We’ll be pulling in POC from outside of the public radio sphere and immersing them within our process. Our team of fellows will each be assigned a producer, whom they will shadow through every step of the radio-making process. They’ll watch as we cut tape and conduct interviews, and they’ll sit in on story meetings and as many edits as possible. Then they’ll craft their own pitches, and we’ll help them create their own radio stories.

We hope that this endeavor will be tremendously valuable for them — and for us. Serial founder Julie Snyder has been with This American Life since its beginnings 20 years ago, and over that time, she’s seen its staff diversify. She told me, “I think the outlook, the interests and the tone of This American Life have expanded — grown deeper and smarter — because of our producers of color. A good example of that is a story Robyn [Semien] produced a few months ago for the “Birds and Bees” show. It was a story reported by W. Kamau Bell that started out as a question of how to talk to kids about racism but then dove deeper into complicated and specific areas about how African-American adults move through everyday life while at the same time being aware of the depth, ubiquity and horror of racism. The story truly went beyond pat prescriptions that are often part of stories that even gesture at racism, and instead grappled with conflicted feelings, open-ended questions and ambiguity. And the story was funny, too! . . . I just genuinely believe that story couldn’t have been produced with the same kind of nuance and truthfulness by a white producer.”

If you really want a talented pool of diverse people who can jump in and churn out precisely the kind of work you want, you need to help educate that talent.

Ivy Isn’t Everything.

Who do we select to cultivate? We have limited time and resources (because it goes without saying that all fellows and interns should be paid to ensure an economically diverse staff). In order to make our time and money count, I understand that the instinct is to go for the most well-educated individuals. But our industry desperately needs to rethink what the perfect applicant looks like.

Snap Judgment makes some of the most progressive hiring decisions in the industry, and as a result I think they’ve discovered some truly remarkable talent. From the get-go, instead of posting on journalism job sites, Snap posts on Craigslist. It means they get thousands of applications, but it makes for an incredibly diverse applicant pool.

Several of my coworkers at Snap Judgment had no interest in public radio before they stumbled upon Snap’s Craigslist ads. Their Executive Producer, Mark Ristich, takes pride in that. “That’s why we hired ’em!” he always likes to say. “You can’t just go for the Princeton grads. The things that wow people normally, they don’t wow us. We want to know what your life story is, what your background is.”

I’ve benefitted tremendously from Snap’s hiring practices. When I interviewed to intern with them, I had zero official experience in radio journalism — I didn’t even know how to use a DAW. If my resumé had landed on your desk, you probably would never have considered hiring me. But in my cover letter, I promised to be the first one into the office and the last one to leave. Snap Judgment hired me as an intern, then after a whopping three months’ experience, they hired me as a full-fledged producer. I was 22.

“Didn’t it feel risky, making that hire?” I asked Mark. “I didn’t have a body of work. I had nothing to show for myself.”

“No!” he laughs. “No, it didn’t feel risky at all. You wanted to go for it. We value drive and background over credentials. And you have to take chances. Multiple chances, on multiple people.”

It was a smart gamble. I kept my cover letter’s promises. I produced 170 stories for them over the course of four years.

Snap Judgment boasts one of the youngest, most diverse staffs in public radio (and one of the most Babes of NPR–worthy.) The results are directly correlative: Under NPR, they have one of the youngest, most diverse audiences in the NPR lineup. Its listenership has grown exponentially — after five years in the business, they have 2 million listeners.

It’s not about hiring an Ivy-educated, button-down, Vampire Weekend–loving, Carl Kassel–worshipping producer. (No offense, Carl. Fist bump.) It’s about passion, discipline and creativity. That’s it. So take an educated gamble, especially on the interns you choose — these are your hires with the lowest stakes and the highest potential payoff.

Retaining People of Color

Congratulations! You now have people of color on your staff! But the journey isn’t over. You’ve only taken your first step.

In the course of conducting research for this manifesto, I spoke to a number of massively intelligent public radio producers of color. Some of these journalists wound up leaving the industry because they didn’t feel their work environments cultivated safe spaces for diverse populations to thrive.

Let me repeat that. Talented, viable reporters of color do sign on to work in public radio. And then they quit because of institutional racism.

Create a Safe Space — Even If It Means Swallowing Your Pride.

One of the most basic tenets of being a good journalist is to be curious and to be empathetic. If we give that courtesy to our interviewees, why not extend it to our colleagues? One of the most common and wrenchingly emotional complaints I heard from journalists of color is that colleagues and management made no attempt to be better allies, to learn about their needs and to help create safe spaces for them.

This manifested in manifold microaggressions like constantly confusing two black people on staff, to full-on horror stories like making offensive, sexualized generalizations about entire ethnicities. To hear a bunch of producers of color recount these incidents over drinks is hilarious — the kind of hilarious where you feel your laughter echoing in the hollow cavern in your chest where your hope used to be.

But the place that felt the scariest to the most producers was the one that already terrifies us all — the editing room.

Lee Hill, a black man, longtime journalist and recently, the Managing Editor of Digital at WNYC, told me that the stakes are higher when you are a producer of color. He said, “When you’re white in a certain setting, one represents one. When you’re black, one represents all. It puts this constant state of double-consciousness into everything you do.”

Lee explained that he knows people of color in majority-white newsrooms that have to navigate that double-consciousness with constant care. For example, what if their organization ran something offensive?

“If they get called on their coverage, they’re going to say, ‘We talked to our black person and they said it was okay!’ Who else carries that burden? Who else carries that kind of burden?”

This moment hits home for so many people of color. We feel an obligation to speak up and represent our people if we hear something that could be construed as offensive. So we say something, but instead of taking the comment for what it is — an edit — some might see the comment as a call-out.

Lam Thuy Vo said, “Nobody’s accusing anyone of being a misogynist, or racist. We’re just trying to raise issues, and editors need to be able to take that in. I’ve been in situations where comments get shut down real fast, the room becomes silent, and one or two people get extremely angry, like, ‘Why are you saying this? Why are you causing trouble?’ It’s like, okay, fine, I back off. But now — I’m not going to say anything next time.”

“With millennials and POC, allegiances lie with people, not organizations,” she continued. “Names don’t mean as much to us as they did before.” This changing landscape means you can’t treat your employees poorly and get away with it just because your organization has a big, respected name. Call upon your legacy of fine journalism all you want — if you get a bad reputation within the community of POC journalists, you’ll have a hell of a time finding talent willing to work for you.

Make sure your name is clear. Cultivate a good work environment by making people feel valued. Listen. Be forever willing to learn. And provide helpful resources so your staff can learn, too. Circulating articles like these (maybe collecting them in a Google doc) and suggesting that employees follow diverse populations on their Twitter, Tumblr and Instagram accounts are a great way to encourage people to educate themselves.

Hire Editors of Color.

That feeling of vulnerability that POC possess in editing rooms can be partially alleviated by having editors of color. They can help people feel protected and validated. But they also give your employees something to strive for — something to stay for.

Shereen Marisol Meraji, a reporter for NPR’s Code Switch, produced a story recently about Latinos who have taken on cycling as a hobby. One woman in the story, Gabriela Bilich, said that she didn’t think that she’d be welcomed into the world of cycling.

“I never saw cycling as a Latino thing. All I ever saw were white dudes, tall skinny white dudes on the bikes, middle-age men in Lycra riding around the Rose Bowl, and so I was like, ‘Okay, that’s another thing white people do,’” she says in the piece.

As a woman with Puerto Rican and Iranian roots, Shereen said that when she heard that quote, she deeply identified with it. But a white colleague of hers didn’t understand the statement. “So what if she doesn’t see anyone doing it? Why should that prevent her from trying it out?” he asked.

Shereen said, “I told him, ‘You see yourself represented all the time. But what if you went to South L.A. and took a hip-hop class, and everyone in it was Latino and African-American? How would you feel? Would you feel like you should be there?’ He said, ‘Uh… probably not, I’d feel pretty awkward.’ And I said, ‘Right. That’s the feeling. All the time.’”

That’s why editors of color are crucial. John Asante, who is Ghanaian and who worked on Talk of the Nation and Ask Me Another before leaving to be a marketing manager in the startup world, said, “If you don’t see POC in power, you don’t see mobility.” This was a thought I heard over and over again from POC in public media — that a lack of leaders of color in an organization sends a clear message: There is a glass ceiling in this system, and if you are not white, you cannot break through it. Or even worse, that lack may cause employees to internalize their doubts and believe they could never be good enough to take on a leadership position. “It’s not until you see people of your kind in leadership roles that you know that’s something you want to do,” Shereen told me.

Lee Hill told me that when he was recently appointed as the Managing Editor of Digital at WNYC, his presence alone encouraged an influx of POC applicants. But for many, these steps forward are fewer and farther between than we’d like.

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Telling Stories POC Want To Listen To

I don’t think I need to recount what the bullet points of a great story are — there are so many incredible Transom manifestoes that do just that. But what I do want to pinpoint is the fact that so often, stories about culture and race don’t follow those bullet points. They aren’t held to the same standards that other stories are. As you’re listening to a story about Dia de Los Muertos or Chinese New Year red envelopes, you can practically hear an editor sighing with relief and saying, “Ah, easy puff piece. Check! Diversity story in the can!”

Stories about race and culture should include the main tenets of: Are there fascinating characters? Is there conflict? And is it surprising? If you’re a good storyteller, you know to adhere to these questions as if they are law. So why throw those laws out the window when you’re doing a story that involves POC?

“Pretty saris!” or “Diwali!” are not stories. Waltzing into a wedding, festival or celebration, rhapsodizing about how colorful, exotic and fragrant everything is and getting some quotes about what the incense symbolizes — that is not a story. And this is not something you’d ever broadcast if white Americans were the main characters.

“The equivalent would be someone doing a story on Christmas, saying, ‘They typically have trees! They typically have this guy named Santa.’ Everybody celebrates in a very different way. When I was a kid, we celebrated Christmas with fish,” said John Asante. “To represent people by placing them in a box is doing them no justice.”

Your job is not to do a story about culture. Your job is to do a story about people. If you’re walking into a cultural celebration with a microphone hoping to find something, you’re probably already too late. Do your research. Is a girl concerned that her crush will not show up at her quinceañera? Does someone want to make a traditional Diwali dinner, but can’t find the proper ingredients in her small town? Chinese children are supposed to receive red envelopes until they’re married. Is there an unmarried Chinese woman in her late twenties feeling embarrassed about still getting red envelopes long past the age her relatives ever did?

These are the questions that are actually relatable to people of color. Like, can someone actually produce that last story? Because I really want to hear it.

The consequence of telling an unsurprising story is not just that you may be boring people — you may actually be perpetuating dangerous cultural stereotypes.

The inimitable Chimamanda Adichie has a fantastic must-see TED talk on the danger of perpetuating the single story. (I know, I know, but really, this TED talk is the one you have to watch!) She talks about the pictures society paints of Latinos as abject immigrants, of Africans dying of AIDS.

She says, “Show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become. It is impossible to talk about the single story without talking about power. . . . Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person.”

As a member of the media, it’s within your power to change those reductive images through your storytelling, to build new, three-dimensional, nuanced images. Tell compelling stories that involve (but aren’t reduced to) scenes of a Chinese person eating gyros with tzatziki on the sidewalk, or playing black metal music, or crying at the movies, or decoupaging their end table. You know. All the stuff Chinese people do outside of being Chinese.

“I think sometimes stories are announced as, ‘Now, from a black perspective,’ instead of treating people as people,” says Daniel Alarcón, professor, novelist and Executive Producer of the Spanish-language storytelling podcast Radio Ambulante. “That’s one of the huge mistakes that I see. If I hear a black voice on NPR, they’re talking about race. If it’s a Latino voice, they’re talking about immigration. Instead of the breadth of experience. People who aren’t white have the same concerns as everyone else. Job, health care, love, sex, death, all that shit. If your story is about health care, go ahead. You can still talk to someone who isn’t white.”

Not Next Quarter. Not Next Month. Now.

As a listener, I can absolutely hear your company culture within your podcast. I can hear youth and space to innovate. But I can also hear racism and misogyny. And there’s a lot of public radio I’ve stopped listening to for that reason. It’s okay, though. I don’t miss it. There’s a ton of great new stuff popping up all the time.

That’s the number one motivator for those in audio to step up and diversify their content. Technology. The Internet is the great equalizer, and with podcast numbers swiftly growing, large institutional gatekeepers are becoming less and less necessary.

Daniel Alarcón said that because Radio Ambulante is in Spanish and caters mostly to Latino audiences, it generated little enthusiasm from larger networks. “For me it’s been a slow realization that being neglected by the established public radio entities is something of a blessing. Because we have had doors sometimes nicely, sometimes not-nicely slammed in our faces, we’ve been able to develop something where we’ve had a lot of creative control, and something we’re really proud of. Our first year, we had 7,000 listens. Our second, 76,000. Last year we had 1.2 million.”

With podcasts nipping at its heels, traditional public radio needs to change — and quickly. Other organizations are getting the picture. The L.A. Times is diversifying its audience. And one of our own, KPCC, is seeing how those choices were a clever business strategy. They grew their Latino audience by listening to and engaging with their community and hiring POC. Their listener support grew by 76 percent, and their underwriting revenue increased by 48 percent between 2009 and 2014.

This changing landscape inspires fear in some program directors. It’s all so strange, so different than what’s come before. I see that as pure opportunity. During my career, I want to do my best to build influential new institutions where people of color and women are prioritized and placed in public positions of power. Our new utopia will build and adopt new technologies to reach a wider, younger audience. We’ll tell underrepresented populations’ stories and capitalize on those overlooked markets. We’ll create supportive, fun work environments where all of your coworkers can tell you apart from the other Asian. We’ll win a gargantuan pile of shiny awards on our important, relevant reporting. And, of course, we’re going to make it rain. (PRPD translation: We gonna get rich.)

It’s going to be awesome. And you’re totally invited.

One short, final thing. Say you try everything in this manifesto, and your staff still isn’t diverse enough and isn’t drawing in the audience you want. You could wring your hands and wonder if what you want is even possible.

Or you could take a piece of advice from us people of color. A little bit of knowledge every single one of us knows all too well:

Nothing is handed to you on a plate. Work harder.