Seven ways public media can attract a more diverse workforce

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Ramsammy, Simpson, Henderson, Mitchell, Vera-Phillips KPBS’s Kris Vera-Phillips speaks on a panel about diversity at the Public Radio News Directors Inc. conference Saturday in St. Louis. The panel also included Andrew Ramsammy, Mark Simpson, Karen Henderson and Doug Mitchell. (Photos: Adam Ragusea, Current)

Ramsammy, Simpson, Henderson, Mitchell, Vera-Phillips KPBS’s Kris Vera-Phillips speaks on a panel about diversity at the Public Radio News Directors Inc. conference Saturday in St. Louis. The panel also included Andrew Ramsammy, Mark Simpson, Karen Henderson and Doug Mitchell. (Photos: Adam Ragusea, Current)

If the lack of diversity in media was ever merely a matter of inside baseball, that time has passed.

That was the message delivered by Andrew Ramsammy, director of content projects and initiatives at Public Radio International, as he took the podium Saturday at the Public Radio News Directors Inc. conference in St. Louis. He began his remarks by simply listing hashtags.

“#OscarsSoWhite, #TonysSoDiverse, #StarringJohnCho, #ILookLikeAnEngineer, #WeNeedDiverseBooks,” Ramsammy recited. He read other tags that, like those, have been rallying cries online over the last year for advocates of diversity in media.

He eventually pivoted to examples that hit closer to home for his audience of public radio journalists, managers and executives: “#PubRadioVoice, #VocalFry, #IAmLakshmiSingh, #SoundsLikeAmerica.”

“Clearly the issue of diversity is no longer an inside thing,” Ramsammy said. “As we’ve seen, the public has keenly become aware about diversity, both inside and outside of media. And they know when it’s lacking and when it thrives.”



Himself a broadcaster of color, Ramsammy has been outspoken about public media’s disproportionately white audience and workforce, in part through his status as a 2016 fellow with the WGBH-led Next Generation Leadership program. The program seeks to develop a diverse bench of programming executives for public media.

(Ramsammy later announced at the event that he is leaving PRI due to the expiration of grants supporting his work, and he is forming a new consultancy, UnitedPublic Strategies, to advance diversity in public media.)

At the PRNDI panel discussion on diversity where he served as moderator, Ramsammy reminded the audience that diversity is not a new imperative for public media but one that Congress identified in the 1967 Public Broadcasting Act, which states “it is in the public interest to encourage the development of programming that involves creative risks and that addresses the needs of unserved and underserved audiences, particularly children and minorities.”

With that as his point of departure, Ramsammy led a discussion with five panelists who have all helped diversify public media workforces at various levels. Here are seven of their takeaway lessons.

1. Project the image that you want to see in your staff

“Our marketing messages all have images of people who look and sound like America,” said Doug Mitchell, founder and project director of NPR’s Next Generation Radio.

Mitchell organizes boot camps around the country designed to attract and prepare the next generation of public media journalists, with a special emphasis on diversity. He must find recruits for each event he stages, and he often finds them through social media, where he said he works to project an image that will attract the people he’s most looking for.

“Every tweet has someone who looks different from the other, and that means we attract people who are interested in what we do because they look at [those images] and they say, ‘They want people who look like me,’” Mitchell said.

Others looking to attract diverse candidates must be similarly intentional at every step of the hiring process, he said.

2. Stop blaming other people

Ramsammy said he often hears from hiring managers that they can’t find qualified candidates of color. “Can we call bullshit on that?” he asked.

“Yes,” Mitchell replied, with the audience applauding (at Ramsammy’s urging).

Karen Henderson, Morning Edition host at WRKF in Baton Rouge, La., pointed out that she is the only person of color on the air at her station, which serves a majority-minority city. “If we don’t have [candidates of color], let’s go get them. Let’s raise them.”

Attracting diverse candidates requires going beyond your own circle, said Tim Eby, general manager of St. Louis Public Radio.

“We’ve got to do better than just put ads in Current,” Eby said he realized recently, “but really deliberately seek out people that had been either recommended by others or were somewhere within our network.”

Prior to the August 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown — which led to the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson where the incident took place becoming a national metonym for the increasingly antagonistic relationship between police and people of color — St. Louis Public Radio’s newsroom was only seven percent people of color, Eby said.

“Today we’re at 27 percent,” he said, in large measure due to his staff making an extra effort to seek out and individually recruit diverse candidates.

Likewise, the newsroom at Cleveland’s ideastream was almost entirely white prior to the similarly emblematic November 2014 police shooting of Tamir Rice, said ideastream Managing Editor Mark Simpson.

Now, “we have an Asian-American, we have [a] Hispanic, and we have two African-American women in our newsroom,” Simpson said. While the openings for those current staff members became available through “natural attrition,” he said, ideastream was deliberate about seeking diverse candidates to fill those positions.

3. Prioritize diversity within the newsroom in particular

When news managers make a new push for diverse hiring, Simpson said, they might encounter a human resource officer who says, “Well, if you look at our organizational chart across the entire organization, we’re actually doing pretty good, in terms of diversity.”

That’s good, but not good enough, Simpson said. The news and content departments in particular must have diverse staffs in order to create content that will serve diverse people.

“What’s the public-facing aspect of your organization? It’s the news department, in many, many situations,” he said.

4. Use your content as a recruiting tool

St. Louis Public Radio’s aggressive yet sensitive coverage of the Michael Brown shooting and its aftermath was itself a recruiting tool for the station, Eby said.

“I think the fact that we were very focused on content that addressed these issues attracted people [of color] to want to come to St. Louis and work for us,” he said.

5. Prioritize visual journalism

“Newsrooms don’t necessarily [just] need to sound like America, they need to look like America,” Ramsammy said in reference to St. Louis Public Radio’s hiring of photojournalist Carolina Hidalgo in December, 2015.

Hidalgo’s work has focused on the victims of violence in the St. Louis region, who are overwhelmingly people of color. The result of her efforts has been a dramatic uptick in the number of black and brown faces appearing on her station’s online platforms, Eby said.

Bishop Derrick Robinson and Rev. Rebecca Ragland place a candle on the spot in St. Louis where 15-year-old Jorevis Scruggs died after being shot by a police officer. This and other photos by St. Louis Public Radio photographer Carolina Hidalgo have increased the racial diversity of the station’s online coverage. (Photo: Carolina Hidalgo/St. Louis Public Radio)

Bishop Derrick Robinson and Rev. Rebecca Ragland place a candle on the spot in St. Louis where 15-year-old Jorevis Scruggs died after being shot by a police officer. This and other photos by St. Louis Public Radio photographer Carolina Hidalgo have increased the racial diversity of the station’s online coverage. (Photo: Carolina Hidalgo/St. Louis Public Radio)

6. Pay interns

“How many of you are actually paying your interns?” Ramsammy asked the audience. Only a few hands went up.

“I think we need to pay our interns,” he said, alluding to an often-made argument that unpaid internships effectively exclude anyone not privileged enough to work for free from taking a crucial first step on the career ladder.

St. Louis Public Radio recently started paying interns and also offers a paid “Diversity Fellowship” for recent college graduates. The station has had “tremendous success,” Eby said, in fundraising specifically for such initiatives.

“There are many, many institutions and donors that will support that effort,” he said.

Mitchell agreed that pipelines for diverse media talent are attractive to funders, pointing to the Next Generation Radio boot camp he has done for several years running at the University of Nevada, Reno. The program is supported by an individual donor who recently decided to endow the program in perpetuity.

“If you go to somebody and put their name on it, like a building, they’ll pay for it,” Mitchell said.

7. Form diversity councils

Kris Vera-Phillips, senior news producer at KPBS in San Diego, said her station is in the planning stages of establishing a diversity council of staff members — a move that staff demanded in contract negotiations since voting to be represented by the SAG-AFTRA union.

The council is being drawn from the newsroom and other departments across the station, she said, and about a third of the members are people who have only started working there in the last year (which includes her).

“We do have a shared vision, in terms of not just hiring diverse candidates, but also increasing diversity in our programming and trying to get away from being the station that is the Downton Abbey station,” Vera-Phillips said.

St. Louis Public Radio has formed a diversity council as well in recent months. To dramatically increase the station’s newsroom diversity, as it has done in recent years, “it was like, ‘Oh, high five, we did this,’” Eby said, but now the station has to examine its workplace culture to make sure that it will retain its new journalists of color.

Listen to the complete audio of the panel:

Adam Ragusea hosts Current’s weekly podcast The Pub and is a journalist in residence and visiting assistant professor at Mercer University’s Center for Collaborative Journalism.

Correction: This article originally quoted Karen Henderson as saying she is the only employee of color at her station. After publication, she called to clarify her remarks as meaning she is the only on-air employee of color.

9 thoughts on “Seven ways public media can attract a more diverse workforce

  1. Excellent. Many of those ideas would help address public media’s most important and glaring lack of diversity: ideological. The lack of iseological diversity in public media has a much more direct and evident effect on content than whatever other lack of diversity there might be. Public radio, in particular, greatly limits its audience, and does it a disservice, by its ideological monoculture (50 shades of liberal, essentially).

  2. “When news managers make a new push for diverse hiring, Simpson said, they might encounter a human resource officer”

    HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAAHAHAHAHAHAAHA. This statement betrays the lack of awareness how things really work at public radio stations once you’re outside the Top 10 markets. WHAT human resource officer??

    I’m not saying that diversity in your staff is not an important goal; it totally is. But to just demand that stations hire employees who may very well require not-insubstantial additional training, when stations are often cut to the bone and have a razor-thin margin of operation, is blatantly unrealistic. Especially in smaller markets where it can be damn hard to attract ANYONE with experience in broadcasting (nevermind public radio specifically) on the meager salaries and threadbare benefits that’re the best stations can offer. Sure there’s probably print people available (and I’d say that’s “unfortunate” because it means there’s been more cuts at the local paper) but many of them require even more training once hired; training many of these stations don’t have to give. And we’ve already had it beaten into our heads that it’s unacceptable…both to listeners, to NPR and to ourselves…to put out local content that’s not up to the same level of quality as the national content.

    To put it another way, if this is an important institutional goal for NPR, let’s see they put their money where their mouth is and create a fund that pays for all relocation costs plus a training/bootcamp stipend (if needed) for any member station looking to fill a reporter/host role…if the person hired is a minority and the station is below a certain market-adjusted TSR.

    Why not? Such a fund probably wouldn’t cost all that much on an annual basis, relative to NPR’s overall budget. And it’d work wonders at both individual stations and at the national level by improving the “farm system” (to borrow a baseball analogy) to grow and develop future talent.

    (note: I have no clue about the legal ramifications here, so forgive me if I’m proposing something problematic…I’d be perfectly willing to modify this substantially to make it legal if needed.)

    • While many stations don’t have dedicated HR people, they’re usually licensed to a larger organization (like a university) that does have an HR department, which is typically involved in the station’s hiring process.

      I would agree that large stations and networks need to find ways to more heavily subsidize talent development at small stations, which often function as the pipeline that delivers experienced applicants to big stations and networks. But I think it should be pointed that NPR already invests a lot in station-level talent development, from the NextGen project to the regional fly-ins, all the other trainings and webinars, etc.

      • Well I confess I’m just speaking anecdotally after talking with dozens of stations over the years (there’s value in that, but it’s not a rigorous statistical analysis by any means), but I stand by my assertion that there is effectively no HR support. It doesn’t really matter if there’s a parent college involved; their HR office usually hurts more than it helps since they usually have a limited – at best – understanding of what’s important in a public radio hire.

        I think we’re going at the “NPR invests in talent” from two very different positions here, and that means while both of us have valid points it’s gonna be hard to reconcile. Even so, my over-arching sense is that NPR is much, much better at deciding what it thinks the farm system support should be, and it’s absolutely gawdawful-terrible at actually determining what the member stations think the farm system should be. Since these “minor leaguers” are primarily being employed (if at all) at the member stations, you’d think NPR would be more active at trying to help member stations instead of just forcing a top-down agenda.

        But neither of these points really address my core point: NPR doesn’t *actually* care much about diversity at public media stations…because it’s not doing jack to actually get diverse employees hired at member stations. There’s a lot of nibbling at the edges, and shouting from the sidelines, but there’s no cash on the table to help ensure that stations stop hemming and hawing and actually hire non-white employees.

        As the saying goes, talk is cheap. Either this is a priority for NPR or it is not. And if it is, then they need to be a lot more proactive to ensure that outcome.

        Now, that said, I think there can be a robust debate about whether this SHOULD be a priority or not. I think the goal of diversity in the workforce is laudable, if not non-negotiable. But having a diverse workforce is meaningless if all they do is churn out the same content a bunch of old white guys would produce. The whole point is that they’re going to create content that speaks to a more diverse audience.

        Well that’s great, but that’s not where it ends. It won’t. It CAN’T. Stations need to deal with the fact that with a more diverse audience, they’re going to have a more diverse donor pool. Pitches made at white people aren’t going to be as effective when made at people of color, and vice versa.

        Similarly, content that speaks to diverse audiences might fall on deaf ears in the white crowd. A little of that is okay, but you can’t go too far down that road lest you end up alienating people. Besides the economic problem of alienating your (presumably) core listener/donor base, and risking alienating sponsors in the process from reduced ratings, from a pure mission standpoint you can’t rob Peter to pay Paul. Truly inclusive content is inclusive to all races. Obviously you can’t achieve that sublime grace all the time, but you can – and must – constantly be working towards it.

        So having a diverse workforce is a much, much bigger strategic conversation. Now I’m more than willing to accept that perhaps the answer is to just get a diverse workforce in place to force the issue and deal with the consequences as they come. It might be a little messy, but it could work. But I’m not seeing a lot of discussion yet about the strategic ramifications of NPR successfully diversifying the member stations’ workforces.

        • I’m not sure what you have in mind by speaking of NPR putting cash on the table for hiring at local stations, but it appears to reverse the direction of the cash flow. Local stations send cash to NPR, not vice versa. What specifically would you like NPR to do beyond what it’s doing now?

          “having a diverse workforce is meaningless if all they do is churn out the same content a bunch of old white guys would produce”

          Thus the importance of ideological diversity. As Adam has pointed out elsewhere, merely seeking more racially diverse staff is likely to make public radio even more ideologically liberal than it is already.

          • The issue is that large stations and network rarely hire totally unexperienced people. People get started at small stations, gain some experience, and then the big guys snatch them up. The result is that the burden of recruiting people into the system and training them ends up falling on the most resource-poor organizations. They don’t have the time or money to be very intentional about what they do in terms of hiring, so they end up bringing in the same kind of people that just naturally flow to public media — young, white, liberal college grads who come from enough money that they can afford to start with an unpaid internship. NPR recognizes this, which is why they have invested a lot of time and money into station-level training initiatives. I don’t think it should all fall on NPR’s shoulders either. What I have argued needs to happen is the system — under the direction of someone at CPB, maybe — should establish a common fund for recruiting and paying interns, with each entity paying in an amount proportional to its budget. The result would be rich orgs subsidizing internships at small orgs, but the big orgs would be the ultimate beneficiary because it would suck more desirable candidates into their talent pipeline.

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