How long is enough? How long is too long? As I start my fifth year at the helm of Current, I’ve been facing the reality of just how long it takes to transform an organization and have the impact you hope to achieve. There’s much more to do to secure Current’s future as a relevant, essential and sustainable service to public media. And so I’m in it to win it, and I consider it an honor to serve you.
During my tenure as Current’s first executive director, I’ve had many conversations with longtime executives and rising stars about leadership in public media. I’ve met with many leaders in our system who have not only kept their institutions alive, but have moved them forward by leaps and bounds. They’ve modeled ethical, inclusive leadership and the kind of bold risk-taking that innovation requires.
But in some of these conversations, I’ve heard complaints and concerns that our leadership isn’t as inclusive or as bold as public media needs at this moment of profound disruption and competition. Critics charge there aren’t enough executive leadership training programs or opportunities to advance into top jobs.
In 2016, Current produced a special edition on diversity in public media. To prepare, we connected with the CEOs and GMs of color in public television at a PBS Annual Meeting. As I recall, the list of nonwhite leaders in the 50 states had 17 people on it — less than 10 percent of public television’s executive branch. What’s up with that? Three years later, I worry whether public media will get woke enough to embrace the profound demographic changes underway in the American workforce.
Still, 2019 is a golden chance for the public media system to take giant steps in the right direction. The long-rumored “gray wave” of retirements seems to be coming ashore, with more than a dozen announcements of executive-level retirements to come this year.
Some of those leaving their posts have spent their careers in public media, and some have been in their current positions for a very (very, very) long time. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Or is there?
Obviously, the best way to diversify the top tiers of public media is for those in power to cultivate the next generation of leaders, then step aside and let them have at it. But I don’t see that conscious cultivation or succession planning happening on the kind of scale required to align our system with our mission.
In 2016 the New York Times published a groundbreaking interactive called “The Faces of American Power,” a dramatic visualization of the extent to which white people dominate the leadership of top corporations, corridors of political power and media companies that influence culture in the U.S. Imagine what such a visualization of public media’s leadership would look like. It’s true that public media deserves kudos for shattering the glass ceiling by advancing so many women into prominent, powerful roles. Yet let’s remember that some of the worst revelations from the #MeToo movement happened during this period.
So let me return to my first questions: How long is enough? How long is too long?
Transformation takes time. It can take two decades for an oak tree to produce acorns and several years for some trees to bear fruit. On the station level, it makes sense for an ambitious, high-performing leader to stick around for a decade. As leaders of vital community institutions, it can take years for them to grow relationships that will produce results, whether that’s courting major donors; launching successful local programming initiatives; engaging audiences in solving local problems; building open, inspiring and accessible facilities; or changing internal culture. This is the work of local public media leaders. It’s not surprising that a decade might not be enough time.
Our national leaders deserve admiration and appreciation for their dedication and savvy, their eloquence and their effectiveness. But maybe it’s time for public media to be even more public: more transparent, more inclusive and more reflective of the country we’re supposed to serve. That means change from the top down, and not just from the bottom up. I am not alone in looking forward to the day when public broadcasting’s national institutions — CPB, PBS, NPR and America’s Public Television Stations — are all led by people of color. But I worry it will take so long to get there that, by then, these very institutions may have lost their relevance or will have ceased to exist. Public media must get ahead of that curve. That’s the definition of leadership.