Union sees headway on DEI goals at NPR but highlights ‘a lot more work to do’

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April Simpson/Current

A report this month by NPR’s Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists union found that network management has fallen short of meeting a majority of the union’s demands for measures to address diversity, equity and inclusion at the network.

In September 2020, the union’s DEI committee gave management a list of over a dozen demands focused on issues faced by employees of color. During NPR’s February board meeting, union members shared with management a progress report on those demands. Among their findings, a January survey of the union’s 500-plus members revealed that they see supporting and retaining employees of color as a crucial challenge for management.

“The recent series of departures of staffers of color from across the organization — some headline-making, many below the public’s radar — have only underlined what has long been true: The need for change is urgent, and a commitment to change must be sustained,” Yowei Shaw, co-host and editorial lead of NPR’s Invisibilia, said during the Feb. 17 board meeting.

The union members surveyed also criticized management for failing to meet demands on diversity initiatives, career development and source tracking. Union members also wanted NPR managers and executives to be held accountable for failing to make measurable progress toward diversity by withholding bonuses unless employee representation of people of color met at least 35% within every division. 

According to NPR, 78% of new hires in fiscal year 2021 were people of color, a 51% increase from the previous year and a 47.6% increase compared to 2019. However, editorial leadership has remained mostly white. Around 75% of editors classified as “Editor I” and above identified as white as of January, according to the union’s February update. 

The union analysis also found that 75% of employees in NPR’s three highest salary bands identified as white. At least 62% of NPR staffers overall identify as white, according to company data released in October

“Hiring people of color and people from more diverse backgrounds is not enough,” NPR reporter Camila Domonoske, a SAG-AFTRA steward, told Current. “It’s also important that they feel supported at NPR, and that that’s an area where the company has a lot more work to do.”

NPR management has learned from staffers’ exit interviews that some employees have been frustrated with a lack of opportunities for career development, according to spokesperson Isabel Lara.

“Overall, we saw staff looking for development and advancement and wanting to see a vision and strategy that tied to their work,” Lara said in an email to Current. “We also saw a sense of overwork/exhaustion. Compensation was also a driver in some cases.”

Management offers courses through NPR’s career development and learning team and editorial training team, and the organization is launching a pilot rotation program in the programming division that will run from March through May. Still, the union noted in its February update that most of the efforts that NPR management highlighted to the union’s DEI Accountability Committee in January apply to employees who want to gain management skills, rather than junior staffers who seek to develop reporting and editing opportunities.

“If you want to learn how to write good audio, how to be a manager, they have courses like coaching sessions, and they’re all great,” SAG-AFTRA steward Huo Jingnan, an assistant producer at NPR, told Current. “What’s less common is opportunities for staffers to gain hands-on experience. For example, if a producer wants to become a reporter, there is not a very straightforward way to do that.”

The union credits NPR CEO John Lansing for his commitment to diversity, which he has identified as the organization’s “North Star.” 

“I don’t doubt John Lansing’s sincerity on this,” said Domonoske. “He has been fairly consistent, and that is something that our members have noticed. He was saying this before people were taking to the streets after George Floyd died, and he has continued saying it long after.”

However, Lansing’s leadership hasn’t trickled down to all levels of management, Domonoske said. “There are individual people at NPR who say, ‘I hear it from John Lansing, but I don’t hear it from my manager,” she said.

After NPR rolled out Dex, a tool designed to track the demographics of interviewees on network programs, the union found that some teams have not been entering data into the system. NPR launched Dex in July, but it took until December for its use to be required, Domonoske said.

The union also included an assessment of its own shortcomings in the report. Its current roster of elected shop stewards does not reflect the diversity of union membership, the report said. Union members will continue meeting with shop stewards to offer input on proposals under consideration “to broaden the range of perspectives on decisions and help foster communication throughout the unit,” the union update stated.

The union will meet with management April 25 and will request updates in writing before quarterly meetings. New measures, such as additional demands and board engagement, could also follow.

Correction: An earlier version of this article provided the incorrect title for Huo Jingnan. She is an assistant producer, not an associate producer.

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