Private and public reckonings over public media’s commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion in our workplaces and audience service signal profound shifts in what employees and supporters expect from our local and national organizations.
Since sexual harassment allegations of the #MeToo movement toppled men who led public media newsrooms and signature programs such as The Takeaway, Charlie Rose and A Prairie Home Companion, staff at stations and national organizations are speaking publicly and anonymously about continuing problems in their workplaces. Leaders who failed to address misconduct, racism and power disparities have been called out publicly on social media and in news coverage. Some have left their jobs, or are preparing to.
Considering the breadth and depth of controversies, it’s a small wonder that public radio and television have kept a lid for so long on the deep problems that have been exposed in public media’s workplace culture. Use of Twitter and Medium as platforms for testimonials of unresolved grievances — as well as the wider movement of unionization of journalists — has changed unwritten rules that compelled acquiescence from previous generations. The #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements pushed our mainstream American culture to take people’s experiences with abuse seriously. Public media’s moment of redress has arrived.
It is for this reason that people of color came together to found and lead Public Media for All, an initiative to raise awareness about the negative effects of public media’s white-dominated culture and power structure. Our vision is to share solutions for individuals and organizations to address problems with diversity, equity and inclusion. As with any effort of this nature, some of us are privileged enough to speak openly. Others, due to life or work factors, have less visible roles. Nevertheless, all of us are united in pursuit of a better public media industry.
Much of the movement for change in public media workplaces to date has been led by staff in public radio newsrooms. Yet issues of diversity, equity and inclusion go far beyond journalists, news directors and the content they produce. We must engage the boards of directors that choose our leaders and reexamine the hiring and training of managers in every division of our organizations. Members of the Community Advisory Boards that assess station service also have roles to play.
To fix public media’s problems and improve our culture, we must think beyond recruiting diverse voices and focus on how to retain these talented staff and advance their careers. Moreover, we all need to recognize that change, including demographic change of our communities and our audiences, is a constant in the world we live and work in. We must adapt and embrace change as a value in our institutions.
If any other industry had its top organizations, and many other less prominent ones, enmeshed in scandals over racism, public media journalists would rightfully ask, “What is wrong here? What is in the culture of these organizations to bring everyone to this point?” For any industry whose senior leaders and celebrated talents were called out for harassment and instances of explicit and implicit bias, people inside and outside that field would express concern, work to identify the problems and discuss how to implement reforms.
At what point do we as public media professionals — and collectively as an industry — address failures in matters of diversity, equity and inclusion with urgency?
The co-founders of Public Media for All came together from a range of disciplines, including development, content and operations. With organizations like Public Radio Association of Development Officers, Public Media Women in Leadership and the National Federation of Community Broadcasters, white allies and professionals of color are calling for courageous conversations and actions. These could include supporting every person who wants to tell the story of their experience in public media, or simply sharing news and information on diversity issues across the system when it’s hard to come by. We hope to embolden those professionals who largely stay silent to feel called instead to speak up. We created the hashtag #PublicAF for this purpose and encourage allies to use it.
In building this work, Public Media for All’s organizers sat in on virtually every DEI panel convened this year. Each of those discussions returned to a familiar theme: stations and professionals want changes that are actionable — recommendations and best practices for organizations to improve and steps that people can take to make a difference around diversity, equity and inclusion.
Public Media for All has put together resources for professionals of color, white allies, organizations and audiences who care about these issues. Yet we also appreciate that, in 2020, everyone wants to take actions that will be visible expressions of our support and commitment to transformation in public media.
To that end, Public Media for All has declared November 10 a day of action and education for diversity, equity and inclusion in public media. We seek to engage 500 public media professionals and fans to take the day off from work and help to draw attention to diversity issues. We are asking everyone to sign up now to participate.
Individuals who register will remain anonymous. You can take the day for your mental health, to volunteer with a local nonprofit serving communities of color or to do local planning about the issue. We invite public media audiences and supporters to express why this issue matters to them. White allies are asked to seek more accountability where people of color may fear retaliation. Participating organizations, including Greater Public and the Association of Independents in Radio, are being asked to make commitments to diversity training and growth within 30 days, one year and three years of their agreement to participate. Many more recommended actions and readings are available at the Public Media for All website. In addition, we will be organizing a moment of silence and a panel discussion for this date.
If we are to fully realize the promises that public media has represented for many Americans, collective action is needed from everyone who loves public media — from workers to audiences to leadership. Excuses about why things couldn’t happen and how hard it is to lead are no longer acceptable. It is a time for all of us to take responsibility.
Public Media for All’s November 10 day of action is one tangible way rank-and-file employees, senior leaders and organizations can come together to seek accountability. However, it can only be regarded as a beginning. Organizational commitments to substantive changes, as outlined on our website, and resolutions of individual professionals to use their own influence to insist on change will ultimately determine our success.
Ernesto Aguilar is program director of the National Federation of Community Broadcasters. He co-authored this commentary with other members of Public Media for All.