In Hiring, Public Radio Still Favors its Tribe

Judith’s website

I didn’t follow the usual path to a career in public media. My degree is in International Studies, not journalism; my college internship was with the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, not NPR; my post-graduation fellowship was with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, not the Kroc program. Whenever I tell fellow public radio professionals about my unusual background, I often get a subtle eyebrow raise … and a slight feeling of shame.

The fact is, our industry, like many, has a tendency to favor its own tribe. This is less true than it once was, especially with the advent of digital platforms, but the bias is still there. So when my friend, mentor, and soon-to-be PRNDI Leo C. Lee award honoree Tanya Ott started a Facebook thread today that kicked off a lively conversation about this, it really struck a chord. Or maybe a nerve.

An Unusual Path

My first journalism internship and my first journalism jobs were at Feature Story News (FSN), a broadcast news agency with clients all over the world – radio and TV, public and commercial – most with much larger audiences than your average local public radio station in the US. When I started applying for jobs at those US public radio stations, however, my first observation (and frustration) was how clubby that world was. One interviewer said he needed to talk to a reference who was his “colleague,” meaning someone in public radio. One person referred to me as “very green,” despite my six years of broadcast journalism experience.

When someone finally took a chance and hired me as a reporter at a local public radio station (I think the job had been open a long time and they were desperate!), my second observation was how valuable my non-traditional background was:

  • My studies and my early work in international relations gave me knowledge of and perspective on the world beyond my field and my broadcast area.
  • My work for different types of broadcasters exposed me to a universe of writing and reporting styles, almost all of which are valid.
  • My experience at FSN taught me to work quickly and to write strong leads and tight copy – skills I’ve been surprised to find lacking in many public radio newsrooms. I was shocked when my first pubradio assignment was a 45-second spot … and that’s all I was expected to do all day!

Bias Hard to Overcome

Years later, however, I became a public radio news director, and suddenly, I was the one doing the hiring. Despite my own non-traditional background, I found myself struggling to fight that same urge that drove me so crazy as a job applicant – the urge to favor people who are already “in the club.”

Right or wrong, here are some assumptions we make on the other side of the hiring desk:

  • People in the club speak our language.
    They know what “The Clock” is. They know a “feature” usually means any long-form story, even if it’s a hard news story (which isn’t the case in much of the journalism world, and it still drives me a little bit bonkers).
  • People in the club understand the public radio sensibility.
    They know our focus is on long-form storytelling, and they know something about how to produce those types of stories. They know we’re probably not going to listen to the police scanner or chase breaking news unless it’s really big … and they’re ok with that.
  • People outside the club will need a lot of training.
    There, perhaps, is the rub. And unlike the previous two assumptions, it’s almost always true. Even the best journalist who comes from outside public media will need to be brought up to speed (the same would be true if I went to work for a newspaper or a commercial radio station!). That’s one thing for large organizations with the staffs and budgets to accommodate those training needs, but the reality of most public media organizations is that all training and mentoring falls to the people in positions like the ones I held (news director, managing editor, etc.). They feel stretched as it is, and often, they simply don’t feel they’d have enough time to properly mentor a new employee from outside public media.

Needed: Recruitment & Training Resources … and an Open Mind

I could make some suggestions here, but for regular readers of this blog, they would sound pretty redundant. They all involve resources (i.e., money and staff) – particularly, more resources for recruitment and hiring (another task that generally falls entirely to the top news person) and for staff training, mentoring, and development.

The bottom line is, you do take a risk when you hire someone from The Outside. Sometimes it pays off in spades (one of the best hosts I’ve ever heard anywhere started his public radio career at my station in Orlando, and he came straight from commercial radio — he wasn’t my hire, but I sure wish I could take credit for him).  On the other hand, sometimes you take that risk, and it bites you right in the butt.

The best advice I can give to pubmedia news managers is to keep an open mind … but always hold out for the right person. Hiring is one of the most important things you will ever do.

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In Hiring, Public Radio Still Favors its Tribe

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