Challenge for public radio: inspiring, hiring, keeping talent

By Stephanie Lash

Ira Glass has another vision. The first one launched his hugely successful show, This American Life, which developed a fresh narrative style for public radio. Now Glass has a plan for an entirely new generation of storytellers who can bring public radio into the new millennium.

But that takes talent, something that many say has been in short supply for public radio the past few years. At the Public Radio Conference last month in Orlando, the buzz about the talent crunch dominated discussions among managers, producers, editors and engineers alike. The pool of journalists and technicians interested in pursuing public radio is shrinking as the economy grows, while opportunities abound in dot-com start-ups, drawing away everyone from writers to fundraisers, experts say. Many at the PRC said they not only need to retain employees longer, particularly in production and technical areas, but also to improve the quality of work in the system as a whole.

“There’s a crisis of talent, and I think we sound that way,” said Laura Walker, president of WNYC, New York.

Turnover and station expansion are also increasing demand for workers: a glance at Current‘s classified pages shows the number of help-wanted ads per issue has almost doubled between May 1999 and May 2000.

“It’s really hard to find people in public radio,” said consultant/headhunter Tom Livingston. “We have a full employment economy now, and every industry is facing this kind of problem.”

With many stations doing well financially, some are expanding and adding production capabilities, new shows and local news teams, he said. But competition in the overheated job market leaves a shrunken pool of applicants. That has many pubcasters worried about the future.

“We need to become radio evangelists,” Walker said.

Hence the springboard for Glass’s proposal: making the airwaves “less dull” and infusing life into the medium to drive both interest and talent to radio journalism. Saying that the most important thing the public radio community needs to do is invest in and train new producers, Glass spoke out against the “old” system at the PRC’s PRI affiliates meeting.

“Why are we not producing big new hits?” he asked, adding that no flagship shows like Car Talk, Morning Edition and All Things Considered have been developed in the last decade. “The next thing we have to do is do all the things we’re doing now and be less dull … we’re just not delighting often enough.”

Many PRC attendees voiced support for Glass’s proposal, which called for a systemwide response to the staffing crunch by organizing a program that would pair talented producers and reporters with up-and-comers from affiliated stations. The program, which would last anywhere from 13 to 26 weeks, would require mentors to check in with their students once a week to monitor their progress and ask what new, innovative approaches their “students” had taken with their stories. Glass said he envisioned a weekly hour-long discussion period in which the team would review the past week’s work and plan for the upcoming week with the goal of developing enticing on-air moments and compelling narratives that create three-dimensional characters.

That method has proven profitable for Glass, whose TAL stormed into the scene five years ago and became a sensation using just those tactics. Jay Allison, an independent producer, said that many students looking to break into radio come to him with Glass as their role model. The mentoring program Glass has proposed would take such inspiration and use it to build new talent.

“It’s just not that big of a deal,” Glass said. “It just takes a little doing.”

But that’s not anything new for Doug Mitchell. For six years, Mitchell has been developing and running training programs for aspiring journalists anxious to get a taste of radio news while still in college. Mitchell, executive producer of NPR’s Weekly Edition, spends a large chunk of his busy schedule organizing such programs at journalism conferences nationwide. Students spend an intensive week covering the goings-on with a professional mentor by their side. Mitchell’s students at the PRC produced daily newscasts about the conference and a newsmagazine, even including a feature on nearby non-Disney attractions.

Mitchell said he was encouraged by the attention given to training at the PRC, adding that the next step is to open the lines of communication to share ideas and projects among member stations. That sharing, plus an increased focus on fostering talent by getting students interested in public radio, will help close the gap, he said.

“If you’re concerned about the health of the network in the future, you’ve got to plant the seeds,” Mitchell said. “You’ve got to grow your own.”

This summer will see Mitchell doing just that. He’ll be running similar training programs at six journalism conferences nationwide and will be visiting Columbia University in July to attend the Maynard Institute for Journalism Excellence meeting about adapting stories from one medium to another.

But NPR is also looking to expand training programs that exist within the system. Bruce Drake, NPR’s acting v.p. for news, said the network has regional training programs at member stations and is working to develop an in-house system. Bill Davis, v.p. of programming, added that internal training is a high budgeting priority for the fiscal year 2001 budget at NPR. Davis said that the pool of executive producer-level talent in the system is “razor thin” and that the issue is serious.

That’s where programs like Jay Allison’s could help. Allison is launching his own initiative to get fresh voices on the air and get more people interested in radio journalism. In a few weeks, Allison will launch Transom.org, a web site focused on encouraging new radio stories for public radio. The site will feature a monthly contest for those interested in experimenting with radio and entrants will have the ability to work with public radio professionals to develop their pieces for eventual air.

“The point of this site is to make public radio better,” Allison said. “If it has the corollary benefit of training, then bravo!”

While many argue that salaries in public radio need to be increased in order to attract the talent needed to accomplish such mission, others are quick to point out that the mission of public broadcasting is what attracted many of its founders.

“The only thing I think we have to offer, to hook [new journalists] on is our sense of purpose, our good heart, our public service and our mission,” Allison said. “And we have to pay them well enough to live. But my theory is that if we’re not an incredibly exciting, fun, creative place to be, then all we are is a place that doesn’t pay well.”

Many have attributed the current staffing crunch to the lure of high salaries and stock options in dot-com companies. Public radio, with its limited budgets and usually small staffs, can’t compete on a salary basis with Internet companies bidding for content producers.

One area that is especially feeling the crunch is engineering. With consolidation in the commercial market, large companies owning clusters of four or five stations in a market are able to pay hefty salaries for operating multiple stations. But public radio can’t afford to pay as well. Jobie Sprinkle, director of engineering for WCQS, Asheville, N.C., and WFAE, Charlotte, N.C., remembers that as he was entering the field there were many engineers being trained at smaller stations and working their way up the ladder to larger markets. Now, he says, with a core group of engineers nearing retirement, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to lure newer talent away from computer jobs offering higher salaries. As a consultant to many stations in his area, both public and commercial, Sprinkle says he prefers to work for public radio because of the medium’s mission–a factor that he hopes will draw younger engineers.

“We do twist wires and fix computers, but we do it so the public hears our mission, they hear NPR and PRI,” Sprinkle said. “We may not be on the creativity end and content end, but we work on and make possible the transportation medium that gets the products to folks. Engineers take that satisfaction to their jobs.”

That may be public radio’s strongest selling point in competing for workers. Many, like Mitchell, Allison and Livingston, point out that graduating students aren’t necessarily going to pick high salaries over quality work if they truly enjoy what they’re doing.

“We came for the mission,” Allison remembers. “We didn’t come for the money.”

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