If you want to know why people are leaving public media, all you have to do is ask.
That’s what we did after the departures of several NPR hosts in late 2021 and early this year made headlines. The “Great Resignation” was already underway when Lulu Garcia-Navarro announced in September 2021 that she would leave NPR. She later revealed that she would join the New York Times.
In the following months, NPR’s Noel King, Audie Cornish and Sam Sanders all signed off to join commercial media outlets as well. And regular readers of our “Comings and goings” column would notice the pubmedia brain drain spurred by the growth of for-profit podcasting. Even people outside of the system media were asking: What’s wrong with public media?
So over the summer, we fielded an anonymous survey asking people who had left public media within the past five years to tell us why. After we eliminated responses from those who exceeded that time window or who hadn’t actually worked in public media, we were left with 340 responses.
Nearly half of respondents — 47.4% — left public media this year or in 2021. That could be in part because employees who left the system before then might be less likely to have seen our survey. But it also tracks with the pace of departures during the Great Resignation.
We offered respondents several options for describing why they left and allowed more than one choice. Their answers clustered around several primary reasons: burnout, unhappiness with workplace culture, and a lack of opportunity to advance. The vast majority of our respondents left willingly, though some said they had been fired or laid off.
Reasons for leaving the system didn’t vary greatly among respondents’ races, though people of color — 51.5% of those respondents — more often cited feeling unable to advance. That was a concern among 44.5% of white respondents. (People of color accounted for 19.4% of our respondents.)
The differences among genders, however, were more significant. Women made up 58.5% of our respondents, while men accounted for 34.1%, and nonbinary/third gender respondents, 2%. Among respondents who chose to leave the system, women and nonbinary/third gender people more frequently pointed to burnout, workplace culture and feeling unable to advance than men did.
We looked at whether the reasons people cited for leaving corresponded with the year they left. Some reasons stayed constant over time, but others showed a clearer trend.
We can all attest to the pressures of juggling our lives, jobs and health amid the coronavirus pandemic. So perhaps it’s not surprising that burnout increasingly became a problem, peaking among people who left in 2021. It was cited as the reason by 67.9% of our respondents who moved on that year.
We asked our survey-takers if they’d consider returning to public media. 69.4% said yes. But many said only with some big caveats.
In answering that question, many of our respondents vented about their biggest frustrations with their jobs. They had a lot to get off their chests, including complaints about burnout. One former employee said they loved their job, “but I couldn't grow and became burned out … [I] was expected to do three jobs and was one person.”
‘I work way too hard to be so poor’
Our results revealed another factor that became increasingly unbearable in recent years — low pay and benefits. More than half of respondents who left public media this year cited compensation, the highest percentage in the last five years. Across the country, public media journalists have been tackling this issue with a growing push to unionize. For some, it appears that it proved easier to simply leave the industry.
We did not see big discrepancies in dissatisfaction with pay across races and genders. But former employees of joint licensees and radio stations were more likely to cite pay as a reason for leaving their jobs.
Here’s what some respondents said about their low earnings:
“Public media organizations are chronically undercapitalized and the work environment is strained. Expectations are high, and staff compensation is low. It is difficult to attract skilled leaders to these organizations.”
“I have no reason to believe anyone in public media would ever offer me a living wage. I work way too hard to be so poor.”
“The pay is so low it’s unlivable, so unless I were to see an opportunity to freelance in a role aligned with my skills and interests, while gaining decent compensation elsewhere, I can’t imagine going back.”
‘I can't see a way for public media to improve’
Unhappiness with workplace culture emerged as another significant factor pushing people out of public media. And there’s a definite gender gap, with women and nonbinary people more likely to mention workplace culture.
Former public radio employees were also the most likely to say that workplace culture influenced their decision to leave the system.
Given the chance to tell us more about why they left public media, some respondents expanded on the workplace cultures that they encountered.
“I think I might consider it [returning to public media] if I found a station that seemed like a decent environment. But that’s what I told myself when I was in public media, and every place I went was full of infighting, difficult bosses and a lack of opportunity for advancement, so I don’t have a lot of confidence that the magic place will come along that is actually good to its younger employees.”
“Honestly, the egos are too big and the pay is too small. People on the lower rungs bust their butts every day to make really good work, while ‘higher ups’ sit on tenure-like positions until they retire, while not holding the door for younger talent. Also, tons of structural racism and classism. … While I miss the actual creative work and great storytelling ideas around me, I don't miss the fragile egos and resource-hoarding.”
“I can’t see a way for public media to improve. There’s a lot of talk, but not a lot of action, to making this a better industry for young POC with different perspectives on how to cover their communities.”
A few other themes emerged in the long-form responses about why people left public media. Some respondents said leadership within their organizations spurred them to leave. These former employees did not mince words.
“I love public media. It is just being run by idiots at the moment.”
“I believe in it and the mission. Maybe once the boomers get out of management positions it won't be as terrible.”
“The response to #MeToo/The Reckoning in public media showed me how little the leadership cared for the safety of its most vulnerable (and some of its most devoted) employees.”
And more than a few comments focused on public media’s failure to innovate in an increasingly competitive media environment.
“I worry the public media system is unsustainable and sinking.”
“Wow, I want public media to work. It has the potential to be so much more than for-profit media. But it needs to get over its identity crisis and work towards its values, rather than trying to imitate for-profit media. NPR doesn’t need to be like The New York Times. It needs to be NPR.”
“Classical radio has not had sufficiently capable, transformative, progressive leadership in the U.S. to make it a work environment in which I could be confident of having a future for the next 20 years. I opted out for a work setting that is more courageous, optimistic and risk tolerant.”
“I feel public media has a lot of catching up to do. The rest of the industry is moving fast and innovating quickly. I felt underutilized at my last job and as if I was hitting a wall whenever I shared a new idea. If public media wants to retain staff, it needs to [be] open to change and the people who are offering to help it grow and be sustainable for the future.”
“Public media, as a network, is not serious about thriving in the digital age.”
We’d like to thank everyone who took the time to answer our survey. Are you nodding your head reading their comments? Have you left public media, or thought about it? Tell us about it in an email. We’ll continue to cover this topic and want to keep the conversation going.