Last year brought a host of challenges to NPR: a multimillion-dollar deficit, calls for changes in its workplace culture and a hit to broadcast listening.
Leading the organization through it all is CEO John Lansing, a longtime media executive who has been on the job since October 2019. He joined NPR after serving as CEO of the U.S. Agency for Global Media.
Lansing said in an interview with Current Thursday that one of his first observations upon joining NPR was that “we needed to double down our efforts” in diversity, equity and inclusion. He soon made DEI the top priority at NPR. Diversity is the “North Star” of a newly implemented strategic plan, Lansing said, because it “filters through everything that we do with all of our work.”
Lansing also spoke to Current about the challenges of implementing his DEI plans, the organization’s financial outlook and his thoughts about the recent controversies at USAGM.
This is an edited transcript of the conversation among Lansing, Current Reporter Tyler Falk and Digital Editor Mike Janssen.
Current: How have your priorities for NPR changed since you became CEO?
Lansing: When I came in in 2019, my earliest observation was that our biggest issue was the lack of diversity in our audience, and I felt that we needed to double down our efforts in DEI throughout our organization in order to fulfill the promise to reflect the entire American public in terms of what America looks like. And so in late 2019 we began working on a set of priorities for the calendar year 2020 that included promoting Keith Woods to chief diversity officer; putting more energy behind our effort to have 100% sourcing and notating the diversity of our sources; and hiring, leadership, unconscious bias training, et cetera. Our DEI efforts at the beginning of 2020 were not a project or an extracurricular activity; it really became our work. And I was very proud of the progress we were making.
And I still think we have a long way to go. Certainly in the aftermath of the George Floyd murder on Memorial Day weekend, our efforts accelerated and we doubled down on communication, training and listening. And as the year unfolded, we began to develop our three-year strategic plan. … What we now call the North Star of our strategic plan is our DEI efforts as it filters through everything that we do with all of our work.
Current: Last year, the SAG-AFTRA union called out NPR’s previous failures on issues of diversity, equity and inclusion and asked management to commit to accountability measures. You have stated that DEI is your top priority at NPR. What steps does NPR still need to take in this area?
Lansing: SAG-AFTRA came out with their letter around our September board meeting in 2020. It’s something that we certainly support. I established DEI as our top priority on Jan. 5 of 2020. And our work began then. It didn’t begin in the summer — it accelerated in the summer. So we were pleased to see SAG-AFTRA join our efforts. And we’re pleased to work with them. And the work goes on. As I said, it’s hiring, it’s emphasis on diversity in leadership, diversity in sources, diversity in voices, diversity in the stories we tell, training around our organization. It has become enshrined in our three-year strategic plan as the centerpiece of all of our work. It’s not a sidebar. It is our work. And we’re happy to see SAG-AFTRA agree with us and to join up.
Current: What are some of the highlights of that strategic plan?
Lansing: You have to imagine a picture, if you will. At the center of a graphic is our commitment to DEI, and all of our work in that circle is surrounded by four pillars. The work of those pillars will be done through the lens of improving our efforts on DEI.
The first pillar is to expand the power of the national-local partnership into the on-demand future. We’re finishing up in the next two to three weeks the specific lists of actions and activities under these pillars. But an example of that one that we’ve already created is the Consider This podcast, which is just a terrific example of taking the national-local partnership into the on-demand future.
The second pillar is to transform our workplace culture. This is essentially the DEI work writ large, but also our culture of respect, safety, upward mobility, training and making NPR a world-class organization for which to work.
Our third pillar is to optimize content and meet audiences where they are. Our goal of developing our audience as a younger and more diverse audience requires that we invest in marketing, we invest in content, and we partner with platforms where those audiences can be found rather than expecting younger and more diverse audiences to come to our platforms, necessarily.
And the fourth one is to diversify and grow our revenue models so that we’re not overly reliant on one or two revenue streams to help strengthen our future financials. So those are the four pillars that rotate around the centerpiece, we call it the North Star, of our commitment to DEI.
Current: What challenges have you faced in implementing your DEI plans?
Lansing: Everybody’s at a different place with DEI depending on where they stand, whether that’s a person who is white and doesn’t understand how white privilege has improved their standing in their career in a way that persons of color may have not experienced. Or persons of color who are in our organization that are hearing [about] a lot of activity but aren’t experiencing what they believe they should be experiencing in terms of a workplace where they feel like they can grow and improve their work and improve their careers. So it’s a constant commitment to communication, to training, to accountability. And probably the most important accountability is that, first of all, I hold myself accountable with my goals that I report to the board. And my top goal is to support, in particular, the women of color at NPR so that they feel like they have more upward mobility. We discovered in our most recent climate survey that that was an area that we needed to put more effort into.
But my goals also go to all of my direct reports. And they’re all expected to articulate a DEI goal that’s measurable, actionable, and that they can be held accountable for and will be. So at the end of the day, it’s a commitment, but this also has to be accountability. And I’m holding myself accountable with my board and I’ve been and am holding my direct reports accountable to me. It’s my expectation that that will expand throughout the organization, so that everybody understands it’s everybody’s job, and the accountability is going to be something that we measure and transparently report back out.
Current: When was the climate survey conducted?
Lansing: That was conducted back in September. There was one the year before I was here, then this was the follow-up.
Current: Did anything else stand out to you in that survey that you believe needed attention and needs attention?
Lansing: Generally, the numbers that we would like to see in terms of the diversity of our audience — we’re still lagging. And our number one goal is to improve our audience diversity. Doing that just requires that we’re putting more emphasis on the diversity of our decision makers, our leadership, our story selection, our source selection. So it’s an ongoing effort. We’re certainly not over, we’re not at a finish line. We have many miles to go. But that’s our commitment.
Current: NPR has helped stations during the pandemic by delaying planned changes to the dues they pay. When will that freeze be lifted?
Lansing: We aren’t in a position to answer that until we know for sure when the pandemic is going to subside. But we made a firm commitment, as you know, to freeze station dues and fees. And for those stations that were scheduled to have a reduction, we allowed those reductions to go forward with a floor of 3% so that nobody’s dues went up. And some stations who had a schedule to go down actually were allowed to go down. It was about a $3 million cost to NPR for the fiscal year. But we felt like it was an important investment to make in our member stations to support them during the pandemic.
Current: How else might NPR assist stations in the coming year?
Lansing: I guess my head turns first to the journalism of our member stations. Considering the demise of local newspapers around the country and the growth of our member stations’ newsrooms around the country, we’re really working hard to support their local journalism, because it’s so important to us. We’re working with them to create regional newsrooms in Texas and California and the Midwest and in the Gulf. We’re working with them to do joint investigative reporting. We’re working with member stations on topic teams for, say, political reporting or criminal justice reporting across the system. We can share resources and story ideas, and we can help organize and support those efforts.
We couldn’t be more proud of the quality and the depth of the journalism that’s coming from the member stations, and it really has strengthened the entire system enormously. The work they’ve done during the pandemic has been nothing short of miraculous in many cases, particularly given the summer of racial reckoning, the most unusual presidential election in memory and everything that’s gone on since.
Current: NPR’s budget also took a hit because of the pandemic. What is the outlook for the rest of the fiscal year?
Lansing: Let’s go back in time. As we got to April of last spring, we saw a massive deficit develop for NPR on the order of about $25 million. That was due largely to reductions in corporate sponsorship and also additional expenses we were incurring in supporting our employees with paid time off, as we adjusted to the new working arrangements and the stresses that we were all under and also the additional expense of cleaning the headquarters multiple times a day on certain occasions. We went from about 900 people a day at headquarters down to about 80 and were virtually broadcasting from people’s homes and offices, in terms of the hosts, almost exclusively beginning in April.
As we moved through the summer, that deficit remained at about $25 million. It began to improve a little bit as we moved into August and September, as corporate sponsorships began to recover a little bit. That with a combination of expense cuts, including our employees and our management all taking voluntary pay cuts and benefit cuts, helped close that deficit gap.
So we’re now into the new fiscal year. The budget for the new fiscal year is set below last year’s actual based on our forecasts on continued downward pressure on corporate sponsorship. I will say in the last three or four weeks we’ve seen a little bit of an uptick in a positive way on corporate sponsorship. We’ve also seen very positive upticks in development. We’ve had a couple of significant anonymous gifts that have helped shore up our forecast for the coming fiscal year. We’re still looking at a deficit, but we’re hopeful that by the time we get into March, we’ll have a pretty clear-eyed view of how the year is going to end up. And it’s tied to the same variables you would know yourselves, which is, how fast can the vaccines be deployed? Will there be another stimulus? How does the economy react to all of that? All of those underlying effects generally lead to whatever effects we’re going to have in corporate sponsorship.
Current: How much were those anonymous gifts? Were they targeted to specific spending areas or just for general costs?
Lansing: They were for general. There were three of them, each for $1 million.
Current: NPR and a group of stations started a pilot project around collaborative fundraising in 2019. How has that effort been progressing?
Lansing: About 11 months ago, in February, a pilot group of 15 stations got together and put together an 18-month plan to begin the process. But after the pandemic hit in mid-March, we got together with our cohort and said, “Why wait 18 months? We need help now.” So we began an intensive set of Zoom meetings that I attended, each one with a member station and a qualified potential donor. And I would do a board-level review for the donor or donors as to where the business was, the value of the work we were doing, the things we were adding in terms of covering the pandemic. And it really opened the funnel. It did not drive a lot of immediate donations, but there were some. At Colorado Public Radio, I think there was a $300,000 donation that came out of that. But we’re going to continue to follow up on that going into this year. … There were about 20, 25 different meetings in the course of about 45 days. We collected a lot of data and we have a lot of good follow-up opportunities, and I’ll continue to offer myself up as a direct resource in that pilot project.
Current: Companies like Spotify and Amazon have been pouring big money into podcasting. Apple is reportedly building a podcast subscription service. How are you working to shore up NPR’s place in the podcasting landscape and compete with deep-pocketed tech companies?
Lansing: That’s a great question. We still remain one of the top, if not the top, podcasters in America. … I was very pleased to see Code Switch named as Apple’s top podcast of the year. We’ve seen significant growth in Code Switch, in Louder Than a Riot, in Sam Sanders’ podcast [It’s Been a Minute], in part because for the first time in a while, we’re really investing in marketing support for those podcasts. And we’ve seen that really help them grow.
Coming into public media, which I love, I noticed something that would be unusual in commercial media, in that there really wasn’t a great investment in marketing podcasting to outside audiences off of our platforms. So I brought in Michael Smith as our new chief marketing officer almost a year ago. Michael was a senior marketing executive at Scripps for Food Network and HGTV and really brings a lot of media marketing expertise. And now in our budgeting we’re shifting some revenue for Michael to use that to promote and support our podcasts as they compete, as you note, with other large commercial businesses.
Current: Can you be more specific about what that looks like in terms of how you reach people who may not already know about NPR’s podcasts?
Lansing: It’s on social media platforms or YouTube or through media partnerships. But mostly it’s targeted at marketing investments on social media platforms that are specifically reaching out to younger and more diverse audiences to see if we can drive sampling. And we’ve seen some significant success with that.
Current: With broadcast listening declining during the pandemic, what is NPR doing to address and adjust to those trends?
Lansing: Back in May and June, it was an alarming decline in radio ratings. There’s no question about it. We’ve seen a gradual comeback. Now with the magazine shows on weekdays we’re about 20% behind last year, which is a significant improvement over where we were about eight months ago. The ratings for our weekend magazine shows are actually slightly greater than they were a year ago pre-pandemic, so that’s a bright spot. It’s pretty clear to me that the ratings decline in radio is driven by commuting patterns. So I think that’s being offset by some listening through smart speakers and even online, and that’s helping to offset some of the reduction in listening within vehicles. I don’t know if you’ve been on the highway recently, but there’s a lot more traffic on the highway today than there would have been last May and June.
Current: You recently made some changes to NPR’s digital strategy by moving to integrate digital operations into divisions throughout the organization.This also includes eliminating the role of chief digital officer held by Thomas Hjelm at the end of February. Why did you undertake this?
Lansing: When we look at our strategic plan and our commitment to growing our audience of the future, it’s clear to us that every corner of NPR has a digital on-demand initiative that’s critical to our success and that it makes more sense to have the digital assets closer to the work that’s influencing our audiences and growing our audiences. And it’s something that I think will strengthen the ability for news programming, marketing and member services to be more responsive and to offer greater service to audiences in a more agile way.
Current: Do you have any examples of how digital operations would be integrated into divisions throughout the organization?
Lansing: We’re still working on it right now. It’s an inclusive process. We’re consulting with digital media, we’re consulting with the division heads, and we’re doing it as an all-hands project so that we get it right. It’s not something we’ve baked and we’re just going to hand it down. In a large part, the digital teams and the divisions will work together to reach a final model.
Current: Is there a timeline for that process?
Lansing: We hope to have that completed within about eight to 10 weeks.
Current: Why are NPR and its partners looking to sell the Pocket Casts podcast app?
Lansing: I don’t know how long that may or may not take, but our emphasis right now is on our own internal digital strategy, digital production, digital storytelling. And it’s where our focus needs to be right now.
Current: You came to NPR after serving as CEO of the U.S. Agency for Global Media. Last year, President Trump appointed Michael Pack as USAGM’s CEO. Pack then took a number of actions that raised fears about the independence of the agency, which includes Voice of America. What was it like for you to watch that happen?
Lansing: I guess I would comment just as a citizen watching from outside. I had been gone for the better part of a year or so. And I had a lot of interest in how my former team was being treated, but more importantly, just as an American citizen, how the work of USAGM through VOA [Voice of America] and RFE/RL [Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty] was threatening to undermine the interests of the United States government by politicizing journalism that was meant by law to be free of political interference. So I’m pleased to see that that short era is over.