‘People don’t stay where they don’t feel safe’: Public radio leaders address diversity in the industry

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Amid the Black Lives Matter protests, public radio stations have posted statements condemning racism and laying out their commitments to diversity. Meanwhile, people of color in public media have been sharing stories, especially on social media, about their experiences of racism and toxic workplaces in the industry. 

As Current Executive Director Julie Drizin pointed out, “public media has a whiteness problem,” and “the vast majority of our stations and organizations fail to adequately reflect their communities or the country.”

In a webinar Tuesday, Ju-Don Marshall, chief content officer at WFAE in Charlotte, N.C., and Jordan Lee, program director at Radio Milwaukee, discussed their experiences as people of color in public radio and how their stations are addressing diversity and inclusion. 

WFAE’s leadership has been focusing both internally and externally on issues of diversity and inclusion. It has been emphasizing “deep listening” in the community with tools like Hearken and GroundSource, Marshall said. The station is also working to connect with the community through initiatives such as podcast training and a podcast contest. For the contest, the station asked community members to judge entries “so that it was by them, for them and reflective of their interests,” Marshall said.

A series of forums WFAE hosted with community members about the community’s information needs and problems with local media “was a great exercise because there was a lot of really valid criticisms of how people see us, how we respond to their needs,” Marshall said. 

Marshall hadn’t worked in public media before joining the station. She credits WFAE CEO Joe O’Connor for “taking a risk” to bring her on without a public media background.

“I just asked Joe coming in to just trust me enough to know that I was going to do some unconventional things and that it might not make sense from a traditional broadcast perspective,” Marshall said. “But it was going to build engagement. It was going to help us create a relationship with the community.”

At times in public media and in WFAE’s newsroom, “there’s a fear about change, and there’s a fear about doing things differently,” Marshall said. Station staffers have had to have frank conversations to work through that. “Have them be very open, have them be very inclusive, make no questions off-limits in terms of the direction that we were headed in and what that meant,” Marshall said. “And make it comfortable for people to receive critique, even from the community.”

Marshall has also worked at opening lines of communication among staff. When she got to the station, “there was a culture of ‘People are upset about something and so they go huddle in a corner and talk about it,’” she said. Now she tells her staff, “If there’s an issue, we’re going to talk about it here. We’re going to solve it together.”

Just last week, someone made a comment that made people uncomfortable, Marshall said. There were one-on-one calls to address how people felt, and the person who made the comment addressed it publicly. “I think that goes a long way in helping correct the things that are in our culture and that make people leave organizations,” Marshall said.

In addressing public media’s challenges with retaining people of color, Marshall said, “People don’t stay where they don’t feel safe. People don’t stay where they don’t feel heard or where they don’t feel empowered. And I think media, historically, has done a really poor job of listening to people, especially people of color.”

Organizations “have to have different people at the hiring table. They have to have different people at the decision-making table … in terms of diversity,” Marshall said.

A webinar attendee asked how stations can lessen the burden on people of color to drive change within the organizations. Marshall said, “If you say you support me, then what does that look like? What does that look like when it comes to my pay? What does it look like when it comes to my opportunity? What does it look like when it comes to protecting me if I need protection? … Because you just saying or embracing the ‘ally’ mantle without real action that is obvious and demonstrated throughout the organization is just an empty promise.” 

‘We want to connect people to the solutions’

Radio Milwaukee was founded with a mission to “use radio as a town square to try to build bridges in one of America’s most segregated cities,” according to PD Jordan Lee.

Before the protests over the killing of George Floyd, the Triple A music station was already partnering with and interviewing people working towards a “more inclusive and engaged city,” Lee said. But amid the protests, the station has “taken a stronger commitment to standing for and engaging with actionable items that will change these problems,” Lee said. 

“We’re not committed to only highlighting the problems,” Lee said. “We want to connect people to the solutions to those problems.”

Lee pointed to a toolkit the station has created to connect its audience to resources to help people broaden their perspectives. 

“I’ve talked to stations in my peer group whose mission is to play world class rock-and-roll. That’s not a mission statement.”

Jordan Lee, PD, Radio Milwaukee

“These are tools for the American who looks at themselves in the mirror and says, ‘I have a lot of ignorance around what the problems are. I need to get myself better educated,’” Lee said. 

The station has also been “having conversations about the actionable eradication of racism and what that means to our organization” now and in the years ahead, he said. 

Lee said that with inclusivity and engagement baked into Radio Milwaukee’s mission statement, “that drives things from the top down.”

“I’ve talked to stations in my peer group whose mission is to play world class rock-and-roll,” Lee said. “That’s not a mission statement.”

Internally, the station has also focused on diversity in its hiring. As a manager, Lee said, he sees his role as “lighting a fire” under people at the station who have a different perspective than he does. 

“So when my staff member says this is important to the Puerto Rican demographic of our population, I listen to him,” Lee said. “I do not live in that neighborhood. My children do not go to school in that neighborhood. I’m not the one to tell him what’s going to be affected.”

As the station’s program director, “it’s not my job to be the filter,” he said. 

“If I cultivate a team that has a lot of different perspectives, we will do a lot of different things, but that’s kind of the point,” Lee said.

The biweekly “Building Resilience” webinar series is being convened by Current and partners Public Media Journalists Association, Greater Public and Public Radio Program Directors with support from the Wyncote Foundation.

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