Technicians reject network's contract offer
Custody of 'NPR sound'
at stake in union battle
Update of article published in Current, Jan. 14, 2002
By Mike Janssen
Unionized technicians at NPR rejected a contract offer Jan. 11  that would end longstanding rules governing who at the network can record audio on location, mix pieces for broadcast and perform other duties. The mail vote went 89 percent against the contract and 10 percent for.
NPR management proposed the contract to take advantage of new digital technology that renders analog tape machines obsolete and makes it easier for producers to finish taped reports. Technicians, some of whom spend an estimated 65 percent of their time mixing pieces, worry that the contract might make their jobs obsolete as well.
The contract emerged from more than two years of negotiations between NPR management and the 80 or so employees who belong to the National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians (NABET), a sector of the Communications Workers of America (CWA). Technicians at NPR's Washington, D.C., headquarters and at its bureaus in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco voted to join NABET in April 1999.
The ensuing months of negotiations led to a management offer that technicians and other NPR staffers expected to lose last week's vote.
"The bargaining team was reluctant to submit [to a vote] a package that we were not recommending," says Paula Olson, the NABET-CWA staff representative for NPR's bargaining unit. "But we've come to a point after two years where we felt it was prudent to give the unit an opportunity to weigh in on the work we've been doing." [Text of bargaining committee recommendation.]
Last to keep the old work rules
NPR's jurisdictional rules date back to a 1989 in-house agreement that gives technicians the exclusive right to mix stories for broadcast. But strides in technology since then have made audio editing a cheaper, more compact task. Mixing a story used to require several clunky, dishwasher-size reel-to-reel tape machines running simultaneously, with one reel for each element: narration, ambience and clips from interviews. Today the same mix can be done with a computer and software, turning professional broadcasters and amateur artistes alike into self-contained reporting and production units.
NPR started buying digital mixing equipment 10 years ago and began moving its news division to workstations made by Dalet Digital Media Systems in 1997. Last year, All Things Considered became NPR's last news unit to go fully digital.
NPR management contends that the network is the only major broadcaster in the country that has not loosened its jurisdictional mixing rules and says it's time to shed that distinction. "We need to modernize," says Mike Starling, v.p. of engineering. "Like most of the other broadcasters in the 1990s, we've invested a lot of money in digital technology, and we need to take advantage of that." Starling estimates NPR has spent $2 million on going digital.
"This is, in our view, about creating opportunity for a wider and more efficient production process that would benefit the audience, member stations and our employees," says Ken Stern, executive v.p.
But does NPR really want to be like every other major broadcaster? That's what skeptical technicians want to know.
"Our delineation of labor is why NPR sounds so good," says Preston Brown, a broadcast recording technicians who served on the NABET bargaining committee.
Brown and other technicians say that they have the training, ears and equipment to ensure that everything that passes through NPR's satellites sounds clean and consistent. If nontechnicians started to mix, Brown says, that quality would suffer.
What would listening to NPR be like? "You would find yourself turning your volume up and down to hear the audio better," Brown says. "There will be fuzz, or hum, or a lot of hiss. The music mixed underneath would be too loud or too quiet. It will sound different."
Brown also resents that management wants to take some exclusive tasks away from technicians but has not offered them an equal opportunity to move into new jobs. "We can edit tape and many of us can produce," he says, referring to work often performed by NPR employees affiliated with the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA).
Producers speak up for techs
Stern and Starling play down worries that novice mixers could debase NPR's audio quality and note that the contract allows technicians to reject mixes by non-NABET members. They also say training will guarantee quality.
"No one, whether they're an engineer, a producer, or a reporter, is going to be doing mixes that they're not qualified to do," Stern says. The contract also bars layoffs tied solely to jurisdictional changes.
But even some producers and reporters who stand to win new rights under the new contract profess skepticism. All Things Considered director Bob Boilen has worked as an engineer and has used digital editing technology since 1983, he says, but still expects a technician can out-mix him.
"The NPR sound is the NPR sound because of those people," Boilen says. "They hear tiny hums that I'd never be able to hear at my desk. The equipment doesn't exist, and they're trained to listen for it. It's subtle stuff, but I think it's subtle stuff that puts us over the top all the time in terms of quality."
"Most of the sound that you hear on NPR has been somehow fixed or attended to by an NPR technician, and that's something listeners don't understand. I think it's something that a lot of NPR management doesn't understand," says Charlie Mayer, an associate producer for Weekend Edition Saturday.
"There are lots of people who have learned everything they know about radio at NPR, and they have always had an engineer mixing pieces for them," Mayer says. "If all of a sudden they're told they're mixing pieces, even if they get the training they're not necessarily going to be good at it."
Reporter Howard Berkes used to mix his own pieces and acknowledges that some reporters would like that right for the creative control it affords them. "We all have horror stories about pieces being mixed in ways that we didn't intend," he says, though he adds that producers, not engineers, are often responsible for such flubs.
Yet he doubts that many reporters would take advantage of the contract. "I don't think there would be a widespread plunge into mixing," he says. "It involves a whole other level of learning and technology, and we have enough trouble with digital editing, let alone mixing."
Management sees chance of strike
Brown and other engineers say management's insistence on revising jurisdictional rules has fostered anger and resentment throughout the bargaining unit. "It's quite insulting to treat us as though this work was akin to a janitor pushing a broom," says broadcast technician Linda Mack. "We're very well educated workers. You have to know what you're doing."
Further upsetting technicians is an ad that NPR placed in the Dec. 31 issue of Broadcasting and Cable. It read, "Experienced radio technicians needed on short notice as possible replacement strike workers for Washington-D.C.-based radio network." It went on to offer paid training as well as "local housing and expenses . . . for selected out-of-state workers."
NABET-affiliated technicians never raised the threat of a strike and are following a good faith agreement to keep working in exchange for retroactive raises. "For the company to come back and offer our jobs up to employment-seekers feels like betrayal," Brown says. "We're heartbroken."
Mack says the ad also caused some technicians to fear a lockout if they voted against the contract.
"That ad makes it look like NPR is playing hardball," says Berkes, an AFTRA shop steward who helped steer his unit through contentious contract negotiations two years ago. "It's really a shift from the kind of workplace we've been in the past. We had a taste of it during the AFTRA negotiations.... This seems to be consistent with that."
But NPR management defended the listing. "The ad is there because NPR always needs to be prepared," Stern says. "We don't expect a need, and we have every expectation of coming to a mutually agreeable conclusion with our union and with our colleagues in the engineering group, who are very important to us. But we need to be prepared in all eventualities, regardless of how remote they may be."
To Current's home page Earlier news: NPR begins moving news editing to digital workstations, 1997. Earlier news: NPR and NABET negotiating contract, September 2000. Related document: NABET bargaining committee recommendation to reject contract offer. Outside link: NABET Local 31, which represents NPR technicians.
Web page posted Jan. 13, 2002
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