Two public media leaders discuss the ‘imperative’ of diversity

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Two leaders in public media said Tuesday that the system’s efforts to cultivate a diverse workforce need to go beyond training to embrace deeper institutional change.

“Diversifying our stations and our national organizations is not an initiative that has a starting place and an ending place,” said Deanna Mackey, president of the Public Television Major Market Group and co-founder of Public Media Women in Leadership. “It is an imperative. It needs to become part of the DNA of the way we behave.”

Mackey and Ronnie Agnew, executive director of Mississippi Public Broadcasting, were speaking during a webinar moderated by Current Executive Director Julie Drizin.

“Diversity has been at the forefront of everything I’ve done,” said Agnew, who has run the station for nine years after a long career in the newspaper industry. He pointed to diversity among his station’s executive team and a nearly 50-50 mix of Black and white staff.

When his staff pulls together candidate pools for new hires that aren’t diverse, “I tell them to start over,” Agnew said.

Agnew

Systemwide, Agnew pointed out that the industry, when hiring people of color, is “looking for people who check all the boxes — you have to almost be perfect.”

“You have to come up through the ranks of public media,” Agnew said. “You have to do that before you’re even considered. I think that there are some nontraditional people out there — given what’s happening in media across the country right now — I think there are a lot of journalists out there who could really play a role in our future. But we have to find them.”

When asked how leaders can foster a welcoming environment across race, gender and generations, Agnew said that “the workplace should be a place that should provide a place to speak freely.”

“Too many people of color, too many women feel that if they speak out, their jobs are in jeopardy,” Agnew said. “So they do one of two things: They either remain silent, or they simply leave in silence. So in essence, we spent all this time training people only to see them walk out the door when they could have been major contributors to our system.”

Within the industry, “there are fantastic training opportunities, but they don’t often have an end, they don’t often put people in places of authority and power,” he said. “And I think that should be the goal.”

“I think that people of color have grown quite tired of classes that tend to lead to nowhere,” he said.

Mackey

Mackey, who has been in the public media industry for 30 years, said that “rather than an approach about diversity that’s all focused on training. I think we need to be focused on actions and outcomes.”

“We’ve done a lot of training in the industry, and the outcome has been the same,” she said.

Another problem, Mackey said, is the lack of a national leadership training program in the industry.

“There are many people running organizations that haven’t actually worked at more than one or two verticals in the industry,” she said. “And then all of a sudden they’re in charge.”

She also sees a generational challenge.

“All of the power is currently held by boomers and [Generation X] and primarily white male boomers,” she said. “And all of the interest in seeing change come up and making the industry something different is being fueled by millennials and [Generation Z].”

The industry has not embraced change during Mackey’s tenure in public media, she said. “I did not see the industry move quickly on anything,” she said. But since March, when the pandemic began to intensify, she sees that the industry is “realizing we have to serve our audiences differently.”

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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