Audible’s Martha Little on why office hierarchy needs to go

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Little (Photo: Audible)

Little (Photo: Audible)

Now working in commercial media, Martha Little previously held jobs everywhere in public radio — Marketplace, NPR, WNYC, WBUR, America Abroad — and she has a recommendation for her old field.

Public media workplaces work better when they are “feminized,” she says, meaning when workplaces are flatter and more collaborative. That’s instead of being lorded over by an exalted boss, the conventional model she describes as more “masculine” (acknowledging that such gendered terms are merely a convenient shorthand).

Little appeared on our podcast The Pub and expanded on her idea in a conversation with host Adam Ragusea. She began with discussion her reservations about the word “feminized.”

Martha Little: I’m hesitant to use that term, but that’s a quick way of saying that after spending quite a few months bouncing around to different places in public media as a freelancer before I came to Audible, I was very aware of the fact that public media — public radio in particular — remains very hierarchical and sort of siloed, and defines its power structure in a very traditional way, and often that’s thought of as a male or masculinized way of issuing power. But I would quickly add that I think some women are as guilty — if you want to use that term — of this as men, and some men are very good in the empathic form of leadership, the more collaborative form of leadership. So those are just quick terms; I don’t really want to invest a whole lot of time or energy in that, but those are good shorthands.

Current: You and I first met when you were the news director at WBUR, and that’s as hierarchical position as one can have.

Little: Indeed, indeed, and in the old days it probably made some sense to have sort of a top-down transfer of orders — sort of, this is what the mission of the company is, and we have to get approval, we have to go back up the chain in order to move.

But what’s so apparent to me now is that in this very fast-paced, very tech-oriented media-delivery-service world, I don’t think the hierarchies can really keep up with the fast pace of change, flexibility and input of ideas that you need to compete. And it’s become so clear to me now, landing at Audible that … this place is very, very collaborative, a very flat organization. They really value employee input from the very lowest members on the totem pole; you don’t even feel the totem pole, if that makes sense. So it’s a really collaborative great group of people — not to say that public radio isn’t collaborative and isn’t great, but I worry, and this is out of love for public radio, I worry a little bit about its ability to move and change quickly enough to the realities of the media environment that we’re seeing right now.

Current: Is there a particular incident from your work life that is emblematic of this problem of excessive hierarchy?

Little: That’s a good question. To be fair, in the news environment, which is where I’ve spent a lot of my time, I do ask myself the question of whether the news decisions could be more collaborative decisions on a day-to-day basis. Someone’s gotta call those shots.

Current: Yeah, I mean, daily news is almost like a wartime environment. You have to coordinate the efforts of so many people with such rapidity that I’ve found that with a daily show or a newscast you have to function with a certain degree of hierarchy.

Little: That’s right, there has to be somebody in command. But what I’m getting at here is this idea that … I was just thinking about NPR, for example. I spent a few months there at All Things Considered, and it felt in some ways fairly static in the lower levels because there was so much waiting for someone above to call the shots on breaking news. That’s a tough show; it’s really probably one of the toughest to work on because you have three hosts and you have two hours to fill every day, 21 to 24 segments a day.

But what I guess I’m talking about more broadly is the environment around those shows in the sense of, let’s get the buy-in, the investment of ideas from the lower levels. Let’s be more transparent in how we’re making our decisions. It’s one thing to set up an innovation lab — ’BUR did this to bring in ideas — but I do think that you need to change the mindset across staffs, and that includes the higher levels as well the lower levels, to say, “We want your feedback, and here are the mechanisms by which we’re going to flatten the organization.”

Let me just give you an example, because there’s a guy I really was impressed with talking to. His name is Henry De Sio, and he worked as the chief operating officer for the 2008 Obama administration. You remember how successful that campaign was and how they brought social media in, and he essentially was one of the key people to flatten the campaign infrastructures. Essentially his job was to empower the folks out in the field to carry more decision weight out there. And they did that through technology; they used technology to feed back information so it didn’t have to go up the silo and back down in order for decisions and actions to be taken. It’s a really fascinating notion.

And so I said, “How did you make that happen? How did you figure out how to trust those little soldiers in the field?” And he said, “Well, I have four principles of people I hired, four characteristics. One was an innovative mind. One was an entrepreneurial spirit. Another was service heart, and another was collaborative outlook.” So he didn’t hire people because they had years and years of experience, but he looked for these qualities above and beyond what looks good on a resume, which I just thought was fascinating. I think about this with public radio because I think, “Gosh, they should be doing the same thing, like hiring these people you can put out on the lake and light their candle and let them float away to do their own thing and replicate themselves and empower people.”

The other thing he advocates actually is not just to issue tasks to people, but to essentially urge everyone in the organization to change the mindset and then the rest will follow. If you can change the mindset to a more collaborative approach, things will get done, problems will be solved. I just thought it was a really interesting point of departure, something to think about for all the public radio hierarchical structures: Why not try it?

Current: Are there any other substantive steps that you would recommend people try? Is there a different way to run editorial meetings, for example, to make them more inclusive and flatter?

Little: That’s a great question. I do think that sometimes editorial meetings feel the weight of the senior, or if there’s a host sitting in, that younger staff sometimes are afraid to put forward their ideas. I tried as news manager to encourage all ideas and, again, you do have to make choices at some point. I sometimes think maybe kicking the managers out. That’s not a vindictive thing, but it’s an experiment to try, to say, “OK, if you, Mr. Twentysomething- or Thirtysomething-person, want to run the show today, what would you do?” It’s a great way to push them.

I also believe in hybridization: putting people who are producers in an editorial role, a host in a reporter role, mixing the positions up so that people are, A, appreciative of what their colleagues do but also, B, learn new skillsets. I don’t think that enough of that goes on. It’s tough because you have to find replacements, et cetera, but it is a great way to empower people to say, “Why can I not now do both? To cut an interview but also edit a piece, or I can also guide a reporter in the field.” The more skills you give that person, the more invested they are going to be in the news of the day.

Again, this is not just news but this is … We’re in the world of podcasting now, so these skills become more and more important, that everyone should essentially come with a vast toolkit of radio production skills: editorial, production, finding talent, booking, all of that stuff.

Current: I wonder, though, if one of the reasons why so many of the institutional hierarchies are so multitiered and defined is that advancing someone’s place on the hierarchy is one of the few tools that the senior managers have to reward people. I feel really bad for senior managers, in a sense; I think senior managers often get criticized for having top-heavy, too-many-chiefs-not-enough-Indians command structures. I keep talking to so many young people who are leaving public media, or thinking of leaving public media, who say that one of the reasons they’re leaving is that they don’t see a path of advancement. They don’t see a way to get into management. Everyone wants to get into management but no one wants there to be a lot of management. It’s kind of a catch-22.

Little: I think what Audible in some ways is proving in a different sort of way is that moving up doesn’t mean much now; it’s more buying into the mission. If you read anything about a collaborative approach toward producing media, it’s investing all players with a lot of power to call the shots. The excitement and “mission-driven–ness” of this place feels really alive because everyone feels empowered to have a voice. It’s not because you’re lower on the totem pole that you don’t have a voice; you do. And it’s very purposeful; it’s saying to everyone, “Look, no one of us alone can solve this problem. We at the top are relying on you guys to contribute and to solve the problem, or create the product and tell us more, give us more feedback.” I’m asked every day, “Can I get your feedback on this? Please tell me.” It’s a very encouraging environment.

I would also say that one of the very healthy aspects is that debate is encouraged. Different points of view on one subject, it’s not shied away from and in fact it’s embraced. I think that’s healthy, something that all managers should venture to encourage. It’s scary. It’s scary for a manager because you think, “Oh, gosh, that I have to deal with conflicts, et cetera.” But a really confident, empathic manager is comfortable enough in his or her skills that that’s not the issue. The issue is, How do we solve this problem? How do we move forward? And it’s that mindset that saying to public radio — I mean I’m not preaching from the hill or anything, but if I were running things in public radio, I might really say, “Hey, this is something we might need to think about.”

Current: I know you started this by saying you don’t want to gender these tendencies too much, but are they inherently gendered? Do you think dudes are going to have a harder time creating work environments like that ideal that you’re describing?

Little: I don’t know. There are a lot of men in this organization who are running it, so I don’t think so. But I think typically people think of women as more empathic and more clued into nonverbal signs — facial expressions and that sort of thing. And I do think women possess a different set of cues and emotional attributes than men, but both men and women have the ability to foster collaboration. We have been so programmed as a society to think top-down, to think hierarchy, that we are sort of blindsided by the fact that there’s a whole other way to operate in this space.

What’s so striking to me is that the flexibility and speed you get by having 10 good brains working to deliver one product rather than one person issuing commands — it just seems like a no-brainer. Call it feminization of the management environment but, again, I wouldn’t say that only women know how to do it. There are plenty of men who are really good at it. Eric Nuzum is one I would definitely put in that category.

Current: What wonderful things are you and Eric cooking with this wonderful flat management model at Audible?

Little: Right, where we all sit on the floor and hold hands: No, no, we don’t. Well, we’re cooking a lot of exciting things. One of the messages that we always want to get out is that we’re looking for really great talent. People pitch me projects all the time and they say, “So what are the parameters, Martha? How can I shape my project for you?” I say, “This is going to be really frustrating, but it just has to be good,” because the parameters are pretty broad.

The other pieces of advice I offer is something like, “Well, if you’re going to pitch me an idea, you really need to know, like a good academic. A good academic has read all the literature that’s already been written on this subject, and if you’re going to pitch me a podcast or a series or something, you better know already what’s out there and why you and your product can be better than those.” You’d be surprised how many people don’t do that work before they come and pitch. Those are important things, right? What’s the competition out there and why should we spend our time on you. Those are the guidelines; that’s how I sidestep that question.

Current: Is that what you guys have been spending most of your days doing, actually having people come in and pitch?

Little: We have a variety of tasks, but a large part of what I do is look at things and try to shape them and or discard them or evaluate them and guide further development of things. That’s a lot of what we do; we’re exercising our abilities to judge what’s going to really work and what’s not and so forth. It’s like what we do in public radio all the time, but sort of times 10.

Current: If anyone listening has a great idea, do you want to give your contact info?

Little: Sure. Please make sure it’s, A., good, and, B., that you’ve done your homework on it and that you have a crystal-clear story idea. My email’s limartha@audible.com. I’m going to regret this.

Current: My audience is very respectful, aren’t you?

Little: And they’re a great group of people. So that’s where I am: Happy here in Newark.

Current: Martha Little is a senior something-or-other at Audible. It doesn’t matter because the hierarchy doesn’t matter.

Little: That’s right, it doesn’t!

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  • Barrett Golding

    Martha, great concepts. I do think you’ve identifed a stifling bottleneck, not just in public radio productions but also at the majority of pubradio stations. They’re dominated by hierarchical top-down decisions, so unequipped for letting ideas bubble up: “light their candle and let them float away to do their own thing and replicate themselves and empower people.” In biz lingo, they’r run by HiPPO: highest paid person’s opinion.

  • Martha C. Little

    Thanks Barrett: I had one more thought, post interview: I think the interesting thing about tech as one of the driving forces at a company is it stands the traditional editorial process on its head. The new game becomes figuring out how to diversify content enough so that it appeals to a wide and hungry audience. Thus, you want to invite more people/voices into the creative mix at the top rather silo-ing so that you cover all bases. That’s at least the ideal…one to strive for.

  • JamesDJ

    This is such a great article and you are so right. I spent five years as a producer at a certain major New England public radio station (not mentioned in your article) that has turned into the most masculinized, hierarchical environment imaginable. I’m not the only person who left because of the poisonous effects of working for swaggering manager-bros who view the talent, knowledge, experience and passion of the people working under them as liabilities, with contempt and brazen disrespect as the default settings for the top-down level of discourse. It’s such a tragedy because when I first got there I was in absolute awe of my colleagues – the smartest group of people I ever encountered in one place, and I’ve worked for several other major cultural institutions and participated in projects at major universities. When I first got there meetings were crackling with possibility, brilliant minds coming together to brainstorm ideas that could not have existed in isolation – a true synergy like the kind one encounters in a great string quartet. When the new managers took over with their Chris Christie-like attitude toward their new underlings they used the meetings as a form of ritual humiliation, systematically stripping each one of these world-class engineers, hosts and producers, the ones who made the station an award-winning giant and pioneer in the field, of any reason to feel proud of their work, and, since they stripped the labor protections as well, any sense of security in being part of an institution that many of them had worked in for decades.

    But the most dispiriting discovery I made after I made my escape is that what happened to my former station had also happened to the entire American workforce. Management has become a sort of disease; it’s not that anyone really wants to move into management, but that’s where the money is, that’s where the sense of ownership over one’s work is. A host only wants to become a music director because hosts are no longer allowed any autonomy, and being a music director becomes the only place to use one’s knowledge of music; likewise, a teacher only wants to become a principal because teaching has become so regulated and micromanaged that having a position of management is the only way one can utilize one’s expertise in pedagogy. This is an incredible waste of talent and is a demonstrably destructive trend, but this is the direction we’re going. I’m glad to know that Audible has bucked this trend.

    Ultimately this is a labor issue. Mr. Ragusea’s comment about the reward system can be rendered moot if we decided that every position is a profession. That doesn’t mean that there’s no boss, no place where the buck stops; it just means that there’s space for creative ownership within the organization, coupled with adequate compensation that isn’t designed to make people feel that they have to constantly move “upward;” they can excel in the job they do, which after all wouldn’t exist if it weren’t necessary for the running of the company, and needs to be valued as much as any other position. We need to feminize capitalism.