NPR union calls out organization’s diversity failings, demands changes

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April Simpson/Current

NPR’s SAG-AFTRA union challenged management and board leadership to commit to specific accountability measures for organizational goals of diversity, equity and inclusion Friday during a video conference of the NPR board. 

The union, which released a letter Wednesday acknowledging NPR’s failure “to fully reflect the public that it serves,” was represented by two union members and SAG-AFTRA’s national executive director at the meeting. They presented a list of 13 areas where they seek measurable improvements, from career development to pay equity.

NPR’s CEO and incoming board chair expressed support for working with the union and agreed that reforms need to be made at NPR and across the public media system.

Reporter Camila Domonoske, a SAG-AFTRA shop steward, told the board that past efforts to build a diverse workforce and inclusive culture at NPR haven’t gone far enough. “Our members … have painful past experience with NPR leadership saying that diversity is a priority, committing to change and failing to follow through,” she said. 

Domonoske is also a member of the Ad Hoc Committee on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion that wrote and released the letter to NPR management.

Among other demands, the letter calls on the news organization to develop a plan to align its newsroom staff with the demographic makeup of the U.S. “To understand the enormity of the problem and the extent of action needed to redress it, the current roster of roughly 100 reporters/correspondents would require, at a minimum, another 11 Black reporters, 19 Latino reporters and 2 Native American reporters to meet that standard,” the letter said.  

The committee called for NPR to tie compensation bonuses for executives and managers to goals to ensure that at least 35% people of color work in every division. 

NPR’s entire workforce is 34.4% people of color, but in the news and information division the number is 30%, according to the letter.

“The culture at NPR sets an example for the culture of hundreds of member stations nationwide, many of which represent the last stronghold of local news programming in their communities,” the letter said. “The failures of NPR are echoed throughout public media, and NPR must serve as a model for fixing those failures.”

Domonoske told the board that the authors of the letter focused on “very specific and measurable calls for action that we would be able to come back to our membership and the public with a reckoning of how much progress has been made.” 

“The demands that we’ve crafted here are not rhetorical,” Domonoske said. “We were really interested in crafting things that were concrete and meaningful and feasible — even during this current financial environment, which the unions and management have been working together to adapt to in really meaningful ways.”

“We issued these calls in public because we believe that transparency is a key tool for accountability,” Domonoske said. She acknowledged that the SAG-AFTRA unit at NPR has “failed to be a vocal ally” in previous efforts to address diversity, equity and inclusion and said that it has pledged to reform itself in addition to calling on management to act. 

Union members “deserve to see demonstrable steps and sustained change over time,” said David White, SAG-AFTRA’s national executive director and chief negotiator. “This does mean going beyond the mere expansion of diversity hires,” he said.

In recent meetings between the union and NPR leadership, management has demonstrated that the organization “does, in fact, share in the goals for increased diversity of all kinds at NPR,” White said.

Following White’s remarks, NPR CEO John Lansing said, “We agree with everything you said. We look forward to working with you and partnering with you. It’s an existential threat to our ultimate success to fulfill our mission. And we have to get it right.”

NPR board member LaFontaine Oliver, GM of WYPR in Baltimore and incoming board chair, also responded to the SAG-AFTRA representatives. “Many of you know, this is an issue that has been really, really important to me for quite a long time, as a person of color in this system,” Oliver said. “And so I look forward to working hand in hand with everyone on this.”

Lansing, who joined NPR in October, previously described his goal to expand the diversity of NPR’s audience as a priority for the organization. 

In remarks to the board Friday that preceded the union reps’ presentation, he went further: “We have to act now to end racism in public radio.”

Pointing to the overwhelming whiteness among public media leaders and decision-makers, he said, “That has to change.”  

“We cannot embrace and reflect diversity in our content if we don’t do it in our workplaces, in our newsrooms and in our boardrooms,” Lansing said. 

NPR is making diversity the “center” of its draft strategic plan for the next three years, he said, and pointed to other initiatives, such as adding “clear sourcing metrics” in agreements with member stations participating in collaborative journalism efforts. 

The SAG-AFTRA letter demands better source tracking within NPR’s newsroom, among other reforms. NPR already tracks sources, but “the reality is that the implementation of this across the newsroom is scattershot, and reporters and producers have not been given the tools they need to do this effectively,” the letter said.

The union calls for every NPR team to begin tracking sources under a standardized set of guidelines and with resources for analyzing the data being collected. 

To address concerns about retention, the union called on management to conduct confidential exit interviews with all employees who leave and to complete a biannual analysis of DEI issues raised in those meetings. 

The group wants NPR to commit to correcting the news and programming division’s “long-running failure to invest in the careers of its producers and junior employees.” It wants NPR to offer internal fellowships and provide other ways for employees to gain experience that will allow them to advance in the organization.

For new managers, even those in acting roles, the union wants NPR to provide management training. “Too often NPR has put Black and brown people into acting/temporary management positions without training or support, a ‘glass cliff’ practice that sets them up to fail,” the letter said.

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